West Side: When Everything At Play Isn’t Enough

Three weeks ago, I knew nothing of the West Side. Give me a map and I would have never been able to point out the place. Ask for an adjective about the area and I would falter, unable to find an honest reply. A neighborhood in name only, St. Paul’s West Side was simply invisible, entirely insignificant to me and my future.

And then I was assigned to analyze the area inside and out, and everything changed.

Researching this region neither nuances nor complicates a contemporary understanding of intercultural communication. Rather, understanding particular city pockets supports current conceptions. According to Intercultural Communication in Contexts, positive and negative aspects arise when dealing with cross-culture relations. Examinations allow us to learn about others and ourselves concurrently, yet a proliferation of prejudice may be born from the very same interactions (pg. 4).

An absolute appreciation of culture requires an equal understanding of the interconnected contexts that shape it. The history of the West Side, for example, formed the initial impressions of America for all original immigrants who inhabited the area. Jewish citizens saw it as a mere stopgap, a simple settlement meant to be anything but permanent (Nelson & Lyons 2006). Finding sufficient finances to be the only ticket onto the train ride out, perhaps even the iconic Neighborhood House was created not as a community anchor (as presently described by the Twin Cities Daily Planet), but an exit. Assisting residents to succeed, the establishment effectively provided the priceless economic and interpersonal tools necessary for social mobility beyond the West Side.

Jews didn’t hesitate to take this opportunity, and soon the West Side became associated with Hispanic populations instead. Even when faced with total relocation as a result of redevelopment for the oft-flooded flats, however, this cultural group chose to embrace its heritage and secure a community with visible personality (Twin Cities Daily Planet). Thus, District del Sol was born with meaningful Mexican influences.

Although obviously oblivious to the outcomes at the time, the founders failed to foresee the long-lasting impacts of their good intentions. As discussed in our final presentation last Thursday, the West Side of St. Paul now falls victim to stereotypes as being exclusively Latino. Past presumptions of a poor neighborhood managed to survive for a century as well, as recounted during an interview with a young local: “Many times people refer to West Side as the ghetto, where there is a lot of violence and only poor people live.” Evident here, economic and social standing sprung straight from neighborhood history all act in tandem to determine today’s intercultural communication.

The West Side community is not only physically separated from greater St. Paul by the wide berths allotted to the Mississippi River, but the area is also socially segregated in terms of immigrant culture. Immediately, language literally prohibits communication out of a new resident’s home culture, impeding interaction with others in or out of the neighborhood. In this sense, Neighborhood House continues its historical mission for education through English classes, even encouraging intercultural communication among the locals in the process. When asked about interactions across ethnic groups, a woman employed at the Neighborhood House enlightened me with the organization’s contributions to the community:

“Well, I would say generally they stay with their ethnicities, with their people, so to speak. But in our English classes they’re all intermingled and they try to get them to know each other’s cultures well. So they’ll have cooking classes during English class and one week they’ll make Somali food, the next week they’ll make Hmong food, the next week they’ll make Karen food, the next week they’ll make…whatever! And so they each get a taste of each other’s culture, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, we really aren’t all that different! Oh, you use cilantro too! Oh, I thought only we used cilantro!’”

Previously as foreign to one another as the country they now inhabit, immigrants are able to break through cultural barriers through the facilitation of intercultural communication in a common context that everyone can relate to (in this case, food preparation). While only one example of many, this anecdote nonetheless provides an uplifting outlook to the potential ease of initiating free-flowing conversation between people with wildly different backgrounds.

The typical identity of a West Side resident (if there even is such a thing) is an entity torn by local pride and outsider observations. Driven by dark and dreary mass media (mis)representations, the neighborhood has received a serious stigma:

 ”The news only talks about the negative stories, the violence and the poverty…It sometimes makes me not want to tell people where I am from. I am afraid they will judge me as something I am not.”

A direct product of conflicting or incomplete intercultural communication, this reflection from the local interviewee mentioned earlier shows how poor understandings disempower these people. Natural identity development is forever at odds with what the world perceives a West Sider should be, and many are left lost between embracing heritage and casting aside culture to escape discrimination.

The topic of my previous post, political power with regard to the West Side provides a source of hope to maintaining one’s true identity. Influential government figures are actively invested in the support and improvement of the neighborhood, and outstanding organizations like the West Side Community Organization and Riverview Economic Development Association provide pathways for local engagement to enhance self-esteem. Still, is this enough? Can but two (admittedly important) politicians change an entire area within Minnesota’s main metropolitan area? While helpful on the individual and community scale, are pushes for personal pride making a measurable difference through the Twin Cities’ grand scheme?

Being the critical pessimist I’ve become (college is to blame, I’m sure), I have to answer “no.”

I have lived in St. Paul for nearly three years. I’ve explored the city, wandered its streets, and gotten lost for long lengths of time. And yet, I had never heard of the West Side.

As long as this problem persists, as long as outside populations are unaware of the unique diversity only seen in St. Paul’s West Side, intercultural communication is insignificant. Culture cannot influence communication between neighborhoods because communication doesn’t exist between neighborhoods. Like nearby nations refusing to cooperate with one another, these independent areas operate in lieu of any external interactions. Boundaries, whether physical or imaginary, contain more than our homes on a map. Entrapped in our own comfort zones, immersion in other sections, in other cultures, is out of the question.

Fortunately, the problem is a potential solution.

Intercultural communication can open doors, build bridges, and facilitate relationships between detached groups like those sprinkled across the Twin Cities. Pulling from the Neighborhood House employee’s recollection again, all we need is relatable common ground to create connections. As an Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management undergraduate student, I do not have all of the answers, and cannot provide a checklist to achieving a society of honest and open relations. I do, however, know the end goal. My power post ended on a simple and straightforward but significant statement, and I believe it belongs here as well:

We need intercultural communication.

Now how do we get there?


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 fromhttp://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2011/02/07/videos-feature-history-culture-st-pauls-west-side-flats-and-district-del-sol

Nelson, P., & Lyons, L. (2006, June 1st). Tour Saint Saul: West side. Retrieved from http://historicsaintpaul.org/files/westside.pdf


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Filed under Analysis #3 -- Final Reflection

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