Two friends put can-do spirit behind dreams in St. Paul

  • Updated: February 12, 2011 - 9:41 PM

From the new light rail to the old affordable housing debate, this pair knows how to roll up sleeves and fight for their neighborhood.

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From community gardens to affordable rents, Mari Lecours and Metric Giles have worked tirelessly for their St. Paul neighborhood, even when the money dried up at their nonprofit.

There's a snow-buried vacant lot on northeast corner hilltop of Selby Avenue and Oxford Street in St. Paul. If Metric Giles, has his way, it will one day become an oasis of fruit trees, landscaped walkways and park benches.

"It will be a living part of our community and a destination that blends in with businesses and features plaques that talk about the history and the different cycles of the year," he says.

Pipe dream? Perhaps. But Giles is working with Jet Construction, the property owner. And when he and his friend and co-worker Mari Lecours combine forces, dreams have a funny way of waking into reality. Giles is a longtime University Avenue resident recently honored for his work adding three neighborhood stops to the coming Central Corridor light-rail system that would have bypassed the very area where some of the people most dependent on mass transit live and work.

He's been a steady force in St. Paul's burgeoning urban gardening collectives, turning forgotten, blighted lots into havens that produce both healthy food and community togetherness.

Lecours, a longtime community organizer, met Giles 16 years ago. She had emigrated first with her family from Cuba after Fidel Castro's rise to power. She fled another revolt in the Dominican Republic and survived a 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua -- arriving in Minnesota, fittingly enough, during the Halloween blizzard of 1991.

Working out of a house on Selby Avenue, Lecours runs the Community Stabilization Project, which fights for affordable housing and against unsavory landlords. Giles, a longtime neighborhood landlord himself, went from housing some of CSP's most troubled clients to serving as a member of Lecours' board of directors.

Families one step away from homelessness, such as the Latina mother at her office one recent morning whose husband had vanished, have enlisted Lecours' help for more than 15 years. But like so many nonprofits on the fringes of the current economic slide, the Community Stabilization Project has suffered the last few years.

"Our big funders said, 'See you later,'" she says. Recently widowed, Lecours could have surrendered. But instead of giving up hope, she and Giles kept working for free until they could reorganize and win federal homelessness prevention funds to get their front-line nonprofit back on solid footing.

"We've matured from an adversarial organization to one that collaborates with churches, synagogues, clinics, developers, politicians and foundations," Giles says. "These days, it's not so much what we're against, but what we're for."

And the fruit tree oasis at the corner of Oxford and Selby is poised as the next item on the to-do list of this can-do duo.

CURT BROWN

 

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