I am riding my bike on every block of every Saint Paul street and blogging about what I see and who I meet. In late October I completed my third season of riding. This post is the second of two stories about the nearly 14 mile trek to Summit-University, Ramsey Hill and Cathedral Hill on August 17, 2013.
On a triangular section of green grass and a few trees, likely overlooked by all but those who frequently walk past, is a tall memorial to soldiers and sailors of the Civil War. This was my first visit to Summit Park and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in more than 25 years of living in Saint Paul.
I spent about 30 minutes around this historically and physically significant monument and it made me think. First, the knowledge that Josias King was alive when the monument was dedicated in 1903 gave me a different, closer connection to the Civil War. Second, the monument was a great reminder of the huge sacrifices made by so many 150 years ago to keep the Union together.
Just south of Summit Park is what is sometimes called Selby Hill. The few streets in this area are all short-one block long; bisected years ago by I-94, the rerouting of Kellogg Boulevard and Summit Avenue, the imposition of I-35E and other road alterations and removals. Comparing maps from 1895 and 2010 shows the enormous changes in the area spurred by expansion of Saint Paul.
The name Amherst Wilder is familiar around Saint Paul. Best known as a philanthropist, Wilder built a fortune through a variety of business ventures. A charitable foundation bearing his name remain active today. In 1887, Wilder built a grand 25 room mansion on three acres of land at the corner of Summit and Selby Avenues, according to Larry Millett’s Once There Were Castles. The house was demolished in 1959 but I believe the limestone wall still standing off Summit and Old Kellogg is a portion of the long gone house.
Streetcars crisscrossed Saint Paul (Minneapolis and outlying areas too) from the 1890s through 1954. There are very few remnants of the once commonplace streetcar infrastructure that traversed Saint Paul. The most obvious artifact is the eastern part of the Selby Avenue Tunnel, which is surprisingly recognizable nearly 60 years after the last streetcar clickety-clacked along these tracks.
The tunnel through Selby Hill, with a seven percent grade, was opened in 1907. The tunnel allowed electrification of more than a quarter-mile of the streetcar route between Pleasant and Summit Avenues. Until that time, a complex and slow system of counterweights pulled cable cars up and down the 16 percent grade.
Houses lined Selby Hill in the early 1900s according to photos and maps from that era.
‘Progress’ claimed those houses years ago and the Hill is now covered with trees, shrubs, grass and weeds.
Though the houses are long gone, there are homes of a sort around Selby Hill. These homes are nothing like the middle class manors that stood then and have even less in common with the remaining magnificent Summit Avenue mansions at the top of the Hill.
As I walked along Selby Hill I saw traces of people-discarded newspapers, food wrappers, clothes, even a sleeping bag.
I followed a dirt path about 30 yards through the tall grass and brush and into the woods. There I encountered four people gathered around in an open spot under some maple trees. My sudden and unanticipated appearance startled them, putting them visibly on edge. Looking around the immediate area, I noticed a few clothes, a couple of chairs and an improvised tent fashioned from sheets, a sleeping bag and plastic tarps. It was apparent that someone, likely at least one of these folks, lived in this spot. I, too, was uncomfortable, as I essentially hiked uninvited into a stranger’s home.
I introduced myself and explained why I was there, which appeared to ease the tension. We all talked for several minutes before two of the men announced they were leaving and went the way that minutes before I had come. A woman and a young man, whom I soon learned were Krystal and Edgar, remained and the three of us continued to converse. Both were very candid about their lives and what led them to living on the streets, with little money, makeshift shelter and ever-present danger.
Krystal told me she’s lived in a couple of spots in woods in Saint Paul for about four years, since her former boyfriend lost his job and then the house in which they settled. Krystal also said she has social anxiety which also factors into her lifestyle. “I have a problem in public. I like it here. I can’t live in close. I get anxiety-ridden. I don’t like to depend on pills or nothing. I took my pills before and I just didn’t have feelings and I chose between having real feelings and who I am and taking pills everyday.“
Edgar, meanwhile, left his Saint Paul home about seven months before our meeting and met Krystal on the streets. “I was staying with my mom and I’m having some issues and she kicked me out. I couldn’t stay at the Dorothy Day shelters so I was staying on benches and stuff. I didn’t feel safe at all so I never slept at night. It was kinda uncomfortable. I started talking to her (Krystal) and I was being with somebody and it was better.”
Krystal agreed that Edgar’s concern about personal safety is valid. “It’s not safe. It’s not safe at all. I have a few weapons. I don’t have guns or nothing, but I do carry a knife and I do carry a nice big heavy pole and I usually have protection up here; at least one person.”
And, added Krystal, “I’m very choosy on who I have in my space… I pretty much teach younger people how to come out here and take care of them selves because a lot of them don’t know how.”
Krystal was born and raised in Saint Paul and still has some family here, including her mom. However, they don’t get along.
Edgar, 22, was brought by his mother from Mexico to Saint Paul when he was five years old. Edgar got his GED and said more than once that he’d like to go back to school. However, he’s not a naturalized US citizen which significantly limits his educational and employment opportunities. Edgar works as a laborer for a former boss two or three times a week and is paid in cash. “I don’t got papers to work so I just kinda have to stay under the table and stuff so that’s my only opportunity out there.”
Maybe it’s his youth, but Edgar remains optimistic about life. “I’m free. You know, I get to walk around, eat still, go to work so I’m lucky. I don’t ask for too much, just to be a citizen. That would be nice.”
Krystal, Edgar and I talked for more than 30 minutes before they had to go Downtown. Krystal shared one more thought about living without a permanent home. “You learn about yourself. You learn how strong you really are and what you can really do. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. “
I walked out of the woods with Krystal and Edgar and we went our separate ways. I considered their lifestyle, their struggles and their hopes and I wished for the best for both of them.
Back at my bike, I rode up Selby Hill to Summit Avenue and toward home. I pedaled past two wedding parties, keenly dressed and clearly enjoying their respective photos shot prior to the ceremonies. It was impossible miss the dichotomy between their day and that of Krystal and Edgar and imagine the circumstances that led to each.
Getting to know people, even the quick visit Krystal, Edgar and I had, breaks down stereotypes. The “homeless” cannot be categorized any more than any other group. Each has her or his reason or explanation for their homelessness. The chance encounter with Edgar strengthened my support for immigration reform and amnesty for those who were brought into the US illegally by a parent.
I have thought of Krystal and Edgar often in the months since we met. As I write this, the temperature is below zero and it is my sincerest hope that they have at the very least found a warm, secure shelter.
Here is the map of the entire route of my August 17th ride. http://www.mapmyride.com/us/mendota-heights-mn/route-from-file-2013-08-17-17-41-56-00-0-route-325541565