St. Paul suburbs reflect U’s influence

Joe Carlson

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series discussing the diverse neighborhoods surroundings the University’s Twin Cities campus.

The parking lot behind the Milton Square shopping complex in the northern part of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood is small, but it isn’t because no one shops there.
Residents of the area, including University epidemiology instructor Beate Krinke, said that because nearly everything they need is within walking distance, their cars don’t get much use.
“I could get by without a car here,” Krinke said. “There probably aren’t many places where you can … live in a community and get along without a car.”
The neighborhood, which is in the extreme northwest corner of St. Paul, is one of two communities that border the University’s St. Paul campus. Though St. Anthony Park and its neighbor, the city of Falcon Heights, have developed their own unique atmospheres, each also reflects the influences of the University.
Falcon Heights is a first-ring suburb which surrounds the St. Paul campus to the north and east and has about 5,380 residents. Its local population, made up of many people who moved into the area after World War II, has made Falcon Heights a stable neighbor for the University.
Sue Gehrz, mayor of Falcon Heights, said the city’s relationship with the University has been amicable for the most part, although parking problems are chronic.
“Students and employees can park up a street pretty fast,” she said.
But city officials and the University do work together to solve small problems before they turn into major issues. Although some problems such as parking and traffic are not likely to ever be totally resolved, discussion of changes that will affect ongoing issues is helpful, Gehrz said.
In an effort to find those solutions, the Board of Regents invited Gehrz, along with the mayors of all the other cities that surround the University, to a meeting for discussion about community issues.
“The number one thing is … frequent communication,” Gehrz said, about how the actions of the city and the University will affect one another.
But the University probably doesn’t affect Falcon Heights as directly or noticeably as it does St. Anthony, a neighbor to the south and east.
“The University is considered a very good neighbor,” said Sue Davern, executive director of the St. Anthony Park Business Association.
There are fringe benefits to being a neighborhood surrounding the University; one being a site for research and community service.
The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University has given St. Anthony a grant for 130 hours of service from a graduate student to study the neighborhood’s 250 small and large businesses. After a report is created from the research, it will be used as a basis for city planning in the area.
“I know that there are quite a few educators living over there,” said Herb Crowell, the University graduate volunteer studying the neighborhood.
In fact, the faculty and student residents of St. Anthony make one major impact on the area.
“A lot of the people who live here work there,” Davern said.
One such person is Lisa Henrichs, a senior in Natural Resources. She is taking 20 credits at the University and also works at the Taste of Scandinavia deli in Milton Square.
“I’m a neighborhood person,” Henrichs said. “I live here, I work here, and I go to school here.”
Henrichs said before she transferred to the University, she lived in the Midway area of St. Paul — a more urban neighborhood that grew along University Avenue.
She said that she prefers St. Anthony to Midway, partly because people are more friendly and the neighborhood has less crime.
“I feel much safer in this neighborhood,” Henrichs said.
Another St. Anthony resident, Mary Johnson, echoed Henrichs’ sentiment. “It’s the one place where you can feel safe to walk down to the grocery store at night … Everyone says that living in St. Anthony Park is like living in a small town.”
And that’s one reason why Henrichs likes the neighborhood so much. She is from Luverne, Minnesota, a small town of about 5,000 people — a figure which is fairly close to her new neighborhood’s population of 6,656.
But that number — taken from the 1990 census — includes both north and south St. Anthony Park, and might be misleading.
“It’s kind of a disjointed community,” Crowell said.
St. Anthony Park is actually split into two parts by the railroad tracks, carrying products from primarily industrial businesses.
While residents and businesses in the north end of the neighborhood describe it as a community, the same is not true south of the railroad tracks. With the exception of a small area called Hampton park, which is relatively cohesive, the south side is made up of large industrial companies and business parks.
“Most people aren’t even aware of that (part) of St. Anthony Park, they just think of the north side of it,” Crowell said.
That includes some of the businesses within the neighborhood. Crowell said he has not detected any tension from the south end of the city, where businesses are excluded but don’t seem bothered by it.
The notion that the north and south sides are a single neighborhood calls into question the definitions of neighborhood and community.
Crowell said that to him, communities are areas where local residents and businesses work together in a reciprocal relationship.
He said a community is “an area that has a mix of residential and small businesses where the small businesses are actually serving the residents.”
In Falcon Heights, a large portion of the city’s land is occupied by large institutions and businesses such as the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and the St. Paul campus. Despite its name, the campus is completely outside the limits of the state’s capital city and is exclusively in Falcon Heights.
“Two-thirds of our land is tax-exempt,” said Gehrz. “That means that we have a very small tax base to support city services.”
To partially make up for limited resources with which the area works, volunteers take an active role in making sure that their community is visually attractive and inviting. One way this is done is by planting trees.
Many Falcon Heights residents celebrate the city’s Arbor Month, an occasion which occurs in May annually and is christened with an organized tree-planting project. This year, about 25 members of the Falcon Heights-Lauderdale Lions club got together to plant 36 trees along a small stretch of Snelling Avenue.
“The Minnesota Department of Transportation is required to spend a certain amount of money on beautification, and this is part of it,” said Joe Barrett, the member of the local Lions Club who is responsible for organizing this year’s Arbor Day tree planting.
As part of a state-funded beautification program, the transportation department provides cities with trees that the community must then plant themselves, explained Linda Treeful, Falcon Heights’ city forester.
And the city receives much praise for its verdant beauty. The National Arbor Day Foundation has declared Falcon Heights an arbor city every year since 1989, a title which it must earn in part through planting events such as the one last Saturday.
The city’s many trees are a testament to the longtime dedication and stability of the local community members. But the strength of a community does not lie in the new developments it is able to generate or the boundaries which define it. A strong community is rooted in personal relationships.
“It’s a difficult thing to define, and it doesn’t deal so much with geographical boundaries as it does with people … feeling some sort of connection,” Gehrz said.
“It depends on where people are interacting with one another,” she said.
And those interactions can only happen if people are exposed to one another over periods of time in cafes, at street corners and front yards.
In a strong community, “there’s not a turnover of people so that they don’t know each other,” Johnson said. “They stay in houses for a long time.”
But although a strong sense of community is important to many people, perhaps it is strongest when those in it are so comfortable around one another that they don’t even realize that it is part of one encompassing relationship.
“I just live here,” Krinke said. “I don’t really analyze it too much.”