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Inconvenient Youths
by Matt Snyders

Sitting on the front stoop of her home in north Minneapolis, Barb shares a mid-afternoon smoke with her friend, Latasha, and glares balefully across 26th Avenue at the boarded-up Big Stop convenience store.

Where there was once a thriving trade - both inside the store and out on the street - now nothing moves, save for a plastic bag that blows lazily along the curb like an urban tumbleweed. On June 1, the city flexed its bureaucratic muscles and shut down the establishment, citing drug deals taking place in its parking lot.

“Part of me wishes it was still open,” says Barb, who asked that her last name not be used. “Now I have to walk all the way up to Broadway if I need milk.”

“What we need are more police up in here,” Latasha says. “Closing that store only goes so far. The niggas are going to be right back here.”

Eight stores - five on the North Side and three on the South Side - have been shut down as part of the city’s ongoing effort to deal with so-called “problem properties”. Eleven more are operating under conditional licenses, which means proprietors have to sweep out the riff-raff or face closure.

“These stores have been natural hangouts for criminals and gangs,” explains Fifth Ward Council member Don Samuels. “It’s been an escalating problem. So we’re looking to put pressure on grocery-store owners to control the environment of their businesses.”

In January 2006, Samuels spearheaded the Grocery Task Force, a multi-department project that includes the Police Department, the City Council, and the City Attorney’s Office. City officials allege that the targeted stores fail to keep loiterers at bay, neglect to keep their premises clean, and sell “drug paraphernalia” - rolling papers, blunts, and tiny glass vases used as crack vials.

“We’ll continue down this path until the industry realizes that the benefits of running these kinds of stores are outweighed by the liability of being permanently closed,” pledges Samuels.

But critics say City Hall’s heavy-handed approach unjustly penalizes law-abiding store owners.
“It’s just ridiculous that they’re blaming the owners,” says Charlie Disney, (formerly) executive director of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. “The owners aren’t the criminals. The criminals are the criminals. But it’s easier for the city to go after business owners than it is for them to go after actual crime.”

Property rights advocates point to one case in particular as a poignant example of what they consider to be the Task Force’s less-than-upfront motives.

Ali Hassan Meshjell, an Iraqi immigrant, opened Uncle Bill’s in January 2006. Just three weeks later, the city sent him a letter threatening to revoke his business license, citing neighborhood complaints. But the city was unable to gather sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, despite stationing an undercover investigator at the store for 45 days.

Undeterred, the city moved forward to close Uncle Bill’s. Last April, former city Council president and current real estate lobbyist Jackie Cherryhomes approached Meshjell’s lawyers about establishing a buyout for the property. Meshjell’s lawyers put the price at $250,000.

Two weeks later, gunshots rang out a few blocks away from the store. No one was hurt, but the frightened neighborhood organized a block meeting to address concerns. At the meeting, Cherryhomes - a longtime political ally of Samuels - tried to whip up opposition to Uncle Bill’s, Meshjell says. “She was there with Mayor (R.T.) Rybak and Councilman Samuels talking about how my store was responsible for the shooting. They handed out fliers saying, ‘Vote to Condemn Uncle Bill’s.’ The whole point of the rally was to unite the community against me. I couldn’t believe it.”

Meshjell contends that Cherryhomes’ interest in his property has less to do with combating crime than with personal gain. Master Development, a real estate firm associated with Cherryhomes, has long been eyeing the property as a site for future development.

But Cherryhomes denies any ulterior motive.

“I’m supporting their plans as a concerned neighborhood resident and private citizen,” she says, when asked about her relationship with the firm, adding, “I’m not going to get into a he-said-she-said type of thing with (Meshjell).”

Records from a January 23 Economic Development Committee meeting suggest that the city would go to any length to put Uncle Bill’s out of business. The committee recommended enacting tougher sanctions and fines, noting that there would be “more pressure to sell if he is losing income” and if he “need(ed) to spend several thousand dollars to take care of violations.”

One June 1, the city cots its wish and closed Uncle Bill’s by citing fire-code violations. Meshjell claims the fire department inspectors acted as political pawns for Samuels and Cherryhomes. Samuels did nothing to ease these suspicions when he wrote in a June newsletter to Fifth Ward constituents, “Special thanks go to David Dewall and Jim Dahl of the Minneapolis Fire Department,” and that the effort to close the store “has been a long hard struggle with a well deserved outcome.”

Dewall claims there was no political pressure. “I was not necessarily approached by Samuels, no,” he says. Yet, when asked to describe the store’s code violations in specific detail, he doesn’t have an answer. “To be honest with you, I don’t know if I can,” Dewall says. “It’s all-encompassing when it comes to structural integrity. The main concern came from the overall impact of the structure as a whole.”

Meshjell hasn’t given up hope of reopening. Last week, he received a letter from the fire department informing him that his request for appeal was accepted. His court date is set for July 24.

