OPINION | Voices from Cedar-Riverside

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It was four days after last week’s shooting when I visited the Brian Coyle Center, and it seemed like any other typical Thursday.

Teenagers played basketball on its concrete gym floor, children diligently focused on their homework as tutors looked on. A health careers fair and food shelf that morning attracted more than 400 people.

Despite the center’s vibrancy, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is still reeling from last Monday’s drive-by shooting. The unnamed victims of the shooting, two young men, were both outside the center when they were gunned down that evening.

Both were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center and survived. However, the crime is a blow because the neighborhood had experienced little violence since the fatal September 2008 shooting of 20-year-old Ahmednur Ali, also outside the Brian Coyle Center.

Residents are frustrated because they believe last week’s shooting could have been prevented and that it unnecessarily casts the neighborhood in a negative light.

“Things are normal, but of course people are afraid, especially East African parents, because they came to the U.S. for safety [and] opportunities,” said Abdirahman Mukhtar, youth program manager at the center.

He said he noticed a slight decrease in the number of residents at the center last week.

“Any time a situation like this happens people will react to that. Parents will protect their kids, and we understand that,” he said.

“The sad thing is most people don’t know that the [center] is the safest place in the neighborhood, especially [for] youth.”

If there’s a crime, like last week’s shooting, the victims and suspects usually come from other neighborhoods such as Eden Prairie and Hopkins, Mukhtar explained – not from Cedar-Riverside itself.

“People always have this perception about the neighborhood … or the center being a bad place but they don’t see all the positive activities happening … And they don’t know the dynamics of the crimes that happen here,” he explained.

People forget the “big picture,” that last week’s shooting – like last month’s shooting in Arizona – is an example of a nationwide endemic of youth violence and easy gun access, he said.

“Most people would call it ‘Somali youth issues’ or ‘Somali violence,’ but it’s not about Brian Coyle,” he said. “It’s about youth violence and what the city, state or neighborhood organizations need to do about it.”

Crime in Cedar-Riverside decreased after the 2008 shooting, a trend many attribute to the neighborhood’s evening safety patrols and opportunities provided for youth at the center.

But residents and staff feel the neighborhood – with its concentration of low-income families and unemployed youth – needs more resources and services than just the center.

Among its many services, the center provides a food shelf, job counseling, computer training and homework help.

The center’s gym is the only building owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board that doesn’t have a wooden floor, according to Mukhtar. Playing on the cement has caused injuries in the past. In spite of that, the gym holds physical education classes for students for nearby schools and activities for neighborhood youth.

“Most people don’t know there’s over 1,200 young people under the age of 18 that live in the neighborhood, and this is the only gym and the only place they have for structured programs,” he said. “Most people don’t understand the importance of this, but to these kids it makes all the difference because they call this [center] home.”

The strain on the center’s resources inevitably led the center to recently lay off its security guard, Center Director Jennifer Blevins said.

The center worked with the city, Augsburg College and Fairview Hospital in 2009 to pool together funding to hire a guard, but after its largest source of funding significantly cut its budget, it had to choose between cutting security or programs.

Still, the neighborhood saw successes in crime prevention last year, such as the installation of a new coffee shop to create jobs for unemployed youth.

“The bigger picture is that as long as we have the highest concentration of families living in poverty in the state and we have children and youth that have bad experiences, when they reach adulthood and they’re not prepared for the labor market, we’re going to have problems with violence on the streets – not just here but everywhere,” Blevins said.

Mohamed Jama, an 11th grade student at Ubah Medical Academy, cofounder of the Cedar Riverside Youth Council and a member of the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program’s board of directors, echoed similar sentiments.

Jama wants to see more resources and indoor spacing allocated for teenagers. “That’s one of the major problems … We need to have programs for 18-year-olds because they have no place to go,” he said. “If we want to stop [crime], we need to give them something … productive.”

Still, Jama thinks the center is trying its best, despite what residents perceive as neglect from the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College and the city officials.

“To those who associate us with violence, first come to our community and understand what we go through,” Jama said. “There are struggles this community has – big ones, not small ones – but at the end of the day, change will come [to] this community.”