Fighting Isolation with Art: The West Side’s Power Dynamics

There is something to be said about the physical geography of the West Side, and how that relates to power.

Geographer Tony Cassidy explains, “Geography is important, because it opens our eyes; a landscape is no longer a static feature, but a complex battleground of physical and human interactions.” (Stanwell)

To me, this quote explains how the West Side’s history and geography are constantly evolving, but the power struggle remains constant.  There is a distinct isolation in landscape between the West Side and the rest of St. Paul.  A river quite literally divides the two of them, and leaves an impression on travelers.  The West Side is technically within the borders of St. Paul, but it does not belong.   It is stuck in this quasi-limbo area between Dakota County and Ramsey County.  If you drive up the hill, you’d enter the city of West St. Paul.  If you drive over a bridge, you’d enter the business district of St. Paul.   There is no other area surrounding it on the neither same physical level nor socioeconomic background for it to grow into.

Much of this isolation stems from the way in which St. Paul originally acquired the West Side.  Since it did not belong to Ramsey County until it was annexed in 1878  from the Dakota people (Historic St. Paul), the isolation may have been purposeful.

The proximity to the river and the amount of industrial jobs made this area a hotspot for an immigrant community.  I believe that the annexation of the West Side was purposeful to increase the tax base, but to keep the immigrants secluded.  The West Side has nearly been pigeon-holed into being a spot for immigrants for the entire time it has been part of Ramsey County.  In my opinion, this was incredibly intentional.  The power struggle with the geography is to keep those who may not be “desirable” out of sight and out of mind.

I do want to mention that there is a strange exception to this view of the West Side.  Harriet Island is within the borders of this neighborhood, but it somehow does not fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.  It has a reputation for being a nice, riverside, urban park that draws that is very attractive to many.  It does not carry the stigma of being just for immigrants as District Del Sol does.  The fact that is can speak for itself as a reputable park without being bogged down by this unfair fear of immigrants is a form of power in itself.  It does not have the same burden to prove itself as a nice area like the rest of the West Side.

Although I’ve been talking a lot of the power struggles within this neighborhood, I do want to talk about the power triumphs as well.  The West Side historically has not been portrayed in the media in a positive light as I’ve described in my contemporary context blog (Looking Beyond the Headlines ). Even with these harsh viewpoints being blasted through the media, I feel the cityscape is a protest to this portrayal.

If you were to travel to the West Side, you would find one of the largest displays of public art in the Twin Cities. (The Line)  The public art includes huge, vibrant murals to wooden statues/sculptures that narrate a sense of power in the local community and the pride in one’s ethnicity.


The above picture was taken by me on one of my neighborhood visits.

Engraved into this sculpture are phrases like “viva la causa” (live for the cause) and “si se puede” (yes we can.)  Both of these phrases reference the following:

“Viva La Causa focuses on one of the seminal events in the march for human rights – the grape strike and boycott led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960s. Viva la Causa will show how thousands of people from across the nation joined in a struggle for justice for the most exploited people in our country – the workers who put food on our tables.” (Teaching Tolerance)

This type of art to me is a form of protest.  When there is an oppressor, the best way to protest that mistreatment is through pride in one’s culture.  The xenophobic behaviors would never be more agitated than when the culture they fear is positively portrayed, and it is vastly more effective than a violent method.

There are other pieces of art throughout the community as well that do not necessarily revolve around this movement, but they too are a sign of power to me.  They show a historical and ethnically driven pride in the community even after the cityscape was wiped clean in the 1960’s with the Urban Renewal Projects.  The gentrification of the neighborhood was not as successful as many of the other neighborhoods in the city because the community did not cooperate.  They rebuilt the area to fit their cultural context, and it restored a lot of the character and power back to the people.

Historic Saint Paul.” Tour Saint Paul: West Side. 01 June 2006. Web 5 June 2012.

“Viva La Causa” Teaching Tolerance.  Web 5 June 2012.

“West Side” The Line. Web 5 June 2012.

“Why Geography?” Stanwell. Web 5 2012.


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