A Theater District’s Bad Stretch of Bad Actors

It was encouraging to read in the Star Tribune on Tuesday (April 4) that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, along with the CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, the CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and other city leaders had implemented a new plan to “make sure that Hennepin Avenue is, and feels, inviting, welcoming, and safe for everyone from every neighborhood, at every time of day.”

To its credit, the plan has a lot of moving parts, including increased presence of Minneapolis and Transit police officers as well as Hennepin County deputies; greater involvement of civic organizations such as MAD DADS and Summit Academy; and welcomed support of proposed legislative changes that would “allow officers to enforce court orders to restrict some criminal defendants from being in areas where they have repeatedly offended, including downtown.”  (A good question is why officers don’t already have the right to do so.)

The five signers of the op-ed acknowledged the initiative was made necessary because of “frustration and anger” caused by an “increase in individuals engaging in behaviors on Hennepin Avenue – like public intoxication, fighting, catcalling and, at times, worse – that are unpleasant, unwelcoming, and leave people feeling unsafe.”

I concur with their observations.  And while I would have used more pungent language in the op-ed, I appreciate how difficult it is to keep all parts of reasonably big cities “inviting, welcoming, and safe,” as they wrote, when significant portions of people who show up and hang out have no interest whatsoever in helping matters.  Quite the opposite.

Still, doubts about success are inescapable.

For upwards of 20 years, American Experiment’s headquarters were at the corner of Sixth and Hennepin.  Conditions were such during our time there that, in 2009, I had my own op-ed in the Star Tribune which – as with the piece the paper ran this week – talked about people often not feeling particularly comfortable up and down Hennepin Avenue.  Again, quite the opposite.

At the risk of quoting myself in more than one paragraph, I wrote back then: “What kind of offensive behavior am I talking about?  Assaults and other violent crimes, needless to say; the kinds that get people hand-cuffed and hauled off in big public displays. . . . But in many ways, the most damaging behavior has less to do with actual violence than with its seeming imminence, the root of which is vulgarity.”

What kinds of vulgarities was I referring to?  “Not just rough manners, but crude manners.  Not just bad language but foul language.  Not just panhandling, but in-your-face panhandling. . . .  Not just innocently flirting, but treating women and girls atrociously.”

A fair question now: With so many smart and influential city officials, business leaders, and others having worked hard to change things (and they have been working earnestly), why does walking up and down Hennepin Avenue remain akin to navigating a gauntlet more than every once-in-a-while?

As noted above, I haven’t worked at Sixth and Hennepin, or anyplace downtown, for a few years.  Also, frankly, I started picking up a sense, starting around 2010, that atmospherics on the block improved somewhat.  I wanted to write a follow-up column during that period, noting what I hoped was a promising fact, but I’m afraid I never got to it.  But even if Hennepin Avenue had become a sunnier place, especially at night, in the early years of this decade, it’s not now.  Not to mention bullets regularly ringing out, killing and maiming people, in the Warehouse District that starts across the street.

One of the things I noted eight years ago was that I knew any number of women (as well as men) who reported feeling a lot less comfortable on Hennepin Avenue than on other signature streets such as Fifth Avenue in New York, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and Connecticut Avenue in Washington.  These are not attractive comparisons.

In regards to “signature streets,” Nicollet Mall is arguably a bigger and classier one, at least when it’s not ripped up.  But Hennepin Avenue is the Twin Cities’ biggest theater district, making it an especially bad stretch for bad actors.

I’m pleased Minneapolis leaders are expanding and reinforcing their efforts to reclaim Hennepin Avenue and environs.  Their new strategy is more robust than what has been pursued before.  They deserve credit.  But three serious, not rhetorical or unfair questions with which to evaluate progress in coming months and years.

In proudly showing off the city’s many impressive sights, how eager might you be to take a springtime stroll down Hennepin Avenue some evening with your ten-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter?

What about inviting your 85-year-old grandparents along?

Or would you rather just walk around your block until Hennepin Avenue is demonstrably liberated for all to confidently see and enjoy?

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.