Surrounded by streams of magnificent murals, Spanish architecture, and traditional Mexican mom-and-pop shops while standing in the heart of District del Sol, it’s hard to imagine that the people of St. Paul’s West Side have a troublesome past with repeated relocations. Given the diversity and prominence of so many immigrant groups within the area, these periodic inner-city cultural migrations are almost ironic considering the historical diaspora of the West Side’s current residents.
Shifts in culture came from the very beginnings of the St. Paul West Side. Situated just across the Mississippi River from downtown and running to the very edge of the city at Annapolis Street, this land originally belonged to the native Dakota people before the signing of treaties in 1851, as explained in the West Side tour guide. Finally becoming a part of St. Paul proper in 1878, the Twin Cities Daily Planet notes that the lower region known as the Flats soon attracted a, “vibrant, multicultural, immigrant community that thrived on St. Paul’s Mississippi flood plain.”
A Spanish Mural from the West Side
According to Live MSP, the initial French Canadian, German, and Irish foreigners saw an influx of Jews starting in the 1880s. Economic advancement and a Jewish immigration rate that slowed to a crawl with World War I coincided with a growing Mexican-American population throughout the Flats. Unlike a number of migrant Chicano seasonal workers seen in other parts of the nation, this location allowed for the booming community to fill the summer labor lost to WWI on sugar farms to the south while still able to obtain winter work at nearby meatpacking plants (Nelson & Lyons, 2006).
Not everything was always so positive, though, as the low-lying area was prone to frequent flooding and the entire expanse housed only lower-income families (Nelson & Lyons, 2006). Still, even with the bluffs acting as a real-world separation from the more affluent sectors of society, immigrants living in the West Side had a permanent place to call home…Or so they thought.
Neither flooding nor poverty would be the demise of this once Latino-dominant West Side subsection. Rather, a city initiative to redevelop the Flats forcibly relocated each and every resident by obliterating the infrastructure with hopes for a fresh and economically flourishing start (Nelson & Lyons, 2006). Of course, the unfortunate side-effect of this controversial plan meant an important prosperous community needed to find a new neighborhood of their own. Many experienced discrimination and racism for the very first time, with one man recalling the memories to the Daily Planet: “I really didn’t even know I was different from anybody until I moved off the flats area and experienced…prejudice.”
Cinco de Mayo in the West Side
Fortunately, the Mexican-Americans found West Side solace in the area now known as the District del Sol. Purposefully planning the district’s development with splashes of Hispanic influence, this haven for a large Latino population is home to cultural “anchors” (as the Daily Planet describes them) like the Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Family Churches, the long-time and family-owned businesses of El Burrito Mercado and Boca Chica, and the historically-significant Neighborhood House (Nelson & Lyons, 2006). Recently redesigned as the Wellstone Center, Neighborhood House was created in 1897 by a team of Jewish refugees with the purpose of supporting fellow Russian Jews seeking to escape discrimination. The site has since expanded its physical and active presence to reach all people in need, regardless of race or ethnicity. More information is readily available from the Wellstone Center’s website.
The very first St. Paul Neighborhood House
With such a rich and dynamic past involving a multitude of multicultural people, it’s easy to forget the other side of the story. Despite first impressions into the West Side’s historical research, the area was not completely comprised of Latinos and Jews. In actuality, the bluffs provided the perfect place for the more wealthy inhabitants to build remarkable residences in an architectural style that still stuns to this day. You need only to set foot on the Upper West Side and look out toward downtown to realize the reason behind the high-income clifftop settlements.
Beautiful downtown St. Paul
Others may argue, but Historic Saint Paul declares that, “No site offers better views of downtown Saint Paul than the bluffs of Prospect Terrace.” Like ancient lords watching over their kingdoms, the Ramsey County Historical Society describes how successful industrialists could literally look out over their labor force living and working on the lower land. Although a less distinct division today, Anthony Yoerg, a German who ran one of the most successful breweries in the city, likely did just this from his fabulous home atop the bluffs, a structure situated precisely in line with his own brewery along the limestone caves below (Nelson & Lyons, 2006).
Although it’s faced a few problems in the past, St. Paul’s West Side exudes a uniqueness not seen in most other cities, let alone neighborhoods. With so many sights, sounds, people, and places to experience, it only takes one quick trip to the area for you to never want to leave. Stay awhile and listen as the ever-changing history unfolds.
Almli, M. (2011, February 07). Videos feature history, culture of St. Paul’s West Side flats and District del Sol. Twin Cities Daily Planet. Retrieved from http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2011/02/07/videos-feature-history-culture-st-pauls-west-side-flats-and-district-del-sol
Live MSP. (2012). West Side. Retrieved from http://www.livemsp.org/neighborhoods/st-paul-neighborhoods/85-west-side-/137-west-side-
Nelson, P., & Lyons, L. (2006, June 1st). Tour Saint Saul: West side. Retrieved from http://historicsaintpaul.org/files/westside.pdf
Ramsey County Historical Society. (2012). Profile of Saint Saul’s historic West Side neighborhood. Retrieved from http://www.rchs.com/neighborhoods/westside.htm
The Wellstone Center. (2012). About us / history. Retrieved from http://www.wellstonecenter.com/aboutUs_History.htm