A big part of inner-city life – or any happy social life – is getting to know your neighbors. We all live near people that are different from ourselves in many ways, and in the city we live a bit closer than people in suburbs.That can cause conflicts from time to time, and there is some sense that these conflicts are on the rise. There are many reasons for this, and there is always something that can be done about it. But it always starts and ends with the spirit of the neighborhood itself, which can only be found by getting to know each other.
I’ve been on the Board of the Fort Road Federation, our local district council, on an off for 20 years now. It’s a community group that exists to help the city with planning and also unite residents to work together to solve their own problems. Our excellent staff includes Ed Johnson, a redevelopment expert, and Betty Moran, our community organizer who keeps the West End keepin’ on. Every so often a set of “problem properties” come along with people who simply aren’t living up to the same standards of decency the rest of the neighbors have come to expect as part of their quality of life.
What does that harsh statement mean? In terms of our organization, it’s pretty specific. A loud party at 3 a.m. doesn’t make for a “problem property,” but constant loud parties that keep everyone awake might. If they spill out into a street brawl or loud shouting matches on a consistent basis we have an issue to deal with. If there are weapons involved it quickly becomes a matter for the police – and repeated police calls are definitely what it takes to make a “problem property.”
There is always only one thing that can be done about any of these situations, and that’s talking with neighbors. The people who are having loud parties may not know they are being a pain or may have simply never thought of it, so most of these situations can be solved with a simple respectful and polite conversation. If that doesn’t work, talking to other neighbors and getting to know how they feel is the first step towards organizing and, if necessary, bringing some serious heat on the people who are being a problem.
Problem properties may be on the rise in Saint Paul right now for many reasons. The economy has shut out many people from being able to have a stable life where they own their own home and many inner-city properties are now rented out by absentee landlords. Most landlords want to be good stewards, if for no other reason than to protect their investment, so talking with them is a simple next step. But there are large stretches of the city that have moved from being neighborhoods where each resident had their own stake in the quality of life to being nothing more than a place to sleep at night, and that’s causing a strain.
The same situation seems to be moving gatherings away from the controlled situation at a bar and into house parties. No matter how poor people are they will always find a way to kick back and have a good time. Bars have to close at 1 a.m. here, and most are zoned a bit away from neighborhoods where people are trying to sleep. The apparent increase in house parties is going to create more friction between neighbors who are just trying to get along and have a good life in their own ways.
While there are good reasons why problem properties might be on the rise, we as a city have to make sure that we stay on top of it. We can’t let the economic situation that has wrecked the lives of so many people turn into a general blight for Saint Paul. The city does have an ordinance that allows it to take more drastic action if there are repeated police calls to one property, but it’s always best to keep it from getting to that stage. Still, it’s important to know that the worst case scenario is covered by groups like our district councils who can organize and direct city services to be as effective as they need to be.
Neighborhood life is one of the great joys of living in Saint Paul, as it is in any city. But when it gets out of hand because different values and ways of life are coming into conflict it can become a frustrating and terrible headache. We’ve got both ends of that covered in Saint Paul, but in the end it comes down to getting to know your neighbors and filling in those spaces in between.