In Minneapolis' Hawthorne neighborhood, a concentrated strategy to reduce crime, remove problem properties and replace them with affordable, energy-efficient homes and rentals is taking hold.
The sound of construction fills the air in the neighborhood these days, where construction crews are working on building or rehabbing homes on just about every block. All of the activity is the culmination of years of work by residents, housing groups and the city to help the troubled neighborhood.
Later this week, former president Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter will be in the Twin Cities as part of a nationwide effort to help revitalize communities hit hard by the housing crisis.
The Carters will visit two neighborhoods: Payne-Phalen on St. Paul's east side and Hawthorne.
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Leading a tour on a street just off of Lowry Avenue, Hawthorne Community Council's Jeff Skrenes said it was typical of how the foreclosure crisis has devastated the area now known as EcoVillage.
"In many ways you could call it ground zero of the foreclosure crisis, at least for north Minneapolis," Skrenes said. "There were a total of nine foreclosures on one block."
EcoVillage is the new name for a four-block area in Hawthorne being targeted for a $30 million redevelopment project. The effort is expected to create up to 160 new housing units over a decade. Neighborhood groups, the city and others chose the area for redevelopment because of its high concentration of problems.
Over just the last four years more than half of the properties in the EcoVillage cluster were foreclosed or vacant. The steep drop in home values attracted waves of slumlord investors and mortgage fraud. The neighborhood was rife with drug dealing, gang activity, shootings, prostitution and other crime.
"My mom was outside and they would start shooting, driving the car. I yelled to my mom 'get down,'" recalled Valeria Golebiowski.
Golebiowski, 75, has lived in this neighborhood for 50 years, and said it wasn't the only drive-by shooting she witnessed over the years.
By 2008, neighbors say shootings were common and the bodies of murder victims would often turn up on the streets overnight.
"It was lawlessness," said Pam Patrek. "It was really a part of the city that was taken over and nothing was being done to help."
Patrek's house was bordered on both sides by problem rental properties the city eventually demolished. The low point for Patrek came about three years ago, when she got robbed twice in two weeks. She decided she had to move, even if it meant losing her family home.
Her friend Valeria begged her to stay, as did city officials and neighborhood activists. They held a meeting to discuss the situation in the neighborhood.
"That is when I just started crying," Patrek said, "and I said I don't believe a word you're saying."
Patrek said she'd heard every person there make promises before, and nothing had ever changed.
"All I hear is 'we have a plan, hang in there, it's going to change, it's going to be different,'" she said. "This is exactly what you just said to us."
That was a turning point, said housing advocate Jeff Skrenes. He said that, after the meeting, city agencies and the police began working more closely together to try to prevent crime. They realized that stable residents like Patrek were crucial in improving the neighborhood.
"The first time her home got broken into was really like a flash point for us," Skrenes said. "If we do this new development and we lose our long-term residents in the process because we couldn't make the neighborhood improve enough, then really we've just failed. We've got to deliver on these promises."
The targeted approach seems to be working. The Minneapolis Police department said crime in EcoVillage fell 73 percent between 2007 and 2009, and residents say the neighborhood is a lot quieter now.
Frances Comer, a renter in EcoVillage, said she feels safe enough to let her grandchildren play in the front yard because she's seeing less drug activity now.
"Maybe they know they haven't got very many buyers in here anymore because the police do patrol quite a bit," she said.
Homeowner Pam Patrek is finally starting to imagine what a better future might look like, calling it, "a dream of homeowners and friendly people knowing each other."
Patrek's home is no longer the only one left standing on her block. Next door, the first new EcoVillage home is ready for its new buyer to move in.
But just a few days after the sale was announced, someone fired a shot through the home's window lodging a bullet in a wall; a sign of just how far the neighborhood still has to go to overcome its past.