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Remembering Chuck Mesken (Mayor Rybak's Step-Father)

(Based on Charlie Disney's Recollections)

   

In recent months, residents of three wards in north Minneapolis have been stunned by aggressive Inspections moves against homeowners and landlords judged guilty of allowing long grass and weeds to grow in their yards, tolerating rotten or unpainted window trim, and other “livability” offenses. Police have been assigned to catch speeders on city parkways at a time when speedy bullets fired by career criminals fly through the air in certain neighborhoods striking innocent people. The mayor and city council have issued strict orders to crack down on negligent, though financially challenged, property owners by issuing more Inspections citations and granting fewer extensions.

Between sharply rising property taxes and extracted fees, the city’s hard-pressed middle class is being pressed into the role of “cash cow” for Minneapolis city government, causing some to flee to outlying areas. If present trends continue, we in the state’s largest city may consist more and more of an indigent class and the well-paid professionals who serve them in government agencies and social-service nonprofit organizations.

Mayor R.T. Rybak talks of upholding “community standards” in housing, but there is no implied “social contract” that city residents maintain their buildings at a certain level of repair beyond what is required for health and safety reasons. In fact, the city’s inspections department isn’t even properly chartered; it is technically illegal. Most city residents are willing to do what is reasonably required to have well-kept neighborhoods but they are not willing to become unpaid laborers with endlessly elastic obligations just because they happen to live in the city, especially if revenue raising for city government is the object.

Do our city’s elected officials have any sense of what they are doing? Have they any compassion for the city’s hard-working middle class or is “the (inspections) lash” the way they think they must deal with their constituents except at election time? Rybak ought to know better. In fact, he did once know better because, as he himself said several times when he was first running for office, he absorbed the lessons of living in poor, inner city neighborhoods from his own parents in discussions held around the dinner table.

R.T.’s mother, Lorraine, operated a drug store with her husband, the mayor’s biological father, near the intersection of Chicago and Franklin - on the north side of Franklin about a half block east of Chicago Avenue. On the south side of Franklin, right across the street from the drug store, were some rental properties owned and managed by Chuck Mesken. R.T.’s father suddenly died, leaving his mother with a drug store to run and three children (all boys) to raise. Fortunately, Chuck Mesken entered her life. He and Lorraine married. She went on to become a counselor at Breck School, and the two of them raised the three boys.

The story of how Chuck and Lorraine became romantically involved is quite touching. Lorraine’s drug store was robbed several times. One day, after such a robbery, Lorraine became so despondent that she walked by herself down Franklin Avenue, visibly upset. Chuck Mesken spotted her and became worried. He drove slowly down Franklin Avenue just behind Lorraine, asking her several times if she was all right. Lorraine kept putting him off but Chuck persisted. Finally, Lorraine broke down. She got in the car with Chuck and had a long discussion with him about the robbery and other matters. That’s how their relationship began. I know this story is true because I heard it myself from R.T.; and Charlie Disney heard the same story from Chuck Mesken.

What kind of a man was Mesken? Charlie Disney, founder of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, knew Chuck Mesken over a period of perhaps fifteen years. They were fellow landlords who had become acquainted through a plumber named Bill. Charlie, then a new landlord, found Chuck to be knowledgeable about the rental-property business and also unusually generous with his time. Charlie often called Chuck for advice. The two were also part of the crowd that hung out at Welna hardware store at 2438 Bloomington Avenue.

Chuck Mesken had been in business for almost 45 years when Charlie Disney became acquainted with him. At one time, he owned 80 to 90 rental units, concentrated in the Phillips neighborhood, but found it difficult to manage that many. So he cut back. When Mesken started in the business, he was one of the youngest landlords in that part of the city; when Disney met him, he was one of the oldest or most experienced.

Mesken’s properties were mostly duplexes and triplexes, but he did own one apartment on Portland Avenue with more than a dozen units. Two professional men, perhaps employed at Control Data, bought this property from him on a contract for deed. After owning the apartment building for ten years and paying regularly on the contract, they came to Mesken one day and announced that they were giving the property back to him. They found tenant problems too difficult to handle.

