Payne-Phalen coffee klatch brews bonds of community

  • Article by: GAILROSENBLUM
  • Updated: April 14, 2009 - 6:58 AM

Ground Zero for strategic planning is Polly's Coffee Cove, about 3,000 miles, stylistically speaking, from the nearest Starbucks. The shop, which opened in 1921 as a Swedish grocery store, is decorated in Tiki kitsch, antiques, stuffed Elmos and Mickeys.

Grab a big, warm ceramic mug and manager Dan Stoican will fill it up for under two bucks, 25 cents for refills. Ham sandwiches are $1.90, but Bette Revoir, 69, who has lived nearby since she was 11, makes the need unnecessary as she places homemade lemon bread on the table with lime green napkins. One, two, three, gone.

In this hot spot, located in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood on St. Paul's East Side, the buzz is palpable on this Saturday morning. Neighbors in sweat shirts and jeans, from their 30s to 70s, pull up chairs, fill up on Peace Coffee, schmooze with three police officers who seem very much at home.

Most come here every week to talk about community gardens, a restorative justice program, bake sales. Lately, the talk has shifted to something more sinister: Four attacks on people near Lake Phalen, about six blocks away, since last summer. There have been arrests in only one attack.

"Be afraid, be very afraid of the revolution about to take place around this table," joked Larry Simpson, the youthful 70-year-old driver of these weekly gatherings, whose biggest challenge, at the moment, is getting everyone to stop talking at once.

Actually, the revolution started without us, and wisely so. Unlike many neighborhoods that pull together the minute something troubling happens, then disperse just as quickly, Payne-Phalen took an impressively proactive approach a few years ago and never let up.

The result is people who know their neighbors, who are on a first-name basis with their public safety officials, and who have created a well-designed website of community contacts and meetings with law enforcement. This Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., for example, a community public safety meeting at the Eastern District Police Station kicks off a "Walk with a Cop" program.

These efforts serve two purposes: Keeping people from becoming vigilantes and building trust.

"Block clubs are one thing," Simpson said, and they're a good thing, he noted. But, quoting Jay Walljasper, author of "The Great Neighborhood Book": "You need a coffee shop and hard boundaries before you can have community." Check. And check.

About two years ago, Simpson became a one-man force after two violent rapes occurred in this area within a week. He started walking at night with a flashlight and walkie-talkie along the neighborhood's signature alleys. "Being present and having a presence are not the same thing," said Simpson, who prefers the latter approach. Carrying a walkie-talkie and "acting like you're talking on it sends a powerful message to someone looking for a target of opportunity."

But one guy can only talk and walk so much. About the time he began his pursuit, Polly's opened up a block away from his house. Owner Ann Polachek shared Simpson's vision. "When you come in here," Polachek said, "there's a community where you can talk. It feels like family."

This family doesn't dismiss the dangers of life in the big city. One attorney who lives nearby dropped by to talk about a drug house at the corner of her block. But they don't exaggerate the dangers, either. Revoir's six grown children "used to be after us to move. But we love our home so much," she said. "Anywhere you move, you could get bad people."

Laurie Krivitz, 48, agrees. Another Saturday morning regular, she lives a few blocks away and sits on the planning council board. "This is our neighborhood," she said. "We don't want to be people who cower."

Bill Martinez, senior police commander of the eastern district, said the Payne-Phalen area is "still an extremely safe place to be." He noted that only two of the four assaults were on the Phalen side of the lake (the other two were in Maplewood). On the other hand, it's hard not to feel upset anytime someone is attacked with rubber or baseball bats walking a dog or taking a run during the daylight hours.

Martinez said his office is pursuing every lead. As they do, they'll have plenty of supporters.

"That Polly's group up there, they certainly are engaged," he said. "We are partners in this."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • grosenblum@startribune.com

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