On Friday, a backhoe pulled up to the corner of Plymouth and Sheridan avenues and began ripping apart the building that was once home to Uncle Bill’s Food Market. The corner shop had sold milk and bread to North Minneapolis residents for more than two decades. But neighbors complained that it also served as a safe haven for drug dealers and was a blight on the community. In 2007 it was shut down after the building was condemned.
To those supporting the demolition of Uncle Bill’s it was a sign of significant progress in the fight against crime and economic blight on the North Side.
“It’s part of our strategy to keep the community sane and safe and blight free,” says city council member Don Samuels, who is completing his first full term on the council. “We analyze empty buildings to see what condition they’re in. If we think they’re not worth keeping, if they’re a blight to the community, then we inform the owners that they need to bring it back up or take it down. If they don’t tear it down and they don’t have a rehab plan, we take it down.”
But to Lennie Chism and other opponents of the building’s demolition, it was a symbol of the city’s lack of support for entrepreneurs operating in the troubled area.
“They’re saying it’s a nuisance property and it is structurally unsound,” notes Chism, who purchased the property for $3,000 after it was condemned by the city in hopes of reopening it as a health-food store. “My question back to them is, is there anything that can’t be cured? To me it’s just a building. It can be cured. But you cannot cure political will if the political will is to tear it down.”
Kenya McKnight, who works with the Northside Economic Development Network to help create business opportunities in the area, agrees that the strategy of demolishing troubled properties is flawed. “It’s kind of like blowing up your house because you have mice,” she says. “It just doesn’t work.”
Chism and McKnight, both Democrats, are two of the four challengers seeking to replace Samuels on the city council. Former city council member Natalie Johnson Lee is looking to return to the council after losing to Samuels four years ago by a 55-44 percent margin in a bitter political contest. Also on the ballot is Roger Smithrud, who has the backing of the Independence Party and previously ran for the state House. (Johnson Lee didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Minnesota Independent.)
Crime and economic development are the signature issues in Ward Five, which includes the neighborhoods of Jordan, Harrison and Willard-Hay. It is among the poorest and most diverse wards in the city. In Harrison, for instance, median household income was less than $24,000, according to the 2000 census, and more than two thirds of the population was non-white.
Samuels, who is the DFL-endorsed candidate, touts progress on both crime and economic development as proof that he’s been an effective voice for his constituents at City Hall. Most significantly, crime is down more than 40 percent over the last four years in the 4th Precinct, which covers the North Side, while homicides have plummeted by 65 percent. Samuels points out that he meets weekly with the mayor and the police chief to make sure effective strategies are being utilized in the area. He further notes that every time there’s a murder on the North Side he collects victim-impact statements from those affected by the killing and distributes them to his council colleagues, the mayor and even the governor.
“So that when we asked for resources here there was no pushback,” he says. “It was incredible. For the first time in known history, all of the council was focused on North Minneapolis to mitigate the terror that our young people and families were experiencing.”
But Samuels’ challengers note a dark side to the more vigilant police presence on the North Side. A spate of high-profile incidents, most notably the videotaped beating of Near North resident Derryl Jenkins, have inflamed concerns about police brutality.
“I have not seen him to be a champion against police brutality,”‘ says McKnight. “We need city council members who work with us and let us know that they do understand.”
Samuels argues that this criticism is unfounded and that progress cannot be made on the issue simply by attacking the cops.
“I think people should be outraged and express their concerns,” he says. “That’s part of the solution. I want to assure the community that I am very concerned and upset about the images I have seen.”
Economic development, particularly along the key corridors of West Broadway and Plymouth avenues, is the other touchstone issue in Ward Five. Samuels touts the opening of Cub Foods and an 800-job Coloplast factory as signs of economic progress. He also points to projects in the pipeline – such as the $70 million Broadway Plaza Project, which includes a new YWCA – as indicators of future development.
But Samuels acknowledges that there is still significant work to be done, noting, for instance, the lack of sit-down restaurants as a significant shortcoming. He points out that a recent study found that North Side residents spend $70 million annually at restaurants outside the area.
“The restaurants there tend to be perfectly vertical,” he says of the North Side. “You stand to order it, you stand to receive it, and you walk away with it.”
His opponents believe that Samuels is part of the problem. Chism argues that his support for demolishing abandoned properties is symbolic of the lack of support for small businesses on the North Side.
“In order for that community to change you’ve got to have a better storyteller bringing the bacon home,” he says. “The same issues that existed when Don Samuels took office are the same issues that exist currently.”
Ward Five has a history of poisonous politics. The contest four years ago got particularly acrimonious, with Samuels being parodied as an Uncle Tom. And there have been some signs that the race will not be without fireworks this year.
McKnight characterizes Samuels as aloof and cut off from the concerns of most residents. In particular, she cites his inflammatory remarks from early 2007 when, in a moment of rhetorical flourish, he suggested North High School should be burned down.
“It comes down to this idea that he gives off that he’s made it and the rest of us haven’t, and if we want to be successful we have to be like him,” she says. “That’s been divisive and it hasn’t been productive.”
Smithrud believes that Samuels and his council colleagues don’t listen to residents when they seek to make their opinions about municipal governance known. “It’s like the city council has already made up their mind and is not willing to listen to their proposals,” says Smithrud, who works in the mail room at the Star Tribune.
Chism has produced a mailing caricaturing Samuels as a puppet of former Ward Five council member Jackie Cherryhomes, who lost her re-election bid eight years ago.
“They voted her out once,” says Chism. “Now we have to vote her out again. I’m one of the few people who will come out aggressively and say that.”
Samuels dismisses the attack as nonsensical.
“I cannot figure that out for the life of me,” he says. “I don’t know where he gets that from.”
Despite some heated rhetoric, the incumbent believes that the specter of instant-runoff voting, in which candidates will rank their favored candidates, has had a cleansing affect on the race so far.
“I think it’s much less stressful this year,” he says. “There’s a lot less personal attacking going on.”
This is the eighth in a 13-part series on Minneapolis City Council races to run every Monday and Friday, now through Oct. 16. On Friday, Ward 11.
Ward Thirteen: The independent ward could see fireworks in November
Ward Seven: Despite full campaign coffers, lawsuit clouds Goodman’s prospects
Ward Two: Gordon, Aigbogun and … no DFLer
Ward Six: South Minneapolis contest draws crowded field of contenders
Ward Ten: Four candidates vie for Uptown council seat
Ward Nine: Schiff, Bicking vie again
Ward Eight: Glidden faces four rivals in south Minneapolis
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