Mind your manners

Updated: April 26, 2007 - 2:08 pm

Downtown neighborhood leaders get serious about policing behaviors on city streets

Litterbugs and intimidating panhandlers have drawn the ire of hundreds of survey respondents who want to clean up Downtown behavior.

A survey at www.thedmna.org asking workers and residents about behavior they want to encourage and discourage has drawn at least 1,200 responses. DMNA member Tom Hoch, who proposed the survey, speculated that the most common responses will deal with bus stops, graffiti, civility, littering, panhandling, noise complaints and groups of people blocking sidewalk access.

“Cleanliness is way up there,” Hoch said. “A lot of people are referencing the broken window theory.”

The survey results, when compiled and reported, will become a “code of conduct” in the hands of local police officers, property owners and area judges. The results may also be posted around town and distributed on the streets.

The code of conduct is not the neighborhood’s first attempt to revitalize the Downtown atmosphere, but the document may have some teeth and set the agenda for a new initiative to tackle, such as littering.

Judge Richard Hopper of the 4th Judicial District handles many of the misdemeanor offenses Downtown. He said he could use the Downtown code of conduct when setting probation parameters.

“As far as judging a person’s conduct is concerned, the law of Minneapolis is the only thing I can take into consideration,” Hopper said. ”But I certainly would take [the code of conduct] into consideration when placing conditions on probation.”

He said conditions could include geographic and behavioral restrictions, such as prohibiting someone from drinking while on probation.

With a prison system operating over capacity and the prevalence of criminals committing more serious offenses, Hopper said there is no simple answer to livability crime, however.

Crime Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger said he would like to see community members take an active role in enforcing a code of conduct.

“In my own neighborhood, people rise and descend to others’ expectations of them — especially kids,” Krueger said. “Some people just need to be confronted.”

Hoch said community reinforcement could also help maintain cleanliness Downtown.

“When the cultural norm is that you don’t throw trash on the sidewalk, if you do litter, people scoff at it,” Hoch said. “The goal is to watch what we’re doing.”

Man on a mission

Tom Hoch is someone who takes personal responsibility very seriously. He has spent the past 10 years working on neighborhood initiatives to preserve Downtown theaters, clean up the streetscape and improve the theater district atmosphere. He can be found picking up trash or directly confronting people who cause a disturbance. He helped launch a new streetscape design on Hennepin Avenue between 5th and 10th streets. He traveled to Chicago to research unifying design elements and returned home to host slide presentations about his findings.

“All I’m doing is what anybody should do,” Hoch said. “I pick up trash, and I investigate things when they seem not quite right. … It’s as much my street to do good on as it is somebody else’s to do bad on.”

Hoch came to the Hennepin Theatre Trust 10 years ago after working for 13 years with the city’s Public Housing Authority and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. A campaign to save the Mann Theatre engaged his first day of work on Aug. 5, 1996, because the owner of the building had applied for a demolition permit.

“I thought if we’re going to create a theater district, the worst thing we could do would be to tear it down,” Hoch said. “There was not a lot of sentiment to save it, but for some reason we were able to turn the elected officials around.”

Hoch also participated in the restoration of the State Theatre and the acquisition and operation of the Orpheum Theatre.

During his early days of work on Hennepin Avenue, Hoch said he was appalled by the street’s condition.

Feeling compelled to act, Hoch helped raise money for an architectural rendering of what a renovation of the street could look like. The city agreed to assess property owners up to $3.6 million to pay for new double globe acorn lights, trees, benches and sidewalk paving stones.

The project was not easy. Contractors needed to navigate “areaways” beneath the sidewalks that were originally used to deliver coal and merchandise to businesses. Materials were primarily chosen off the shelf to cut down on costs, and bright lighting recommendations were not immediately popular with everyone.

“HGA [Hammel, Green & Abrahamson Architects] deserves the credit for doing the best they could with a difficult challenge,” said Frank Martin, a landscape historian who served as consultant on the project. “I think it aged pretty well, and I hope they continue to invest and pick up litter.”

Architect Phillip Koski, who also helped design the streetscape, said some design elements have deteriorated since its installation about three years ago. Some trees are withering for lack of water, and the new trash cans were supplemented with standard garbage hauler bins for automated collection. Cars have run into some of the new planters, and skateboarders have cracked others.

Koski said Hennepin Avenue could benefit from more frequent cleanings, such as those conducted by the Nicollet Mall Advisory Board.

Tackling the ‘hassle factor’

Police and neighborhood leaders say they are increasing focus on the “hassle factor” because those are common offenses that make locals feel unsafe. In addition, city ordinance violations like littering can create the impression that the community doesn’t care what happens on the streets.

“I have to believe that if we let livablity crimes go unchallenged, that would create an environment where more serious things occur,” Hoch said.

Krueger said he is hopeful that a code of conduct would be an eye-opener for the community.

“For people who always had the sense that they shouldn’t have to put up with this, now they will know,” Krueger said. “The gray area is much more clearly defined.”

A code of conduct is not the first neighborhood initiative to improve Downtown, and it may serve as the launching point for yet another strategy to boost the quality of life here. But after 10 years of work, Hoch isn’t deterred by the thought.

“The thing I’m surprised about is that I’m willing to do this over and over,” he said. “The fact that there are challenges merely means there are opportunities. I honestly feel that way. Cities are never finished — they are never done. They are moving in one direction or the other. I have an opportunity to influence the way it moves.”

Michelle Bruch can be reached at 436-4372 or mbruch@mnpubs.com.