Mpls. Moves a "Mountain" to Keep Teen Soccer Players Safe

Created: 11/10/2012 9:53 PM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer

They called it "La Montaña" (pronounced "la-moan-tanh-yah" in Spanish), or "The Mountain." It was an over-grown empty lot that doubled as a makeshift soccer field for some kids in north Minneapolis.

But in recent years, drug users and panhandlers moved in, and this playground turned into a danger zone.

Residents were initially hesitant to complain, but when they came together and took a stand, they found they could literally "move a mountain."

5 Eyewitness News first exposed the problem back in August. "Like you can see the garbage right here," said 14-year-old Fidencio Vazquez, pointing to beer cans, booze bottles, garbage galore, and much much more, hidden in the deep brush that surrounds the hill. It sits at the corner of 7th Street North and 11th Avenue North, right next door to the City View Apartments in the Heritage Park neighborhood. It's an area that's home to a large number of Mexican immigrants.

By the looks of it this summer, "La Montaña" had become "la fiesta" and residents said no one seemed to be able to stop the party.

Fidencio's cousin, 16-year-old Francisco Vazquez said, "You see condoms, beds, mattresses."

And Fidencio's 21-year-old brother Carlos added, "There are needles, and little bags of what drug dealers sell." He said he's even seen people passed out in the deep grass. "I thought they were dead," he said.

The kids who live at City View said all they wanted to do was play soccer there. The nearest "real" field is a 15 minute walk away.

Yet every day, they claimed dozens of indigent people, and others, used La Montaña as their personal illegal playground. 5 Eyewitness News watched as several people wandered in and out of the brush. Some had alcohol; at least one relieved himself in plain sight.

The residents said the homeless even asked little kids to fetch them food, or find them money.

Gabriela Vazquez, the sister of Fidencio and Carlos, added, "It's not safe because you don't know what's hiding underneath."

The hill was actually a huge pile of construction refuse that had been dumped on the lot over the course of several years. Dirt was later piled on top of it, and then the brush grew. Property records showed the land was owned by Heritage Housing LLC and that it owed the city several thousand dollars in fines for uncut grass, litter, and debris.

In a perfect world, residents said they wanted to see La Montaña leveled, flattened. "Because my kids might fall off the edge," said Gabriela, pointing over a steep incline of the hill.

They also believed that turning the mountain into, say, a molehill, would send a very clear message to those up to no good on the property: "Leave this place alone, leave the kids alone," said Carlos.

Five Eyewitness News then learned the site was in the process of foreclosure.

Jump ahead three months later and the city of Minneapolis says it has obtained access to the site for the purpose of cleaning it up. And they've done just that.

Today, the land is as flat as a pancake. Bulldozers sit atop it waiting to haul away the last few remaining piles of dirt and debris.

According to Don Samuels, 5th ward city councilman, "What this demonstrates is that when children take an interest to change the community it has an emotional impact. They were very persuasive and I was convinced to help them."

Of course, the clean-up comes at a cost to taxpayers: a couple hundred thousand dollars so far. But the kids say it's a small price to pay for their safety.

And neighborhood organizer Jay Clark added, "If maybe English is not your first language and you didn't grow up in the American system, you may not know how to access the resources to get things done. Hopefully that's part of what happened here--not simply that they knocked this mound of dirt down, which is great, but that they also learned some skills about what to do the next time they encounter another "La Montaña" or they see a stop sign that's a problem, or some other issue that calls for civic involvement."

Just two to-do items remain at the former "La Montaña" site: the city plans to plant grass there in a couple days. And then it wants to put up two goal posts, so the kids can play soccer on a level playing field--literally.

Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at msaxenmeyer@kstp.com