Rachel Busse: Revival on the East Side of St. Paul

The Golden Harvest market sits empty. It’s Saturday, still early in the afternoon, but quiet as the dawn.

Squeaky-wheeled carts should be rattling down the aisles, jamming with the beep-beep-beep of checkout scanners. Shoppers waiting at the deli for papaya salad and egg rolls should be recalling the dangers of shopping while hungry. Fidgety children, eyes glued to the candy display, should be pulling on their parents’ jackets, promising to be good for the rest of the week if granted a treat.

But the shelves hold nothing but a fine layer of soot. Without the hum of refrigerators and the fluorescent glow of freezers, the store feels cavernous, silent, dark.

It was dark when the fire started in the kitchen at the back of the grocery. The flames were small, but thick clouds of smoke rolled everywhere. At 3:45 am, a police officer patrolling the East Side of St. Paul saw the smoke billowing out of the store and into the frigid February air. The fire department contained the fire fast, but the damage was done.

Weeks later, smudges of smoke still scar the hem between the ceiling and walls. The entire stock — aside from what the freezers and refrigerators contained — was too smoke-tainted to sell.

In years past, a fire like this might have left the store lying charred and fallow for years. But today, this historic part of the city is changing quickly. Golden Harvest owner Noucheng Shua Xiong, a touchstone of this revival, is planning to rebuild the market, eager to reopen and commemorate he and his wife Jou Lee’s 20th anniversary in business.

Neither the dumpsters full of unopened food nor the ash-covered appliances trouble him most. As he walks through the store, each soot-crunching step foreshadowing the clean-up underway, Xiong says what really stings is laying off nearly 100 employees, most of them East Siders.

“Being on the East Side means we need to be a part of the East Side, not take from it,” he says of his Payne-Phalen neighborhood, one of the most ethnically diverse in the Twin Cities. Nearly 70 percent is a blend of Asian, Latino, African-American and mixed-race residents. Like Xiong, many are Hmong, who have made the Twin Cities home to the largest urban population of Hmong in the world.

Despite the fire, Xiong and many others believe the East Side is a story of potential steadily realized. Every day, 8,000  cars roll down Payne Avenue, along a medley of corner stores, coffee shops, carnicerias and chiropractors. The thoroughfare is increasingly visited for its restaurants: Cook St. Paul, Tongue in Cheek, Brunson’s Pub, and older favorites Eastside Thai, Magnolia’s, and Yarusso’s. The restaurant business is fickle; despite being well-loved, Payne Avenue’s Ward 6 closed its doors this month after five and half years in business. But new eateries continue to pop up. Cookie Cart opened a St. Paul location on Payne at the end of May.

When the Payne-Arcade Business Association meets each month in the wood-paneled upper room at Brunson’s, members graze on hummus and chicken wings while hatching plans to bring more activity to the Avenue. One goal is to freshen the 112th annual Harvest Festival Parade, making the Sept. 22 fanfare more representative of the community.

Parlaying the excitement over East Side eateries into a greater number of parade-goers seems a reasonable goal. They’ll be hungry for lunch as soon as the last street-sweeping machine dispatches the remaining paper cups and Tootsie Roll wrappers from the street.

Neighborhood investor Dimitri Hatzigeorgiou strongly believes restaurants and coffee shops are driving East Side development.

“There’s a thing called the third place. The first place is the home, the second is work, and the third is the place we go to relax and read, and listen to music and talk and spend time with other people,” says Hatzigeorgiou, a business association member.

On Payne Avenue, third places are central to the economic encore of the once-thriving East Side. Newcomer Caydence Records & Coffee offers color and comfort with creative drinks, eclectic records and live music all weekend. Opened in 2016, the shop won the City of St. Paul’s 2018 New Kid on the Block Award.

The building is owned by Hatzigeorgiou, who recently bought Payne’s crown jewel, the old Swedish Bank Building. He plans to transform the historic building into an event hall, bringing energy to the Avenue after 5 p.m.

Moreover, the St. Paul Port Authority is redeveloping 40 acres at the former 3M headquarters site, and the defunct Hillcrest golf course will be for sale soon. With 110 acres of unpolluted land, the site presents a major opportunity for redevelopment.

The East Side certainly has a precedent of prosperity. In the mid-20th Century, it boomed with streetcars rattling along Payne, where shoppers came to hunt for dresses and shoes, and lutefisk for lunch. The neighborhood thrived around three major employers: Hamm’s Brewery, 3M Co., and Seeger Refrigerator Company (later Whirlpool), where the progeny of Scandinavian, German, Irish and Italian immigrants dominated the workforce.

With factories humming, the neighborhood boasted many blue-collar workers whose jobs enabled them to pay all the bills, drive a nice car and own homes with garages and gardens out back.

But after the companies closed factories, the area was left with few job opportunities. St. Paul City Council Member Dan Bostrom recalls that at the height of the Great Recession just 10 years ago, there were 32 vacant storefronts in a one-mile stretch of Payne.

“It was pretty brutal,’’ says John Vaughn, executive director of the East Side Neighborhood Development Co., a nonprofit that promotes safe, diverse, and healthy neighborhoods on the East Side.

The East Side’s faded blue-collar background, with its once more-affordable housing, meant a disadvantage during the recession. Amid the 2008 housing market crash, the only area in Minnesota hit harder than the East Side was North Minneapolis.

