It’s rush hour on Rice Street and commuters bound for downtown or the northern suburbs speed past aging storefronts and bars.
The main thoroughfare and ragged economic heart of St. Paul’s poorest neighborhood, the North End, has once again become drive-through territory.
Residents and business owners along the roadway say their part of the city is overlooked. They don’t have trendy restaurants, like Payne or University avenues, or the condos and boutiques of Selby Avenue. Locals watched those streets transform and said a similar evolution is due on Rice Street.
Public and private investments and resident advocacy seem to be aligning this year.
Council Member Amy Brendmoen will launch a “10 for the North End” campaign this week, aimed at highlighting and generating $10 million worth of projects. Both Ramsey County and St. Paul plan to make street improvements. And St. Paul has joined forces with neighboring cities to re-imagine the busy intersection with Larpenteur Avenue, considered a gateway to St. Paul.
“I don’t want our neighborhood just to be a thoroughfare,” said Richard Holst, who has lived in the North End for 20 years. The neighborhood has long been home to immigrants and working-class families who have little time to advocate at City Hall. But Holst is part of a small group of residents who are trying to bring more attention to the area.
“There’s lots of potential,” he said. “Hopefully we can get some people to realize it.”
Road with a reputation
Tales abound of cars hitting or nearly hitting pedestrians on Rice Street.
Some residents, like Holst, want to lower the speed limit and narrow the county road, much of which is four lanes in St. Paul. Ramsey County is considering those ideas, said Nick Fischer, project manager for the county’s Rice Street reconstruction.
County staff will hold public meetings, starting Feb. 1, to ask residents what the road should look like in 20 years, from sidewalk landscaping to bicycle lanes, Fischer said. They plan to start construction in 2019. St. Paul, meanwhile, will reconstruct and landscape a small section of the street this year, between Sycamore Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Ted Natus, who owns Hamernicks Decorating Center on Rice Street, said the city and county should prioritize investments in businesses over pedestrian improvements.
At Dar’s Double Scoop, an ice cream and pizza shop down the road, owner Kevin Barrett said traffic and on-street parking are critical for his business. But North End residents need safe places to walk, he said.
About 20 percent of households in the neighborhood do not have a vehicle, census data show. At the northern edge of the city, where Rice Street and Larpenteur Avenue divide St. Paul, Maplewood and Roseville, there are many people who rely on transit or walk, Brendmoen said.
That massive intersection is intimidating to pedestrians, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer said. He said he is working with the cities and county to rethink it this year.
Roads and sidewalks aren’t the area’s only challenges.
Rice Street has a rough reputation, residents and business owners are quick to admit. When city officials discussed an image to print on banners for the area, a beer or boxing glove were jokingly suggested, Brendmoen said.
“It’s a rough street, but it’s such a beautiful street, too, because you get to see everyone here. Every culture is here,” Barrett said.
The North End has the highest poverty rate of any St. Paul neighborhood. The median household income was $32,156, compared with $50,885 citywide, according to 2014 census data.
‘Stop being hidden’
Suggestions for ways to buoy Rice Street extend beyond the road. Landlords who want to fix up properties need more resources, locals said, as do renters who want to become homeowners. And people have to feel safe walking at night.
Police Chief Todd Axtell said the North End has seen an uptick in police calls, many involving youth.
One of the area’s biggest needs is jobs and activities for youth, said Bruce Larson, a businessman and the neighborhood’s informal historian. He also said the many immigrants who own businesses in the area need to speak up about issues.
“We have decent, honest neighbors who want to see things happen,” Larson said. “But they don’t have the money, or the power, or are not willing to take the risks necessary to become a lightning rod for the neighborhood.”
When someone drew graffiti on the Hmong Elders Center on Rice Street, CEO Ilean Her said people were hesitant to call police, saying they “didn’t want to be a bother.” Many people don’t know or ask about city services, like fixing graffiti or grants to improve storefronts, Her said.
Brendmoen hopes her new campaign will highlight projects such as park improvements and plans for an outpost of the popular Bangkok Thai Deli, and attract new residents and investments.
“The whole point of why we are doing this 10 for the North End is to stop being hidden,” she said. “People think there’s nothing going on.”
Lena Buggs bought a home in the North End a little more than a year ago. Homes were more affordable there, she said, and she wanted to raise her kids in a diverse community. Now she is helping lead a new effort to generate more neighborhood activities and improvements.
“Ultimately, it’s not going to depend on city initiatives,” she said. “It’s got to come from the community.”
She and Holst held a meeting earlier this month to hear what changes neighbors want to see. The turnout was small, about 15 people.
But, Buggs said, this is just the start.
Staff reporter Chao Xiong contributed to this report.