St. Paul’s District 6—From polkas to persimmons

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It’s Sunday afternoon on Rice Street, and the old-timers flock into Tin Cup’s Lounge and Restaurant at Rice and Maryland. One woman in the crowd describes the crowd as “everybody’s grandma and grandpa.” They come to hear the lively polka music of Roger Van Horn’s one-man polka band. They’re here to eat, to visit, to dance the polka, and to sing along. In the same little shopping mall two doors away, at the Double Dragon Supermarket, Hmong families load up their vans with bags of rice, crates of persimmon, and fresh tilapia. This is Rice Street today.

Other articles in this series:
Spotlight on St. Anthony Park Community Council by Katrina Plotz
It’s all about building community—Thomas Dale District 7 Planning Council by Mary Thoemke

What are District Councils?
by Katrina Plotz
St. Paul, noted for its unique neighborhoods, has been called “the city with fifteen small towns and one mayor.” In fact, St. Paul has not fifteen but seventeen city districts, each with its own District Council. The size of the organization and method of operations varies according to each council’s articles of incorporation and bylaws. Each District Council is a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation with a few paid staff and elected board members who volunteer their time in service of the community.

As an independent organization, each District Council hires its own staff members, including an executive director and/or community organizer, clerical assistance, and a crime prevention coordinator. District Council employees are not city employees. The amounts the city provides the District Councils are calculated on a formula which includes a base amount of $30,000 per district, and then adjusted for population and percent of poverty. Individual allocations average in the range from $33,000-$44,000. A formal City/Agency agreement is required, which includes goals and objectives, work plans, and an evaluation component. City-provided dollars typically help finance staff, office space, supplies, and communications. Citizen participation financing is provided from city general funds, and the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.

Most District Councils are active fundraisers, with many receiving substantial foundation and corporate support. In addition, some organizations receive additional city support for neighborhood development activities through citywide competitive processes.
When District Councils were first established in 1975, an early notification system resolution was also passed. This mechanism requires city departments and agencies to notify district councils, neighborhood organizations, and individual residents of pending city actions that will affect them.

District Councils plan and advise the city on the physical, economic, and social development of their area, as well as on citywide issues. In addition, Councils identify neighborhood needs, initiate community programs, and recruit volunteers. Each neighborhood office serves as an information and referral resource. District Councils inform residents through community newspapers, neighborhood newsletters, flyers, and community events. Each board member is part of a committee focusing on specific issues such as land use, environment, community connections, and crime prevention.

This article is the second in a Daily Planet series on the District Councils of St. Paul. Previously, Mary Thoemke wrote about District 7.

Rice Street is the main commercial corridor that runs within the boundaries of the District 6 Planning Council—which includes the North End and South Como neighborhoods. Those boundaries are Larpenteur Avenue, the Burlington-Northern tracks, Lexington Parkway, Dale Street, and Interstate 35E. Within those boundaries, the community has developed a unique tradition of joining forces to face challenges together as the neighborhood has evolved and changed.

History

Originally settled in the mid- to late 1880s by European-American immigrants, the North End/South Como community is one of the neighborhoods that immigrants continue to choose as their first place of residence in the city. The neighborhood continues to become more culturally diverse, with the white population decreasing from 75% in 1990 to 55% in 2000. Significant numbers of Latinos now live in the neighborhood, along with Southeast Asians and people of African descent. Among the newest arrivals are the Karen, who have come from Mynamar (formerly Burma). According to the 2000 census, nearly half of the children in District 6 live in homes where English is not the primary language. Through the years, the community has remained a blue collar neighborhood, with incomes generally below the median level for the Twin Cities.

Preceding the founding of the District Council, the North End Community Organization (NECO) was established in the early 1970s and brought together local groups and faith communities. Alarmed at the increasing number of teenage pregnancies and the inadequate health care for residents of the neighborhood, NECO was instrumental in the founding of the North End Health Center (now Open Cities), a community clinic located at Rice and Manitoba. NECO began publishing a non-profit community newspaper, the North End News, in the early 1970s. It later operated as a separate entity and was distributed door-to-door until February 2007, when it suspended publication for economic reasons.

Today: A multitude of challenges

Today the District 6 Planning Council collaborates with community partners to address the multitude of challenges in the neighborhood. Those partners include Sparc (the local non-profit community development corporation), the North End Business Association (NEBA), the St. Paul Police, and other organizations.

Old-timers fondly remember shopping at the Muntean-Hedman Department store. They remember the crowded store that was the place to get their school clothes and shoes. Across the street, North End Machine sold appliances and provided reliable repair service. Rice Street, as a business corridor, was left behind when the freeways came and residents could drive to discount chain stores like Kmart, Target, Rainbow, and Cub. Twenty years ago, major efforts were made to revitalize the deteriorating Rice Street. The Renaissance of Rice Street, as it was dubbed, made a difference for some time, as business owners received assistance in making façade and other improvements.

Now the tough economic conditions and quality-of-life crimes—including prostitution and drug use—have caused some businesses to relocate, while others just shut their doors for good. Along Rice Street, south of Front Avenue, many storefronts are empty with large For Sale and For Rent signs. As of February 2008, 1,625 buildings were listed as vacant in the city of St. Paul—over 300 of those are in District 6.

