Ray Widstrand gingerly scaled a railing and dropped into the yard of his old St. Paul apartment before climbing on top of a picnic table and giving his trademark thumbs-up sign.
It was the first time Widstrand, 27, had been back to his old place on the city’s East Side since he was nearly beaten to death last August by an unruly crowd and left unconscious and bleeding in the street.
“I lived,” Widstrand said, in his soft voice. “I feel like it’s a chance for me to start over.”
As Widstrand has struggled to recover from an attack that shocked the city, St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood has worked hard, too, to shake the memory of that violent night.
The neighborhood has opened a new community center that caters to local youth and families, attracted a number of new businesses along its commercial strip and found new ways to connect with police.
Serious crimes — such as aggravated assaults and robberies — reported in Payne-Phalen are down 13 percent compared to this time last year, police officials say. And locals say that the area has entered a new period of commercial and community rejuvenation.
What happened to Widstrand was a tragedy that deeply affected him, his family and the community, said Leslie McMurray, executive director of the Payne Phalen district council.
But, she added, both the family and the community are “highly resilient and moving forward.”
Widstrand had been living in Payne-Phalen for only a few months when he was attacked the night of Aug. 4, 2013, while walking through a crowd of teenagers who had been partying at a home on Preble Street near Minnehaha Avenue.
The group had spilled out on the street to watch some girls fight, and a witness said Widstrand was trying to help one of the girls get off the ground when he was assaulted.
He required multiple surgeries on his head and a year of rehabilitation. Five of the suspected attackers were charged; one teen has been sentenced to 16 years in prison, another was acquitted, a juvenile pleaded guilty, one case was dismissed and another is pending.
While recently visiting the spot where he nearly died, Widstrand simply shrugged. He said he felt nothing; due to the head trauma suffered in the beating, he has no memory of the attack.
What he does recall from his brief time living there are simple routines that brought him joy — listening to music in the back yard of his apartment, walking to the nearby Mexican grocery store.
“I don’t have bad memories associated with this place,” Widstrand said. “All the memories were good.”
Slow, hard progress
His mother, Linda, had a different reaction.
“It’s hard to be back here,” she said as she walked the block with Widstrand and his father, Peter.
Widstrand currently lives with his parents in New Brighton. After hundreds of hours of physical therapy, he can do most things himself except for driving. He’s still trying to get a license.
He can now walk, though he has a limp and sometimes needs a cane, and may always live with some mental and physical disabilities. His hair has grown back, covering the scars from his surgeries.
One of the biggest dilemmas he faces, as he nears his 28th birthday this month, is common for someone his age: What to do with the rest of his life.
He has resumed working part-time at a public-access TV station, but he is considering steering in a new direction.
Munching on a veggie burger at a neighborhood pub, Widstrand chatted with his parents about possibly writing a book or volunteering to work with youth. The latter option strikes a chord because of what happened last August.
“I think they needed more support,” Widstrand said of his attackers. “I wish that I could have done that for them.”
A neighborhood reborn
On a recent summer night, the new Arlington Hills Community Center, at Payne and Maryland avenues, was bustling.
Young people played basketball in the gym, while others played video games in the teen learning lab dubbed the Createch Studio.
Sean Ratliff, 17, was editing a documentary he had produced. He discovered the studio and a video camera class earlier this summer while waiting for a ride.
“I like being busy. This place keeps me busy,” said Ratliff, whose dream is to someday make movies.
More than 430 teens have registered to use the studio since the center opened in May. It offers hands-on classes and tech perks such as iPads, laptops and video games.
“Basically, we want teens to come in and figure out what they are passionate about,” said Marika Staloch, youth services coordinator at the St. Paul Public Library.
The community center also has a gym, fitness center and library. “We’re busy and that’s a good thing,” said facilities director Gina Stokes.
Other signs that the neighborhood is trying to turn things around include housing and street improvement projects as well as neighborhood beautification efforts, such as a plan to transform a vacant lot at Payne and Minnehaha avenues into a pocket park, McMurray said.
This year, the Plaza Del Sol business center, Cook St. Paul, Tongue in Cheek, Craw Daddy’s, and Xtravagant Events have set up shop on Payne Avenue, said Tim Herman, executive director of the East Side Area Business Association.
“The reality is that people can see the momentum going,” Herman said.
City Council Member Dan Bostrom, who represents the Payne-Phalen area, compares it to revitalization of the city’s Selby-Dale area since the 1980s.
“The word I think is getting out that it’s a good place to do business,” Bostrom said.
It also seems to be a bit safer, too. Police Sr. Cmdr. Matt Toupal, who leads the department’s Eastern District, said crime is down throughout the district.
Still, there are hiccups. Just last week, a woman was shot three times in a crossfire near Payne and Jessamine avenues, and one person was shot in the head and another grazed by a bullet during a shootout near Payne and York avenues.
And while the community center has been a blessing to many, there have been growing pains. Sometimes, after closing, young people have spilled into the neighborhood and committed crimes, Toupal said.
But police are working to strengthen relationships with residents through weekly community barbecues, and the city is using community ambassadors as a buffer between police and troubled youth.
Said Toupal: “I think what happened with Ray got people more engaged.”