Although he's still victimized by petty vandalism, James Dempsey sees some improvements on the North Side block that's his corner of the world.

That may seem like a strange view for someone who took a bullet in the back from a drive-by shooting a couple of years ago and has been in a wheelchair ever since.

But the shooting happened elsewhere in north Minneapolis, not here on the 2600 block of Colfax Avenue N. that is Dempsey's home. Residents here say that random gunfire and drug-dealing are down, despite the fatal shooting of a pizza deliveryman three blocks away on Sunday.

The Star Tribune last looked at this residential block in 1996, a year after the city set a record for homicides and was dubbed "Murderapolis" for a time. Ten years later, the city and again the North Side are seeing another spike in homicides.

This stretch of Colfax is neither the best block nor the worst on the North Side. Yet changes here over the past 10 years offer some clues to how the neighborhoods at the epicenter of the metro area's crime wave are coping.

In 1996, residents here were battling blight. Ten years later, blight seems to be winning.

The block has a worn look. Retaining walls sag, litter lines the gutter and some yards feature as much dirt as grass. Most property owners have given up on planting flowers.

But many residents say behavior has improved. Much of the credit goes to a tan-and-teal elementary school built five years ago on two blocks just east of their homes. The construction of Nellie Stone Johnson School scattered drug dealers who brazenly marketed their wares on Bryant Avenue N. Some of Colfax's worst landlords, the ones who filled rental units with troublesome tenants, have sold out. Kids congregate less in the street.

Yet new issues surfaced. Although vacant lots have been filled with new housing built by government and nonprofits, those have been offset by newly vacant buildings. One house is condemned, another went tax-forfeit, a third had a fire and a fourth has mold problems.

The block's social structure is changing. More longtime residents are gone, and those who remain seem increasingly isolated from neighbors. The block was one-third rental in 1996; now half its houses are owned by absentees from such places as Stillwater, Woodbury and New Germany. Residents say the block club no longer meets. And there's no block party anymore on National Night Out.

But people such as Dempsey remain, despite someone trying to steal his van, despite an egg tossed at another vehicle, despite the slashing of a tire. Some residents are trapped by age; others by poverty. Dempsey is staying for now.

"I'm just trying to take what we got and be happy. There ain't no sense running," he said as a garage fan blasted air over the one-time auto mechanic as he instructed his son in motorcycle maintenance.

"It's not as bad. Everything happens around us. This block used to be rough-looking, but it wasn't really bad. Just a lot of kids."

Aging residents stay

Judgments on the block's condition are shaped by perspective. Doris Sanchez, a hospital nursing assistant, is a relative newcomer. Her son bought a house on the block, but she can't wait to leave.

"He thought it was a good bargain, but it isn't worth it," she said. "At nighttime, you hear gunshots." There's prostitution in the area, too.

But at 86, Harris Lemanczik has 44 years on Colfax and he's staying put. "Where would you go? What would you buy?" he asked. Twice people have tried to break into his garage. Night basketball at St. Philip Catholic Church across the street draws kids from throughout the area, but they leave their residue. Once, kids filled a gallon milk jug with urine and left it in the street for Lemanczik to clean up.

Down the street, there are cobwebs on George Bazoff's front door. He was once the block's enforcer, a block club leader who tried to lay down the law for noisy tenants. But the sister with whom he lived died four years ago, and the aging Bazoff's medical problems put him in a wheelchair. He's shifted his attention from landlords; school buses that tear up the street draw his ire now.

The block parties that Bazoff and his niece, Regina Cline, used to organize ended when things got somewhat out of hand. They were victims of their success, drawing upwards of 400 people to a block that might turn out 75 people on its own. The last time, kids broke into their duplex and stole prizes they'd solicited from neighborhood businesses. After one recent peace march, kids made their way up the block, breaking vehicle windows with a steel bar, including those on the low-mileage used RV that Bazoff used to escape from the block every so often.

Just a place to sleep

Lots of people, especially those who are older or off working, say they keep their heads down and mind their own business. Renter Matt Leuer, who shares a newer house built on the site of a home destroyed in a natural-gas explosion years ago, regards the block as a "place to come home and sleep."

"I don't have any complaints," he said while washing his sporty car. "Just like any other neighborhood, you've got your nice people and your not-so-nice people."   Some people point to the green house with peeling paint at 26th and Colfax Avenues as one of the block's hot spots. "They probably call this house the loudest on the block because we've got all the kids on the porch," acknowledged Sabrina Peterson, whose mother owns the property. But she enjoys the kids, and having them home helps her keep track of them. "Everybody knows me as Auntie Sabrina," she said.

She praises the school for providing opportunities for the block's children, especially in an after-school program that includes community service such as picking up trash. Her end of the block is littered, capped by a vehicle in her driveway with flat tires, a broken-out back window and a seat ripped from its moorings.

Two doors down, Shirley Smith has spent 36 years on the block. She and her musician husband, Walter, keep mostly to themselves, but they keep an eye on the block. Across their alley is the school.

"That school made all the difference in the world," Walter said. Added Shirley: "Who knows how many people would have been killed over there."

In the early 1970s, Walter was the block's first black resident. It's long since become majority black, but there's more diversity now. As many Hmong children as black turn out at nearby bus stops. The block now has its first Latino homeowner. Zoila Moctezuma is the only resident to set out annual flowers in a front yard this year.

For long-term perspective, nobody beats Marcy Dolezal, who has lived in a house circled by a white picket fence since 1945. She's turning 80 this month, and health problems make it harder for her and husband, Les, to keep up their property, which includes a spare lot next to their house's lot.

"We've been bothered by people wanting to buy this lot for $15,000," she said.

That's progress. Ten years ago they got an offer of $7,000 for the house and its double lot.

Steve Brandt - 612-673-4438