Working for a miracle

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Losses of jobs and older housing stock have exacted a toll on the Payne Phalen neighborhood on the East Side of St. Paul. Recently vacant storefronts bear signs announcing a store opening, advertising space for rent, or announcing a building for sale. Adjacent to Payne Avenue, once-elegant homes are in deteriorating condition. As in other urban neighborhoods, “Vacant” signs mark the homes that are in foreclosure or condemned for unsafe conditions. Committed residents hope to change these bleak conditions.

The late Herb Brooks , who led the U.S. hockey team to victory against the Russians in the 1980 Olympics was an East Sider. Just as Herb Brooks led the team to a miracle on ice, city council member Dan Bostrom told a recent community meeting, “ We need a miracle in this neighborhood. Payne Avenue could be a Miracle Mile.”

Rich History

St. Paul’s East Side Payne Phalen neighborhood is rich in history and steeped in tradition. “If these Walls Could Talk,” an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, tells the story of the Schumacher House at 870 Hopkins Street, which was built by German immigrants in 1887. Located on Railroad Island, so named because it is surrounded by three sets of railroad tracks, the Schumacher House illustrates the evolving pattern of immigrants to Saint Paul from the 1880s until 2006. From the original German immigrants to the Italian, African American, and Hmong families who have lived there we learn about the history of Saint Paul and how it has changed over the years.

Payne Phalen has always been a working class neighborhood and in the beginning workers lived nearby and walked to work. German immigrant Theodore Hamm brought his family to Saint Paul in the 1860s. They settled in Swede Hollow, and later established the Hamm’s Brewery on Payne Avenue.

Seeger Refrigeration (later Whirlpool), on Arcade Street employed nearly 2000 workers before it closed in 1984. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, now 3M, built its first headquarters on Forest Street. By 1903, J.C. Vander Bie had built an ice cream plant on Brunson Street with the capacity to turn out 2000 gallons of ice cream and ices daily.

The thriving, bustling neighborhood evoked such strong feelings of loyalty in its citizens that it led to the coining of the legendary phrase, “East Side Pride.”

Global Beat on Main Street

If you drive along Payne Avenue today you still get a glimpse of the past in the many old and carefully crafted buildings that line the avenue. If you look more closely you will see that many of the buildings have a whole new look. Some are brightly painted in pastel colors, while others have a look of sophistication about them with the original brick and dark green wood trim. When you look at the signs on the buildings you get an idea of the many cultures that are represented on the Eastside today. Donald’s Department Store and Anderson’s Shoes, both long time businesses, share the street with Plaza Latina, Muong Pha Asian Grocery and La Perla Tortilleria. You will see the upbeat mood of the community in new banners that read “Global Beat on Main Street.”

Leslie McMurray, Executive Director , Executive director of the Payne Phalen District 5 Planning Council says, “The East Side has always benefited from the vision and vigor of newcomers who continue to add new businesses and strong families to our community. ” This is the bright side.

Re-Investing in the Community

With 32,000 residents, District 5 is the largest of the 17 district councils in Saint Paul. Located at the northern edge of the city, it is one of four districts that make up the East Side. Phalen Lake, two key corridors of Payne and Arcade, and numerous small parks lie within District 5, and a mighty stretch of Phalen Boulevard, opened in 2003, quickly connects the East Side to downtown Saint Paul

According to McMurray, the district council is working with the community in a number of ways to empower its citizens to look ahead and plan for the future at the grassroots level. When someone has a good idea, she says, “We’ll help get you started. And we’ll help you connect to your neighbors so your idea has the required clout and energy to make a real change. ”

The Payne-Maryland Partnership, made up of public organizations, businesses and individuals in the neighborhood around the intersection, recently assessed needs of its members.

Merrick Community Services, a social service agency, needs to re-locate.
Arlington Hills Lutheran Church, a cornerstone of the community, needs an elevator. Their research indicated they could almost build a new church for the high cost of installing the elevator. With a rapidly changing neighborhood and the trend of congregation members shifting to the suburbs, the church had to decide to remain where they are on Greenbrier Street, or build a new building in the suburbs. Within recent months the church renewed its commitment to stay in the neighborhood.

Arlington Recreation Center is housed in an outdated building, and is not suited to today’s programming needs.
The Arlington Hills Library, which is now housed in one of the four Carnegie Libraries in the city, needs a larger building to serve the community better.

The Bradshaw Funeral Home at the corner of Payne and Rose also is rethinking its future and how it plays into the picture.

As organization representatives talked, they came up with a few ideas. Jim Bradshaw, from the funeral home, theorized that both his facility and the church are underutilized and perhaps it might be a good idea to come together in a shared facility. The concept of a shared, multi-use facility took hold. Not only would this create economies, it would their relationship.

District Five has held several community meetings since the first of the year, hosted by its Community Planning and Economic Development Committee (CPED). At a standing room only CPED meeting March 11, City Planning and Economic Development staff, Sheri Pemberton-Hoiby, called the Payne-Maryland Partnership part of Mayor Chris Coleman’s new strategy for the 21st century. As part of the Invest Saint Paul Program, the partnership would incorporate public and private financing “to use the facilities to the fullest extent, ” said Pemberton-Hoiby. She said the city is “a player, and we have interest from some major foundations.” Although major fundraising would have to be done, Permberton-Hoiby said it is “realistic” to believe that it can be done.

Bruce Chamberlain is vice president of the Hoisington Koegler Group, Inc. (HKGi), which has been hired by the partnership to conduct the visioning process. Chamberlain presented the results of an earlier visioning session that produced a unanimous description of what was most important to the community: Kendall’s Hardware Store at the corner of Payne and Maryland and Sue’s Park. Sue’s Park is a small, passive park named for the sister of a woman who used to work in the area. People in the neighborhood expressed a strong attachment to a large evergreen tree in the tiny park.

In describing a very preliminary draft for a new facility that would promote shared use of spaces by all of the partners, Chamberlain emphasized that the hardware store would stay and that in some way, Sue’s Park would remain.

Working for a Miracle

Ward 6 City Councilmember Dan Bostrom, who represents part of the District 5 Planning Council area told the March 11 meeting that, “This neighborhood really deserves a first-class facility. This is an opportunity to design this thing so it will serve our community for the next 75-100 years.”

Bostrom said that the proposed facility, which includes a skating rink, “ties in with the idea that this could be the Herb Brooks Center.”

While many community members favor the proposed changes, some expressed concerns about losing the playground building they went to as children. Others worried about potential parking and security issues .

The current timeline calls for the visioning process to be complete by April 1. After that Chamberlain will work out the cost of the concept, and then fundraising will begin. Mayor Coleman included $149,000 for planning for the Arlington-Merrick joint use facility in his 2008/2009 Long Range Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) recommendation. Community members said they are in it for the long haul, understanding the project will take years to complete.

Bostrom says, “This is for everybody living in the neighborhood. If this is a good place people will invest in the housing – this will go way beyond, the ripples will spread out for blocks and blocks.”

Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, lives in the North End neighborhood. Now working as a freelance writer, Mary is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools. She also served as editor of the North End News, a community newspaper.

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