Follow the sounds of childhood laughter up and over the snowbanks and into Margaret Playground on the East Side. It is 1937, and as you near the hockey rink, you can see a small mob of adolescent boys and girls huddled together or sliding on the ice. They are joining the hockey goals into a small cage. Inside, giggling along with the others, are my grandmother and grandfather.
I am thankful my grandparents were caught in those hockey goals so many years ago. Because of them, we meet as a family every Friday night at their house. From across Johnson Parkway on a dark evening, you can see their house lit up and the cars of my family members parked outside. Inside, there’s a din of laughter, shouting, and several simultaneous conversations. There will always be pizza, and my Italian father and my Greek grandfather drinking red wine. “How the heck are ya?” my grandpa will exclaim, and I go over, give him a big hug, and kiss the top of his bald head.
Like many, I hold onto what I consider the essence of the East Side. I also fear that time will bring about the end of those things we hold dear. Whether it’s the old brick structures of the Hamm’s Brewery or simple Friday night family customs, we worry about having to say goodbye to those things we consider traditions.
But if there’s one crucial thing I have learned about the East Side of Saint Paul, it’s that our story is just as much about how we have learned to adapt to change as about the traditions we keep. European settlers first flourished in the area around what’s now known as Phalen Creek. The ravine became home to so many Swedish immigrants that it was known as Swede Hollow. Later, Irish, Italians, and Mexicans lived there as well. Homes were tucked wherever there was space, and outhouses were built over the creek. The hollow was basically a slum, but it was also a place that new Americans could call home. Someday they would move “up on the street,” as the Swedes did before them. Today, if you walk across from Yarusso’s and look down into the hollow, you may be able to hear the faint echoes of Italian songs, concertinas, and the rustle of grape vines blowing in the breeze.
In time, the Hamm’s Mansion rose like a castle above the hollow. Even though his brewery empire made him rich, Theodore Hamm remained on the East Side instead of joining fellow financial giants on Summit Hill.
Above the hollow, businesses like the Harvester Works, the Gypsum Company, 3M, Whirlpool, and the railroads eventually became important employers and contributors to the development and character of the neighborhood. Immigrants established new communities like Railroad Island. While the old and new immigrants were sometimes at odds, each gained their footing and could not survive without one another.
In time, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves was replaced by the whine of streetcars and the putter of automobiles. Payne Avenue became the East Side’s main drag, with restaurants, bakeries, delis, and clothing stores offering anything you needed.
When the Great Depression came, my grandma said so many people shared in the experience of being poor that no one realized how poor they actually were! President Roosevelt became a hero who put people back to work with such efforts as the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Many East Siders went off to fight World War II, while those staying home held scrap drives and took over the positions vacated by soldiers. When the war ended, the East Side saw a boom of prosperity and babies. This period of growth and development lasted until the 1980s, when production and manufacturing facilities began to shut down. Many who had worked on the East Side for most of their lives were forced to look for jobs elsewhere. Structures like the Whirlpool building became vast, empty husks. Traditional East Siders who remained began to see new waves of immigrants.
It was East Siders like Bruce Vento who welcomed these newcomers. Vento identified with the challenges facing Hmong immigrants, and in true East Side manner, he tried to ensure not only their inclusion but their success as members of the East Side community.
In time, improvements in the economy and the initiative of community members brought about revitalization on the East Side. New businesses were invited in, and projects like the Phalen Corridor and natural habitat restoration created a rebirth. Today, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary has recreated a setting similar to what our ancestors first saw along Phalen Creek. To the north, Lake Phalen is another success story: once the victim of development, it now stands as one of the most beautiful and accomplished natural restoration projects anywhere.
Old-timers may mourn the loss of the East Side’s smaller shops, but newer markets have sprouted up to take their place. At Ying’s Corner Express Foods on Seventh and Kennard, Ying is always there with a smile, sending you off with your groceries and a happy heart. You can find similar experiences awaiting you at Chiang Mai Deli & Foods on Maryland, the mercados on Payne, and Pastor Hamilton’s Barbeque on Seventh.
Some things have disappeared, never to return. Hamm’s mansion is gone and the brewery’s free, fresh water no longer flows. Martin Lumber has finally closed its doors, and the Viaduct, with its long wooden bar, no longer rests below the Earl Street Bridge. Even with the loss of favorite places and traditions, new ones appear, and they are just as valuable and important to the continuing history and vibrancy of the East Side. If the poorest of immigrants could make Swede Hollow sing on the coldest winter nights, then we, too, can create new traditions. Even when change erases the East Side’s older buildings, streets, structures, and people, the neighborhood lives on in the hearts of those who believe in it.
There may come a Friday when we no longer meet at my grandparents’ house on Johnson Parkway and when I no longer kiss my grandpa’s bald head. But we have been blessed with memories and must look forward to making new ones. We should smile when we see other families celebrating East Side traditions of their own.
So do your part in holding onto the East Side, create new traditions, visit the local businesses, and get to know its workers and owners. And the next time you are at Ying’s, tell him I said hi.
Tony Andrea is a travel videograinpher, educator, and proud East Sider. While his travels have brought him on many unique adventures, he claims that the more he travels, the deeper his roots grow into the East Side of Saint Paul. Furthermore, he is always available to help his hometown in any way he can!
Historical photos courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Collections. For more information about the Historical Society’s exhibit, Open House: If These Walls Could Talk, see http://www.mnhs.org/exhibits/openhouse/