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Harriet Island Marks West Side Rebirth
By William Wilcoxen
September 8, 2000
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A $14 million face lift of Harriet Island Regional Park has revived a century-old gathering place on the Mississippi River. The park renovation, combined with this summer's news that new housing and jobs are coming to the river flats, is creating a new momentum for Saint Paul's West Side.
The refurbishing was funded partly through a buy-a-brick program and includes a grand staircase to the water's edge and a pedestrian gateway through the flood levee, connecting the park to the West Side's residential area.
See larger image.

(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)

FOR SAINT PAUL'S YOUNG PEOPLE walking from a home on the West Side flats over to Harriet Island and dipping a toe in the Mississippi River is a new idea, maybe even a radical concept. They know the flats as an industrial park and Harriet Island as a place you drive to, where fences and concrete rip-rap separate you from the river. But that's changing as a new west side emerges, one that will bear some resemblance to an old, vanished West Side.

Today Len Levine can stand in a parking lot on the flats near the river, point at various industrial buildings, and describe the neighborhood that existed here through the 1950s. Levine, who went on to become a city council member and the state transportation commissioner, remembers a community that was close because of its compact size and because of the emotional ties among the immigrant families who lived there.

"I lived two doors down from the original Lady of Guadeloupe Catholic Church and next to the synagogue," he says. "The Neighborhood House was around the corner. And in between there were homes and markets and general store and bakery and schools. It was a self-contained community."

Overlapping waves of Irish, Jewish, Arab, Latino, and Southeast Asian immigrants have looked to Neighborhood House as their West Side community center to learn English, play football, get vaccinated, or attend a dance. It was one of the last buildings demolished when the city levelled the flats in the early 1960s under the banner of Urban Renewal. The flats became an industrial park and its former residents scattered.

Bitterness over being uprooted from the flats has lingered for many West Siders, particularly those who feel they were not duly compensated for their homes and businesses. But up on the bluff, the Upper West Side, as it's sometimes known, the neighborhood's affordable housing and acceptance of diversity continue to make it a magnet for immigrants.

Fred Perez, who came to the West Side 20 years ago, calls the area Minnesota's Statue of Liberty. But he says newcomers soon learn the legacy of how the flats were cleared and sense the bitterness of their elders.

The Wigington Pavilion has been "winterized" to allow events on Harriet Island's historic building during cold-weather months. It was designed by one of Minnesota's first black architects.
See larger image.

(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
"It didn't affect me one-on-one because I wasn't here during that period," says Perez. "But I hear about it constantly from the family members who were there. So, it's good to know that the land comes back to people."

Harriet Island, one of the most-beloved parts of the West Side, will be given over to the people at a grand opening celebration that follows a year-long renovation. Landscaping crews were still laying sod, while tents were going up in preparation for an all-day party that will include an orchestra concert and fireworks.

For much of the 20th century, the park served as a gathering place and recreational spot for West Siders. The refurbishing was funded partly through a buy-a-brick program and includes a grand staircase to the water's edge and a pedestrian gateway through the flood levee, connecting the park to the West Side's residential area.

City Council member Chris Coleman, who represents the West Side, says the park is a spiritual place for the neighborhood.

This summer city officials forged deals with a private developer and with U.S. Bank, calling for construction of new housing and office space on vacated industrial land on the flats. The protection of a flood wall and the proximity to a resurgent downtown help make the location valuable and the riverfront housing is expected to be pricey.

Some West Siders welcome a chance to bring economic as well as ethnic diversity to their neighborhood. Others fear that tax increases, the byproduct of surging property values, could lead to the oldest residents being again pushed out of the community.