'This is not your grandfather's Minneapolis' City's idyllic image shattered by violence


MINNEAPOLIS -- This was a city that seemed to have all the answers.

Fortune 500 companies thrive in an atmosphere of Scandinavian-style social liberalism. Stillwater lakes give woodsy neighborhoods a fairy-tale look. Even the brutal Upper Midwest winters are made manageable, with elaborate glass skyways to protect downtown pedestrians.

It is a way of life, the Minneapolis Star Tribune once noted, that boosters regard as "superior to that in most places on earth."

But lately, this idyllic image has been shattered by violence, with gang turf wars and drive-by shootings on streets where children play games of kick-the-can.

A record 97 murders were committed in Minneapolis in 1995, at a rate at least 50 percent higher than in each of the past four years and worse than New York's.

Killings are running at a brisk pace again this year.

"What is happening to my Minneapolis?" asked Barbara Atlas, 42, who lives on Newton Street, where an 11-year-old boy was killed after being hit by stray bullets from a drive-by shooting earlier this month. A 22-year-old man on the block was shot dead a few days later.

"This was a place where people cared about each other, where you left the doors unlocked and let the kids play outside," she said.

Now there are T-shirts that read, "Murderapolis," and gallows humor about warning visitors from New York to be careful.

So polite it can sometimes be maddening, this has never been an in-your-face kind of place. Stoicism is a virtue in Minnesota, home of the fabled old Swedish farmer who loved his wife so much he nearly told her.

Finding similarities between Minneapolis and New York -- on murder, of all things -- would usually seem quite a stretch.

To be sure, Minneapolis has never been Lake Wobegon, the mythical small town of Garrison Keillor, who broadcasts his homespun radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," in neighboring St. Paul.

The metropolitan region -- with the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the suburbs that keep sprawling into farmland -- has a population of 2.3 million.

When it comes to stereotypes, for that matter, New York is not quite as tough as it is cracked up to be. It ranked 46th among American cities in its murder rate in 1994, the latest year for which nationwide statistics are available.

With 27.1 murders per 100,000 people last year, Minneapolis had a murder rate almost 70 percent higher than New York's rate of 16 per 100,000.

And far from the Twin Cities, there have been some shocking Minnesota murders.

In Sauk Centre, about 100 miles from Minneapolis, for example, a year-old man had a property dispute with neighbors earlier this month, then shot to death the entire family, the father, mother and their two children. He even shot their dog, before killing himself.

And about 80 miles south of the Twin Cities, Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic and a town that had not seen a murder in nearly three years, recently had three slayings in 24 hours.

In Minneapolis, the murders have often been linked to drugs, especially crack cocaine.

"The lads from Chicago are coming up here to sell their pharmaceutical products," Sgt. Charlie Miles of the homicide division said, referring to illicit drug dealers, "because they have seen Minneapolis as a new market for them."

People here tend to blame bad-apple newcomers from out of state for the trouble.

Sharon Belton Sayles, the city's mayor, has complained about people who are "liabilities" coming to Minneapolis.

In the neighborhoods, people often blame the state's comparatively generous welfare payments for attracting troublemakers.

"They call Minnesota 'Money State,' " Atlas said. "They come here for the welfare. And they bring all their problems with them."

But Emmett Carson, the president of the Minneapolis Foundation, which supports charities here, said welfare recipients had been made scapegoats.

"Much of this violence has been drive-by shootings, and that doesn't sound to me like welfare mothers," he said.

Instead, he pointed to the increasing disparity between the wealthy and poor here.

"This is not your grandfather's Minneapolis," Carson added. "There have been huge demographic shifts sweeping this city, and I'm not sure people are ready for it."

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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