Saturday, April 18, 2015
Macalester-Groveland, Hamline-Midway, Frogtown, Payne-Phalen (Swede Hollow), Downtown, West End, Highland Park
Garages: intentionally functional but not usually stylish and seldom worth more than a glance, but today I saw two within a couple of blocks of each other that break the stereotype.
It’s not a garage in the strict sense of the word because the structure lacks a door for a vehicle. And that makes me wonder if it really ever was a garage.
The second garage looks nicer than some homes. Obviously well kept up, it belongs to a Summit Avenue home.
Bird houses are much-loved by the residents here judging by the dozen or so in the front yard. Among them are a barn-style, duplex and one that’s in need of some paint.
The City proclaimed Saturday the 18th the annual Citywide Spring Cleanup event. I was pleased to see a group of young children and moms tidying up the boulevards on Lexington and then Blair Avenues.
Kaitlin Fierst told me she and her group picked up trash on several blocks. “We started down at the park and then decided to come into our own neighborhood and clean up our own neighborhood.”
The annual City-wide clean up is a tradition for Kaitlin. “My mom used to take us when we were little and it’s something we feel like we need to do. We enjoy the (Griggs) park and the city and we need to be out here cleaning it up as well.”
The cruise continued east out of Hamline-Midway and through the heart of Frogtown.
Still on Van Buren, I cut onto Como Avenue, taking me southeast for three blocks to Pennsylvania. There I continue eastward for nearly a mile to L’Orient, the scene of major I-35E construction.
Through the construction I rode, on Pennsylvania under I-35E and when I emerged, the street name changed from Pennsylvania to Phalen Boulevard. 35E also serves as the border between the North End and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods.
Phalen Boulevard is a major piece of the renaissance of the Railroad Island and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods. Even as far back as 1978, area business owners and residents saw they needed “To encourage existing compatible industrial uses to remain and expand in District 5.”(1) So they created a guide called the Payne-Phalen District 5 Plan.
Unfortunately, just the opposite occurred over the next 20-plus years. Economic changes doomed the Payne-Phalen District 5 Plan. Several thousand manufacturing jobs disappeared with the closings of Whirlpool, Hamm’s (Stroh’s) Brewing, 3M, Globe Building Materials, Griffin Wheel Works and others. The laid off workers who managed to find new jobs either settled for much lower pay or moved away to get work. The social fabric of the East Side, including the Railroad Island and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods, was devastated. In fewer than two decades, much of the East Side went from a place with pleasantly maintained homes and thousands of dependable, good paying, manufacturing jobs to that of high unemployment, expanding social ills and falling property values.
More recent efforts to improve the fortunes of East Side residents and businesses have been successful. A major catalyst has been the Phalen Corridor that reclaimed and cleaned up unsightly, polluted, former railroad right-of-way. In its place is Phalen Boulevard, parks and ‘green space’ and business centers.
My destination this April morning was 833 Burr Street (at Whitall) in Payne-Phalen. I was there to meet with George Rodriguez, who told me the fascinating story of his family’s move to and around Saint Paul.
The story begins in the mid-1950s. George Rodriguez, his brothers, father and grandmother moved from Arkansas to Swede Hollow when George was 2 years old. The Rodriguez family, like many others of Mexican decent were in the last wave of immigrants to settle in the Hollow.
The first settlers came to Swede Hollow beginning in the 1850s. Not surprisingly, they were Swedish. Irish settlers, escaping the hardships of the potato famine, weren’t far behind. When folks saved enough money, they moved up from the Hollow to nearby neighborhoods.
In the decades to come, Italian immigrants, followed in the 1940s and early 50s, by those from Mexico, settled in Swede Hollow to be with people with similar customs and language. The housing, although cheap – residents supposedly paid only $5 a year to the Hamm’s Realty Company(2) – was barely adequate.
According to George, “Our address as far as I recall was 49 Phalen Creek. That was the very first house as you came down into (Swede Hollow) on the left side. “It wasn’t very big. Maybe three rooms.”
None of the three rooms happened to be a bathroom, George told me. “I asked my brother some time ago, I said, ‘I knew we had an outhouse but I don’t remember where it was.’ And he goes, ‘Well, we had two or three different locations.’” That’s because when one pit filled with waste, it was covered, another pit dug and the outhouse moved.
The only running water in the Hollow was that of Phalen Creek, though George recalls his father and uncle digging a well and running pipes to a pump and into the house.
Although George lived in Swede Hollow for no more than five years, he has some vivid memories of the neighborhood. “There was a path that went up the hill, across the railroad tracks, up onto Payne Avenue to get to school. Right next to the pathway there was another family, a Mexican family, and then down aways, there was a white family. Then on our side, there was a house just past ours up on the hill; a Mexican family. And you’d go down further and there were a lot of small houses. My aunt used to live in one.”
“Then you come to the part where it splits like a raised roadway, then it dips down on both sides. On the right side, the Gardners used to live on the end. I know them well because my cousin married one of the Gardner women. They had geese, animals and stuff like that.”
George and his family left Swede Hollow in 1955 or ’56 when he was about 7 years old because the City condemned the area. Saint Paul officials determined the lack of running water, sewers and other necessary infrastructure was enough reason to condemn the housing, remove the remaining residents (who numbered no more than 40) and eventually redevelop the Hollow.
The Rodriguezes moved less than three miles south to the West Side Flats, joining many other families of Mexican descent. “Our address over there was 251 State Street. There used to be a tannery down there; a stinky tannery. The tannery was across the street from our house and maybe two houses down.”
The State Street home was spacious – two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, a full basement and a garage – compared to their home in the Hollow.
