Engaging a changing community


The biggest challenge for the East Side is the number of vacant buildings and foreclosed homes. Chuck Repke, Executive Director of District 2, who also directs the North East Neighborhoods Development Corporation (NENDC), is concerned about “the impact on our families.” He says, “We need buyers.”

About the Greater East Side

Located in the Northeast corner of Saint Paul , the Greater East Side District 2 Planning Council represents ten different neighborhoods – Beaver Lake Heights, East Phalen, Frost Lake, Hayden Heights, Hazel Park, Hillcrest, Lincoln Park, Parkway/Greenbrier, Phalen Village, and Prosperity Heights.

Its boundaries are Larpenteur Avenue to McKnight Road to Minnehaha Avenue to Johnson Pkwy and the old Burlington Northern berm to the west.

Although the first settlers arrived in the 1850s , other parts of the area were not developed until the post World War II housing boom. One of the oldest neighborhoods is Hazel Park, named for the dense hazel shrubbery that was there. William Ames and his wife, Helen, developed Hazel Park and their name is prominent today in the neighborhood – Ames Avenue, and the restored wetland, Ames Lake, bear their name. Ames Elementary School began there in 1889 as a four room schoolhouse.

As Saint Paul grew, many small lakes and ponds were drained and filled to accommodate development. On the Greater East Side, however, developers most often chose to build around many of those wetlands. One exception was in the 1960s when the Phalen Shopping Center was built over Ames Lake. After awhile the shopping center’s parking lot and eventually the buildings began to sink. In the 1990s, the city made the decision to restore Ames Lake to its natural state as a wetland.

Throughout the Greater East Side the names of the ponds and small lakes carry the names of the people and neighborhoods there. Another early pioneer was Johnathan Frost, a furniture maker, who purchased 40 acres of land for $500 in 1855. Frost Lake, now a pond, is named for him. One of the newest parks in the city is Hillcrest Knoll which was developed as a park after floods in 1997 resulted in homes being removed from the square block bounded by Flandreau, Kennard, Iowa, and Montana.

With the many elderly residents who still live in the homes they own, Repke sees the dilemma that many of the seniors will face. When they reach the point where they will have to move to senior housing, Repke says there is the real possibility that they will be unable to sell their homes.

Housing ranges from the very old – the William and Helen Ames home, built around 1890 still stands at 1667 Ames Avenue – to the new development going up at Larpenteur and Prosperity where a private developer is building market rate homes to order.

New condos have been built at White Bear Avenue and Maryland Avenue, and the Real Life Senior Co-operative Housing is located at Johnson Parkway and Phalen Boulevard.
The Greater East Side also has a large number of apartment buildings and there is public housing at Roosevelt Homes .

Repke pointed out that revitalization of the shopping district on White Bear Avenue as another challenge for the district. Of particular concern is the Hillcrest Shopping Center, a strip mall, and the block that lies south of it. Within the last year the Saint Paul Federal Credit Union has opened an office there, but efforts continue to develop the remaining storefronts.

Community building

Results of the 2000 US Census showed that District 2 had one of the largest demographic changes of any area in the country. In 1990, the population went from 90% Caucasian to a 30% minority population that included a large number of Southeast Asians. Looking for a positive way to respond to this change, the district council began offering social services with funding provided by the city’s Community Organizations Partnership Program (COPP).

With the apartment buildings and Roosevelt Homes, building community is daunting. Yet District 2 has come up with a couple of projects that have proved to be very effective at getting residents involved. First, there are the community gardens where 75 gardeners, including members of the minority community and renters, tend 75 plots, some as small as 10 by 10 feet, each summer. Repke says that by working with the community gardeners, they learn that “ you care … about them.”

Susane Moua is the Outreach Coordinator for the district council. She oversees the Hmong Outreach Program that includes community gardens, a youth soccer program and English language classes. With a limited number of social service agencies within District 2 , Repke says that the council’s board of directors has taken the position that anyone who lives here ought to be able to learn the language.

While the outreach is geared mainly toward the Southeast Asian residents, Moua has opened her ELL classes to anyone who wants to learn, including the recently arrived Africans.

The Block Nurse Program (BNP), begun two years ago, provides services for senior citizens. Some 13% of the residents living in District 2 are senior citizens – more than any other area in the city. Lisa Heilman, a Community Organizer for District 2 and for BNP, says that the BNP partners with Midway Training Services and with schools in the neighborhood to operate a chore service. Heilman calls it a “great fit, ” and says “We need to be there to help serve . It is a good community organization tool to engage the seniors and to provide the services they need.”

Positive energy

Repke describes intense neighborhood planning that has taken place in the last decade. Working hand in hand with the White Bear Avenue Business Association, NENDC, and the community, the district council developed the White Bear Avenue Comprehensive Plan that sparked major changes to the neighborhood.

Restoring the wetland was part of the ambitious plan that created Phalen Village which today includes commercial and housing and led to the construction of the 2.5 mile Phalen Boulevard which links Phalen Village to Interstate 35 E, north of downtown.

The State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) built its new headquarters there, and today it is the largest employer on the Greater East Side. The newest business is a Cub Foods Store that is scheduled to open soon along Maryland Avenue.

With all of the difficulties that the council faces, there remains a good measure of positive energy in the neighborhood. There are 23 members representing every area in the district on the Board of Directors. Repke estimates that 90% of those members are present at every monthly meeting.

McCall says there is a “good blend ” of residents who are engaged in the community. She says, “There is an excellent mix of the old faithful who contribute the institutional memory, and then there are the young people. ”

Heilman says that District 2 is one of the few communities left that still has an annual parade. Every July, the White Bear Avenue Parade begins at Ivy and marches into the Aldrich Arena and opens the Ramsey county Fair.

Repke sums up the attitude in the neighborhoods of the Greater East Side when he says, “This is a conscientious neighborhood, they’re always concerned.”

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