According to Disney’s recollection, R.T. Rybak publicly questioned his former step-father’s diligence or skill in managing his properties. Disney thinks this show the ignorance of the political class. In his opinion, Chuck Mesken was one of the best managers in the business. The fact that he operated a successful rental-property business for more than fifty years without subsidy in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods shows that he knew what he was doing.

Charlie Disney regarded Mesken as his mentor. One of Mesken’s principles was that it was important for landlords to show tenants that they cared about their properties. That meant that they should visit the properties every day, inspecting such things as the garbage containers. Chuck Mesken carried oversized business cards on which he wrote messages to the tenants. He used to take pride in doing the plumbing work himself but in later years had to rely more on hired help.

Some in Phillips neighborhood organizations vilified Chuck Mesken as a manager because they wanted to take his properties. He successfully resisted. While he was on top of maintenance and tenants problems, he did not charge top-dollar rents. Mesken kept the rents low for tenants such as elderly women who could not afford them. Contrary to stereotypes about landlords, he was not driven to become rich. He was interested in the tenants as people. He knew that operating a business in poor neighborhoods required a realistic approach.

Mesken ran his business out of the basement of the building across from the Rybak drug store. One of his hobbies was collecting antique door knobs taken from Minneapolis buildings that had been demolished. Mesken was shocked at how Franklin Avenue had deteriorated during his life time. It had been a solidly middle-class neighborhood when he started out in business but had become an urban ghetto.

Chuck Mesken told Disney he felt guilty that he had played a part in closing down the liquor store at Franklin and Chicago Avenues. After it was torn down, drug dealers simply replaced the drunks. He said he would rather have the liquor store back than subject the neighborhood to this.

Mesken faulted Minneapolis Inspections for its tougher enforcement in poor neighborhoods such as Phillips rather than in the more affluent parts of town including the area near Lake Harriet where he and his wife lived. He also was critical of the cozy relationship between the city and non profits. He had to buy his properties but the city was selling its inventory to housing non profits for $1.00. Often these organizations would go bankrupt.

Toward the end of his life, Chuck Mesken wanted out of the real-estate business. The tragedy is that housing prices had plunged to an extremely low level when he was ready to sell. Mesken offered to sell duplexes to Charlie Disney for $2,000 to $4,000. Some, however, were on lots twenty feet wide and had primitive heating systems. Charlie declined because he was worried that Inspections would force him to make expensive alterations.

Chuck Mesken was a financial supporter of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee who wished to keep a low profile. He never came to meetings but often gave Disney money to support its operations. He thought the Property Rights group had made a difference in Minneapolis politics; inspectors were not targeting “problem properties” so aggressively.

Mesken did not live to see his step-son elected mayor of Minneapolis. Being protective of his family, he also kept secret his relationship to R.T. Rybak, who at the time was publisher of the Twin Cities Reader. Mesken supposed that Disney would immediately try to contact Rybak if he knew of that connection. Only after the Reader folded in the aftermath of the merger with City Pages did Mesken tell Disney, with a twinkle in his eye, that Rybak was his step-son. He did consider this particular step-son to be quite liberal - not the type to hit it off with Disney.

Charlie Disney considers Chuck Mesken to have been “very much a gentleman” who was also quite smart from a business standpoint. It is people like him (and wife Lorraine and her first husband) who, as small business people, were the backbone of the city’s middle class and its unsung heroes.

It’s too bad that R.T. Rybak, in his second term as mayor, has fallen into the mode of taking resources out of this group instead of encouraging their continued presence in the city. The big developers, politicians, grant writers, foundations, non profits, neighborhood associations, educational institutes, media people, and others for whom work often consists of making bullet-point presentations have created a new model of housing policy that has little room for these old-style business practitioners (such as his own step-father) who met people’s real needs.

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