As I exited the HourCar on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, all my senses were on high alert. I felt hyper-aware of my suburban lack of street smarts, my camera, my notebook, and my lucky liberal-arts college student air. This place had a reputation, and the message I’d been given long before I got here was “you don’t belong.”
I was on the East Side of St. Paul for a class that aims to explore Latino culture in various United States cities. Our class had been divided into small groups, each given the charge to explore a part of the Twin Cities. As the daughter of St. Paul raised parents, I was surprised I had never been to the area until I talked to my family. They informed me of the place’s reputation for high crime, while wondering if it would be wise for me to go at all. It took days of convincing my mother that it would not be proper or necessary to bring my father or my grandfather with me.
However, upon arriving in the East Side, I discovered a bright neighborhood with enormous potential, despite feeling out of place because of my preconceived notions and a deep feeling that visitors were uncommon in this area. The neighborhood is less easily accessible than other parts of the Twin Cities via public transportation, and much more spread out. Therefore, much of my group’s observation came through a car window. We were very much on the outside looking in. Because of this, and because of my privilege and inexperience with the world as well as with the area, I feel it is unfair to pass any concrete judgment on this place I have seen only a glimpse of. However, this glimpse, as well as my ensuing conversations and research have revealed to me much about what affects a community.
While on the East Side, I observed a lack of community cohesion, which I believe contributes to its crime and bad reputation. While the area is clearly ethnically diverse, I observed little ethnic mixing, and few people in general were out and about. Current circumstances in this area make community cohesion difficult. Community revitalization projects on the East Side were halted due to the recession, which resulted in a rash of foreclosures, both for businesses and homes. This, combined with the fact that historically the East Side has been home to waves of immigrants, makes for a community in flux. Establishing a permanent sense of place where things are constantly changing is difficult.
Another barrier to community cohesion is lack of public space. It appeared the residents of the East Side did not often get together in public. A variety of things could contribute to this, including the fact that there are simply few places to gather, even public benches. Some innovative East Side residents have set up couches on their porches or in their fenced-in yards to solve this problem. It is also understandable that residents of the East Side would feel unsafe gathering in public in their neighborhood, a sentiment expressed by one of my father’s relatives. Though I emerged from the East Side without witnessing anything negative, my family’s fear did not turn out to be unfounded. We found out the next day that three men had been shot somewhere around six blocks from where our group had explored on the same afternoon. However, crime rates would go down if gathering in public space happened more often because there would be more eyes on the street. Forming community bonds would also encourage neighbors to look out for one another.
While I did not observe explicit efforts to increase cohesion on my visit, this is not a true picture of the East Side. The East Side Neighborhood Development Committee and their subset East Side Pride have clear aims to make this community the best it can be. They both organize and spread the word on community events. An example of this is Paint the Pavement, responsible for several street art projects that brighten up the neighborhood. The residents of the area have come together to create these street murals, which result in a lasting symbol of community and neighborhood pride. The East Side Neighborhood Development Committee also works on issues of healthy, affordable housing and commercial development. These organizations are crucial to any community, especially one with economic and social struggles. The East Side Neighborhood Development group has been in action for thirty years, and has picked up speed ever since. Their current community engagement motto is “…seeing hope, being a friendly neighbor, watching the neighborhood, and seeking to make the Eastside a safer environment.”
Through actually exploring and doing research on the neighborhood, I discovered that my family’s impressions of the East Side were accurate, but they did not tell the whole story. The East Side is a vibrant, diverse community with a lot of potential. With the help of community organizations, the aim of creating cohesion, and lots of East Side Pride, this neighborhood can grow to be a safe place to form bonds in, welcoming to both its residents and visitors. Heck, it could even change the mind of my own mother.