For fun, George and his buddies did some of the same things kids do today. “We rode our bikes; we walked around; go out to the junkyard to see what we could find; go out there and do something with slingshots-shoot at birds and stuff.”
The Mississippi River was hard to resist even though it was about a mile away from George’s house. “We used to go fishing a lot down by the river. My cousin came over from this (East) side to our house over there on his bike. Occasionally we’d go swimming but not that often.”
Only a couple of years later, the City (again) sent out letters, this time to West Side Flats residents, telling them frequent flooding of the Mississippi led to the decision to condemn the area. “They gave a little bit of money to help moving and stuff. I was in the 6th grade and then we moved to the upper West Side. From there, we lived in a couple of different houses but we stayed on the upper West Side until I was drafted in 1969.”
“They kicked everybody out (of the West Side Flats) and then they put up all these new dikes and all these walls and everything and they put industry in there.”
Two years later, when he returned from his military service, George moved back in with his Grandmother, who lived on Robie Street. Then, said George, “We moved from there to the projects (Dunedin Terrace) when they were freshly made; the very first ones by Roosevelt Junior High.”
A short time later George bought a car and started spending time on the East Side. “I came over here (to the East Side) to my cousin’s house ‘cause he lived over here on Arkwright and that’s where I met my wife, Tina, for the first time. That was in the summer of ’71.“
George added that it was two years before he and Tina started dating. They married in 1975 and a year later, bought their house at 833 Burr Street. Tina and George celebrated their 40 year anniversary in June 2015.
“When I first got back (from the service) I was just doing odd jobs here and there. I went back to school and got my GED. It was St. Paul TVI at the time (Saint Paul College today) to learn welding.” George worked as a welder at for eight or nine years at a company so close to their home that he usually walked to and from work. The company shut down in the early 80s so George went to the Veterans Administration for help finding for a new job.
The VA placed him at the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam in Minneapolis. “They were hiring summer jobs then, so I spent two, three years in summer jobs and I finally got hired on full-time.”
George went from a temporary summer employee to the Head Lockman of the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Locks and Dam when he retired in 2009. He had many experiences during his years at the locks but nothing prepared him or his crew for the tragic August 1, 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge.
George and Tina were on a Target run when one of their daughters called to tell him about the bridge collapse. George told me he immediately checked in with the office to see what was happening. “I said, ‘Do you need me to come in?’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’ So off to work I went and my wife came with me. So we spent the night there helping people the best way we can, like getting people out of the water, getting equipment into the water to help the firemen and the policemen and all the rescue workers. We were there until one o’clock in the morning. And the next day, back to work again.”
Thirteen people died and 145 were hurt when the bridge fell.
“Essentially we were closed down. We couldn’t lock boats anymore. We were just there helping with getting the bodies out and getting the cars out-of-the-way, just lending help to the people who are doing that work.”
George and others from the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam remained involved during debris removal and construction of the new bridge.
Now George is busy three days a week caring for one of his grandsons. He and Tina frequently volunteer at Merrick Community Services, an East Side social services non-profit. Moves and all, George is pleased with how his life has played out. Simply put, “It’s been a good life here with my wife and kids.”
Back on my bike, I made my way toward Swede Hollow Park to see if I could find any remnants of 100 years of settlements. As I rode east bound on Whitall toward Payne Avenue, I stopped at some fine-looking new town homes.
Next, on to Swede Hollow.
I entered Swede Hollow Park at the northern entrance. The park is a valley or ravine carved epochs ago by Phalen Creek, perhaps with some assistance from the railroads which pushed tracks through in the mid-1860s.
Phalen Creek disappeared decades ago, forced into underground culverts to make room for railroad tracks.
Then in 1973, neighborhood residents and the Saint Paul Garden Club began working with the Saint Paul Parks Department to make Swede Hollow a city park.(4) The tracks that once snaked their way through Swede Hollow have been replaced by neatly paved biking/hiking trails, benches and art. And Phalen Creek once again runs through part of The Hollow.
At least several Hamm’s Brewery buildings have towered above Swede Hollow since the 1860s. Today, many remain in various conditions and levels of occupancy.
The Seventh Street Improvement Arches (a.k.a. Bridge 90386), a focal point of Swede Hollow Park and an East Side landmark, practically oozes history. Construction began in September 1883 and traffic passed over the bridge and through the tunnels 15 months later. A challenge for architect William Truesdell and the stone cutters and masons who built it, the bridge needed to be constructed using a complex spiral method because of the angle at which East Seventh Street crossed Swede Hollow.
Closing in on home, I made a final stop on St. Clair Avenue just west of Pleasant Avenue.
Some final thoughts:
- George Rodriguez has led a memorable life having experienced some significant events in Saint Paul and Minneapolis history.
- Swede Hollow Park affords everyone-lover of the outdoors, history devotee, art fan, hiker, biker, beer aficionado-a fascinating experience.
- The more I see of the East Side, Payne-Phalen in this case, the more I am impressed.
- I wish the Hamm’s Brewery remained open and employed thousands of workers but I’m really glad we’re in the midst of a beer renaissance featuring ales from Flat Earth and other microbreweries.
- Page 31; 1978 Payne-Phalen District 5 Plan
- Swede Hollow Archaeology blog; May 25, 2015
- Homes of Whitall website; http://www.sherman-associates.com/homes-of-whitall
- Friends of Swede Hollow website; http://www.swedehollow.org/About_Us.html
- Minnesota Department of Transportation website; http://www.dot.state.mn.us/historicbridges/90386.html
- Steve Trimble, “Seventh Street Improvement Arches,” Saint Paul Historical, accessed September 21, 2015, http://saintpaulhistorical.com/items/show/26.
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