ADVERTISEMENT

Eleanor Bushie

Rita Reed, Star Tribune

Sept. 21, 1996: Blocking blight on a block of Colfax Avenue

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • January 12, 2012 - 9:02 AM

One way or another, life on this Minneapolis block revolves around George Bazoff, an aging, onetime police reservist who spends much of his time enforcing the rules in the 2600 block of Colfax Av. N.

"I don't think I'd stay here long without him," said Eleanor Bushie, a 77-year-old widow. She has driven the two blocks to her church on Sundays since the block club warned of attacks on elderly people last year.

Many on 2600 Colfax credit Bazoff with fending off the tide of blight, drugs and hopelessness that has engulfed parts of their Hawthorne neighborhood. But there's another view, most frequently expressed by black tenants such as Michelle Davis. She objects to Bazoff, 55, who lives in his sister's duplex, calling black tenants "you people." When she attended a few block-club meetings, other neighbors were fine, but "he made us feel like we weren't welcome there," she said.

The conflicting views of Bazoff provide a glimpse of the tension on this North Side street, where the dominance of working-class homeowners is fading as renters move into properties often owned by suburban landlords.

For some residents, Colfax is a step up, a refuge from worse North Side blocks or from the jobless, violent streets of such places as Chicago. For others, it's a trap where advancing age and
sinking property values create a powerful inertia against starting over elsewhere.

For some, it's a place to make a stand. For others, it's a place to mind your business. And for still others, it's a place to reach out. On Colfax, people are learning what many living in Minneapolis will face in coming years: the difficulty of getting along when cultures collide.

At first glance, the tensions on Colfax seem racial, and there's no denying that race plays a role. But visit the block repeatedly, as a Star Tribune reporter and photographer did from May through August, and differences in social and economic class loom larger.

As remaining homeowners age, the future of the block - and of many other blocks adjoining blighted areas of the city - is up for grabs. Colfax homeowners need only look a block east to Bryant Av. -- a street few of them would walk -- for an uncomfortable reminder of what unchecked blight means. Homeowners are a minority; trash lines the street gutters like confetti, and drugs are proffered to passing motorists. One block farther east, the gap-tooth facade of Aldrich Av. forecasts Bryant's future, with almost as many vacant lots as houses. Residents' concerns echo those who spoke emotionally about the future of their neighborhoods at Thursday's Minneapolis Town Meeting.

Falling property values trap some residents

Two things seem to unite folks on Colfax. Nobody seems to like the messy locust trees the city planted on the boulevards.

And the squirrels are cited as pests nearly as often as bad landlords. They wrecked longtime resident Marcy Dolezal's tomatoes and the onions she planted to protect the tomatoes.

"Maybe I'll just let the squirrels take the house," Dolezal joked at a meeting last spring of the block club, one of only a half-dozen or so in the Hawthorne neighborhood. But there was bite behind the humor. She'd just reported that a man had offered her and her husband, Les, $7,000 for a house the city values at $48,000. She has lived there for 53 years, the first 30 as a renter. The house bears seven bullet holes of unknown origin.

Among some residents, falling property values incite anger toward careless landlords and obnoxious renters. The dropping values have trapped some who might otherwise leave. Thirty years ago, Rita and Harris Lemanczik's small stucco home was moved out of the path of Interstate Hwy. 35W to Colfax Av. N. She remembers when the assessor valued it at $79,000. Now it's $34,600.

"Where are you going to go? You aren't going to go anywhere else with the money in this house. It's just a down payment on another house," Rita Lemanczik declared, arms folded. They live on Social Security and her part-time job selling pulltabs.

Her ire is focused on the large blue-sided duplex next door, which drew nine police calls in the first six months of this year.

Much of its front yard is worn to dirt, littered with trash and ringed by the twisted skeleton of a chain-link fence. "We shouldn't have to put up with trash like this next door. There must be 15 to 20 people in the yard with boom boxes. They block traffic, and when you ask them to move, they give you the finger." She's white; they're black.

