Shirley Smith’s house has taken three bullets — hazards of 45 years of life on the 2600 block of Colfax Avenue N.
Yet she has never seriously considered moving from north Minneapolis, and she takes the long view when assessing the street she’s called home for decades.
“I’m a North Side girl,” said Smith, 70. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
The Star Tribune first chronicled the lives of the homeowners and renters on this block of Colfax Avenue 20 years ago, when residents of north Minneapolis were confronting a drug epidemic, an aging housing stock, and social and demographic forces that often led to conflict between longtime residents and new arrivals.
Much has changed in the intervening decades. Most of the people who lived on the 2600 block of Colfax in 1996 have left. The housing stock has gotten even older and is more likely to be occupied by renters than owners. And the residents, once mostly white, are now largely people of color.
Some things remain the same, though. New arrivals see this block of Colfax Avenue as being safer and more stable than other parts of Near North. Crime and gangs continue to cast a shadow over the entire North Side, even though some longtime residents believe things have gotten better on the block of late.
By economic and criminal measures, this stretch of Colfax, just west of Nellie Stone Johnson Community School and north of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, is neither the best block on the North Side, nor the worst. While some of its residents can’t shake the feelings of insecurity, many are determined to make a better life in this slice of the city.
“The first two years after I moved here, it was really bad,” said Roy Barker, who bought his house in 2008. But he’s seen improvement since then.
“It’s mostly been neighbors working together,” he said.
Real estate turnover
In 2006, the last time the Star Tribune documented what was happening on this block, residents were optimistic. A new school had opened. The drug trade seemed to be in decline. And property values were soaring across the city, including on the North Side.
Then the economy crashed, thrusting the neighborhood back into turmoil from which it is slowly beginning to emerge. And in 2011, this block of Colfax was the site of the unsolved shooting that killed 3-year-old Terrell Mayes.
The 2600 block is lined with locust trees and has 23 houses, six of them duplexes. Most of them are century-old homes, some with peeling paint. There are a few new houses mixed in, built by nonprofits to replace demolished properties that were beyond repair.
A few residents have lived there for decades. But the ownership history of the properties shows a neighborhood caught up in the worst of the real estate market. And its effects have exacerbated neighborhood turnover.
At least one house on the block was flipped in a suspicious transaction. One house was assembled from four modules in a mortgage fraud scheme that blanketed the North Side. One duplex has been foreclosed upon three times in the past 30 years, a period when it had 10 different owners, not counting banks or the government. Some homes have been condemned and others targeted by drug raids.
Still, people haven’t given up on the block. Nonprofit Urban Homeworks has rehabbed one single-family house and a duplex across the street for low-income residents.
Lavina Wagner, who lives in the house, said she wouldn’t have considered living there 10 years ago, when she lived on a nearby block. But conditions have improved on Colfax. “It’s a lot more quiet,” she said. “It isn’t as busy.”
Buyers like Wagner must pass a financial rehab course, and can get some city financing. She bought the house on a contract for deed, then refinanced with a mortgage in less than two years.
“Lavina was a rock star,” said Jessica Mueller, an Urban Homeworks manager.
Another sign of progress: there’s just one vacant lot on the block, down from five vacant properties 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, longtime white residents are aging.
George Bazoff, now in his 70s, has lived on the block since the early 1990s and was its block captain, trying to enforce standards for property upkeep. He’s long been troubled by the changes he’s seen, and blames renters who have moved in.
“They’ll have big parties and start serving booze and pretty soon they’ll bring out the drugs,” said Bazoff, whose own house is in disrepair, the yard overgrown. Someone stole the family lawn mower, his niece said.
Living with a ghost
As crime goes, Colfax is infamous for its association with the unsolved murder of Terrell, who died after a stray bullet came through the wall of his house and struck him as he scrambled up the stairs.
His mother, Marsha Mayes, moved her three surviving sons out the same night. They now live in Brooklyn Center.
This year, she and MAD DADS didn’t hold their annual vigil near Terrell’s birthday in July. “It’s just too much going on in the streets,” she said, noting a wave of North Side shootings.
Lyssa Overton now lives in the Mayeses’ former house with her daughter and granddaughter. She said it broke her heart to clean the little boy’s handprints off the kitchen window.
“That’s why we got it so cheap,” Overton said of the boy’s death. “Why would I be spooked by a 3-year-old ghost? My heart just bleeds for the mother.”
Aside from that murder, typical police calls to the block involve burglary, car theft, or domestic disputes. One resident said he leaves his car unlocked to avoid paying to replace broken windows. But Police Department maps show the block has fewer calls than neighboring areas of north Minneapolis.
Barker and other neighbors say they call in problems such as drug dealing that need police attention, and try to have conversations about lesser issues.
“If we know someone, sometimes we talk to them directly instead of calling police,” Barker said. “I’m not afraid to talk to people.”
His son, Josh, 10, rides his scooter or skateboard around the neighborhood, playing with neighbor Jacob Van Sickle — but always within view of the elder Barker.
“For me, it’s just dangerous,” Jacob, 8, said. “People tried to steal my bike.”
Jeremy Rainwater and his wife, Pang, and six of their children live in his late grandmother’s house on Colfax. He said they can’t afford to rent elsewhere. But it took him a year to feel comfortable enough in the neighborhood to shop at the Cub Foods just blocks away.
“We stay in the house or we are out in the backyard,” Rainwater said. Otherwise, “it’s just too dangerous.”
But people’s perspective on the block is often shaped by where they came from.
“Oh, baby, this is sweet compared to Chicago,” said Patricia Davis, who grew up there. She moved to the block two years ago when another North Side house she was renting fell into foreclosure. The landlord had stopped paying the mortgage.
Stay or go?
The tumult has prompted some residents to flee.
Elaine Prenatt moved out of her Colfax Avenue house when she remarried 15 years ago, despite having raised five children there. She hasn’t been back in years — family members have lived there — and now she’s getting the house, which she bought 30 years ago, ready to sell.
But even leaving can be hard financially. She’s asking $80,000, but said she’ll take less. At the height of the real estate bubble, the city assessed the property for $141,500.
“The neighborhood is getting really bad,” she said, basing her opinion on what she hears on TV.
Others, like Barker, who bought his house on Colfax in 2008, are determined to stay and make improvements.
“A lot of people moved off the block, people I knew for years,” he said. “The face of the block has changed significantly.”
But Smith is still there and hopes to live out her days on Colfax Avenue N., even though she needs to hire help to keep up the yard and make repairs. The block holds memories of her long marriage to her late husband, the bluesman Big Walter Smith.
She, and many of her neighbors, say the block feels quieter, more stable now. There is more concern about traffic and fixing up tattered properties than gunfire.
“I’m not scared of nothing over here,” she said. But a moment later she said it may be time to seek a permit for a handgun. “Walter wouldn’t allow them in the house.”