“I’m going to do everything I can to get my business back,” Meshjell says. “If this happened back in Iraq, I would not be surprised. But this is America!”


Inconvenient Youths: The city says it wants to stop drug dealers by closing convenience stores, but owners see an underhanded form of eminent domain.” by Matt Snyders City Pages, July 4, 2007 p. 10 & 11

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Letters to the Editor in response to this article

“I think that the article written about Uncle Bill’s and the ‘problem stores’ in north Minneapolis was a great example of irresponsible journalism. Where are the neighborhood comments? Did you ask anyone who lives by Uncle Bill’s? The building was condemned! The building was in complete disrepair and the actual owner (not the person leasing for the ‘convenience’ store) was instructed to make repairs, but he did not.

You have to understand what is going on here. These tenants were actually allowing drug dealings to go on outside the store. How about calling 911? I guess the person who wrote this article would be a little more sympathetic if he lived around one of these places. And furthermore, the neighborhood organization that pushed the store closing is now in talks with some other store owners who run responsible businesses. People want a store, they just don’t want a drug dealers’ haven or prostitution hangout.

I personally have seen drug deals going down at Uncle Bill’s in the early morning, evenings, and even on Easter Sunday! You can’t get the cops there fast enough! You simply cannot make these judgments unless you are a neighbor.

Jackie Cherryhomes is a neighbor and really cares about changing the face of her community! We are all working very hard to change the North Side, and I personally don’t think that nay of us who are doing this really needed your banter.”

Margie Degen, Minneapolis

 

“We were so discouraged today reading the City Pages article ‘Inconvenient Youths’ by Matt Snyders about the convenience store issue, Uncle Bill’s, and Mr. Ali Meshjell.

We are 37-year residents of this area of north Minneapolis, and live two blocks from Uncle Bill’s convenience store. For a good part of those 37 years, the store and the building have been a light on our community. Previous owners have exploited poor and low-income residents by charging exorbitant prices for milk and bread, shortchanging children buying penny candy, selling cigarettes and blunts to underage youth, tolerating gang behavior, renting apartment to questionable tenants, turning a blind eye to prostitution and drug activities on the corner, and in general displaying a supreme disregard for nearby residents.

When Mr Meshjell leased the store from Bill Saningular in 2005, many of these problems increased in both the brazen attitude of the gangs hanging out in and around the store and in the number of serious occurrences. A simple check of the police and 911 calls for that period would tell the tale. Yet, what your reporter filed is simply a missed story of Uncle Bill’s and the many, many neighbors who fought for a peaceful, orderly community. While residents were interviewed for this article, in no part were these views and comments expressed or taken into account.”

George and Beverly Roberts, Minneapolis

 

“In the shabby, disgraceful treatment of the owner of Uncle Bill’s Food Market and similar cases, as well as in events centering in Washington, D.C., one sees the slow unraveling of that great experiment known as American democracy. We’re in the post-democratic phase now, with elected officials acting as tyrannically as the monarchs of old England.

The city of Minneapolis blamed the store owner for condoning crime. Yet, as your article points out, it failed to find evidence of this after 45 days of surveillance by an undercover investigator. The city blames the store owner for selling ‘drug paraphernalia’ such as blunts, yet the City Council lacks the courage to make sale of those items in the city illegal. We’re in a gray area here - an in-between zone - where property owners are punished administratively for laws not yet on the books. Punishment comes in the form of finding ‘code violations’ and closing a building down.

That’s what happened to Uncle Bill’s. The fact that many of these neighborhood grocery stores are owned by Iraqis or Arabs is also interesting. We speak of the need to win the hearts and minds of the moderate Arab population to establish democracy in the Middle East. What are the Arabs living in our midst? Did you know that one of the owners of a closed neighborhood grocery store in north Minneapolis, disgusted with what he found here, went back to Iraq? What testimony do you think he will give there of U.S.-style democracy when some of the biggest perpetrators of human-rights violations are working out of Minneapolis City Hall?”

William McGaughey, Minneapolis

 

Comments:

City Pages is a free-circulation newspaper in Minneapolis-St. Paul with a number of excellent writers on the staff - among them, Matt Snyders (who attended an MPRAC meeting) and, formerly, Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for screenwriting the film, Juno. It’s characteristic of Minneapolis politics that hardly disinterested “neighbors” are outraged when newspapers violate the party line in reporting events such as those that relate to the closing of Uncle Bill’s Food Market. It was an excellent article nonetheless.


Related web pages:

unclebill - story of the building owner, Bill Sanigular

conveniencestores - Don Samuels’ campaign against two other convenience stores that are now closed.

peacerally - How Bill McGaughey picketed a “peace rally” organized by Council Member Samuels to celebrate his destructive approach to combating crime

billsappeal - Bill Sanigular tries to appeal the decision to condemn his building.

mallofamerica - Reporter Matt Snyder demonstrates for property rights at Mall of America (facetiously, of course).

 

 

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