"I'm as racist as can be since I've had to live among these people," she said.

The Lemancziks' views are considered extreme by others on the block. But their location earns them some sympathy. "God, I wouldn't want to live in that house," said Bushie, who lives half a block away but not out of earshot. "I'm not prejudiced one bit, but they live differently than we do. And the language!"

Some homeowners blame landlords, tenants

"Homeowners want to keep the property value up. You get these transients coming in who are renting and on welfare and start destroying the property they're in, and then they start destroying your property." So says Walter Smith, who has lived on Colfax for 25 years.

"I'm very protective of my family. The average black person who moves in here moves in with an attitude. If you come at me with an attitude, I'll give you an attitude. They come in with that I-don't-give-a-damn attitude, and the landlords, you almost have to take them to court to get them to fix things."

Smith is black. His wife, Shirley, is white. But get them together over coffee, and it's clear they're talking as homeowners rather than from their racial identities.

They met at a Broadway Av. club. Walter, now the vocalist for Big Walter Smith & The Groove Merchants, had come up from Kansas City, Mo., to play a gig. Shirley bought a house on Colfax
in 1970. Walter integrated the block shortly afterward when he moved in. "It wasn't the accepted thing. It wasn't like someone would beat you over the head, but I kept to myself," he said of those first years. Shirley recalled their car's windows and radiator getting shot up shortly after Walter moved in.

Shirley Smith describes the Colfax block as good, but she's voluble about the neighborhood's problems. "I can't tell you the number of times our van has been broken into," she said. She and
Walter typically arrive home from the band's jobs after midnight. They cruise the block and alley before they pull into the driveway to avoid getting jumped. There's drug dealing as close as nearby
27th and Bryant Avs., she said. "They'll try to stop you on the corner, and they'll say, `Do you want to buy a rock?' I say to Walter: `Don't slow down. Don't roll down the window.' "

She worked as a credit manager for 14 years until her employer was swallowed by a bigger company. Since then, she has been picking up jobs in the music business, including managing the band. At one time, the couple could have afforded to live in an affluent suburb, but her heart and family roots are on the North Side. Besides, she said, "I'm not going to let these bastards run me out of here."

Plenty of room -- and plenty of attention

The spacious blue duplex houses two families. Cynthia Bland lives downstairs with her six children ages 1 to 11. Anita Lewis lives upstairs with two of her own children, five from a sister who
died of cancer, and another sister, Loretta Jackson, who's helping mind the children. Lewis and Jackson work for a check-cashing business.

First Bank has foreclosed on the property, and landlord Rickey Gullickson of Brooklyn Park said he'll probably give up the last one of the seven Minneapolis rental properties he once owned.

In addition, the city has canceled its Section 8 agreement with Gullickson because of building conditions. So the two families will have to move in order to keep their federal rent subsidies.

On a day she's interviewed, Lewis is enduring two days without water. She said it's the third or fourth time the water has been shut off in the five years she has rented the five-bedroom unit.

Such apartments that can accommodate a family of nine are rare. "The kids like it here. I hate moving."

The block is quieter than it was when she moved in, Lewis said, although the downstairs unit sometimes has lots of company. "That's the only major problem I can think of."

Downstairs, Bland supports her children with welfare, food stamps and her rent assistance. "My work is just sitting here looking after them, cleaning this house and my yard and constantly cooking," she said. But sometimes it's a losing battle. Her front door is plastered with dozens of handprints. "My floor better not be marked up," she hollers inside.

Bland moved to the three-bedroom unit, which rents for $725 a month, after another building she lived in was condemned. "Even though I knew this was a bad street, I took this for my children. It's better than Bryant and Aldrich." She said she was surprised to find Bazoff a block leader after encountering him working for landlords elsewhere.

`The culture clash'

Rowena Hicks, a city crime prevention specialist, works to help people address problem properties on their blocks. She paid the blue duplex a midsummer "knock-and-talk" visit, telling the
residents that their behavior is being watched and that the next visit might be less pleasant. After the visit, some neighbors say, the duplex has been quieter.

