Community leaders and members from St Paul’s West Side gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church January 25 to preview a series of videos that chronicle the history of the West Side Flats and District Del Sol. This little known history is being brought into the spotlight by a collaboration between the Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC) and the Minnesota Humanities Center. David O’Fallon, the director of the Minnesota Humanities Center, and Hector Garcia, executive director of CLAC, introduced the videos. Samuel Verdejas, founder of the West Side Cultural Center and Minnesota Cinco de Mayo celebration, community activist Gilbert de la O, Don Luna of the St Paul Police Department, and Michael Medina of Medina Architects were among those featured in the videos. They also addressed the audience.
In the four to eight minute video vignettes, long-time West Siders remember the West Side Flats, a vibrant, multicultural, immigrant community that thrived on St Paul’s Mississippi flood plain. In the 1960s, an urban renewal project converted the entire area into an industrial park. The Flats had been home to many ethnic groups including Jews, Lebanese, African Americans, and Native Americans. When the neighborhood was leveled, the majority of residents were Latino.
In the videos, West Siders tell how they followed their institutions up the river bluff to the Cherokee neighborhood and Concord Street, which is now Cesar Chavez Street. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Holy Family Church and the Neighborhood House (now located in the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building) were anchors of community in an unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming new neighborhood.
“It was a cautious [thing], where you go, how you go. We went to Guadalupe church, we went home; we went to school, we went home,” Verdejas said of the early days in the new neighborhood. Many became aware of racism for the first time when they were relocated from the flats.
“I really didn’t even know I was different from anybody until I moved off the flats area and experienced…prejudice” recalls Don Luna.
Community leaders in the videos reminisce about their childhoods on the Flats, and talk about the rebuilding of their community as what is now known as District Del Sol. The colorful murals and mercados of District Del Sol were no accident. “We…incorporate[d] through a strategic planning process the Mexican flavor of the community into community and economic development” said Verdejas, a longtime community developer and organizer. Through careful and deliberate planning Verdejas and others brought back Latino businesses to the West Side, emphasizing their culture and heritage.
The films are part of the Absent Narratives Project, which aims to share stories, art, and history and left out of the mainstream narrative. While the existence of the West Side Flats and the development of District Del Sol is a story well-known to the audience gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the group knows that it is in danger of being lost.
“Some people of the Latino community might know something [about the West Side Flats and District Del Sol] but not everybody does,” explained Astrid Ollerenshaw, CLAC’s community relations representative. “The young generation, they do not all know about it. Some heard from their grandparents because they are part of this community but if you are from [somewhere] different from the West Side you don’t get to know about this.”
CLAC and the Minnesota Humanities Center are working to change that.
Ollerenshaw emphasizes the importance of sharing the community’s achievements “I think one of the things about the Latino community that is important to rescue is that value of the creation of business, the family values, and the culture, the art, the murals, the music. All that is the Latino community.” To further that goal, the videos will also be available to educators for classroom use through the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Absent Narrative teachers’ workshop.
The videos can be viewed by all on the Minnesota Humanities Center website at http://www.minnesotahumanities.org/legacyCLAC/AbsentNarratives. New videos will be added each week through February. The website also provides space for viewers to leave their own stories, comments and suggestions. The project is ongoing.
The collaboration has also produced a documentary film, Latino Arts: A Community Vision, which first aired on Twin Cities Public Television in November, and will be rebroadcast on TPT’s channel 2.2 on February 5 and 6. The film is available on the TPT website, www.mnvideovault.org, as well. A similar project is planned for Minneapolis’ Lake Street area this spring.