East Side Freedom Library receives $75,000 grant

An independent library on St. Paul’s East Side will receive a $75,000 grant from the Otto Bremer Trust to help finance a staff position and fund other projects.

The East Side Freedom Library, located on Greenbrier Street, is one of the 65 Andrew Carnegie library sites in Minnesota. It’s one of 22 that’s still used for its original purpose.

The current library — founded by Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary — owns a collection of over 20,000 donated books, art pieces and other materials. Historical information about labor, immigration and social movements line the walls and shelves.

Rachleff said some of the grant will go toward funding their only paid staff member, associate director Clarence White.

The grant also will help them with their next project, replacing the heating and cooling unit. Freedom Library has collected the $250,000 toward purchasing one. That funding has come from public organizations, private foundations, individual donors and unions.

“It’s not a finished success, but there’s a lot of progress,” Rachleff said.


The library houses the Hmong Archives on site, in addition to thousands of other materials. Rachleff and Cleary have partnered on the collection with Marlin Heise, who started it 20 years ago.

The building is open to the public, but its resources are not available for checkout.

They asked a Hmong artist to create a mural on the stairway and invited people of eight different backgrounds to retell ancestral stories. This painting includes individuals of Hmong, African-American, Swedish, German, Italian, Dakota, Mexican and Karen descent. Each group is connected in a continuous scene, showing how various cultures experience the U.S.

“Art is an important part of storytelling,” Rachleff said.

Rachleff and Cleary wanted to create a place to provide context and connect people across generations and ethnicities, from National History Day projects to community series on the widening housing gap.

“If we could get people to tell their stories to each other … they actually have a lot in common,” Rachleff said.


The city of St. Paul maintains ownership of the space, while the library covers all utility and maintenance costs.

City council member Dan Bostrom advocated for a $1-per-year lease rather than the $365,000 sticker price. He proposed a 15-year rental agreement with the local couple.

Rachleff and Cleary signed a lease for the East Side location June 1, 2014, which ends April 30, 2029. Each year that passes, more repairs arise, so they say the Bremer grant will be helpful to meet costs.


The two moved to the Payne-Phalen district in 1999 and “felt how the neighborhood was changing,” Rachleff said.

By the late 1990s, thousands of union jobs disappeared as companies closed. A similar phenomenon happened across the country, according to Rachleff. Often when whites lost jobs and moved out, immigrants took their place in the community. Rachleff and Cleary wanted to provide a space that could connect ethnic groups in their neighborhood.

“We’re generating a great deal of positive activity here in the neighborhood,” Rachleff said.

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