Alarmed at the disinvestment in the neighborhood, business people and residents came together again recently to form the Rice Street Action Team (RSAT). Additional heavy enforcement efforts were carried out by St. Paul police. In a joint project, District 6 and its partners cover the cost of cell phones for the Rice Street Beat officers Chad Koch and Sid Rioux, giving business owners direct access to them.

Invest Saint Paul in the North End

A year ago, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced the Invest Saint Paul (ISP) Program, and the North End is one of the neighborhoods that is scheduled to benefit. According to Kerry Antrim, Executive Director of District 6, ISP does not provide “new money,” but it will direct existing city resources in a different way. Antrim says that the North End neighborhood was chosen to participate “due to the many foreclosures, vacancies and quality-of-life concerns. In order to implement ISP, District 6 has co-hosted community meetings with Sparc. In close partnership with Sparc, we have created a work plan and set priorities.”

Invest Saint Paul will be carried out in three target areas within the North End. The focus area is adjacent to the $12 million mixed-use Winnipeg Project at the intersection of Rice and Winnipeg. Sparc has done research on the four-block focus area, identifying owners of the buildings and noting the deterioration of the homes and businesses. Branden Pedersen is Neighborhood Safety Coordinator for District 6. He is going door-to-door in the larger target area, surveying residents.

The ISP target area is the same one that was determined most in need of rehabilitation in the early 1970s. Despite numerous efforts, housing stock continued to deteriorate. Latest estimates put housing in District 6 at 60% rental and 40% owner-occupied. Sparc will work to identify landlords and assist them with the rehab process. Jonathan Sage-Martinson, executive director of Sparc, points to the Tenant Remedy Action law—already on the books—that now can be used only with occupied buildings that have unresolved code violations. As it stands now, all the city can do is tag or tear down. The new strategy will seek city funding “for key vacants to assist with rehab,” says Sage-Martinson.

As ISP is carried out, Sparc is handling the investment strategies that include both home improvement and commercial lending—which will offer a variety of low interest and deferred loans. Sage-Martinson admits that, “We’re trying to have something to offer everyone.”

Sage-Martinson says, “It’s been a tremendous partnership working with District 6. The number of things we‘ve worked on closely has been good for the neighborhood. I’m looking forward to working on Invest Saint Paul and other initiatives in the future.”

District 6 will continue to hold quarterly meetings to engage residents and business people. With respect to all of the planning and new strategies, Antrim notes that, “We use the District 6 Comprehensive Plan and the design guidelines that were developed several years ago. A lot of people worked very hard on that plan and the guidelines.”

Along with the Invest Saint Paul Plan, District 6 is working to establish a policy of not building on “tiny lots.” This means no new construction on lots of substandard size. Also, if a duplex is demolished on a non-conforming lot, it has to revert to single-family zoning: the lot cannot be “grandfathered in” for the construction of another duplex.

Renewed optimism in the community

In spite of the many problems in the neighborhood, there is a new sense of optimism in the community. After being closed for nearly a year due to damage caused by a frozen water pipe, Mama’s Pizza at Rice and Front reopened in January. Many long-time businesses have chosen to stay—among them Hamernick’s Decorating, Rice Street Do-It-Best Hardware Store, and Ace Auto Parts. New construction in recent years includes the Health East Rice Street Clinic and the Rice Street Branch Library.

Each month the North End Business Association meeting is held at the Klub Haus. Business people and others gather to network, to learn what is going on in the neighborhood, to lend support where needed, or to express a collective opinion on a current controversy. At its February 6 meeting, outgoing NEBA president Michael Remmers, president of Capital Bank, gave a “State of Rice Street” address. He ran down a list of accomplishments that have taken place. Among the accomplishments, new sidewalks and lantern style lighting were installed and there was façade improvement with assistance in the form of low-cost loans to help with storefront improvements, signage, and windows. Hamernick’s offers paint to the business owners so they can impdrove the appearance of their buildings. In sum, Remmers stated, “We continue to feel that Rice Street is on the upswing. We’ve accomplished a lot in 2007.”

Last summer, young people with nothing better to do roamed the streets of District 6—often gathering in front of business places, which intimated potential customers. New efforts are being made to come up with plans to engage young people. A mentorship program is being set up between St. Paul College and the St. Paul Public Schools. Additionally, District 6 is recruiting volunteers to mentor kids at the Rice Street Library

District 6’s annual budget is founded on the $85,000 it receives from the city. $68,000 is spent on citizen participation, and $24,000 goes to crime prevention. Every other month, a newsletter is mailed to residents.

With the many changes in the neighborhood, some wonder if the neighborhood that was can embrace the neighborhood that is and if residents can really come together to carry out what must be done. Looking ahead, Kerry Antrim admits that many challenges remain. Invest Saint Paul requires that the community be actively involved and engaged in the planning and carrying out of its redevelopment. “Trying to bring everyone together, the outreach, is challenging,” says Antrim. “Economically, outside forces, circumstances in their lives, make it hard for people in our community to be engaged. I believe that people care.”

Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, lives in the North End neighborhood. Now working as a freelance writer, Mary is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools. She also served as editor of the North End News.

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