I’ve been avoiding the freeway on my drive home lately because of road construction and major delays. Instead, I’ve been taking another route home through the east side of St. Paul. That neighborhood holds a lot of memories for me. I grew up on what was considered the outskirts of the east side. My grandparents lived all their lives in the heart of the east side.
I have great memories, especially of my grandparents’ neighborhood in St. Paul. It was a very Polish community back in the day. The church my grandparents attended all of their lives is still there, St. Casimir’s Catholic Church. My parents were married in that church. I attended an aunt and uncle’s wedding there and the funerals of my grandparents.
The Polish American Club is still there. Federowski’s service station is long gone. Town homes have taken its place. The grocery store where my grandma once shopped is now a Hmong grocery store. My doctor’s office is still there, and I still receive care in the same office I did all the years of my life.
The street on which I drive home from work is a couple of miles south of my grandma’s old neighborhood, but it is still very familiar. 7th Street has always been a main thoroughfare, and many of the buildings along it are still there, though the faces have mostly changed. Every day, I drive past the hospital where I was born, except now it’s not a hospital. It’s a university. When I was 13, the hospital was still a hospital and I volunteered there as a candy striper. Just a few blocks east is the place I worked in my late high school years (for pay, by that time.) It used to be a video rental store. Now it’s an abandoned building.
That particular part of the neighborhood many years ago used to be called Swede Hollow. There’s a small cafe in one of the old buildings called the Swede Hollow Cafe. I love that. I love that someone is making sure that the old days aren’t forgotten.
Going further east still, there is a long stretch of land where I still see the long buildings that were a roofing company. I can still smell the tar from when they were making shingles. But I’m probably one of the few who still see those buildings because they’re not actually there anymore. There is green grass where the hot and dirty buildings used to stand. I can still see the workers, standing in the wide open doorways, smoking cigarettes, taking a break from the hot stuffy air inside the factory. All the activity of the past is long gone now. It actually brings a cleaner look to that stretch of 7th street. The homes directly across from where the roofing company used to stand don’t seem as run down as they did when it was still there. They look homier, cleaner, more welcoming. I wonder why?
On the corner across from the old roofing company is a bar that’s been there forever. At one time it was called Thaddeus Cooper’s. Later, it was called Michaels. At one time recently, it was The Noose. The sign then said, “A great place to hang.” The neighbors took offense and that tag line was removed. Today it’s called something else. I can’t even remember the newest name even though I just drove past it this afternoon.
There’s the lumber company which closed down just a few years ago, the funeral home, still going strong. I guess a funeral home will never go out of business. There’s a gas station/convenience store that stands where one has always stood. But this one is newer and prettier than the one that used to stand there.
I’ve always been fascinated by the homes lining this busy street. The front yards have steep embankments. Cement stairs climb toward the front doors. Some still have porches. When I was a kid, I wished I could live in one of those houses and see all the cars and people who traveled up and down 7th Street. I imagined the families sitting on their porches, talking with the neighbors as they walked by on the front sidewalk. I looked at their gardens and the little things that made those houses homes. The neighborhood seemed warm then. The houses are so old now, so many of the buildings run down. And sometimes when I drive through the neighborhood, it makes me feel sad. It seems decrepit and depressed. But today, I saw it differently. The sun was shining. People were walking the sidewalks, going somewhere, waiting for buses. It occurred to me that where I live, in the suburbs, there’s not so much of people walking to get somewhere. Oh, they might be walking for exercise, but not really to get anywhere, because here in the suburbs, you’d have to walk too far to get much of anywhere. There’s no corner grocery stores, very few family businesses. Here in the suburbs, if you want to get somewhere, you have to go in your car.
On 7th Street today, I saw people. I saw neighbors. I saw homes and a community. I saw people sitting on their front steps. I saw a man caring for his yard. It wasn’t the same community I remember. The faces were different. The skin color was different. But I realized the neighborhood was still just that – a neighborhood. It is home to someone. It has changed, but everything changes. Nothing can stay exactly the same. It’s not sad. It’s just different.
As I pulled into my own neighborhood, I saw how it has changed in the 22 years since I’ve lived here. It used to be fresh and new and young. But the years are beginning to take their toll. The trees are tall now. Some of the driveways are deteriorating. The home styles are no longer in fashion. This neighborhood is aging too. Someday my kids will look back and see different faces and people of different backgrounds. I hope they won’t look at it and see it as sad and broken and ugly. I hope they’ll remember the life that was here and the character of this place they once called home.