August 13, 2019
West Seventh (West End), Downtown, Dayton’s Bluff, Highwood
I had a simple plan for this ride. Bike the 11 miles-plus to Boys Totem Town for the closing ceremony and tour of the empty juvenile detention facility in Highwood. I estimated it would take about an hour and a quarter to get to Totem Town for the 1:30 event. I climbed aboard my bike about 11, giving me more than an extra hour to arrive. That way, I’d have time on the way to take photographs, hit some Highwood streets that I hadn’t ridden on a 2017 trip, and perhaps score an interview.
Getting to Highwood efficiently led me to jump onto the Sam Morgan Trail where Randolph Avenue meets Shepard Road. The Sam Morgan Trail is nicely paved, and better yet, physically separated from Shepard Road/Warner Road and the vehicles driving on them between 40 and 50 miles per hour.
Some four miles later I veered eastward from the Sam Morgan Trail to the recently reopened Fish Hatchery Trail. Almost immediately I saw a sign that caused me to question that decision.
After a couple hundred feet on the Fish Hatchery Trail, the landscape changed so dramatically that it felt like Warner Road and Highway 61 had disappeared. The trail whisks riders and hikers through hilly, thickly wooded terrain as it parallels Warner Road eastward on the way to meeting Highway 61.
Heavy rains and the associated flooding resulted in the closing of the trail for parts of the biking season. Making matters worse, the solution to storm water runoff along a section of the trail along the east side of Highway 61 was so vexing the trail was closed in March 2018 and didn’t reopen until July 2, 2019.
The trail crosses under Highway 61 about three-quarters of a mile to the south. There it continues along Point Douglas Road, on the east side of 61. I turned east onto Lower Afton Road where it begins a slow, steady climb. My next stop, at Londin Lane and Winthrop Street, was only another seven-tenths of a mile, but it was up hill the entire way.
Londin Lane is a residential street, lined with big trees and neatly kept homes of assorted styles corresponding to the nearly 70 year range over which they were built. All 18 of the homes on Londin Lane sit on oddly shaped lots, due to the undulating topography and the layout of nearby roads. Another oddity is the address numbers of the homes, several of which are not in chronological order.
Across the street at 2188 Londin is the very ‘70s-looking Highwood Hills Elementary School.
Londin Lane and its “offspring,” Londin Circle and Londin Place, are all suburban in their layouts: no sidewalks or alleys, mailboxes on the streets rather than on each house, even the style of many of the homes. Londin Lane was part of Lower Afton Road until its renaming in 1963. It and Londin Place and Circle are named after Robert Londin, a developer.
Retracing my path on Londin Lane to Winthrop, I turned south for look at the recently reopened Highwood Hills Recreation Center. The rec center, open since April 2019, uses a couple of rooms in the lower level of Highwood Hills Elementary. Budget cuts during the recession in 2008 forced the closing of the rec center. According to Fred Melo’s story in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, members of the St. Paul Public Schools’ Somali Parents Advisory Council and neighborhood groups pushed the city and school district to reopen the center. Most of the students attending Highwood Hills – 84% – come from families considered low income and 69% live in homes where the primary language is something other than English. For many of these folks, it was virtually impossible to get to another East Side recreation center.
Winthrop dead ends about 10 feet south, and all who venture this way are greeted with an official sign for the Battle Creek Yard Waste Site. Most would skip this unless they had grass or leaves to drop off, but not this kid.
It might be hard to believe, but there is a distinctiveness to the Battle Creek Yard Waste Site. First, there was the wide open space, perhaps because I visited on a slow weekday.
Second, the shelter, built by the Battle Creek staff, is a model of design ingenuity and the impressive reuse of materials. Up to three can sit on the shady porch on (relatively) comfortable chairs while keeping an eye on comings and goings. The shelter has electricity for air conditioning and heat. Notice the gutter and the rain barrel. There’s even an address sign.
Third, it’s common for yard site employees to make a small garden, but at Battle Creek there are two garden areas within the grounds, both of which have compelling stories.
Jeff Hehn has been a Ramsey County yard waste site monitor – his official job title – for 11 years. Prior to that he built homes, but the 2008 recession ended that career and led him to this job. Jeff lives nearby – only three-quarters of a mile to the east. “When I first started I was at the furthest site from my house, which is the White Bear Township site. And then I heard this site would become available they and offered it to me. So there’s just a match made in heaven. Just perfect.”
Jeff’s enjoyment of his job was apparent. He expressed appreciation for the job and the people he meets there.
As you’d expect, early spring and fall are the times all of Ramsey County’s yard waste sites, including Battle Creek, are crazy busy. “It’s sort of like a circus. We get up to 300 people an hour and, I do the best I can to direct them and keep calm in here. The site is not very big and everybody’s in a hurry, so it gets a little chaotic, but I can handle it and I have some fun with it.”
I asked if he’s ever seen a fight break out, and without pause Jeff answered, “Absolutely! I’ve broken up some arguments and I’ve had a few myself because when it gets busy enough I ask for ID, because it’s just for Ramsey County residents, and a lot of them get upset. They don’t want to show their ID for some reason.”
