Bringing together a diverse neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side

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St. Paul’s District 1 Planning Council faces the challenges of a diverse community spread over a wide area on the east side of the Mississippi. Some of the land lies along the river, and other neighborhoods are situated on high bluffs. Parts of the area almost have a suburban or country flavor about them while other parts are definitely city neighborhoods. Except for the apartment complexes, the neighborhoods are low density. With limited public transportation, it is hard to get around to the different parts of the area, making it difficult for transit-dependent residents who live in the higher density housing.

Sun Ray – Battle Creek – Highwood history

Native Americans were the first residents to live on the East Side of Saint Paul, which is now represented by the District 1 Planning Council. Indian burial mounds from 2000 years ago are in nearby Mounds Park , and one mound still exists in District 1 near Highway 61 and Burns Avenue.

In 1842 a territorial battle took place between the Dakota and Ojibwe people near a creek that flows from a lake in Maplewood to Pigs Eye Lake . That conflict gave one of the neighborhoods within the district the name of Battle Creek.

The first European settlers to come to the District 1 area were with the American Fur Company. They came in the 1830s and settled around Pigs Eye Lake. Early records show that some settlers came from other countries – Prussia, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, and Poland, while others relocated from places east of the Mississippi River.

Until recent years, residents of the area were predominantly white. Demographics today show that the population has changed dramatically in a short period of time as increasing numbers of African Americans, Hmong, and East African people have settled within the boundaries of District 1. Along with the shifts in ethnic distribution, the population shows a large number of young people and a large number of elders.

Income levels of the residents vary, ranging from pockets of people who are quite wealthy, to the middle class, to the very poor, many of whom are new to the country. Many of the more affluent residents are city employees, or retired 3M executives. 3M’s world headquarters in Maplewood, sits just across McKnight Road, from District 1.

Each of the neighborhoods within District 1 is distinct- and separate from the others. Wealthy homes are situated on the expansive, well-manicured lots; the three bedroom 1950s ramblers sit on small lots; and townhomes and high density low-income housing units complete the mix.

The District 1 Planning Council lies at the very southeast corner of Saint Paul. It is one of the four planning councils on the East Side of the city. Boundaries stretch from McKnight Road on the east to Minnehaha on the north, to the Mississippi River on the south, then southwest to Warner Road, then along Birmingham to Minnehaha. Interstate 94 runs west to east through the area.

Its neighborhoods include Eastview, Conway, Battle Creek, and Highwood Hills. Together Eastview and Conway are sometimes called Sun Ray, after the Sun Ray Shopping Center, along the interstate.

“I like my neighborhood, I like my neighbors”
JoAnn Clark and her husband arrived on the East Side on April 1, 1980. An employee of 3M, he had been transferred here from Memphis. They were among the first African Americans to live in that part of the East Side. Clark says, “ When I first moved here, there was maybe four or five African Americans.” Today she lives on what she describes as “probably one of the most diverse cul de sacs in the city.”

“I remember walking into a restaurant on the East Side,” Clark says, “and everyone turning to stare at me. That was the hardest thing about being out here.” She adds,“ For the first two years, I was here, I cried every night.”

Clark says that while it took awhile to be accepted, she has become involved in the neighborhood. She formed a close friendship with Lou Kanavati when he was the principal at Harding High School. She was the first African American to serve as president of Harding’s PTA.

Clark has been on the District 1 Council’s board of directors for longer than she can remember, but says it “must be over 15 years.” And what motivates her to stay so long? She says, “ I live in this community and I want to know exactly what’s going on.”

Over the years, Clark has seen changes in the businesses in the area, especially on Suburban Avenue , which runs alongside Interstate 94. She says that the businesses have changed. Now there is a pawn shop, and “ too many dollar stores in the neighborhood.” Yet, she says,“ With today’s economy, we need the dollar stores.”

Clark comments on the transit situation saying that although there is a transit hub at SunRay, public transportation is “real bad,” and doesn’t get her to every place in the neighborhood she needs to go.

In spite of what she sees as some of the challenges for her neighborhood, Clark says, “ I like my neighborhood… I like my neighbors.”

Issues faced by District 1
Betsy Leach, the community organizer for District 1, says that the council has addressed internal processes, financials, and the strategic plan. She says that it has been a challenge getting involvement from the “full diversity of the neighborhoods“ that make up the district.

Hanging in the District 1 office, a map prepared by the Metro Design Center clearly illustrates the race and income diversity of the district.

Phil Fuehrer, the secretary of the district council board of directors, has lived in the Highwood Hills neighborhood for the past 14 years, and has seen the changes taking place. He writes in an e-mail,
“District 1 is certainly one of the most dichotomous areas of Saint Paul. We still have a strong contingent of older blue-collar workers homeowner who are largely white on one hand, but a burgeoning shift of demographics with Asian and Somali populations that have really grown in the last 15 or so years.”

Fuehrer says that the area has a solid base of homeownership, “with more than our fair share of multi-unit housing.” He says, “We have that traditional 40-foot urban lot… as well as several hundred half acre suburban/country lots with 150 foot driveway, septic systems, well water, and propane tanks for heating.”

Doing business in District 1
Retail business is concentrated in the Sun Ray strip mall and around Suburban from Ruth Street to White Bear Avenue. Leach says that a newly-organized Business Leaders Group meets once a month to address issues of common concern and develop a plan for Suburban Avenue. There is concentration of fast food, including the first Sonic restaurant in the Twin Cities.

Fuehrer says he sees a bright future for the area and that staff and community volunteers have already built a strong foundation of community pride and have developed long-term plans for Suburban Avenue. He writes, “We also continue to see solid, new development such as the new LaQuinta Hotel remodeling, the Sonic Drive-In and the DaVita Dialysis retail center on Old Hudson road and White Bear Avenue.

Food security
This summer, an intern from HECUA (Higher Education Center for Urban Affairs, a non-profit consortium based in Saint Paul) began studying food security issues faced by residents in District 1. (Food security is a term that refers to the accessibility and affordability of food.) The district has two supermarkets – Cub Foods and the upscale Byerly’s, and some convenience stores. Residents who are new to the country and have limited resources have a difficult time finding the ethnic foods they are accustomed to. While Cub carries some ethnic foods, the only other place that those foods can be found is at a small convenience store located at Lower Afton Road and McKnight. Prices at the little store are comparable to the higher prices at Byerly’s.

Leach says that the council is still in the process of studying the food security issues, and points to the grocery carts abandoned around parts of the neighborhood as indicators of how serious the issue is. Shoppers use the carts to transport their groceries to their home, or to public transportation.

The district has neither a food shelf nor a farmers’ market. Leach says that some of the more affluent residents support the idea of a farmers’ market or a co-op.

Leach says that an Aldi’s Supermarket is coming at Suburban and Ruth, the site of a former restaurant and a service station.

JoAnn Clark says that she is delighted to see Aldi’s coming in, and that “I’ll be the first in line ” [when the new store is built].

Environment and a Park
The council also deals with environmental issues, especially at its southern end. The Highwood and Battle Creek neighborhoods are part of the National Great River Park, and there are development issues relating to the bluffs. An ongoing issue is the access to Pig’s Eye Lake.

Henry Park, is located along the river bluff in the Highwood Hills area, is the newest park in the city. The park is named for Henry Valilukas, a sculptor and environmentalist who lived on part of the land fro many years. Neighbors worked hard to acquire the park, which has yet to be developed. Neighbors are working together to clear the land of buckthorn and debris.

Mary Thoemke, Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.