The Identity Crises of West Side St. Paul

     After looking into the historical background and contemporary context of West Side St. Paul, I have begun to get a better understanding of the neighborhood’s cultural make-up and identity. Through our visits to West Side and our conversations with local residents, my group has been able to assess the community and the context in which it was created. This has led us to gain insight to the diverse neighborhood and the many identities which reside there.

     In West Side, there is a healthy relationship between culture, identity, and context. As I discovered while researching the historical background of the area, there has been a consistent flow of immigrants coming in and out since the late 19th century (RCHS). This has lead to the culmination of many cultures and ethnic backgrounds to coexist in the small neighborhood. With each cultural group having a distinct set of characteristics creating their identity, this has lead to an interesting context, being the neighborhood, to compare and contrast these identities.   

Image     For example the Mexican community has been very prevalent in West Side for the past 100 years, having an obvious effect of the neighborhoods’ District Del Sol and institutional services. This has led to the creation of a very strong cultural identity for the Mexican community, due to the amount of cultural support in the form of the neighborhoods appearance and amenities, varying from the Spanish language market and clinic at the center of West Side to the large murals and art work spread around the area.

     This overt Mexican pride is interesting because according to the 2000 census the Latino community only accounts for 1/3 of West Sides’ population, while the majority is made up of Whites and smaller populations of Asians, Blacks and Native Americans.

     The sense of Mexican pride that exudes from most of the neighborhood has to have a negative effect on the other cultural and ethnic groups which make up a large part of the West Side population. Much like the examples of white privilege we see in our society, I wonder if there are cases of Latino privilege within the West Side community.

Image

     The image above is one of the Charlie Brown statues, which are located all around the Twin Cities. This particular one is place in the heart of District Del Sol and depicts the stereotypical Mexican Identity that the neighborhood is known for.

     While visiting the neighborhood, the businesses primarily looked as though they catered to the Hispanic community. Mixed into the middle of the commercial district was a lonely Somali market. Its’ presence reminds us that it isn’t purely a Mexican community, but the scarcity of other ethnically-specific stores leads me to believe that their cultural identity is not as strong in the neighborhood. West Side serves as a contextual lens to see how each ethnic group shapes their identity and how they interact within the neighborhood. In this specific neighborhood, I believe that each cultural identity is strongly influenced by their surroundings and the neighborhood itself.

     One of the reasons for this influence is the historical context in which the neighborhood was formed and continues to be created. The vast amount of new immigrants settling into the area has lead to a wide variety of identities to coexist. When West Side was first created, the German, Irish, and Jewish communities built it up and created strong residential and commercial areas. But in the 1960’s, an urban renewal project led to the destruction of many classic buildings and the creation of new construction which catered to the prominent population at the time, the Mexican community (Historic St.Paul).

     Since then there has not been much reconstruction or renewal project to revitalize the neighborhood. For this reason, a majority of the neighborhood still looks as though it belongs to the Mexicans, including the buildings, businesses and murals. Like I spoke about before, this aspect of the neighborhood is extremely important when thinking about identity creation in West Side. It creates the illusion of a Mexican-based cultural dynamic, which is far from the truth.

     The social context in which West Side is viewed also plays a large role in the construction of identity. As I discussed in my contemporary context report, West Side is viewed in the media many times as a site for violence or intercultural disturbances. While this is not completely true, the effects of these assumptions can be daunting for the neighborhoods residents.

     In one of our interviews, a resident discussed the reactions she gets from others when she tells them she grew up in West Side St. Paul, saying “Many times people refer to West Side as the ghetto, where there is a lot of violence and only poor people live. It sometimes makes me not want to tell people where I am from.” Having these types of characteristics assumed about your home can be very hurtful and leads to identity crises among residents who feel they can’t be proud of their neighborhood.

      When comparing West Side to the rest of the Twin Cities, it is clear to see that the identities present are strong and clear. The historical context of the neighborhood has allowed specific cultures and identities to flourish and as new ethnic groups assimilate into the community, there is an overwhelming sense of openness to others. This is engrained into West Side and is one of the many reasons why so many new immigrants choose to settle nearby. Though it may appear like a primarily Hispanic community, this is only a façade. Our research and experiences in West Side has led us to discover that is has much more to offer than what meets the eye.

Sources:

“Census Facts.” Wilder Research Center. Web. 25 May 2012. http://www.communitydataworks.org/StPaul/data/stpaul/nhood/dist3/profile.pdf

“RCHS.” Profile of Saint Paul’s Historic West Side Neighborhood. Ramsey County Historical Society. Web. 25 May 2012. http://www.rchs.com/neighborhoods/westside.htm .

“Historic Saint Paul.” Tour Saint Paul: West Side. 01 June 2006. Web. 25 May 2012. http://www.historicsaintpaul.org/newsroom/publications/west_side

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