Peter Rachleff is a retired labor history professor, an often-outspoken expert on workers’ struggles. Andrew Carnegie was a steel tycoon, whose union-busting ignited the violent Homestead strike near Pittsburgh in 1892 that claimed 16 lives.
Odd bedfellows, perhaps, separated by a century. But both men share the ardent belief that storytelling can improve communities — and the tale of their unlikely partnership is playing out on St. Paul’s East Side.
Carnegie attached some pragmatic strings to his lofty philanthropic goals. The Scottish-born titan of industry funded 3,000 libraries in 47 U.S. states and nine countries.
When he cut a $75,000 check to the city of St. Paul in 1914, the grant would finance construction of three brick libraries — joining more than 60 others across Minnesota. His offer required St. Paul to provide three suitable sites and kick in 10 percent of the grant’s total, or $7,500 annually, to buy books and pay librarians.
The buildings were designed in 1916 on the drafting table of 27-year-old Charles Hausler, in just his second year as St. Paul’s first city architect. As a teenager, Hausler had apprenticed under renowned architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago.
Fast-forward 100 years and two of those libraries — the St. Anthony Park and West Side Riverview branches — remain stalwarts of the city’s library system.
But an amazing transformation has enveloped their recently abandoned triplet, once known as the Arlington Hills Library at 1105 Greenbrier St. The rectangular box building, with its arched windows, was vacated in 2014 when the library moved into new, $16 million digs at a community center four blocks north on Payne Avenue.
That’s when a couple of professors who live nearby in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood turned a longtime dream into a viable scheme. Rachleff was just retiring as a labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul. His wife, Beth Cleary, teaches in the college’s theater department.
About 30 years ago, Rachleff and Cleary were inspired by a like-minded pair in New York. In a loft near Chinatown, a massive archive of African-American arts history had been collected — the brainchild of Jim Hatch, a City College theater teacher, and his partner, visual artist Camille Billops.
Rachleff and Cleary wanted to do something similar, combining their theater and labor specialties into some kind of lasting archive and public resource. When the old Carnegie library in their neighborhood became available, they jumped — forming a nonprofit and renaming the place the East Side Freedom Library (eastsidefreedomlibrary.org).
Now 18 months old, the Freedom Library has hosted 80 events, from panel discussions on labor and immigration topics to author presentations to jazz concerts.
Although the site is not yet open with regular hours like a traditional library, more than 3,000 people have visited the reborn library and its collection of 13,000 books, journals and works of art. The books aren’t available for checkout but can be used for onsite research.
More than a dozen volunteers have been busily cataloging the collection so anyone from scholars to high school students can find the oral histories or other relics from the neighborhood’s past.
“Storytelling is at the heart of what we’re doing,” said Rachleff, 64, who is volunteering about 70 hours a week. “When this building opened in 1917, it was a time of intense, anti-immigrant feelings around World War I and now we’re in the era of [Donald] Trump.”
St. Paul’s East Side has long been a working-class haven for newcomers, from 19th-century Swede Hollow immigrants from Scandinavia to the Hmong, Latino and Karen refugees from Burma who have replaced the Swedes, Norwegians and Germans.
“The people’s backgrounds have changed, but the reasons they came here and challenges they’ve faced are so similar,” Rachleff said. “And there is so much to learn from each other’s stories and experiences.”
On Feb. 10, the East Side Freedom Library will hold an open house to welcome its latest acquisition — a huge Hmong archive that has been bouncing around for years, searching for a home.
Marlin Heise, a retired Minnesota Historical Society librarian, has amassed a collection that includes 2,000 textiles, musical instruments, books, newspaper clippings and tools. For a while, the collection resided at St. Paul’s Concordia University and Metro State University, before landing on University Avenue in a building that was going through foreclosure.
The new organization has a 15-year lease with the city of St. Paul, which wanted more than $300,000 for the building but agreed to rent it for $1 as the nonprofit finds its financial footing. The Freedom Library has an option to buy the building and plans to invest more than $1 million into the structure and its contents.
“This is the lifeblood of an immigrant, working-class neighborhood, and it’s so exciting to see it blossoming into reality,” Rachleff said. “Everyone came here in hopes of a better future, and by collecting bits of history here, and sharing people’s stories, we can learn from history and make the future better.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org