Eyewitness News Special Report: Uneasy Street

Updated: 04/09/2014 11:22 AM
Created: 05/14/2013 10:00 PM
By: Alan Hoglund

Emergency vehicle sirens blaring, a bus leaving its stop and a coffee company brewing a fresh cup are all sounds you might expect to hear on a typical busy and bustling downtown street.

But on two blocks of downtown Duluth's Superior Street, the word "typical" just doesn't seem right. From Lake to 2nd Avenue East, senses are heightened and apprehension is growing.

"[It is] kind of scare because you don't know what is going to happen," said Melisa Behrendt, a 4-year employee of the Chinese Dragon of Duluth.

We hear similar stories from several other business people. An elderly women said she doesn't go out at night and a bus rider told us he finds people "up to no good" hiding in corners.

Eyewitness News wanted to see it firsthand. We spent several days on the street over the course of more than a week. A boatload of quarters later, their stories make sense and some are hard to believe.

Dave Jouppi co-owns Old Town Antiques & Books with his wife, Carol. On the corner of Superior and 1st Avenue East, it's marked by a blue awning. Jouppi told us he has seen "people throwing up and defecating on the side of the street."

Just outside Jouppi's door, he said "alcoholics are here in the bus stop. They're throwing up and urinating."

Among the half-dozen businesses we interviewed, there is agreement that the Last Place on Earth and its sale of synthetic drugs is at the heart of the behavior. But Jim Carlson, the shop's owner, says they're wrong.

We asked Carlson whether he felt that was an unfair judgment on their part. He said "I think it is. I don't know why my people are making them feel any more uneasy than the liquor store or the bar."

Carlson points to alcohol and hard drugs as the reason for criminal activity and fear. "No matter what they're on I get blamed for it."

But Carlson admits heavy traffic to his shop does draw people looking for a handout. "Panhandlers go where they can make the most money and where there are the most people. I don't like them hanging around out front."

And it can be intimidating. Rosalie Sullivan, in her late 70s, lives at the Greysolon. She told us she won't go out after dark. "I don't want to become a statistic...people ask you for money and get hostile if you don't give them any."

We wanted to try measuring the problem. Eyewitness News obtained records of police calls to Superior and Michigan Streets between Lake and 2nd Avenues East. In 2008 there were 80 police calls, January through March. By last year that number jumped to 292. This year it had grown yet again to 630.

It was 2009 when Carlson said he started selling synthetic marijuana.

But he said calls are up because police are out to make a case. "I think the bottom line is the police went to the neighbors and told them to call on any little thing," he said.

Court ordered, Carlson pays for two officers to be present from dawn until dusk. He told us it costs him about $35,000 each month.

We police in action dealing with alleged drinking in public. Just behind our news truck, a young man shouted "search me, search me" as two men were handcuffed by police.

"I don't have nothing in my pocket," he yelled.

One of those men tracked us down after police let him go with a ticket. He asked "do you got a cigarette? Give me a cigarette and maybe I'll feel better about talking to you."

The man didn't want to talk at first, but later agreed. We never gave him a cigarette.

Reading off of his ticket he said "alcohol in public. Statute ordinance 822 whatever the **** that means."

He admitted to drinking on the street, but told us he didn't do anything wrong.

During our week on the street we caught several arrests on camera, and what we saw didn't surprise those who work downtown. Glass Blower Dan Neff, the owner of Lake Superior Art Glass, described fights, loitering and people high on drugs or drunk.

"A lot of intoxicated people. I call the cops at least once a month on someone who is too intoxicated to even stand."

Neff said some people refuse to leave his shop. "I've also had belligerent people in the shop tweaked out of their minds and I've actually had to physically remove a few of them."

As they and police fight to remove these problems, there is a lot at stake. Downtown Duluth is a tourist destination where businesses and those who live and work there are trying to thrive. To do that they want to make sure Superior Street isn't one to avoid.

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