Taking back a crime-ridden corner, one amen at a time

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2011 - 7:50 PM

It's a bright, hot, sunny summer day on the corner of Chicago and Franklin, and kids sipping from juice boxes mix with men taking pulls from paper bags. Buses choke the intersection with fumes, and a woman with a small child in tow yells to people sitting in Peavey Park: "Hey, does the bus to Mystic Lake stop here?"

It seems like everybody is looking for some good luck.

In the center of a circle surrounded by a dilapidated $600,000 mural, V.J. Smith grabs a microphone and raises his hands to the sky.

"Look up and see this bee-you-ti-ful day!" Smith shouts into the mike. "Reach up! Maybe a star will fall on you!"

Smith spots a man across the street: "Hey you, brother! I need to talk to you. Don't get on that bus!"

But he does, so Smith turns toward another man passing the corner.

"Sir, sir! Where you going?" Smith calls. The man pays no attention.

"Dream bigger than the corner! Dream bigger than dope dealer! We're praying for you!"

Finally a young man with his girlfriend hears Smith, and stops. His name is Ron, and he takes the mike. He's sold dope and been to prison, he said, but he's now sober and employed and staying away from drugs because of his kids.

"Can I have an amen?" Smith yells. "The Amen Corner is in full effect!"

So it goes on a hot afternoon at the corner of Fate and Despair, where people on the way down intersect with people hoping to be on their way up. It's where a group of Minneapolis neighborhood volunteers decided to stage Amen Corner, a concept that has a long history in the African-American culture and was made famous in a James Baldwin play. The volunteers, from Ventura Village Neighborhood Association and MAD DADS, hope to take back what is considered one of the city's most crime-ridden corners.

The idea, a work in progress, started two weeks ago, and the group hopes to keep it alive every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 4 to 7 p.m., through the summer. The first week, about 25 people spoke spontaneously, said Ventura Village's Robert Albee.

"Some talked about salvation. Some talked about damnation. And some talked about this damn nation," Albee said. He said it's a shame that the expensive mural has been left to decay, with tiles missing and edges crumbling on the giant "thrones." "If Hubert Humphrey's arm fell off, do you think they'd fix it?" he added sarcastically.

A surprising number of people bother to stop and say a few words, including a young woman named Lisa who is on her way home with a new broom.

"I'm not an expert or anything, but I just want to say I took a lot of time to make sure my kids know what I expect of them," she says. "We need to be brothers and sisters and love each other."

A young man named Dwight passes by, and Smith, president of MAD DADS, nabs him. The man said he is studying accounting in college, but grew up in the neighborhood.

"Man, why you doing that when you can sling dope?" asks Smith.

"Because that's dumb," says Dwight.

A woman named Trisha steps up next. "All I know is I'm in treatment and this neighborhood is not that good," she says. Then she offers advice to any drug dealers nearby: "Get out of it because you could die."

A man who seemed to have had a few adult beverages grabs the mike: "God bless all of you, ya know what I'm sayin'?"

Then a guy named Tiny, a young man named Little Jimmy, a man looking for his mom and a woman from Ethiopia spoke. She has to be coaxed to the mike, then gives an eloquent speech.

"I love this community," she concludes. "I hope each one of us can look inside our hearts and see that we should know life and cherish life."

Finally, a nicely dressed man walks quickly by, then turns around and walks to the mike. His name is Dennis.

"I am one year drug-free," he says. "I used to be on these blocks right here, but the Lord, he done cleaned me up. Now I think I'll sing a little song."

It's like one of those moments on "American Idol" when the big voice comes out of a small child and surprises you.

Dennis closes his eyes and in a deep, powerful voice begins a pitch-perfect hymn, the words drifting out over the buses, the traffic, the small kids on bikes and the drug dealers furtively scanning for customers.

"Jesus loves me, this I know," Dennis sings, "because the Bible tells me so. ..."

Needless to say, he gets an "amen."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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