Minneapolis will raze troubled corner store

Housing to come
The city of Minneapolis will close on a deal Friday to buy the site of a troubled corner store. The now-vacant and boarded store will be torn down and replaced with housing.
MPR photo/Brandt Williams

The city shut down Big Stop foods last year - almost on the same day we closed with the buyer of our home located just three doors down from the corner.

"I've been living at a house down there on 29th for about six years now," said Jabrel. He just got off a city bus at the corner of 26th and Knox, right across the street from the Big Stop.

Before, when the store was open there was a lot of drug traffic.

He said things have gotten quieter since the store was closed.

"Before when the store was open there was a lot of drug traffic," he said. "And ever since the store has been closed down, the streets have been more clear. And then when, like, little kids would get off their buses to go home, they were getting stopped and asked questions, like 'you want to buy some weed or whatever?' But now that the store is closed, I think it's way better. The neighborhood is getting much better around here."

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Here's how it worked at the Big Stop. Groups of guys selling mostly marijuana would stand at the bus stop across the street from the store, or in the parking lot of the store. Customers could drive in one side of the lot, buy weed and drive out of the other side of the parking lot. When a police car approached, the dealers could walk into the store, buy some chips and then walk out after the cops left.

Today, a crew of workmen is inside the store dismantling the large coolers.

The interior of the store has been gutted, except for the skeletons of shelving. It's dark and wires hang from the ceiling. I walk across broken glass and look at the store's office. In 2004, a young man was killed back here. Police say he ran into the store seeking refuge. But his assailants found him, dragged him back into the office and blew his brains out.

Back outside a car pulls up to the house right next to the store. Douglas Irwin gets out of the car with a grocery bag. Irwin is a gregarious older black man with a big firm handshake. He said he's glad the store is being torn down. Irwin has been staying here with family members over the holidays. He said even though the Big Stop is closed, it still attracts drug dealers.

"The stuff still goes on," said Irwin. "Everything still goes on. And so it doesn't change. It's not changing."

Irwin said he's working on a masters degree in the psychology of human development. And he's troubled by the numbers of young black men just outside his window who are apparently involved in crime.

Like Douglas Irwin, I used to have a window seat to observe what went on along the 'Deuce Six' - as some of the neighborhood kids called it. Most of the time, there were nuisances. Someone would pull up next to the store blasting music at window rattling levels. Or oftentimes people leaving the store would cast their empty chip bags and styrofoam containers on the street where they clogged gutters and littered our lawns.

Don Samuels
The city of Minneapolis will close on a deal Friday to buy the site of a troubled corner store in north Minneapolis. The now vacant and boarded store will be torn down and replaced with housing. Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels says the city has compiled a list of 15 stores that have been frequent sources of police calls for service.
MPR photo/Brandt Williams

The neighbors didn't sit still for it. We held vigils near the store and created a community garden across the street in an attempt to let drug customers know there were concerned residents around who were watching them. And neighbors contacted our city council member, Don Samuels.

Samuels got numerous emails from neighbors complaining about activity on the corner of 26th and Knox. And he went there himself to see what was going on.

"My experience, in the community is, these stores, man, I could see the connection between them and the drug trade," said Samuels.

In the case of the Big Stop, the last owner said he was unaware that illegal activity was happening on store property. And he said he'd shoed away people loitering in front of the store.

But Samuels, who once spent a day working at a different troubled corner store, said often the store owners are in way over their heads. And in the case of the Big Stop, the city had to take action to preserve peace in the neighborhood.

Samuels spearheaded the creation of the city's Grocery Store Task Force. The task force closed three north Minneapolis corner stores including the Big Stop. And in each case, police report a dramatic reduction in calls to those sites.

"The lesson to me is, citizens have to become engaged and leaders have to become courageous," said Samuels. "And if we have those two things, we will virtually obliterate the problems of our inner cities overnight."

Samuels may be overly optimistic. The drug activity that used to happen along 26th avenue and near the store likely just moved somewhere else. But people who live near this street are hoping the razing of the Big Stop will mark the final chapter in the history of one of many hot spots in north Minneapolis.