Jeff said that watching some drivers back up their leaf- or grass-filled trailers can be entertaining. “A lady was here with a brand-new Escalade, like a $70,000 truck with a trailer which she’s trying to back up. She tried several times. I offered to help her and she said no, she had it. She finally jackknifed the trailer into her new truck; into the quarter panel and put a dent on there.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Jeff said he hasn’t seen that woman since. “Her husband has been driving it down now. Ever since, she’s never driven down the trailer again.”
On slow days Jeff picks up trash, trims the grass and otherwise keeps the site looking good. Branches and brush are not collected at Battle Creek so Jeff pulls that stuff out when people inadvertently dump it or sneak it in.
Jeff also tends to the waste site’s garden that he started in 2016. “It was all buckthorn; unusable area, unusable space. I asked my boss if I could start a garden and he said sure. So I took a season and pulled out the buckthorn. I learned right away that no matter what glove you wore it would bite you. They go right through your gloves and get you so I pulled a lot of it by the truck and chain; literally pull the plants out of the hill. It was quite a task.”
“I’ve been growing vegetables now for three seasons. This is my third year, so I’m still learning.”
Before starting this project, Jeff hadn’t done any gardening. Fortunately, he told me, some of the community gardeners across the lot have helped him. “When I had different questions, they were willing to give me a hand and show me and tell me different things. The first year I grew my beans, I picked the harvest off of them and I pulled the plants up and threw them out and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute. You get beans all year long!’ So, you know, it’s a learning process.” Then he laughed heartily.
Jeff’s 2019 crops included tomatoes, beans, onions. peppers, acorn squash, sweet peas, potatoes and carrots. He shares his bounty with many people, including some regular site users he calls “old timers.”
Jeff and some of the other yard waste site employees are seasonal workers, employed from April into November. That’s another part of the job that Jeff loves – three to four solid months of vacation. “Lately I’ve been going down to California. I’ve had some property inside a resort there that we rent and we stay down there for a few months out of the year.”
After the long, busy days of November Jeff has certainly earned his snowbird status in California.
Meanwhile, across the yard waste site is the expansive Totem Town (a.k.a. Highwood Hills) Community Garden which covers about two acres. Hlee Xiong was one of several people picking vegetables, weeding or watering their garden plots as I sauntered over. Hlee came from a refugee camp in Thailand to Saint Paul in 1976 when she was about 17.
The mostly volunteer-run community garden was started in 1997 by a group of very dedicated neighbors, including Hlee. When work began, said Hlee, the land had lots of tall grasses with paper and garbage blowing around. “We used to come in to volunteer, cut it out and clean up everything.” Because of the large number of voracious deer in the area, volunteers had to build a tall fence around the garden plots.
Hlee’s been involved with the community garden as a gardener, the leader of a neighborhood Hmong parents group, and a facilitator of a Hmong student group. The garden remains very popular, and has a long waiting list for plots, according to Hlee. She said Hmong elders are especially fond of the community garden because it reminds them of farming in the hills of Laos prior to emigrating to the U.S.
There is great diversity in the people who garden at the community garden, besides Hmong. Hlee told me that Chinese, Somali and other Africans have garden plots.
The garden truly is a community, said Hlee. She explained that gardeners have a pot luck meal in May each year in front of the garden “to get to know each other and who’s new and who’s here a long time. And we do some kind of a speech for all the people to introduce each other.”
And, Hlee added, If the weather cooperates gardeners get together again in October for a garden closing celebration. Most of the food is used by the gardeners and their families, but they also share. “We donate some vegetables for the East Side food shelter.” Before I left Hlee gave me a lovely cucumber she grew.
Hlee and I finished talking in plenty of time to make the short pedal to Totem Town for its closing ceremony. This was my second trip to Totem Town, having previously explored the extensive grounds on a 2017 ride.
One of the first announcements was there would be no tours of any buildings because the County was doing inventory of belongings in preparation for a public sale. With that, I left the ceremony and began exploring the basement and three floors of the main building, the location of the closing ceremony. The main floor had exhibits for visitors to browse.
After leaving Totem Town, I went back to Londin Lane and Winthrop Street to capture a couple of shots of a the sprawling Afton View Apartments.
The apartment complex, built in 1970, consists of two nearly identical three-story buildings that, from the air, closely resemble squat letter Hs. Ramsey County records indicate the complex consists of 286 apartments.
Resuming my more leisurely ride home, I took the time to stop at the City’s archery range near the northern end of the Fish Hatchery Bike Trail.
West Seventh/West End
The final stop was along Randolph Avenue, just east and south of Shepard Road. This was part of Shepard Road from when it was built in the late 1940s. When Shepard was relocated north, away from the Mississippi River (toward the bluffs) in the mid-‘90s, this part of the former Shepard Road became an eastern extension of Randolph Avenue.
Since Shepard Road’s relocation, parks, trails and scenic overlooks have taken the place of the highway and heavy industry between the Randolph-James intersection and Downtown.
This trip to Highwood was especially enjoyable. Because it was my second time there, nearly every twist and turn of the road offered something new to see. Even better, Hlee Xiong and Jeff Hehn shared their unique views of gardening and people in Highwood. Here is the link to the map of this ride.