Hicks said that conflict on a block can arise from differing standards. "I get calls: `They're barbecuing in their front yard!'
 

I ask: `What do you expect me to do? Are they setting it on fire?' `No.' `Are they loud enough to call the police?' `No.' What is the issue? It's the culture clash."

While the Lemancziks complain about kids throwing rocks and trash into their yard, another nearby homeowner, Leon Wallace, took a different approach. "I offered them a little income to help pick up the paper. We get a lot of trash blowing down the alley," he said. "They ask me if I have more work for them."

Wallace, like Bland and Lewis, is black. He grew up in Minneapolis, but said he didn't feel welcomed when he moved in two years ago. But that had more to do with economic status than race, the real estate broker said. He'd bought a lawn tractor with attachments that other neighbors couldn't afford. He said that among children, envy can be expressed through vandalism, and that's
why it's important to reach out.

But one attempt to reach out left Wallace disillusioned. Attending his first block-club meeting, he felt as if he were sitting in on a group of neighborhood inspectors, who in their zeal critiqued some neighbors' properties and behavior. "I was really turned off. I told my wife, `It's your turn next.' They seemed to be protecting their turf there. I don't think they have a good sense of community."

Parents' long hours cause some concern

Colfax is a working-class block. Some with jobs work long hours. Sometimes that can cause problems for the neighbors.

Elaine McGlothlin-St. Denis, one of the block's nine white homeowners, bought her house nearly 10 years ago after a real estate agent convinced her it would be a better investment than a mobile
home.

She goes to work at 8 a.m., taking a shift at the Target on Broadway. By midafternoon she's at Honeywell's Golden Valley plant, steering a forklift until well after midnight. Some days she
delivers newspapers, too.


Much of her take-home pay goes into the house, although she splurged recently on a $7,000 motor tricycle. She paid about $50,000 for the house now valued at $42,000 despite a series of improvements, including new siding this summer. "When I was putting the siding on, one of my son's friends said, `Why are you putting money into your house?' They said, `This is the 'hood.' "
She has several rooms left to renovate before a planned retirement in five years. "In five years, it's paid for. I can't afford to move. I don't want to work another 20 years for a new house."

She said she's working too hard to notice how the block is doing. But street life intruded on the family on Labor Day afternoon when an unknown person shot and seriously wounded one of the
family's dogs in their yard.

Several years ago, neighbors complained that during her long working hours, her sons were free to host rowdy, nightlong parties. Sons Roger, 24, and Sean, 19, acknowledge that past. They party
elsewhere now. They have jobs, and they'd like to see their mother move to the suburbs. "She says `easier said than done,' " Roger said.

Across the street, Tron Fondren and Sue Pearson live side by side in a duplex. In June, Fondren averaged 55-hour workweeks as a counselor at a home for the mentally ill and Pearson 80 hours a week as a counselor at two facilities.

Fondren said she sets strict limits for her two sons, Koree, 12, and Darren, 6. "They know they don't go past that big tree there," pointing to an elm three doors away. Pearson's son, Joey, 8, has learned the ropes, too. "I never leave my bike out for a minute - not in this neighborhood," he said. He and brother Andy, 12, are the only white kids on the block. That isolates them, Pearson said; Fondren added that Koree sticks up for Andy when he gets picked on for his red hair.

The problem, neighbors said, comes when the mothers are working and a dozen or so kids congregate at the duplex. On one such Friday night, police were summoned to quiet the Pearsons' booming stereo.

Relief from suburban prices and attitudes

Some tenants have fled here from the suburbs. Emilie Vetaw moved to Colfax after watching her monthly rent in Richfield climb $20 each year. Here her upper duplex is $40 a month cheaper for one more bedroom.

Jackie Andrews, who is black, tried Robbinsdale for two years before tiring of the racial tension she found there. "As soon as you do something, they label you something," she complained. "They
talk to you like you're ignorant or stupid."

