Tucked in a hidden corner of St. Paul, the massive Sibley Manor apartment complex has provided a home to wave after wave of new immigrants since it was built 66 years ago.
With as many as 1,800 people living in its 55 buildings, the complex is bustling. Mothers with young children in tow stroll down winding sidewalks. Immigrants visit a branch of the nonprofit Neighborhood House for help translating paperwork or deciphering medical bills. Around the corner, two basement-level apartments have been converted into an Ethiopian grocery store — the only place to shop since the local grocery store closed.
Long isolated from the rest of Highland Park, the area known as Shepard Davern has drawn new immigrants with housing that’s more affordable than in other parts of St. Paul. But change is coming, with the planned redevelopment of the Ford plant and the proposed streetcar line called the Riverview Corridor.
Residents and community leaders in Shepard Davern are already contemplating how to bring needed amenities to the area without driving up housing prices and pushing out the people who’ve made the area their home.
Jack Dobier, who’s lived in Shepard Davern for 10 years, said he worries about residents being displaced but believes redevelopment will be good for the area.
“I think the 20-year future for this area is really bright,” he said. “It’s the gateway into the city.”
Shepard Davern is located at St. Paul’s southwestern edge, across the river from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where many of its residents work. The rest of Highland Park stretches north.
The Highland Park neighborhood is wealthier than the city as a whole. The median household income, in 2016 dollars, was $73,482 — about $20,000 more than the St. Paul median, according to data from Minnesota Compass, a research project that measures social trends.
In comparison, the average Shepard Davern household earned $44,974 — and more than a quarter of households earned less than $15,000 — in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
Many residents say they chose to live in Shepard Davern because it’s what they could afford.
Cathy Strub remembers being told she was moving into a bad neighborhood when she bought her house at St. Paul Avenue and Edgcumbe Road in 1995.
Yes, there was a strip club called Casey’s nearby. But the Mac-Groveland native wanted to stay in St. Paul, and that was what she could afford. Today, the strip club is gone and Strub is still there — and like many residents, she takes pride in her side of the neighborhood.
“I always tell people I live in the middle-class Highland,” she said. “Not the upper-class Highland.”
On a Friday morning, Strub was working her regular volunteer shift at the Neighborhood House food shelf at Sibley Manor, which serves residents in the 55116 ZIP code. It’s gotten busier since the Cooper’s Foods at the nearby Sibley Plaza strip mall — the area’s only grocery store — closed last year.
These days, tenants at Sibley Manor are predominantly Ethiopian, and like their predecessors, will likely disperse as they settle into their new lives in America. “When you come here as a newcomer, you don’t know anything. I was there, too,” said Frewoine Gebrehiwot, family worker and site coordinator at Neighborhood House and an Ethiopian immigrant herself. “The thing is, they move on to the next level.”
The same family has owned Sibley Manor since it was built in 1952, and they’ve prided themselves on keeping rents low, said property manager Kathy Soderberg. As a Highland District Council board member, Soderberg is well aware of the plans for the Riverview Corridor — although she’s skeptical that she’ll ever see a streetcar line down West 7th.
She’s more concerned about what’s happening across the street at Sibley Plaza, where more than half the storefronts are vacant. A $50 million plan to remodel the strip mall fell through in 2016. “That’s been a really tough thing to bear, and to deal with, for our tenants,” Soderberg said.
Shepard Davern residents can take a bus to the Highland Village shopping center on Ford Parkway, but evening service is limited. Council Member Chris Tolbert, whose ward includes Highland Park, supports a Riverview streetcar route that will pass through the future Ford site and connect the upper part of Highland Park to Shepard Davern, West 7th and downtown.
“Connecting all of our neighborhoods has its benefits, but I particularly wanted to connect Shepard Davern to the [Highland] Village,” Tolbert said.
In the meantime, smaller changes are on the horizon. Negotiations with a grocer to fill the old Cooper’s space are expected to be finalized in the next few months, said Mike Sturdivant, director of real estate development at Paster Properties, which owns Sibley Plaza. The idea is that the grocery store will attract more tenants to the strip mall — maybe even a restaurant, he said.
Residents say they wouldn’t mind if the rest of Highland Park had a reason to visit their side of the neighborhood.
“People associate everything with up the hill,” said 30-year resident Bob Whitehead. “Up the hill needs to come down here.”