For 20 years, Stevens Squares eyes on the street

Neighborhood block patrol may be city’s oldest

STEVENS SQUARE — Recently, several people who were asked what it was like to live in Stevens Square back in the early ’90s used the same adjective: dicey.

“It was a lot dicier,” said Gene Blackledge, who now lives in Lowry Hill but still works in the area. “When I first moved to the neighborhood [in 1992] I didn’t understand why all these people were whistling to each other.”

It didn’t take long for Blackledge to realize he was hearing drug dealers communicating on the street below his 3rd Avenue apartment. It was not difficult to spot the prostitutes working neighborhood corners, either, he added.

The Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) block patrol had started just a year earlier, in 1991, and when Blackledge saw his yellow-vested neighbors walking the streets one day, he decided to join. He stayed on for a decade, volunteering for two or three shifts a week.

Stevens Square is a different place today, but neighbors still volunteer to don the yellow vests and patrol the streets almost daily. It is the most active, longest running block patrol in Minneapolis, said Luther Krueger, Police Department community crime prevention analyst.

“For my money, they do a walking crime watch group the right way,” Krueger, who founded the Lyndale Walkers in 1992 and was a crime prevention specialist assigned to Stevens Square in the mid-1990s, said. “It’s proactive. It’s non-confrontational. It’s all based on community-building.”

Although crime and the crack epidemic may have inspired the group’s founding, the members preparing to mark its 20th anniversary this month say the block patrol’s real legacy is one of neighborhood involvement and volunteerism.

Dee Tvedt, a past chair of the SSCO Board of Directors, said black patrol had “been a huge, huge leadership developer” in the neighborhood, adding there were times when almost the entire board was made up of current or former patrol volunteers.

Running the gauntlet

Tvedt first moved to Stevens Square in 1981, but didn’t get involved in the neighborhood organization until a decade later. By 1991, open drug dealing and prostitution could make walking the streets feel like “running the gauntlet,” she said.

“Things started getting really dicey,” she recalled. “… What really tipped it for me was when my next door neighbor’s car had gunshots in it.”

That summer, the SSCO annual meeting was packed with people like Tvedt who were fed up with crime and looking to do something about it. One of the organization’s first requests to the brand-new Neighborhood Revitalization Program was for funds to start a block patrol. Early purchases included some brick-sized cell phones, but because they couldn’t dial local 911, someone was always stationed at a landline phone, Tvedt recalled.

The technology has evolved since then, but the strategy has remained the same. Block patrol members call 911 if they suspect criminal activity, but they keep their distance and avoid confrontation. They wait and watch, a strategy Tvedt called “counter-loitering.”

“We discovered they really would just disappear,” she said. “They didn’t want to be watched.”

Community building

Recently “counter-loitering” at the corner of Nicollet and Franklin avenues were SSCO Safety Coordinator Dave Delvoye and neighborhood residents Chris Londwehr and Ken Stroebel, an SSCO board member and chair of its Safety Committee. Blackledge donned a yellow block patrol vest and joined them for old time’s sake.

As they wandered through the neighborhood to Stevens Square Park, Blackledge and Stroebel recalled a time years earlier when, while out on patrol, they helped to break up a violent assault on a prostitute. But that was an exception. Block patrol shifts are typically uneventful.

As Krueger explained, the paradox of an effective block patrol is that its very presence means criminal activity moves elsewhere. SSCO’s patrol members dial 311 when they spot burnt-out streetlights and alert landlords to broken windows and unlocked doors, but they rarely dial 911 to report a crime in progress.

Still, the block patrol remains one of the most visible arms of the neighborhood organization. In a neighborhood filled with short-term renters, it is often new residents’ introduction to the SSCO, as well as a powerful tool for recruiting new volunteers and board members, Stroebel said.

“Quite a few times people have come up and said, ‘Hey, you should come to my neighborhood and do that,’ because they live in another part of town,” Stroebel said. “I tell them, we’d like to, but you’ve got to do it yourself.”

“Every neighborhood has to come up with their own way of doing things,” he continued. “This works for us.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]