Prospect Park neighborhood thrives despite changes

Prospect Park could become one of the 25 largest historical districts in the U.S.

Kevin McCahill

Joe Ring remembers what has disappeared.

Born and raised in St. Paul, the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association president said he easily points out the large factories and businesses that have disappeared over time.

McCormick-International Harvester, Gopher Oil and other large-scale businesses have long since shut their doors in the area. Also, the furniture mecca that once was University Avenue Southeast in the 1950s has now dried up.

But instead of focusing on the past, Ring is looking toward the future as the president of the association.

With a population of approximately 6,000, including more than 2,500 students, the neighborhood stretches from Oak Street Southeast to the border of St. Paul

Ring moved to Prospect Park in 1976 after living in New York City for two years. In the early 1990s, along with his wife, he first got involved working on Tower Hill Park, which Ring realized was in desperate need of improvement, he said, after he broke an ankle on its steps.

After a five-year effort, Ring and others raised approximately $500,000 to improve the park. Since then, he has tried to stay involved in neighborhood activities, he said.

“I like the community a lot,” he said. “I just want to give back.”

Ring has given back by trying to make sure the neighborhood residents maintain their rights in the shadow of the University. Ring said many businesses have closed their doors in the area, leaving much property to be had.

“The University is the largest entity that continues to gobble up property,” Ring said. “And the University has different goals than the people that are living here.”

The most recent acquisition by the University in Prospect Park is a 1.27-acre site in the 2500 block of University Avenue Southeast, purchased in September, that will become housing for patients receiving cancer treatment at the University.

Susan Weinberg, director of the University’s Real Estate Office, said the future facility will be a positive for the neighborhood.

“It’s a good fit to serve those patients who are receiving cancer treatments,” she said. “Before it was a rundown motel, so the property will be substantially improved.”

Ward 2 council member Paul Zerby, who lives in the neighborhood, said he has seen more students moving into the area, especially near St. Paul. Zerby said the neighborhood has retained a different reputation than other neighborhoods with students.

“We haven’t had the kinds of problems that have been the source of difficulty in Southeast Como and Marcy (Holmes),” he said.

According to Ring, Prospect Park is also working to become a designated historic district, which would make it one of the 25 largest historical districts in the country.

As a result, inventory must be taken of every dwelling in the district to create a data collection of the neighborhood. This process will take as much as two years, Ring said.

Prospect Park also houses many University students in residence facilities, such as the Melrose and University Village. Ring said students fit in well with the community, although he would like to see more student involvement.

Some students, such as political science senior Mark Erpelding, enjoy living in the neighborhood.

“I really like it,” he said. “It’s a nice residential area surrounded by a big city.”

Erpelding said he likes the mixtures of cultures he sees in the area.

Ring wants to see the neighborhood continue to thrive.

“It’s centrally located and close to the University,” he said. “It’s one of few communities where you can have your own plot of earth and feel like a traditional home.

“It certainly has the foundation for being an exceedingly good community for the city, but it isn’t guaranteed,” he said. “And that’s our struggle, to try and guide our community and city though the land mines.”