On July 14, the Star Tribune ran an article headlined online as “The heart of St. Paul’s East Side, Payne Avenue is being reborn as an arts district.” As a recent transplant to the East Side, I read it with a mix of interest and dread.
In the article, business owners and developers talk about the neighborhood in glowing terms, calling it diverse and full of talent, and even comparing it to Queens in New York. Payne-Phalen, the neighborhood discussed in the article, exemplifies the East Side’s diversity. Going back to the 1800s, it saw successive waves of European immigrants, following the violent displacement of Indigenous Dakota inhabitants. Today, the neighborhood is about 30% white.
Part of the neighborhood’s white history involves wealthy white transplants from the South, who brought with them Black laborers to raise their children and clean their houses. These Black people were among the small population of enslaved Minnesotans. Today, about 15% of Payne-Phalen’s population is Black. On average, due to historic and ongoing structural disadvantages, Black residents are worse off by any economic measure than their white neighbors. Here, as everywhere, the ghost of slavery lingers. Nostalgic for earlier times and a warmer climate, the rich Southern émigrés who platted Payne-Phalen named many of its streets after Southern flowers. Local thoroughfares like Hyacinth, Jessamine and Magnolia still bear these pungent names.
For decades, Payne-Phalen thrived on a base of manufacturing jobs. When the decline of manufacturing caused factories to shutter, the economic bottom fell out. White residents suffered like everyone else, but thanks to the modest wealth they had been able to build through homeownership, they hung on better than their Black neighbors. In the 1980s and ’90s, immigrants and refugees began to remake the neighborhood. These new arrivals opened restaurants and grocery stores, reinvigorating a community most people had forgotten. Today, 30% of Payne-Phalen residents are Asian, and 15% are Latinx.
As I mentioned, I myself am a new arrival to Payne-Phalen. Along with my family, I bought a house in the neighborhood last year. We had spent 10 years renting in Minneapolis but couldn’t afford to buy there. When we came across an old brick home in Payne-Phalen, we fell in love.
I believe all the people quoted in the July 14 article are in love, too. I have spent the last six months starting a community nonprofit on the East Side, and in that time I have spoken or worked with most of the people mentioned. They have all been very kind to me and are genuine, passionate people. Also, like me, they are white.
In these strange days, following the death of George Floyd, the uprising in our streets, and the long, aching wait that has become life under coronavirus, I have been thinking about the nature of love. What does it mean to love a place? What does it mean to love “diversity?” When we love diversity only as a resource or a commodity, it can become a tool for harm. To really show love to the East Side, we need to follow the lead of communities of color that have made it what it is. We need to recognize that white business leaders and organizers still act as gatekeepers. And we need to always center anti-displacement strategies in everything we do.
I am an artist, and I believe in the power of art. However, Uptown was once an up-and-coming arts district. The North Loop was an up-and-coming arts district. Downtown Northeast was an up-and-coming arts district. As they say, the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. So too the path to gentrification.
I am a newcomer to this place, and as such, I intend to listen and to let others lead. However, I feel obligated by my race and position to say one more thing. If we really love this place, we should think twice about who we lionize in newspaper articles. And for those of us who are white, and still carry with us the whiff of those Southern flowers, we should be very careful what we build, and whom we are building it for.
Geordie Flantz is a writer and the director of Trilingua Cinema.