Tuesday, March 9, 2021

On the Street Where You Live

Like the emptiness of a Paris winter, we often times don’t see what’s all around us as we trudge through the streets of life. In 1929, the great French architect Le Corbusier turned from designing houses to the planning of cities. His classic book shocked and thrilled a world already deep in the throes of the modern age.

One of Le Corbusier’s favorite arguments was that there is an order to things and an order in our lives whether we know it or not. Growing up in Saint Paul, I was hardly aware of the urban changes going on all around me. It signaled the end of one period of growth for the City and a slow painful aging process that followed. Old St. Paul was gradually being replaced with a newer version of itself. Turns out there were subtle changes going on all around me while I was pondering third grade math in grade school downtown.

Old Saint Paul proper was going through its last death rattles as I boarded a city bus each day to attend ‘the little French school’ on a hill overlooking downtown. The city, which had once prided itself as the steamboat capitol of the upper Midwest, had long ago thrown on the cloak of growing wealth and opulence of its early pioneers. Thus had begun a new period of brick and mortar replacing stick buildings with turn-of-the-century modernism. Yet by the mid-to-late-forties, time and a changing demographic had spelled the end of its downtown area as a core of business, social and economic growth.

Le Corbusier had defined the parameters of a great city back around the turn of the century and metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities and New York were struggling to find and define a new definition of a livable city. Urban development ran rampant and old neighborhoods were falling victim to the times.

Old St. Paul was a Midwestern repeat of New York City’s Jane Jacobs and her continuing battles with transportation czar Robert Moses fighting to save whole neighborhoods from being swept away by elevated highways slashing through their communities. Only in the case of Saint Paul, Interstate Highway 94 won out and the Rondo community fell by the wayside.

From 1943 through 1949, I was living on the outskirts of downtown, moving from one rental to the next. Growing up near downtown St. Paul, I was too young to understand the organic changes happening all around me. Even after we moved to the Highland Park neighborhood, I was still too young to understand the ever-changing cityscape from 1949 through 1957, as I traveled to downtown St. Paul each day.

photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

From 1957 through 1961, I was pretty much cloistered in my own neighborhood with frequent trips to first ring suburbs like Roseville. After 1961and high school graduation, downtown St. Paul had become a place to avoid because there was nothing there of interest for me.

My horizons broadened with time in the service, living abroad, and finally settling into a hovel near the University of Minnesota. The West Bank, Como area, and Dinkytown became a place of refuge for me. Little did I know at the time that the entire area, especially north of Dinkytown, was going through revitalization with dozens of old mansions like my ghetto being torn down for modern student apartments.

Fast forward many years later and I was working at our public television’s new digs in downtown St. Paul. By the late seventies, the Lowertown area of St. Paul had started to come out of its century’s old shell of neglect and decay. The area east of the downtown core began to take on the accoutrements of an urban village; at least in the minds of developers and real estate speculators.

By then I was settled into a third ring suburb and raising kids in a modest yet comfortable environment. The thought of living in the cities never occurred to me. Jump ahead another twenty years and my daughter now lives in St. Paul, less than five blocks from where I was raised. She and her husband love their home, their neighborhood, and new St. Paul.

Sharon and I now have to travel to my old stomping grounds to see our grandchildren in a neighborhood filled with young families eager to enjoy the benefits of living in the city.

I guess it’s true; what goes around comes around.

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