New energy in historic Dayton’s Bluff


“No other neighborhood in Saint Paul has connections to the region’s ancient past that Dayton’s Bluff has,” according to Ed Lambert, Executive Director of District 4. From that ancient past to a sometimes-troubled present, Dayton’s Bluff has been home to a changing cast of immigrant communities. Lambert, who grew up in Dayton’s Bluff, said he sees similarities between Dayton’s Bluff now and the problems that the Ramsey Hill and Summit Hill neighborhoods experienced in the 1970s.

Today, Lambert said that he sees the potential for a “renaissance ” focused on Dayton’s Bluff that would play out over the next 20-30 years, though he is quick to add that he is not suggesting that the neighborhood become gentrified.


Homes at 338 Maple (restored) and 336 Maple (boarded) illustrate the dramatic contrasts of Dayton’s Bluff, where carefully tended gardens and homes claim space in a community that still battles poverty, foreclosure, and gang activity. (Photo by Jon Behm)

Historic Dayton’s Bluff
The Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood is the oldest in Saint Paul. It lies east of downtown, spreading along the Mississippi River bluffs. Its earliest inhabitants were Paleo-Indians who lived there 12,000 years ago. They were followed by the Dakota, who came in the middle 1600s and established the Kaposia village. Today some of their burial mounds remain in Indian Mounds Park. In the 1800s, European settlers followed American explorers to the area.

The neighborhood is named for Lyman Dayton, a land speculator who purchased land on the bluffs and settled there with his wife, Maria Bates Dayton. Bates Street and Maria Avenue are named for her. (The Daytons were not related to the department store family).

Workers from the breweries and the railroads settled in the area along with carpenters and masons, janitors, grocers, and teachers.

In 1911 Saint John’s German Lutheran Hospital opened. Today Metro State University occupies some of the older buildings and has expanded at the site with new buildings including its Great Hall and the new Dayton’s Bluff/Metro State Library.

Swede Hollow, a ravine, was home to waves of immigrants as they arrived from Sweden, Poland, Ireland, Italy, and Mexico. The Hollow had no city services, such as running water or sewers, making for very unsanitary and unsafe living conditions. Eventually, the city burned the last Swede Hollow houses in 1956. Swede Hollow was dedicated as a nature center in 1976.

Mindful of its rich history, Dayton’s Bluff set up its own historic district that extends from Mounds Boulevard and Hope Street to Swede Hollow Park to Interstate 94. With approximately 600 structures that range from the high-end real estate to workers’ cottages, it is the largest historic district in the city.

The Dayton’s Bluff community actively works to preserve its older housing stock, rather than demolishing it. In May and again in October the District 4 Dayton’s Bluff Community Council sponsored tours of the vacant homes in the neighborhood resulting in the sale of several of the homes.

Karen DuPaul is a Dayton’s Bluff old-timer, serving as Community Organizer for District 4 for 13 years, and before that on the board of directors for 12 years. She sees big changes ahead for her neighborhood, identifying the largest emerging issue as the proposed sale of 3M’s entire Eastside campus to the Saint Paul Port Authority.

Over the next several years, the Port Authority will purchase the property, then raze the buildings on the 45-acre site to develop a new business park. In the interim, 3M will keep the buildings and greatly-reduced number of employees will continue to work there for the next few years, according to DuPaul.

Business, homes and green space

Another project in the works is redevelopment of the former Hospital Linen Supply site on East 7th Street. Plans for condos to be built there fell through, and DuPaul said that the site may now be developed into green space “until we have a sensible plan.”

District 4 works in partnership with the Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services to recruit homebuyers to invest in the neighborhood. Many homes in Dayton’s Bluff were built as early as 1880, including both large homes and smaller workers’ cottages.

East 7th Street which runs from downtown and through the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood once had businesses like First Merchants Bank and NW National Bank (now Wells Fargo), insurance companies, and Merit Chevrolet. The mix of businesses has changed, with the small restaurants, an auto parts store and Animal Ark now located on the street, along with the Mexican consulate. DuPaul said they are working on reviving a business association.


While major businesses have left the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, smaller ethnic restaurants have repopulated Seventh Street. (Photo by Jon Behm)

Keeping up appearances in the neighborhood includes maintaining parks and green space. Swede Hollow Park, Lower Phalen Creek and the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary provide public parks and green space. Residents also show off their gardens in several garden tours each summer. A new community garden is planned for a vacant lot at 4th and Earl Streets. Neighbors also plan a garden for Skidmore Park that will feature raised plant beds for vegetables and flowers next summer.

Youth Outreach — for a few
With funding provided by several grants, the district council works collaboratively to provide outreach to neighborhood youth. As part of the collaborative, three recreation centers in the neighborhood – Arlington, Dayton’s Bluff, and Margaret – purchased a half page of space in the “Dayton’s Bluff District Forum” newsletter, which is published ten times a year.

“This is the first time the kids are actually having a voice,” said Ed Lambert. For the October issue, the teens wrote about violence and the fatal shooting of a friend.

A University of Minnesota grant is funding a youth leadership project in partnership with a number of organizations including Metro State University. Ten young people receive a stipend as they participate in training sessions over a period of seven months.


Metropolitan State University and the Dayton’s Bluff branch of the St. Paul Public LIbrary share a building on Seventh Street, across from Metro’s main quadrangle. (Photo by Jon Behm)

Both the newspaper and the youth leadership programs are doing good work, but they serve a very limited number of young people. Dayton’s Bluff has serious crime and gang problems, and the need for youth programs remains high.

This summer’s Sign Project, sponsored by Dayton’s Bluff and Margaret Recreation Centers, and Block Clubs, connected youth to the community. Lambert said the youth cleaned up a total of 115 blocks. They also placed signs, funded by a grant from the St. Paul Police Department, with neighborhood residents who volunteered as sign hosts. The signs, which carried such messages as “Be polite” or “No trash-no trash talking.” or “Be peaceful,” collected to be re-used next summer. Lambert said the young people expressed surprise at the satisfaction they gained and the fact that it made a difference.

In October, the city announced that the circulator bus, which had been a summer-only program will now run year-round. Aimed at youth, the bus will run from afternoon until early evening hours. Brochures listing stops and routes are available at the rec centers, schools, and libraries. The bus will make it possible for more young people to participate in after-school programs, giving parents an assurance of safe transportation to and from the programs.

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