Fort Road Federation’s annual meeting a reminder of what makes a great community

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The crowd took their seats slowly, grudgingly giving up the moment to catch up with neighbors they hadn’t seen in a while. The formal program of the Fort Road Federation Annual Meeting started off last night with the same kind of connection, a brief talk by former Mayor George Latimer. As Mayor 22 years ago he had butted heads with many of the people in the room who had their own ideas about how the community should develop and proceed, different from the city of St Paul’s big plans. But through a few jokes, salty comments, and heartfelt statements of respect he made it clear – what makes the West Seventh community strong are the neighbors that make it work.

Neighbors, that is, and their connections that become community – something beyond each and every one of us.

Not every city has organizations like the Fort Road Federation to knit together the commitments and connections into one coherent whole that can make a difference. But they should.

The Fort Road Federation is one of many District Councils throughout the city, and organized form of citizen participation in the nitty-gritty details of how the city is planned and run. It was under Mayor Latimer that they were organized in 1976, bringing communities together to work on their own problems and help guide city planning. It was a bold experiment in many ways, but it reflected the unique way St Paul has always been organized. This is a city of 17 small towns but one Mayor.

Outsiders and the city staff probably know the Fort Road Federation more for what it has prevented from happening than anything else. As the western edge of Downtown, tucked between the tall bluffs of the Cathedral and the Mississippi River, a lot of traffic is funneled through West Seventh on its way from somewhere to somewhere else. To us, however, it is home, and massive projects like Interstate 35E, a Shepard Road interchange, or a dedicated busway down the middle of West Seventh would have turned us into little more than the gap between here and there.

But at the Annual Meeting we spend more time talking about the incredible work being done by so many people to make their neighborhoods stronger that has benefited from the organization and influence of the Federation. The Little Bohemia Neighborhood has been tackling the ravages of bulk foreclosure and vacancy, rehabbing some houses and taking down some to make way for new development. Marit Brock gave us all an update on how they are progressing. It’s a process much like the successful “Brewery Breakthrough” in 1995 that changed around an entire neighborhood on the edge with 44 new or re-made units.

And then there is the old Schmidt Brewery itself, a development about to move ahead in earnest after 5 years of negotiation and planning. 261 units will be crafted by the developer Dominium and the Federation itself will rehab the Rathskeller and some commercial space around it. It’s an impressive project that will place the soul back in the heart of the community at this great landmark old brewery, and a daring venture for a community to undertake on its own.

But these are only the big projects. There are the community gardens of shared 12×12 plots. The Healthy West Seventh project links United Family Medicine to smaller projects to promote wellness rather than wait for patients to show up sick at their practice on West Seventh. The Great River Passage master plan for the Mississippi through St Paul has been guided and shaped by the great vision and care of Kent Petterson and many others.

Plus there was time out to honor our great community organizer Betty Moran for her 40 years of service in what was once a neighborhood on the edge, dotted with crime and general bad behavior, now recognized as one of the great communities of St Paul in no small part because of her tireless efforts. As Richard Miller said, “She leads from within.” They had to sneak the award onto the program because if Betty has always shied away from recognition, demurring to the many people of the community who make things happen. But without her organizing, many small voices might have remained just that had she not been there to make one strong arm of action.

The Annual Meeting of the Federation is a time to catch up with what’s going on both with neighbors and with the neighborhood itself. A pile of bricks only becomes a strong wall when mortar fills the spaces inbetween, laid down with care and skill. The strength of the Federation is in both the people and their connections, but it all starts with care and commitment. That is what makes a great community in any city.