Editor’s Note: In recognition of the 50th anniversary of The Community Reporter, this issue continues our series of articles exploring the history of the newspaper. See also: The Story of Paul Bard below for some of the most significant stories in newspaper history.
by Neal Gosman
About fifty years ago, the West 7th community was being invented.
The West End, built along the route from downtown to Fort Snelling, was the oldest Euro-American settlement area in what is now the town of St. Paul. Around 1838, Pigs Eye Parrant set up camp in the Fountain Cave near the Mississippi River, downstream from the fort, where the foot of Tuscarora Avenue would be if it reached that distance today. His smuggling operation had been banned in the military colony.
At the other end of West 7th Community was Irvine Park, the state’s oldest blockhouse district – first ditched in 1849 and with homes dating back to the 1850s.
By the early 1970s, the West End had become the site of a number of narrowly defined and separately established neighborhoods – including communities of the homeless and other suffering souls. Strong roots in the history of the region have remained in institutions such as the various churches, the CSPS Hall and unions such as those representing the Schmidt Brewery, the Omaha Railroad Shops and other craftsmen – but many faced challenges.
In 1970, the 7th West Zone was divided between two different state officials. Even within St. Paul’s government, it was fractured, with city council members elected city-wide rather than on the basis of local neighborhood representation. Neighborhoods were defined as Jefferson and Adams, based on existing elementary school boundaries. The hospital complex along Smith Avenue had not yet replaced the residential rooming houses. Seven Corners was still a small, viable business district, with the Xcel Center just a drawing board.
But the main defining limit of what was to define “7th West” was carved into the dirt – the home travel platform of what became I-35E from the 1960s. Cleared neighborhoods and the open trench, West 7th became disconnected from the rest of St. Paul.
In 1967, the Great Society of LBJ came to St. Paul. The Ramsey County Citizens Committee on Economic Opportunities, later Ramsey Programs of Action (RAP) – and now known as the Ramsey County and Washington County Community Action Partnership – was formed as an organization local to administer the federally funded poverty reduction program in St. Paul. It was controlled by a large volunteer board of directors whose mandate was to include “citizen participation” among the populations to be served.
This meant that a third of the board had to be among the “poor” targeted by the programming. The concept of citizen participation was a value inherited from the days of the progressive movement of the early 20th century.
The RAP identified four “target areas” in St. Paul based on the low income areas identified by the census. The part of West 7th inside I-35E was one of them.
A Target Area Advisory Council (TAAC) has been set up and staffed in a former recreation building on the corner of what is now Smith and Grand. (The site is now part of the United Hospital campus.) This was the origin of the West Seventh Community Center, which is now part of Keystone. A number of federally funded staff and programs operated from there. Some VISTA volunteers (so-called “domestic peace corps” workers) were based there. From 1970 to 1971, I was one of the VISTA volunteers.
I had just finished my university studies in the East, and the War on Poverty post gave me a temporary postponement of military enlistment that would send me to wage a more violent war in Vietnam.
My role was to help the poverty alleviation and community development efforts taking place in the target area of 7th West. I devoted my time to a number of efforts nested back then by many other people. The results of some of those early efforts can be seen in the community today: the West 7th Community Center, the Fort Road Federation, the United Family Medicine Clinic, the Oneida Education Center College scholarship, the 45 mph speed limit on the I-35E as well as the sound walls along this route, and the Community Reporter newspaper.
From the seeds of West 7th TAAC, planted in the rocky soil of the West End and cultivated by sustained struggles for local control and citizen power for fifty years, we have connected this neighborhood as it grew.
A number of structural reforms cemented this community spirit: in 1972, Legislative District 65 was created to cover the entire 7th West. In 1975, the area was officially recognized as a planning district by the St. Paul District Council. In 1983, Ward 2 was created, allowing direct local representation on the city council.
The various community interest groups and improvement organizations have come together under the umbrella of the Fort Road Federation. Over the decades, he has supported dedicated community activists and paid organizers to plan, advocate and develop the needs of the neighborhood.
A little seed I planted was a primitive community newsletter, handmade, typed and then called W7th News. After I left for military service in 1971, the effort was taken up by Kathy Vadnais and others and remade into the newsprint you hold in your hands.
Vadnais was a young mother transplanted to affordable housing in the neighborhood. She brought with her a family of four small children with a background in journalism. the Community journalist was a way for her to actively contribute to the community’s need for improvement while still being able to stay at home with her children.
Over the years, the Community journalist has been a primary source of communication for the many conversations and actions required to maintain community control and a sense of belonging and belonging. Growing up with the St. Paul neighborhood press movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the Community Reporter is a survivor – dependent on the efforts and support of local residents volunteers, a small group of paid professionals and a constant core local advertisers.
May he live long.
Neal Gosman, grandfather of many and husband of Minnesota Senator Sandy Pappas, is currently a union official at MSP Airport.