North Side whites are more used to black neighbors, she said. But her daughter Sharnel, 10, of whose math skills her mother speaks proudly, preferred living in Robbinsdale near a pool. "It's boring here," she said. Andrews taught her daughters to drop and roll on top of younger siblings if shooting begins.

First-time homeowner sees reasons for hope

At age 60, Geneva Davis finally is a homeowner. Last summer, shortly after renting a house on Bryant with her daughter and two grandchildren, she spotted a man fixing up a three-bedroom house on the next block west. She asked whether he'd rent it; he said he'd had it with renters. She saw the hardwood floors. "I liked it from the get-go," she said. The man held the house for them while mother and daughter completed a class for first-time buyers.

She and her daughter, Gwenette Richardson, were eager to depart Bryant. "It's like Bryant is another town. There was a lot of shooting over there all the time," Davis said. "We had to get the
kids down on the floor."

They agreed to pay nearly $55,000 for the house, although the assessor valued it at only $32,000. No matter, Davis said. "It's yours. That's the main thing. The payments are less than we were paying for rent before. It feels beautiful because it's the first time we've owned anything."
Davis was born in Alabama and her family followed the black migration north, settling in Chicago - but conditions there worsened. After Richardson visited relatives in Minneapolis, she returned home determined to persuade her mother to leave the street violence that had left Davis' youngest son beaten to death. They moved in 1993.

Still, they've noted some disturbing signs on Colfax. People seeking drugs have knocked on the door at night. Cars stop frequently in front of a nearby house, often with the honk of a horn and a quick curbside transaction. "I've been around people selling drugs all my life, and if they're not selling drugs, I don't know what they're doing," Richardson said. She worries that a police raid could harm her household.

Richardson, the breadwinner, rides the bus every workday to the Mall of America, 40 minutes each way. She has sold clothing there since the family moved to the Twin Cities. She applauds Bazoff's
work as the block's enforcer and has faith that he can rid it of problems. "Once George talk to the people and have decent people move in, everybody will be happy here," she said.

Two couples, two approaches to ownership

Homeowners still occupy two-thirds of the houses on this block. Nine houses are owned by whites, five by blacks, one by an interracial couple. All of the black-owned homes have been bought
in the last four years. There have been no new white homeowners since then. The block contains 15 rental units in 10 buildings, but two of the buildings are also owner-occupied. All but three rental units were occupied at the start of the summer by blacks; two white tenant families were forced out when their landlords surrendered their buildings to lenders.

David Bledsoe and Janice Guider hope to be homeowners in a year. She works for an insurance company; he sells appliances for Wards. He left Chicago in 1994 believing there was no work for him there, and started doing temporary office work the day he stepped off the Greyhound in Minneapolis. Janice arrived later.

She worried about the block before she moved in, but those fears have evaporated. They live next door to Bazoff. It had been a problem property; previous tenants were the target of a drug raid
last spring. As long as the landlord rents to good tenants, Bazoff mows the lawn. "If the grass gets long, I know we messed up," Guider joked. "It's good to know somebody's looking out for you."

They hope to look for their own home in about a year - but not on the North Side. "There's a lot of renters," he said. "They're not situated so they're going to take care of things like a homeowner."

Across the street, Garfield and Pamela Williamson decided to stay on the North Side. They said they left Chicago last winter to spare the eldest of their five children from "senseless gangbanging." They rented at 29th and Bryant Avs. N. for five months before buying the house on Colfax. "This block is much, much better than the block we came from - trash everywhere, kids fighting, kids, kids, kids," Pamela said. She works part time at a fast-food eatery; he's assistant manager at an auto parts store.

When they moved, Garfield ferried loads of household goods in a red shopping cart, saving the big items until a friend's truck was available. Since then they've been raking the lawn, grubbing out scrub trees, fixing the fence.

