St. Paul's urban oasis

  • Article by: JOE KIMBALL
  • Updated: April 19, 2007 - 9:32 AM

Christine and Frank Dreisbach bought a small house near St. Paul's Newell Park almost 40 years ago, mainly because it was close to Hamline University. "We knew the house would eventually be too small for our family," Christine said. "So we'd go house-hunting once in a while only to realize, `Oh my goodness, it's so nice here by the park.'-" The Dreisbachs are a testament to the Newell neighborhood's hold on residents. It's the kind of place where people settle down for decades, even generations. Not only did Christine and Frank stay to raise three children in the little house, their youngest son liked the neighborhood so much that he bought a house across the street. Nestled around an oak-lined park, yet within earshot of some the city's heaviest-duty industry, Newell Park is considered one of St. Paul's coziest nooks. If it wasn't for that earshot business, residents would consider it almost Eden-like.

No mansions or acreage here. Instead, the well-kept houses surrounding the park are small and tightly spaced. Many residents take pride in their front yard gardens, and some have extraordinary floral displays.

Older folks live next door to young families, with working couples scattered throughout. Proximity to both downtowns - 10 minutes either way to the Nicollet Mall or 4th and Wabasha - make it an ideal location for commuters.

Former City Council Member Kiki Sonnen found her house across from the park in 1984, when she was looking for the Winter Carnival medallion in Newell Park. It was also found there in 2000.

"It's peaceful and out of the way," she said while tending the irises in her garden. "People aren't too persnickety like some other neighborhoods I probably shouldn't mention."

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Inner-city sanctum

On a sunny day in the park, wind rustles the leaves, squirrels squawk and joggers scamper by, often with dogs. Kids play on the swings, while moms and dads chat and schedule play dates.

Hamline University students wander through the neighborhood and sit in the park. Gingko's coffee shop on Snelling Avenue is within easy walking distance, and the hardware store is a godsend for keeping up those houses from the 1920s and `30s.

Residents are drawn to the park by its picnic pavilions, basketball courts and ball field. Dozens of gnarly, craggy oaks and a large, meadow-like area attract picnickers and Frisbee players. Often on weekends, members of a costumed medieval troupe joust and conduct mock sword fights.

Maggie Kubak and Jo Buysse meet many passersby as they work in their garden across the street from the park.

"We must have looked at 35 houses before finding this one, by the park, in a quiet, urban neighborhood, and so close to work," Kubak said. They've lived here for 15 years.

Several years ago neighbors were shocked when someone set fire to the playground equipment in the park. No one was caught, but dozens of residents signed up for a neighborhood watch program.

"We wanted to make sure everyone knew that the neighbors cared and were watching," Kubak said. "We'd walk through at night, reminding people, nonconfrontationally, that the park was now closed."

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Shake, rattle and roll

Three childhood friends who grew up in the neighborhood but have since moved away try to gather for lunch in the park several times in the summer to keep in touch.

Mai Yang and Emily Yang, both 19, and Cassie Lee, 18, fired up a grill, then tossed a beach ball around.

They just like to be there, they said.

"It's pretty and quiet, except for that," said Lee, pointing at a line of trucks on Pierce Butler Route.

Hovering every day, all day, over the neighborhood, is the large-scale train and truck transfer station north of Pierce Butler. It's where those giant cargo containers are taken off trains and hoisted onto semi-trailer trucks, which then set out on their journeys directly in front of the park and not more than 300 yards from Kubak's front door.

"It was there when we moved in, but over time there's been more traffic and more noise. The equipment buzzes, there's a ton of dust ... windows rattle, pictures fall off walls," Kubak said.

Joe Spencer, a policy aide in Mayor Chris Coleman's office, lives near the park and feels the vibrations when trains pass. "We put silk on the back of picture frames so they don't rattle," he said.

John McKeown's house, unlike those of Kubak and Buysse, is shielded from the direct path of the noise by other homes. He says rail officials are working with the city and neighbors to lessen the effects.

McKeown, a real estate agent, moved to Newell 12 years ago when he was single, attracted by the park and stable real estate values. Now he and his wife, Jennifer, are raising two young children here and getting better acquainted with the playground.

"This is a well-kept secret in St. Paul," he said. "A great park, great family atmosphere."

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Joe Kimball - 651-298-1553

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