Down through the centuries, every city has had them. Small enclaves of residential housing, usually no more than hovels and shacks, where succeeding waves of immigrants first established themselves in a new town. The Twin Cities are no different. Each has had its own pockets of poverty where first timers got their start before moving up through the generations to someplace better.
Most folks my age are locked into their own generational history and their own decades of living in that black and white world of their parents homestead and first neighborhood. As such, it’s easy forget all those who came before us. Those early settlers who established their own little enclaves of like-minded souls after the frontier had been established and towns like Saint Paul and Minneapolis slowly began to grow into metropolitan areas. Through the decades and multiple generations, immigrant populations all found their own areas of settlement.
Unbeknownst to me back then, I was on the tail end of the slow demise of a lot of those early settlements in the Twin Cities. Back then it was my world. It shaped me. It formed my work ethic, drive, insecurities and hunger for more.
While our family was still whole, Irvine Park became our second neighborhood to live in after the duplex on Smith Avenue.
Our ancient six-plex apartment building was next door to Little Sisters of the Poor. The Wilder Playground and daycare was up the street. DP (displaced people from World War Two) lived in tenement housing just down the block. There was the Gem Theater and a small ethnic neighborhood grocery store within walking distance. Out my second story window, I could see low-income housing across the street and the Ramsey house on the corner.
Old East Saint Paul had all but disappeared by the time I was a grade school commuter to downtown Saint Paul. Our relatives (mainly aunts and uncles) in East Saint Paul would hardly acknowledge its existence. By then, the Swedes and Norwegians were being slowly replaced with brown-skinned immigrants from south of the border. My relatives were either isolating themselves from those newcomers or had moved on by then.
The West Side of Saint Paul was OK but we were cautioned to keep away from the flats. By that time the Jews and Poles had moved on and the Mexicans had moved in. I learned early on that my Mother still harbored the ignorance and fear of her rural forefathers for others not like her.
Little Italy was a tiny enclave of immigrants from Italy who worked at West Publishing, Schmidt Brewery and Hamms Brewery in East Saint Paul. I can remember walking along the Mississippi River and hitch-hiking my way downtown. Yearly spring flooding finally forced the city to condemn the entire area and raze all the houses there.
Bohemian Flats came first and then was followed by the Gateway District. Both areas attracted the bottom of the immigrant barrel. Both succumbed to newer generations climbing up the economic ladder and leaving the area.
Above the Bohemian Flats, the West Bank neighborhood sat across the Mississippi from the University of Minnesota. By the time I arrived on scene (during my wannabe hippie phase) it had been slowly crumbling away for decades. By the mid-sixties, it had become just a sad reminder of working class neighborhood it had once been.
The Lower Town part of downtown Saint Paul was just beginning its transformation from decrepit to decidedly middle class when my employer, Twin Cities Public Television, moved its facilities from Como Avenue to Lower Town.
Now in the autumn of my years a new frontier has been established in North East Minneapolis with the convergence of the Northrup King manufacturing plant into artist studios. The grain-milling plants, small factories and Eastern European enclaves are slowly being replaced with artists’ lofts, new apartment buildings and commercial development along major corridors. This time around, the artists as well as newly arrived immigrants are forcing the changes in the area.
In so many ways, it is still a melting pot like so many of the enclaves that came before it. Areas of exclusion from the cookie-cutter mainstream of society. A place for those who don’t live a nine to five existence, white picket fence and chicken in the oven kind of life. A bit out of the mainstream and happily creating new currents of their own.
Welcome home again.