Today it’s light rail construction, but 40 years ago the residents of South St. Anthony Park faced disruptions associated with urban renewal. A major difference: back then, the very future of the neighborhood seemed in doubt.
In the book, St. Anthony Park: Portrait of a Community, published in 1987, author David Lanegran recounts how South St. Anthony Park lost dozens of homes to the construction of I-94 and Highway 280 and the development of industrial land in the 1960s. When federal funds became available late in that decade, the area was one of several targeted for projects by St. Paul’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority. It had become a mixture of commercial and industrial properties, intermingled with residential pockets.
To generate citizen input, the agency helped organize the South St. Anthony Project Area Committee. Committee members quickly became convinced that business interests and city officials were intent on increasing the tax base by converting still more residential property to industrial use.
“We were clearly on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak,” recalls Steve Flink, who initially was a member of the committee and later became its full-time employee. “The neighborhood seemed to be in decline. We’d lost two churches and Baker Elementary School was an outmoded facility. We felt vulnerable.”
Led by its president, Elizabeth Clark, the committee produced a document, “Battle Plan for Survival: Let’s Beat the Industrial Bulldozer (The Neighborhood Strangler).”
Clark died in 1976, but her daughter Kathy remembers that the idea that the neighborhood might be consigned to oblivion really energized her mother. “She learned a lot about the issues and really had a knack for getting people involved,” Kathy Clark says. “She used to say, ‘Stand for something or you’ll fall for everything.’ People respected her. Later, I think she felt that they may not have won all their battles, but they won some and the neighborhood is still here.”
Flink feels that the repurposing of the Baker School building, the establishment of the Hampden Park Co-op and the building of the Seal High-Rise and Hampden Square Apartments were important factors in preserving and revitalizing the neighborhood.
The South St. Anthony Park Recreation Center is dedicated to Elizabeth Clark and Flink recalls her speaking eloquently of the value of the neighborhood and its right to survive: “It’s as good for housing as it is for industry,'” she’d say. “I wish she were alive to see things like the housing developments on Franklin Avenue (Emerald Gardens) and on the old Johnson Brothers warehouse (Carlton Artists Lofts) site.
“With the light rail station at Raymond and University coming in,” Flink said, “I think you’re going to see a growing vibrancy in and around South St. Anthony Park.”
Roger Bergerson is a former newspaper reporter and Como Park resident who enjoys researching and writing about local history.