LYNDALE — When the Lyndale neighborhood began to see a rash of criminal activity in the early 1990s, residents had two options: stand up and take back their homes, or leave.
They stood up.
A big part of that effort was led by an unlikely group of citizens who took what seems at first an overly simplistic path toward combating crime: donning florescent yellow hats and going for walks.
Twenty years later the group, known as the Lyndale Walkers, is celebrating the positive impact they’ve had on their neighborhood.
Once a haven for drug dealers and a magnet for gang activity, neighborhood leaders say the Walkers have been a critical part of transforming the community.
Where once people simply walked away from their homes, there are now a host of new businesses, invested property owners and community events.
“They really were the impetus that turned this whole neighborhood around,” said Mark Hinds, the executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. “This neighborhood was lucky in that it had a lot more fight than flight.”
For those who have been involved with the Walkers since their beginning in 1992, the turnaround is seen as a testament to what
residents can accomplish when they stop asking others for support and instead take action of their own.
It is also a symbol of the group’s constant and unyielding presence in the community.
When the group began, the Lyndale Walkers held a walk-a-thon that lasted 14 hours a day for a week straight. The effort immediately forced loiterers off the street and showed neighbors weren’t willing to cede their blocks.
Walkers still hold several themed walk-a-thons a year, and are out several times a week, often wearing florescent yellow hats that are identifiable from several blocks away.
Luther Krueger, who helped start the group after his brother was mugged in the neighborhood, said the constant presence was a deliberate effort to move beyond events tied to a specific crime.
Too often, such events bring people out, but lack the kind of follow-up necessary to effect change, he said.
But even Krueger was surprised by how quickly and dramatically the neighborhood changed by simply rallying residents to walk neighborhood streets.
“We knew it was going to be effective, we just didn’t realize the magnitude,” said Krueger, who now chairs the Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s crime and drug committee. “After that first week, it was like a neutron bomb went off.”
The group found success by doing little more than being a visible presence, too.
Walkers must pledge to be non-confrontational, and do not carry weapons of any kind. Instead of intervening, they are urged to call police with a tip and let authorities make the next move.
Those who have participated say their simple presence is often enough to deter criminal activity. Bus stops and phone booths, once common hangouts for drug dealers, were occupied for long periods by Walkers, which eventually drove people from the spots.
“It’s a really powerful thing, even if you do look a little odd while you’re doing it,” said longtime Walker Jeanne Wiener. “You see one person drift away, then another, and you begin to see the visual impact immediately.”
The changes not only drove down crime, but led people to venture out into the community in ways previously unthinkable, Walkers said.
The Walkers grew from a group of 40 people covering eight blocks to more than 80 people covering more than 30 blocks. And even those who didn’t participate were more likely to be seen outside.
“People were afraid to come out of their front doors,” said Shirley Montrose, a longtime Walker. “But just letting them know there was somebody there made people feel a little safer and really emboldened them.”
Amy Lavender, a 5th Precinct crime prevention specialist, said the group’s efforts continue to play a critical role in the police’s efforts to combat crime in the area.
Beyond reporting suspect activity, Lavender credited the group with helping strengthen relations between the community and the police department.
Residents aren’t always eager to cooperate, or are reluctant to call because they feel their concerns don’t merit police attention, she said.
“People don’t always want to open up to police, but when they see their neighbors participating and getting results, it helps break that barrier down,” Lavender said.
Minneapolis police officials said they only began recording neighborhood-specific crime data in 1998, making it difficult to quantify the change in criminal activity.
But Krueger said the group was told crime rates had been dramatically reduced by the end of 1994. The decline came after a one-year increase in which people who had resigned themselves to crime suddenly felt as if they could speak up again, and began contacting police.
Michael Montrose, another Walker, doesn’t need statistics to tell him his neighborhood has improved. The clearest sign of progress, he said, has been audible.
“The measuring stick for me has been shots fired,” said Montrose, Shirley Montrose’s husband. “It used to be once a night, then it was down to once every couple of weeks and now you hardly hear them at all.”
The Montrose couple said they lived across the street from an active gang member, and frequently saw police chases course through their back yard.
But they became involved with the Walkers not because they were directly impacted by crime, but because they simply wanted to walk down the street without pausing to consider whether it was safe to do so.
Today, members are less likely to be interested in combating crime than they are in quality of life issues.
With crime down, the group focuses their attention on issues like trash and neglected properties. The group participates in coordinated 311 walks, which alert officials to problem sites in the community.
It’s also become something of a social club, where people get together to catch up with their neighbors.
“A lot of what the Walkers are about now is just interconnecting in a positive way,” said Michael Montrose.
That the group is now able to focus on such issues is a testament to just how far the neighborhood has come, said Hinds, of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.
“If you don’t start with people feeling safe, than you never get a chance to get people to invest in things like housing or their schools because they leave,” he said.
“It’s like an ecosystem. All parts have to be healthy for the whole thing to be healthy,” he said. “And safety is like clean water — it has to be healthy for everything else to grow and be healthy.’
Reach Drew Kerr at firstname.lastname@example.org.