According to Willard Hay resident Corbin Connell, last year’s incidences of violent crime, burglaries and home invasions drove a group of North Side block club leaders to take action.
“Our block club kept hearing about people from other block clubs who were upset and wanted to do something. We were all trying to get attention from public officials. In Willard Hay it felt like we were rising up. We agreed we had to talk to each other and organize ourselves,” he said.
More than 100 people attended a Dec. 4, 2006, meeting at Wirth Chalet, to voice their concerns. The issues they talked about included limited city and police resources, slow emergency response time, problem properties and what Connell called the “ineffective allocation of resources, in view of significant North Side crime.”
The consensus was that the group would form a new neighborhood organization, the Willard-Homewood Organization (WHO).
According to George Roberts, who lives in the Homewood area, WHO covers the area west of Penn, south of West Broadway, north of Olson Memorial Highway and east of Wirth Park. The area once had its own neighborhood organization, called the Willard-Hay Neighborhood Organization.
“In the 1970s,” Roberts said, “former city council member Van White started it. It gradually got subsumed into NRRC (Northside Residents Redevelopment Council).”
Although NRRC officially represents the area to the City of Minneapolis and receives its Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds, some residents said they see NRRC as being more focused on community development than citizen participation.
Connell said, “The area is too large for one organization to handle. Last year was such a rough year for us from the standpoint of violent crime. We agreed that we wanted an active neighborhood group. That meeting in December showed us that we weren’t alone.”
When asked if WHO had sought NRRC’s permission to get organized, he said, “Nobody sat down across the table from NRRC and said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ But there were NRRC board members who attended our initial meetings, and one of them is currently a WHO board member.”
When NorthNews contacted Sherrie Pugh, NRRC executive director, about WHO, she responded by e-mail, writing, “I really don’t know the history of WHO, and it would be best to get that information from their organizers. NRRC has never absorbed any organization, to my knowledge.”
Pugh did provide some NRRC history, however. In the late 1960s, “about 40 individuals in the two neighborhoods, Willard Hay and Near North, came together to create NRRC, which was incorporated in 1970. Its governance structure was set up in 13 districts. Each district elects two representatives to the NRRC board and there are at-large seats to allow for additional residents and persons with expertise that would support the organization’s activities.”
NRRC’s vision, Pugh said, “is for residents to participate in an/or benefit from the regional planning and development occurring around them.” NRRC, she added, “is a place-based community development corporation that is governed by residents of its community.” She also said, “NRRC has always played a pivotal leadership role in working with resident leaders to bring in new economic opportunities. NRRC, through its Board of Directors, which is elected by residents, provides training opportunities to enhance their leadership skills.”
The new WHO group holds monthly meetings at the North Point Human Services building on Penn Ave. N. They recently worked on putting together bylaws, a mission statement and membership requirements. They held an ice cream social May 5, and plan a community barbeque June 30. They have a web site that includes notices about current events, a blog, and restaurant reviews.
The 90-plus WHO members so far include some well-known community activists: former Minneapolis City Council Member Jackie Cherryhomes, architect and former Minneapolis City Planning Commission member Randall Bradley, and Roberts and his wife Beverly Roberts, who own Homewood Studios.
“We have a lot of smart, talented people in the neighborhood,” Connell said. “Our problems are not one-dimensional, and they need to be attacked on many levels. We can leverage their experience, skills and talent best by forming committees and tackling issues. The committees are well attended; every month, it seems like there’s somebody new.”
The six WHO committees include Communications and Newsletter; Crime Prevention and Safety; Economic Development; Organization and Structure; Uncle Bill’s Task Force; and Children and Youth Support.
The Uncle Bill’s Task Force committee scored a victory in May when the city condemned the Uncle Bill’s building at Plymouth and Sheridan avenues N. The building included a convenience store downstairs and apartments upstairs. Committee members said they had worked long and hard to get the owners of the building and convenience store to clean up the building and get rid of the loiterers, drug dealers and prostitutes who hung around the corner and made residents feel unsafe. The city required all tenants to vacate the building by May 31, and boarded it as soon as it was empty.
Other issues that the group has been discussing include curbing teen crime this summer, the problem of foreclosures in the 55411 zip code and possible solutions for the disinvestment in housing, economic development opportunities for Plymouth Avenue, and the next step for the Uncle Bill’s building.
WHO often invites speakers to its monthly meetings: past speakers have included Carolyn Olson, Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMHC) president; Rony Davis, Northside Neighborhood Housing executive director; Susan Ude, Minneapolis Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) coordinator, and NorthPoint physician Joanna Barrett, who discussed NorthPoint’s Community Listening Project.
Minutes from past meetings and notices of future meetings are available on the website, www.willard-homewood.org.