(Re)collections

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about things people find worthy of collecting. In my case, recently I hit the road for Pennsylvania and came back with more than 50 species of insects from six states.  I don’t collect bugs, they were on my windshield — I had a dickens of a time scrubbing them off.

No, I drove to Philly to pick up a “Solar Chef,” a rare solar oven no longer manufactured, which I found on eBay. Too delicate for the seller to guarantee it’d survive shipping. So I took my chances on the open road.  Although it’s No. 11 in my growing collection of solar cookers, that’s not the collection I want to talk about either. 

I’ve actually been trying to get rid of other stuff.  But one thing I can’t get rid of is 500 pages of minutes from more than 100 biweekly meetings in Lyndale in the 1990s, meetings where the fate of our small world was determined, namely, Lyndale’s CARE (Community And Resource Exchange) Committee. I keep them because that old adage is playing out in Lyndale. “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.” Too many Lyndaliennes are panicking when crack houses pop up or when they hear gunshots.  One response is: “It can’t be fixed, so we should move out.”

CARE was a good reason why many of us stayed put. The city is working to increase its capacity for community engagement; you could find worse models to emulate than CARE.

How did it work?  Every two weeks we met to discuss problem locations. If you brought a problem to the table, you had to work on it. You couldn’t “dump and run.”  

Launched by the multi-agency Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, the problem also needed at least two agencies to work it. The MPD and Housing Inspections regularly attended; business license officials and even zoning experts were frequently consulted. 

Some minutes — often running to 10 or more pages — bring a bitter chuckle years later, although at the time it was the fodder of our despair. 

From memory in one of the few sets of minutes not in my binder: “Police reported that the murder of the owner of the business had no connection to the crime associated with the shop itself.” We took pains to distinguish between crimes in the neighborhood versus bad luck elsewhere.

“Quality Foods. The exterior cleanup is in progress. The mattress has been removed and a noticeable improvement in appearance has occurred.” (October 1991). The mattress gives you a clue why we called the place “Low Quality Foods.” Closed in 1992, bulldozed soon after. Now the lot has townhomes and the block a higher quality of life.

“An area resident suggested trying to start some kind of ‘welcome wagon’ in the neighborhood.” (August 1991). That ended up in the minutes. What didn’t: “Maybe we should set up an ‘Unwelcome Wagon.’”

Eventually, we had both, in a way, when we formed the Lyndale Walkers — handing velvet hammer flyers listing volunteer opportunities to drug dealers and innocent residents alike.

Once someone came in a little late and announced, “There’s a blue Honda in the lot with its lights on.” Several in the room spontaneously repeated the plate information, digit- and letter-perfect. After so many meetings focused on gathering such details for the police, we were well-trained.

Most of the problem locations were rental properties. Did they buy on the advice of flipmongers on the Make-Money-While-You-Sip-Cuervos-on-the-Beach Channel?  Perhaps, but we found that few intended to inflict criminal tenants on the neighborhood. 

From such dilemmas, and a sense of being picked on at the CARE meetings, the owners banded together and met on their own.

This was community engagement at its finest and least bureaucratic: In face-to-face meetings with the civil servants who could work with us to solve problems, we tackled garbage properties, crack houses, and “inconvenience stores.”

We even set priorities and influenced policy decisions. I bumped into a key player in the CARE program a couple weeks ago, and asked him how many CARE neighborhoods really bought into the process and made tracks.  He said, “About half.” The issue that torpedoed the other half? “Trust. They didn’t believe that the government can be there to help, that such a partnership would really work.”  Believe you me, Lyndale’s meetings were no Mutual Admiration Society — many blamed the city, county, police, welfare, etc. et. al., for Lyndale’s problems. But there was a unity of purpose that pervaded the room when CARE convened.

That’s what it took, that’s what it still takes. I don’t want history to repeat itself, but we’re ready to repeat what it took to get us to the minutes of Meeting No. 131, April 7 1997, wherein we closed out the only three problems on the agenda, and concluded the one-page record with, “NEW ADDRESSES: None.”

How I can keep such a rosy view of things? It isn’t rosy, it’s realistic to think that no problem in our community is insoluble. Our neighborhood, and the partnership we built with the city, county, and other agencies are proof.  If you want it in writing — let me know, I have it in black and white, collected in a ring binder that I’ll never throw out.

Luther Krueger lives in the Lyndale neighborhood and is a civilian crime prevention specialist for the 1st Precinct.