Wearing a khaki jacket and construction helmet, former President Jimmy Carter spent much of Wednesday helping to build homes in north Minneapolis.
Carter joined Twin Cities officials and community residents in the Hawthorne neighborhood to kick off the Minnesota leg of the annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. The project will build, renovate and repair 26 homes and highlight the need for affordable housing.
The former president visited a four-block area called EcoVillage, a $30 million redevelopment project that is expected to create up to 160 new housing units over the next decade. Neighborhood groups, the city and others chose the area for redevelopment because of its high concentration of problems.
Carter praised the city's targeted approach to neighborhood stabilization.
"To see what is happening in this community is really a tribute to the Twin Cities area for being so innovative in saying 'This was the worst community we had in our city and we are going to make sure it's one of the best in just a few years,'" he said.
The Minneapolis police department reports that crime in the area has dropped 73 percent between 2007 and 2009.
Wearing a bright blue Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, a toolbelt and carrying a hammer, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said it's gratifying for the neighborhood to be recognized by the former president.
The EcoVillage project in the Hawthorne neighborhood has been years in the making. It is one of six redevelopment clusters underway in the city.
"The city came together and we said 'We are going to make a stand,'" Rybak said. "We've spent years lowering crime, building houses and waiting for that one tipping point that could take all of this good work and really get people to say 'We finally are over the hump here in Hawthorne,' and I think we are."
Carter said the comprehensive community building approach the city is using in north Minneapolis should be a model for foreclosure recovery elsewhere in the country.
"The initiative in this neighborhood will be an inspiration to people all over the nation," Carter said, adding that Wednesday's event would shed light on the troubles the neighborhood dealt with and the work necessary to reach the "culmination of a dream."
Carter, 86, was briefly hospitalized in Ohio last week after he became ill. Carter joked with reporters and said he was feeling fine.
Carter limited his media appearance Wednesday, saying he preferred to keep the focus on the work of creating affordable and energy efficient homes. Still, the crowd of reporters and television cameras, city officials and neighborhood leaders created quite a commotion on the quiet, leafy north Minneapolis street he visited.
As she rushed to make the bus, Hawthorne resident Annetta Coleman was happily surprised to see that the former president was visiting her community.
"It's about time someone comes down here, you know, because this used to be the baddest part of north Minneapolis. It was really bad," Coleman said.
Since the city knocked down the worst problem properties, which had attracted drug dealing, prostitution and other crime over the years, Coleman said she's noticed the area is already a lot quieter.
Just days after the sale of the first new home to be completed in the EcoVillage project was announced, someone fired a shot through the home's window lodging a bullet in a wall.
But Coleman said she's hopeful the efforts to stabilize her neighborhood will be lasting.
"I feel that it should be a new beginning for everybody who is willing to change and make this neighborhood better," she said. "Because the northside doesn't have to marked as bad or unlivable. It can be livable too."
Thursday, the former president plans to help build homes in east St. Paul's Payne-Phalen neighborhood.