On a proverbial dark and stormy night, Sage Holben's porch is relatively dry for her Friday moviegoers. Riley Soeffker, 13, munches on pretzels, and Ben Grim, "almost 5," wolfs down some popcorn. Neither is distracted by the bunny-rabbit shadows that Pedro Garcia's hands are casting on the screen or the passing cars with loud exhaust systems.
As the rain picks up, one of three young adults walking down Bates Avenue bellows, "What is it this week?"
"'The Fantastic Mr. Fox,'" Holben responds. "One week you should stop in."
"I might have to," the hooded pedestrian says. "It looks kind of slick."
Even on the driest of evenings, the creaky but sturdy L-shaped porch provides shelter from the urban storm, a refuge that Holben, a librarian at nearby Metro State University, has created in St. Paul's rough-and-tumble Dayton's Bluff.
With a borrowed projector from the university and a window shade as a makeshift screen, she shows a few movies almost every weekend. The films, though, are a mere backdrop for a richer tableau involving more than a dozen kids from a half-dozen ethnic backgrounds.
"It's about people accepting each other. They treat each other with respect on our porch," said Holben, 64, who rents the second floor of the Victorian house, which has three other tenants. "Having the movie night is as much about conversation as it is about the movie. The development of trust in the neighborhood has been really awesome."
That development hasn't come easily. During her five years at the corner of E. 4th Street and Bates Avenue, Holben has tirelessly strived to build a better community, as a block captain and member of the District Council Board.
"You used to see drug deals right out on the corner," she said. "I took a picture of one exchange and another picture of the man walking down the street, counting his money.
"There would be cars parked on the street, and I'd knock on the window and ask if they were lost or needed directions. I'd tell them that this was a dangerous neighborhood with a lot of drug dealers, and they might not be safe here."
Last year, Dayton's Bluff ranked first among St. Paul neighborhoods in police calls for residential burglaries (11.5 per 1,000 residents), weapon discharges (4.0) and narcotics (17.7) and second in aggravated assaults (7.6), according to the St. Paul Police Department.
The Invest St. Paul program, launched in 2007, provided a boon by buying problem houses and demolishing or rehabilitating them. Holben said the city had purchased five "drug houses" on her block. But she continues to walk, and work, the East Side streets.
"When she sees something wrong, Sage will step in and confront it in a positive and assertive way," said Larry Simpson, an industrial engineer who drives a Community Watch car through the neighborhood several nights a week. "She's the most courageous woman I've ever met; actually, I should say the most courageous person."
Knocked down but not out
Holben, a stocky woman with a crinkly smile, needed all that courage two years ago.
As the neighborhood got safer, younger kids started playing in the street. One evening in June 2008, Holben was watering her garden when she saw two cars weaving up the street -- in reverse.
"I yelled at them, but they didn't slow down till I put my hose on their car, kind of a knee-jerk reaction," she recounted. "And then two women and a man came out and beat me up. And some of the kids saw it."
Beaten up doesn't mean beaten down, at least for the tougher-than-she-looks librarian. She had started watching movies on the porch with her housemates but decided she needed "to be more connected with the neighborhood, to get to know the kids and help the children and the adults interact."
After the assault, a couple of youngsters came to help Holben in the garden. As she started to show more movies, they gradually, shyly came up to the porch.
On weeknights, board games or watercolor painting might be in the offing at Chez Holben, along with reading nights. (Holben has about 4,500 books.) Last year, a 14-year old neighbor who had just learned sign language came over and "signed" the lyrics to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston songs as her sister sang them.
Movies make a difference
But the movies are the main attraction.
"It's just a great place to hang out," said Cesar Garcia, who had arrived early to get his favorite perch right up front. "I've made some friends here. It's a fun place."
Kari Soeffker, Riley's mother, lives across the street in a beautifully restored Victorian lined by a brown picket fence. She said Holben's movie nights make her feel much better about the neighborhood.
"It's just brought a lot of cohesiveness to the corner and something that the kids really look forward to," she said. "Sometimes all these cultures don't mix well. This provides an opportunity for everybody in the neighborhood to feel comfortable. It creates a social aspect that kids are lacking these days, as opposed to playing videos by themselves.
"And a lot of kids have learned a lot about bringing something, about sharing."
For her part, Holben, who was born in Fort Benning, Ga., and estimates that she has moved "at least 43 times" in her life, said she's at the corner of 4th and Bates to stay.
"I've so often asked myself why this neighborhood means so much to me," she said. "The only thing that I can come up with is, it's the people. The children and adults, even those with so little, share what they have: stories, food, opinions, time, work, a bulb or plant from a garden, a treasure they found at Animal Ark and thought of you; a musical piece being learned in school, or a newly learned song in sign language.
"I feel like I'm on Sesame Street most days."
As Holben starts cueing up the evening's second movie, a handful of the kids go out to play and skateboard in the street. An El Camino cuts through the crowd, horn blaring, then brakes, the driver shouting epithets at the kids. Even this close to Holben's haven, the mean streets loom.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643