“We had the second- and fourth-worst foreclosure rates of all the zip codes,” Vaughn says. “It went: North Minneapolis, East Side, North Minneapolis, East Side, Frogtown.

“So yeah, we got nailed.”

But a recovery is clearly underway. With more residents and visitors entering the area, leaders are emphasizing safety in the streets and in the homes, with the Old Swedish Bank Building as a herald of change.

“Everybody knew that Payne Avenue would never go anywhere with its main building looking like Dresden,’’ Vaughn says.

So, the development company restored the bank building into offices, owning it for many years with the goal of selling it back to the private sector, where it could add to the tax rolls. It did that, passing ownership to Hatzigeorgiou.

“Now we’re tenants,’’ Vaughn says. “I’m very happy I’m not fixing any more toilets.”

Beyond developing commercial projects, one priority of Vaughn’s organization is the safety of children, who comprise more than 30 percent of Payne-Phalen’s population. A recent study found the East Side includes six census tracts where children registered higher levels of lead in their bodies than those in Flint, Mich., so the development company is helping replace lead-painted windows.

Taking a smoke break outside Caydence Records & Coffee, his exuberance rising above the din of passing cars, Caydence co-owner Chad Medellin has much to say about the changes.

“The dream is not to restore Payne Avenue to its former glory. I’ve heard all kinds of stories from the old-timers, and look, that time has gone. It’s a different world we live in,’’ says Medellin, new president of the business association.

Change always has been an element of the East Side. Throughout its history, the area has been an early home for immigrants; a gateway to the customs and culture of the United States. Hmong immigrants, Vaughn says, were essential to keeping the neighborhood alive after the factories closed.

While honoring the past, Medellin craves new people – residents and visitors – in the neighborhood.

“It’s not even about expanding our piece of the pie. It’s about making the pie tin bigger so that everyone gets a bigger slice,’’ he says.

But how do you find balance in a denser, reshaped neighborhood; a comfortable covenant between Section 8 housing and high-end condominiums, for example?

The line between revitalization and gentrification often is fuzzy. Edward Goetz, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, says the “perennial question” of urban planning is how to stimulate a community without displacement, because displacement often happens on racial lines.

Gentrification is tricky. Prices balloon and push vulnerable populations out, followed immediately by changes in culture and character. Yet, letting run-down sections languish is not good, either.

The ideal scenario is public investment heating up without boiling over; steady, stable growth is the goal, Goetz says. But it’s a fine balance.

Public investment is precious. Urban planners often take a triage approach, targeting a building with a pulse when deciding where to develop while leaving the worst behind. Other times, they saturate a larger area with several investments in hopes of adding heat gradually, growing low and slow so no one gets burned.

Equity is also a concern. Many East Siders long believed their section of the city wasn’t receiving fair funding, and a 2017 University of Minnesota study confirmed they received just 19 percent of the city’s public construction investments in the 2006-2015 period despite making up a third of the city.

Gentrification doesn’t happen overnight, so experts watch for signs, too. Many study the housing market, but Goetz says some are focused commercially, counting new Starbucks stores as heralds of gentrification.

So far, there are no signs of Starbucks in Payne-Phalen. Most of the new businesses are small and independently owned, such as the Hmong Village shopping center, where hundreds of Hmong entrepreneurs have begun their businesses.

For comparison, the East Side is similar historically to Northeast Minneapolis. The pair share a blue-collar, immigrant-built history where industries moved out and left factories and warehouses behind. Yet, Northeast is a classic “case of overheated success,” Goetz says.

As one study describes, Northeast Minneapolis’ reputation for fostering creativity led to an influx of young entrepreneurs, trend-makers and artists who flocked to vacant warehouses for affordable spaces. Northeast now has the greatest concentration of breweries in the Twin Cities. It developed quickly, and it’s an increasingly expensive place to live, a fact that troubles some longtime residents.

Self-described “East Side chauvinist” Jane Prince, a St. Paul City Council member, is aiming for gradual development that makes the East Side a more equal part of the city. She emphasizes that growing a strong tax base is key to a self-sufficient neighborhood.

“If we fail to grow and develop, the East Side becomes a burden. It’s important that the city be balanced so that we can have healthy growth — a growth that lifts everyone,” Prince says.

Back at the Golden Harvest, Xiong says the renovation allows him to redesign the market to reflect an increasingly diverse clientele.

“Our original goal was simply to make this a neighborhood grocery store, but it happened that we were Asian owners so we were able to attract more Asian customers.

“But now we’ve started seeing that people are more comfortable shopping at each other’s restaurants and establishments. And our management team, though not perfect, does reflect that kind of thing, too,” he says.

So far, the Golden Harvest has a manager who is white, a manager who is Karen, and two managers who are female.

But sometimes, reflecting inclusiveness is as easy as condiments.

“Take the hot sauce for example,” he says. “You’ve got hot sauce from your traditional mainstream market, to your Hispanic kinds of hot sauce, and Asian hot sauce. All of those fall under the same category, so we don’t distinguish between them.’’

Segregating groceries by culture just isn’t right for the East Side, Xiong says.

“My idea is that we keep everything together.”

 

Rachel Busse is a student at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

 

 


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