Worries about crime and newcomers

Bazoff, the block leader, grew up in the area. He returned in 1989 to move in with his older sister, Helen Cline, and her family, in the duplex Cline bought in 1975.

Cline just rented the upstairs of the duplex to a woman with four children. "She seems to be a pretty sensible girl. I thought I'd take a chance. We checked her out pretty thoroughly. We don't like where she's from, but she said she wants to get away from there. . . . We usually don't take anybody off Bryant."

On this day, Cline steers her decaying car to the curb at the end of another week at a suburban food warehouse, where she has worked for 29 years. Out of habit, she picks trash from the gutter before slumping to a seat in front of the duplex. It was quieter back when she first moved in. As a car passes with speakers blaring, she adds: "It wasn't like that."

She had to take a week of vacation to clean up after the previous renter, whom she said cut wires to baseboard heaters and shorted smoke detectors. Because of problems with other tenants, she doubts she's money ahead since first renting the unit three years ago.

A week after moving in, new renter Cassandra Jackson comes purposefully out the front door toward a knot of children checking out the block's newcomers. "You kids ain't going to be hanging out like this. Go home, go home and go home," she points to each visitor. "I don't want the landlord to get upset. Now go! Bye!"

After a week, Jackson doesn't see much difference from Bryant. "You still have the same worries: Will I get broken into? Can I sit outside without worrying about a drive-by?"

Several homeowners have tales of break-ins, but police reports indicate that the block is safer than many. Still, the occasional drug raid can be disconcerting. Last winter, Marcy Dolezal went to
back the car out of the garage to take her grandsons to the park. "Then I heard the police: `Get down on the ground, get down on the ground or I'll blow your head off!' " She heeded police advice to duck inside while they raided a duplex two doors north.

A crusade for stability

Sometimes, life on 2600 Colfax seems much like any other block in Minneapolis. Jump-ropes slap a rhythm against the sidewalk, sometimes engaging three generations. Neighbors chat on porches and over fences. The wail of sirens on nearby streets and the dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dum spilling from car stereos fades into mere background noise.

On such an afternoon, Bazoff expounds on what he has learned about managing a block. The block club came together after several false starts - after things got bad enough. For four years, Bazoff has fielded complaints from neighbors, doggedly prodded City Hall to address problems, badgered landlords with troublesome tenants. But there are complaints that Bazoff works for  slumlords; public records show he has worked for several landlords with repeated housing-code
violations.

Roger Streeter, director of the neighborhood organization, said: "George is a conscientious man. He works hard. He's stubborn. He knows right from wrong."

The duplex next door to Bazoff, quieter now that Bledsoe and Guider live there, has been a perennial trouble spot. Bazoff recites one former landlord's phone number from memory. "I called him up at two or three in the morning, and I said, `I can't sleep, and neither can you.' " Later, the block took over management of the building for the landlord.

The screech of an argument on the other end of the block pierces the afternoon languor. Bazoff talks calmly for several minutes through the high-decibel exchange between one woman in the street and another on the porch of the blue duplex. "We keep a close eye on that house, and we know when it's going to pop and when it's not. . . . If it's just verbal, it's better to let them get it off their chests. If it's getting hostile, you ought to break it up."

The block club has learned other techniques: how to get a criminal background check or a rental history, how to file to evict a tenant, how to report incidents to 911. "You don't call in a loud music call when you've got four or five people. You call it in as a loud party because it gets a higher priority," Bazoff said. They've learned that planting word of a pending drug raid can scare off dealers - even if there's no raid planned.

In May, Bazoff relinquished the job of block-club leader to his niece as he prepared for yet another leg operation. Serving as the block's arbiter of what behavior is challenged has sapped him. "I'm
getting burned out. My temper's snapping at the wrong time."

The day Bazoff stepped down as block leader, community crime prevention specialist Hicks gave the club a pep talk. "If you weren't all here, showing that you care, people would do whatever they want. . . . Don't give up. Don't get despondent."

© 2014 Star Tribune