I spent election day exploring the forgotten corners of my city, hopping over and about the vast gap between political rhetoric and urban reality. See, the DFL sent me over to Saint Paul's East Side, the most neglected part of Capitol City, and there I wandered around the streets and sidewalks knocking on doors and talking to people for a few hours in the cool sunshine. Following orders, I found myself just downslope from Payne Avenue at the corner of Case and Burr, not too far from where Swede Hollow used to be. It's a fascinating neighborhood with almost magical sidewalks, and I feel lucky to have had the chance to be a part of it for a few hours.
The East Side is rich in both topography and history, from its roots as an immigrant haven, to the mysterious Hamm mansion, to the way that Trout Brook was covered up to make way for the interstate. And in many ways, it hasn't changed much, though those old jobs are gone. What's left is the city's most diverse and interesting sidewalks, with the most wildly woodliness you'll ever see in these Twin Cities...
[The beauty of disorder is the last thing you expect to see in the middle of a neighborhood.]
The sidewalks kind of wander around the slapdash old homes, and start and stop all willy nilly. Bradley Street is the most interesting of these sidewalks, with bits that just come to a halt next to a house on a ledge with a built-together deck, for example.
[An elm tree eats up the vanishing Lawson Avenue sidewalk.]
It is so close to my home, yet seemed so far away. The old Hmong man raking his yard didn't speak any english. Doors leading to dark corridors stood ajar. The only large apartment building was completely filled with Latinas. And the neighborhood almost revolved around two poles: the little corner store that had a built-in deli counter selling catfish and "gangster burgers" on the one hand, and the elementary school with its large adjoining park on the other. The neighborhood had a really contained feeling, so that walking down the street felt like lounging on an old and threadbare couch.
The little divots along some of the streets meant that there were entire houses that had no paved roads, only little paths running through little hollows that enclosed space like a forest cave. These places feel like the end of the world, but the sidewalks are flexible, and bend and waver to meet the needs of feet. Stairs pop up like wildflowers, and sidewalks carry on.
[The sidewalk adapts to fill a niche, the quiet of an East Side hollow laying in wait below.]
I went door to door asking people to go to the polls, but I felt a bit bad about it. I'm not sure that any new president will be doing much to radically change the lives of people in this neighborhood. A place like this will always be underfunded and neglected, and will likely remain a long way away from power. But for an afternoon at least, there was magic in the air, and helter-skelter sidewalks carried me along with an energy all their own, far from the city planner's straight-edged lines. These were sidewalks that made their own way in the world. These were nothing but bootstraps. Sure I'm an idealist, but some streets are sheer practicality. Somehow we met in the middle in the East Side's tangled Election Day crannies.
[The great sign and graffiti debate takes an extreme turn along the bluffs of Saint Paul.]