How can calling 311 help our neighborhood?

I grew up in rural Iowa. The closest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away. We rarely had to deal with neighborhood conflicts.

I also grew up with seven siblings. We were a neighborhood in one house. However, we were also bunkmates, and there were plenty of property line arguments between my sister and me.

When I finished high school, I got married and moved to Albuquerque, NM. As my first husband was in the Air Force, we lived on Kirtland Air Force Base. The rules for living in base housing were very strict, and they were enforced consistently. Any complaints were generally reported to the airman’s commanding officer, who made it clear to the airman that he/she would not let that happen again, or else. Period. 

I’ve lived in the Lind Bohanon neighborhood for seven years now, with diverse neighbors and small lots.  Overall, it has been a wonderful experience – with those scattered episodes of disappointment and frustration. Given that my husband – a Marine – has lived in this neighborhood for 30 years, he has learned about navigating the city services when finding problems like “outsider” trash dumped in our alley. 

To help others within our collective neighborhoods, I’m providing some insight into finding the right assistance.

When do I use 311, and when do I use 911?

Call 911 whenever a response from police, fire or ambulance is needed. Examples of proper use of 911 includes emergency situations (such as fires and violent crimes) and other situations requiring a response from police, fire or ambulance (such as disturbances from loud parties, suspicious activity like prowlers or suspected drug dealing). For all other city services, call 311. [ or search for Minneapolis 311 FAQs].

There are any number of reasons a resident might need to call 311. It is important to understand that some calls will result in a letter to the homeowner/renter; therefore, it may be helpful to consider talking with your neighbor first.

If you have never had a conversation with your neighbor, try to establish a connection.  Ask them about their garden or car or the Twins chances this season. Try to find some common ground before sharing your observations. Learning your neighbor’s story might change your perspective. If not, it will hopefully help you identify the best way to speak with them. Expressing frustration with the situation may not be well received; telling them instead about your 2-year-old needing his daily nap (and Mom too) gives them knowledge that might change their perspective. Think about how you would want someone to approach you with the same issue.

A common conflict relayed to 311 can be about “noise”:

  • Playing music outdoors – this can cause frustration based on the volume level, the genre of music, the words used in the lyrics, or the time of day it can be heard.  Sometimes it’s all four.
  • Barking dog(s) – if a dog barks at every squirrel, bird, and person that is seen, and this happens late at night or early in the morning and wakes up members of your home, or continues for an extended period of time, lost sleep can create conflict.
  • Wind chimes or other yard noise-makers – for some, the constant “tinkling” or “clanging” of metal wind chimes can drive them crazy. For others, it’s a soothing background sound. 
  • Excessively loud vehicles or power tools or activities can be very distracting, especially in these days of working from home with virtual meetings and conference calls, or teaching your child the new way to multiply numbers.

Other situations that can cause conflict are smells from back yards or garbage cans, lack of lawn or tree maintenance, vehicles not moved for snow emergencies, and trash cans overflowing or others putting hazardous materials in your garbage can.

Back to the issue of communication: If you’ve had previous non-confrontational conversations with your neighbors, the door may be open to a request to take down the wind chimes or not using the table saw at 10 p.m. Take the time to ask questions first about the irritant:  is there a sentimental attachment to an outdoor adornment or an urgency in the woodworking project. You may learn that those are grandma’s chimes, or that table saw is enabling your neighbor to earn much needed dollars to pay for medicine. And if you are definitely not prepared to communicate face to face, remember this: it is always better to be calm when clicking on the send icon or leaving a voice message. Trust me!

With communication being the best course of action, if you are concerned about erratic behavior from someone in your neighborhood, it is best to let the professionals handle the contact. This is where our 311 services are most valuable. There are city ordinances against not mowing the lawn and/or not shoveling the sidewalk; there are noise ordinances and laws against blocking the street with a vehicle. If your neighbor does this and you are concerned the neighbor would become violent if approached about it (or take retribution later), then call 311 and have them enter a request for intervention from the appropriate city department. 

Most importantly, as the FAQ above makes clear, if there is any indication of violence, a crime being committed, or drug dealing happening on your street, call 911. Write down any information you can about vehicles, people, etc. to provide to the police.

Many of us have spent more time in our homes than we ever thought we would in a 12-month stretch.  Hearing the Today Show’s morning boost or local stories about people helping strangers are so welcome these days. Seeing neighbors in the hospital or struggling to get the snow drift cleared after the alley plows come through remind me that we can help each other in different ways. And nothing builds a strong community better than chipping in when help is needed.