Stroll through Railroad Island with Mary Brauer and she will tell it to you straight: Her neighborhood, just beyond the eastern edge of downtown St. Paul, has its struggles.
Foreclosures. Boarded-up houses. Not enough jobs. Too few gardens.
It is the story of many areas in the Twin Cities that have a blue-collar past and a tough economic present.
But millions of dollars from the city and five years of work by residents new and old are starting to polish the gritty image of this former immigrant enclave and have set a foundation for a solid future -- if bureaucracy and the economy don't get in the way.
"There are a lot of ifs," said Brauer, who moved to Railroad Island five years ago and helped restart a dormant community group. "But the neighborhood is at a tipping point."
Many in the neighborhood are pinning their hopes for success on a plan by Dayton's Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services to capture the million-dollar view from Rivoli Bluff. It is a sweeping panorama highlighted by the domed State Capitol, the dark-spired cathedral and the jagged downtown skyline. About 40 homes are planned that would face that spectacular vista, but proposed zoning rules for an airport that isn't even visible and the sickly economy are casting a cloud over the plans.
But momentum seems to be in the neighborhood's favor. Residents got the city to redo Payne Avenue. The Yarusso Bros. restaurant reopened this summer after a fire in February closed the eatery that has been in its Payne Avenue location since the 1930s. People flow in and out of La Palma Supermercado. Hope Community Academy charter school teaches pre-kindergartners to eighth-graders.
George Menard, 75, has lived in his house for 50 years. He remembers when the neighborhood was full of Italians, when there was a streetcar, when neighbors never locked their doors.
Sure, it had a rough reputation and was referred to as "down there," by people who lived farther up Payne, Menard said, but it has been a good home. Lately, he said, it feels like the neighborhood is swinging back.
But not without some challenges.
Airplanes and street debris
At a summer meeting, residents turned out to voice displeasure with proposed zoning plans for the St. Paul Downtown Airport that could limit the height of structures and the types of buildings that could be constructed in parts of Railroad Island.
The purpose of the zoning ordinance is to limit obstacles in flight paths and minimize damage on the ground in case a plane were to crash.
Residents were concerned that an events center or other kind of gathering place couldn't be built, or that the Rivoli Bluff project would have to be caves to meet the zoning standards.
Chad Leqve, with the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said planners are looking at revising the proposal to allow additional types of buildings and defer to federal height restriction rules, which might be less onerous than state rules. A final safety-zone ordinance probably won't be finalized until mid-2010.
Part of the bluff land had been used by the city's Public Works Department as a place to dump street sweeping debris. That stopped about 15 years ago.
In 2007, the city and Dayton's Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services signed an agreement saying that the city would dispose of any sweepings that couldn't be covered. In July, a dispute about how much the city owed came to a head.
"The city, in fact, owed the money," said Bruce Beese, public works director. He said the city will soon pay $1.4 million.
While the fate of the Rivoli Bluff housing project is still up in the air, committed Railroad Island residents are chugging away at making their corner of the world a better place. They hope that momentum continues to stay with them.
Said resident Linda Arnesen: "This type of change takes years."
The old neighborhood
A plucky little pocket of St. Paul long known as a stepping stone for immigrants, Railroad Island is a gateway to the East Side. It's a heart-shaped area bounded by railroad tracks to the west and north and Swede Hollow to the east. Houses date to the 1880s and earlier.
Over the decades, families moved out of the neighborhood and to the suburbs. The houses, many squished together on narrow lots, were divided into multiple rental units. Not all landlords took care of their investments, and some buildings began to decay.
The Whirlpool factory closed long ago. The taps went dry at the brewery that made Hamm's and Stroh's. 3M Co. moved its headquarters -- and jobs -- to Maplewood and other places.
Property values fell, poverty rates went up. Crime got so bad in the 1990s that the federal government sent money to help the city clean things up.
A half-billion-dollar road project to the north of the neighborhood, completed in 2005, helped spiff up old industrial land and brought in new housing and jobs.
A 2005 study showed that 63 percent of the neighborhood's housing is rental and that 88 percent of all dwellings could use some repairs. Residents and city planners alike have said they want a better balance of homeownership to rental.
In some ways, the recent poor economy has been a blessing, resident Jeff Coons said. The really bad abandoned buildings have been ranked by residents and could be razed as the city gets money to do so. Low home prices might attract owners willing to put some sweat into their houses.
The new neighborhood
About five years ago, some fancy brownstone homes were built on a stretch of Payne Avenue that used to be prime real estate for drug dealers, prostitutes and other ne'er-do-wells.
Now, it costs more than $200,000 to buy one of the units, something that surprised Jim Davidson. "I didn't think it was possible 15 years ago," said Davidson, who has owned a business in the neighborhood since 1974.
The proximity to downtown, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Swede Hollow lured Brauer and others to the new buildings. Others like the older homes.
Mary and Jeff Coons bought a 1907 house in Railroad Island four years ago. "I love it," Mary Coons said. There are still trouble spots, but Coons said she hasn't felt afraid. "You take the good with the bad," she said.
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148