Opera fights crime on Block E

Gameworks
Gameworks, in the Block E development on Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis, has started broadcasting opera music outside to deter loiterers.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

It's becoming hard to tell the difference between a soprano and a siren on Hennepin Ave.

GameWorks has been piping opera arias out to the corner of 7th and Hennepin for a few weeks now. The California-based company didn't respond to numerous requests for an interview, but passers-by didn't hesitate to share their mixed reaction to the music.

Hennepin Ave.
Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Opera relaxes you. It's good music." (Man in his 30s)

"I'm steady walking. I didn't even notice it, until you stopped me and asked me about it." (Man in his early 20s)

"I don't really care for music being piped outside at all because it creates an artificial environment." (Woman in her 40s)

"I can't get groovin' to it. Be waiting for the bus...la, la, la, la. No." (Girl in her mid-teens)

There was greater consensus among the pedestrians on another question: Will opera music keep foot traffic moving, discourage loitering or panhandling, and therefore deter crime?

"I think vandalism's gonna go up on the p.a. speakers over there that are shooting out the opera music. Vandalism will go up." (Man in his late 20s)

Once we started putting music up, we certainly seemed to have fewer [issues with] people congregating and causing problems there.

"You can't stop nobody from doing what they do. They do what do. Let it be what it be." (Woman in her teens)

"I don't know, it may drive some people away an extra five minutes early, but I don't think it's a crime fighter. I mean, what we need down here is a stronger police presence." (Woman in her 40s)

The man who oversees the police presence downtown is First Precinct Inspector Rob Allen. Allen thinks opera or classical music, used the right way, can prevent crime because he's seen it work. He says Minneapolis Police employed the strategy years ago when Block E was just a large piece of pavement.

"I used to work in that parking lot doing security as an extra job," says Allen, "and I like classical music. But after awhile it drove me crazy. So from that perspective, it seems to work. And we certainly, once we started putting music up, seemed to have fewer problems from people congregating and causing problems there."

Some say all the music does is move potential crime from one part of the street to another a few blocks away. Allen rejects that notion. He says the reason people gather on one particular block is usually unique, and when something causes them to move, they tend to move to an entirely different place.

"Displacement is the term we use in policing to describe crime moving from one place to another," Allen says, "and displacement typically occurs in a matter of miles, not in a matter of blocks."

Using classical or opera music to prevent loitering isn't new. It's been played in tube stations in London, abandoned buildings in West Palm Beach, Florida and in 7-11 convenience stores across North America.

Surveillance camera
GameWorks pipes opera music through this speaker to deter loitering outside its doors.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

That's where the city of Duncan, British Columbia got the idea. Duncan City Administrator Paul Douville says a park that surrounds its train station became a gathering spot for misbehaving teens, and property crimes started to rise. Douville says the city decided to erect poles with speakers and play classical music around the clock. He believes it's had a calming effect on the kids.

"The youth tend to not be as high-strung as when a ghetto blaster is going, with real high-tempo rock and roll music," Douville observes. "They just don't seem to have the same attitudes in the park as they used to."

Douville says some of the teens have vacated the park entirely. He's learned anecdotally that those who have stayed don't mind listening to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.

"They seem to be getting an appreciation for the kind of music," he says, "yet their behavior hasn't gone back to the bad behavior that they were exhibiting before."

Douville says the music is just loud enough to be heard but isn't overbearing. In the year since the city started the practice, he says there's been a noticeable drop in graffitti, vandalism, and bad behavior.

Douville isn't sure whether that's because of the music, or the surveillance cameras that were also installed in the park, but he's not about to experiment. He says he knows if he took away the music, the classical buffs who board the buses nearby would complain.

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