When crime happens on your streetby Jeff Horwich, Minnesota Public Radio
Even when you aren't the victim of crime, it can hit you in the gut and make you wonder about the place you call home. That happened recently to Christina Schmitt, a colleague at Minnesota Public Radio, when Minneapolis recorded its 41st murder of the year... two blocks from her apartment. She revisited the scene a few weeks later with MPR's Jeff Horwich.
Minneapolis, Minn. — It was a drug deal gone bad -- no innocent bystander shot down out of the blue. And maybe that's why it was marked only by short, emotionless newspaper accounts.
Christina Schmitt says many in her neighborhood, the Whittier area of south Minneapolis, still don't know it happened.
She takes me to the scene of the shooting -- the corner of 24th and Nicollet -- exactly one month after it happened. On one side of the street is a pizza place and Hark's convenience store. Across the street is a McDonalds.
"Somebody from St. Paul came over to get drugs," Christina says. "Things didn't work out for them, and they shot a person over here."
According to police, a 32-year-old drug dealer took a bullet in his back on this corner at about 2 a.m. Police are holding the prospective buyer as the main suspect. The man told police he didn't know his gun was loaded.
Christina thinks of her neighborhood block by block -- safe and unsafe. And she always considered this corner just inside her safe zone -- thanks mostly to Hark's Food Market, the local convenience store, and especially the family that runs it.
Christina has only exchanged pleasantries with the family. But her sense is that they are tough and proud -- a bulwark against the dangerous blocks beyond, even after the shooting that happened right here.
"It still is the boundary. That happened at 2 in the morning. I just feel very strongly that wouldn't have happened when those guys were open. It's just kind of a late-night thing," she says. "I wouldn't live in a neighborhood where I felt like I could get shot in the middle of the day."
"Do you feel at all like you're looking for reasons to feel it's still safe?" I ask. "Saying, 'Oh, it's the middle of the night -- never mind that fact that there was a bad drug deal going down a block from my house.'"
"Do you think I'm in denial?" Christina asks. "I could be! I like the neighborhood. But like I said, I'm comfortable with a certain amount of -- I don't want to be robbed, but I like being a little more on my toes. And I like the people who are comfortable with that."
Many living in this diverse neighborhood want to have faith in Whittier. But according to police reports for the precinct, it's been a bad year so far.
There have been five homicides, the same as last year at this time, and way up from 2004 when there was just one. Rapes are up 15 percent, robberies up 9 percent, and assaults are up 25 percent.
The police precinct includes a more upscale area to the west known as Uptown. But a fatal mugging in Uptown this summer cast doubt on the safe perception of that area.
It also generated a flurry of media and city government attention -- a fact that causes some resentment in Whittier, where the murder on this corner went unnoticed by comparison.
Surely they noticed it at Hark's, the corner store. I follow Christina into the crowded but immaculate aisles.
Ian Ates is behind the register. His family has run this store for 30 years. I tell him what Christina told me -- that she considers this store part of her "safe zone." He is surprised.
"Safe zone? We are trying to keep those people away, but they keep coming."
Ates says they have a lot of problems trying to handle criminal activity.
"Drug dealers, hookers. They stand around, just trying to do what they do, the usual routine," says Ates. "The officers stop by here every couple hours just to check on us, to get rid of those people at least for a half hour to an hour. They leave, and new people just show up."
I asked Ian what he remembers about the shooting in August. He said he was actually up at the time, in his apartment a block away.
"I hear this loud bang. It was right here, right in front of the supermarket. It was a Mexican guy, Hispanic guy, selling drugs. And this black guy from St. Paul, buying from the Hispanic guy," Ates recalls. "And somehow the black guy thought probably he was being ripped off, so he shot him."
Ates says there was another shooting in his store, about a year ago.
"Over here. Four high school kids standing over here last summer. They step outside and start shooting at a moving bus. Turns out they were shooting at a person who was trying to get on the bus. At like, 3 in the afternoon."
So much for the daytime safe zone. I ask Ian if he thinks things will get better. And he brings up the condos being built down the street. Long-term, he's hoping more homeowners will mean less crime -- the same hope pinned on gentrifying condo developments all across the Twin Cities.
But what matters to him right now is that the site of those condos used to be a gas station -- one that attracted the neighborhood's uglier elements.
"They tear it down to build those condos. But now all those drug dealers, hookers, you name it, are walking this way," says Ates. "And I'm the person that has to deal with these people. Because there's no other place for them to shop around."
You might think a logical response would be to call the cops, or otherwise try to run the bad element out of the store. Ian says not necessarily.
"The more I know them, the less they cause troubles. It's like an unspoken bond. 'Hey, how you doing, how's your day?'" Ates says. "Sometimes it helps to be friends with bad people. In this neighborhood, especially."
Christina and I walk away, up the aisle. She says she didn't know about the shooting at the store last year.
"No. That makes me sad. They shouldn't be messing with this place," she says.
Even though the shooting was at three in the afternoon, somehow she still considers the store a safe zone.
She's not sure why her logic still holds. She likes the fact that the Ates family is watching over the corner -- even if they can't always stop bad things from happening there. And she really wants to like this neighborhood -- with its racial diversity, blue-collar feel, and ample bohemian crowd.
At that moment, one of the neighborhood cops walks up the aisle. Officer Khoo Vang won't talk about the shooting, but wants to be clear it doesn't reflect on the businesses here.
"That's a separate incident that just happened to happen here," he says.
Vang says the police work with local stores like Hark's and ask employees to stay vigilant, reporting any suspicious activity.
For his part, Vang and his partner drive up and down the street, watching all the time for what he calls "the petty stuff."
"People who are walking here late at night who shouldn't be here, that look suspicious. The prostitution, all that little stuff, graffiti and stuff. All those lead to bigger things," says Vang.
It makes sense, but it's not clear it's working. There was a rather big thing that happened just about a month ago. And another shooting the year before that.
Christina and I leave the store.
"Is it a denial thing? Am I in denial here, Jeff? It can't be just me that's in denial," says Christina.
"Maybe it's not denial," is my response, "just that crime is a way of life, and there's a sliding scale depending on where you live."
"And what your comfort zone is with it," Christina adds. We walk up the block. A homeless man tells us he's been here for years and the neighborhood is going downhill. A young white man with a cane says he feels like a target every time he comes to visit his girlfriend here.
A young black man says the crime bothers him too, but he doesn't want to work with the police -- who he says harass him even though he doesn't deal drugs or even have a gun.
None of them has heard about the murder that happened just yards away. Sadly, none of them is surprised, either.