Ray Widstrand is recovering from his attack a year ago, along with his St. Paul neighborhood.
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.