A fairer Fair Oaks

Neighbors hope to reclaim park from drug dealers and drunks

On a chilly January afternoon, only a couple of people passed through Washburn Fair Oaks. Although virtually deserted, the park showed signs of illegal activity: empty vodka and beer bottles half-frozen in the snow.

“Too dangerous,” one man said of the park, declining to give his name. “There’s too many robberies.”

Chad Whittlef, who lives a block away, walks his and his neighbors’ children through the park on their way to school each morning and sees evidence of drinking and drug use every day. “On many occasions, I have felt unsafe and had to scurry out of the park,” he said.

In response, he and others have launched Friends of Fair Oaks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reclaiming the park – a move already undertaken by neighborhoods near Stevens Square and Loring parks.

How fair is Fair Oaks?

The park, bordered by South 24th and 22nd streets and 1st and 3rd avenues, is feet from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) and the Children’s Theatre in the Whittier neighborhood.

Last summer, when Whittlef and his children were picking crab apples near the park’s drinking fountain, a group approached and overtly completed a drug deal before dispersing.

“I felt there was potential danger,” Whittlef said. “It was not just a couple of people on a bench; this was a coordinated event happening very quickly.”

The Minneapolis Park Police have jurisdiction over all city parks and patrol Fair Oaks during open hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. But the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) also responds to 911 calls in parks, particularly those deemed high priority. Lt. Ameila Huffman of the MPD’s 5th Precinct said that in 2005 police took action in 22 incidents in Fair Oaks. Park Police figures were not available.

The once and future park

In 1883, politician and milling mogul William Drew Washburn built Fair Oaks mansion on the 10-acre estate that is now the park. The grounds included a pond (the now-dry valley near 24th Street) and stream crossed by a long rustic footbridge, a carriage house and greenhouse.

When Washburn died in 1912, the estate was given to the Park Board. The house was razed in 1924.

Whittlef hopes to reintroduce the pond and footbridge and preserve the rare green gage trees, in the plum family. “We eat the plums every year,” he said, “but the trees are clearly dying.”

Working with the city, the nonprofit hopes to increase legal use of the park and push out crime through such measures as increased lighting and high-tech surveillance.

The Park Board already has in place a foundation for Fair Oaks and a master plan for improvements. Whittlef has contacted both the Park Board and the Park Police about the nonprofit’s plans and hopes to build the necessary partnership with the city, neighborhood institutions, residents and donors to implement these and other changes.

Look to the North

Both Stevens Square and Loring Park have built such coalitions to wrestle with similar issues in their parks.

Last year, a man was shot to death on Stevens Avenue, just feet from Stevens Square park. A rash of armed robberies in the spring was thwarted with the arrest of an apparent theft ring.

MPD calls to the park nearly doubled from 2002 to 2003 (62 to 117), but dipped again last year to 59.

“I’m not offered crack as much,” said Lisa Ganser, a four-year Stevens Square residents who was walking her two dogs in the park.

Increased police patrols have kept down crime, she said, but drugs are still sold, bottles still emptied and car windows still smashed.

Ganser credited sponsored events such as movies and music in the park and the annual Red Hot Art festival, which bring more people into the park, for the improvements.

“Stevens Square was a community effort,” said Doug Kress, former executive director of Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO). “Businesses, Plymouth Church, [SSCO], and the very active neighbors and artists Š make the sense of community broader and make the streets feel safer.” A well-organized block club patrols the streets.

Loring Park also had a sketchy reputation, mainly for drugs and prostitution. John Van Heel, president of Citizens for a Loring Park Community (CLPC), cited the recent renovation of the park – with funding from the city, Park Board and its own nonprofit, Friends of Loring Park – in making a safer public space. A network of property owners and residents also has helped track and decrease criminal activity.

Police calls to 1382 Willow – Loring’s official address – have hovered around 460 a year since 2002, with a dip to 370 in 2004. Luther Krueger, crime-prevention specialist for the 1st Precinct, noted that those numbers could include incidents that started adjacent to parkland.

Since summer, for instance, police have focused on the intersection of Nicollet and Franklin avenues – two blocks from both Fair Oaks and Stevens Square. Drug traffic flows down Franklin, Huffman said, especially from the east, and the stretch of Nicollet Avenue South from Downtown to 28th Street has been plagued by robberies. That Downtown-Southwest artery passes within three blocks of Fair Oaks, Stevens Square and Loring parks.

Like Kress, Huffman credited neighborhood groups like SSCO and the Whittier Alliance, as well as partnerships among police, the city, and area residents and organizations for keeping the neighborhoods – and their parks – safe and user-friendly.

“The fact is, everybody is afraid of the park,” Whittlef said of Fair Oaks. “That’s what we need to address.”