District Five holds community meeting to take action

About 80 people gathered Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Arlington Hills Lutheran Church to discuss ways to take action against violence in Payne-Phalen and surrounding neighborhoods. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Follow-up to “venting session” kept constructive

About 80 people showed up for a Thursday, Sept. 19, discussion about recent violence in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

The meeting came one month after a lively August meeting where community members erupted with emotions and concern about area violence, following the shooting death of 17-year-old Vincent Arron Allison by another teenager in a store parking lot, and the brutal beating of Raymond Widstrand, a young man who was attacked on a walk in his own East Side neighborhood.

The August meeting saw hordes of people, a handful of politicians, some fist waving and some venting.

“The show of concern was important,” said Leslie McMurray about the August meeting, but “it’s hard to get any in-depth conversation going” when there are 500 people present. McMurray is the executive director of the Payne-Phalen District Five Community Council.

So at the Sept. 19 meeting, rather than shout in a crowded room, attendees sat in small groups and discussed ways to take action to prevent future outbreaks of violence, and to improve the communities of District Five in general.

The meeting is the first of five designed to lead the community council’s decision-making process on what future steps to take.

“We feel that there’s momentum in the community” to brainstorm and take action, McMurray said.

Blue Wave

The meeting began with a bit of a reprise of the past meeting with assistant chief of police Todd Axtell talking about “Operation Blue Wave” wherein the department added 30 officers to the Eastern District forces. He said “Blue Wave” was a success, and explained the recent decision to pull back those added police, something that drew heat from residents.

One woman exclaimed, “Why don’t you just put a sign up on Payne Avenue” telling people there are no police?

“We continue to do the best we can with the resources we have,” Axtell responded.

East Sider Tom Russ spoke up about policing, suggesting the scope of the issue is much larger and complex.

“(The cops) are taking all the crap,” he said. “What about the rest of the parties involved?”

Breaking it down

McMurray listed off some of the elements at play, including teens and youth, landlords, police, area agencies, residents, schools, political leadership and local businesses.

“People are interested in a strong, safe, well-connected neighborhood for everybody,” she said.

As a means of introduction to that theme, the district council introduced Leila Paye-Baker from St. Paul Youth Services, who pitched a program the agency sponsors, where it trains adults to engage with youths in their neighbhorhoods.

McMurray explained that all of the “Bridge the Gap” meetings will highlight a relevant resource such as the adult mentor program.

The “Bridge the Gap” refers to “gaps in communication, between neighbors, gaps in policies,” McMurray said.

After an introductory presentation, residents split into small groups to discuss specific issues, and come back to the large group with action steps.

One of the small groups was tasked with discussing services available to teens. Among the group members was Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough and Merrick Community Services executive director Dan Rodriguez.

“Most of the kids on the East Side are good people,” Rodriguez said

He spoke of the difficulty in connecting troubled youths with resources.

“It’s not up to kids to know they need help,’ he said. “It’s also about parenting.”

Jim McDonough said the group needed to recognize the fact that “we have kids who won’t have parent involvement.”

Places for kids to go

Jon Vang told the community members that he remembers being a youngster roaming around the East Side. He and his friends would congregate at the Boys and Girls Club looking for things to do, he said.
“We just needed a place to go.”

He said they would also go to the Duluth and Case Rec Center. It was often understaffed, so the kids would just play basketball and do their own thing, he recalled.

He added that he wished there was a place in the Payne-Phalen area where kids who live in hunger could get free food, similar to the Wellstone Center on St. Paul’s West Side.

Jim McDonough questioned the city’s recent efforts to significantly change the operations at some neighborhood rec centers. He referred to the new Payne-Maryland project saying it’s “a great project,” but pondered the potential tradeoffs, considering the city’s move away from small neighborhood-centered recreation facilities.

The move to larger facilities “is well-intended,” he said, “but is that really the result we want?”

Eric Thompson, who works for the city parks and recreation department on the East Side, said he had concerns about larger recreation facilities as well.

“Large facilities don’t connect with the community,” he said.

He suggested that those providing services to kids ought to cater to their needs.

“We need to find out what they want to do,” he said, rather than adults telling them what to do.

Policing, housing

Another group discussed community policing. They concluded that “citizens don’t feel like they know their police officers,” according to the group’s spokesperson. The group suggested training more citizen-oriented police officers. The group recommended bringing in less intimidating officers in order to connect with kids.

East Sider Danette Allrich’s group talked about housing, and came to the large group with concerns about poorly maintained houses.

“We need to hold homeowners accountable to the city code,” she said.

McMurray said the district council was still going through written notes from the meeting.

Among the input she noted were the need for structured activities for teens, the role of rec centers, and the need for quality housing.

She said these points of concern would be starting points for future meetings.

“We will keep building on information at every meeting,” she said.

The next “Bridge the Gap” meeting takes place on Thursday, Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at the Arlington Hills Lutheran Church, 1115 Greenbrier St.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

Youth leaders

The Ambassadors for Youth Academy is an eight-week program that started Tuesday, Sept. 24, and lasts through Nov. 12 at the Arlington Hills Lutheran Church, 1115 Greenbrier St.

The classes cover a myriad of issues that youths experience and lead trainees to hash out their thoughts for how to engage youths, and then turn their ideas into real programming.

Some of the current programming available to area kids doesn’t necessarily fit their needs, said Leila Paye-Baker of St. Paul Youth Services.

So, she gave some examples of successful projects, including a man who volunteered at Boys Totem Town, sharing his experiences as a troubled teenager who turned his life around, all the while giving the detainees free haircuts.

Another project that she touted as a success was called “walk and talk,” where adult women would go on walks with girls in their neighborhoods. They would pick up trash and recycling, and talk about growing up and behaving responsibly. The money collected from the recyclables was used as a reward and paid for such things as a trip to the mall or a pizza party.


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