As always, a red-and-white-checked Croatian flag flew over South St. Paul’s Second Avenue Tuesday during the World Cup semifinal match between soccer powerhouse Argentina and lesser-ranked Croatia, whose population is on par with the Twin Cities metro.
The flag marked the entrance to the Croatian Hall, a red-brick building whose doorway bears the motto HRVATSKI DOM (“Croatian home”). The building has stood on a residential South St. Paul street for over a century, even though Croatia has only been a country for 32 years.
Open the small door to the left and walk down the carpeted hallway past the table-top hockey game, and you enter South St. Paul’s de facto living room. A dozen plus Croatia fans have gathered amidst the flat screen TVs.
“Every time I watch them play, they lose!” one exasperated man uttered when Argentina scored their second goal, on a brilliant charging run by Julian Alvarez.
From that remark, it’s all but certain he hasn’t watched the Croatian National Team play since the World Cup final four years ago, where Croatia narrowly lost to France. If so, he’s missed a great run by the Croatians, who’ve vastly outperformed expectations at the last two tournaments. Fitting with their national identity, they’ve been rugged underdogs who never give up.
Even during the World Cup, this is no die-hard soccer bar. Instead, they host the games because it’s a rare Croatian moment in the sun. The Cro (as it’s universally known) is easily the most prominent Croatian landmark in the Twin Cities. It’s why, after a century on Second Avenue hosting weddings, funerals, and the best basement bar in the metro, half of South St. Paul counts themselves honorary Croatians.
For example: “You know you’re from South Saint Paul if you hang out at the Cro” say the signs scattered around town, a common bit of bric-a-brac for long-time South St. Paul Packers.
“I’m not even Croatian, but I help roll the sarma,” admitted Tom Buchan, who’s owned the place for fifteen years, when I asked him about Croatian culture. “For that you should go talk to Tony,” pointing me towards the guy in the Croatian national jersey with a trimmed gray beard.
Croatians in South Saint Paul
Tony Biljan has been president of the Croatian Hall nonprofit since 2007, and his grandfather was one of the few dozen first arrivals from the old country who helped dig the building’s foundation a century ago using horses and hand tools. During the game, Tony and his brother Tim popped in and out of the kitchen, serving up their childhood food.
“Back then, there were quite a bit,” said Tony, when I asked him how many Croatians came to South St. Paul.
“Quite a bit,” Tim Biljan, chimed in. “You had Serbians, Croatians, Polish; the majority were Eastern European.”
The Biljans’ grandfather arrived just in time to escape being conscripted into the killing fields of the first World War. Like many others, he snuck into the U.S. over the Canadian border, making his way to South St. Paul and the thousands of new jobs that waited. The city boasted two brand-new, state-of-the-art plants on the river flats — Armour and Swift each employed over 5,000 workers in shifts running round the clock — and it made South St. Paul into a national immigration destination.
“They would come here and they had nothing,” described Tim Biljan. “The Hall was a gathering spot; they would learn English, get a little bit of money, get themselves situated, and they’d have a community where they could get together with the same traditions they grew up with.”
“Back then, the Serbian Hall was busy; the Croatian Hall and the Polish Hall were busy,” agreed Tony. “My dad, when he was young, there was a wedding every weekend at each of the halls. They would bounce from one to the other.”
In a way, the Croatian Hall hasn’t changed too much. It’s still a place where locals keep traditions alive, though now it’s frozen pizza, beer bottles and pull tabs. Almost nobody in South St. Paul speaks much Croatian any more — learning the language was frowned upon for the second-generation — but the traditional recipes of Croatian potato salad, sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls) and potica (nut-stuffed sweet bread) have been passed along. They join traditional St. Paul cuisine like booya and coney dogs.
Run as a nonprofit today, The Cro is thick with connections to the local South St. Paul community, supporting youth sports, senior centers, and Neighbors Inc., the local food shelf and shelter. And just like the old days, The Cro still makes its money on community events, renting out the hall upstairs for weddings or (just as often these days) funerals celebrating the departed.
A slice of everyday life
Three years ago, just before COVID changed the situation, The Cro celebrated its centennial with a big festival full of dancing, music, and food. It seemed like the whole town came out for the party. Since then, when the pandemic shut down all but the most intimate family gatherings, it’s been slow.
“That hit us hard, but things are coming back,” Tony told me.
A regular in the corner has the temerity to wear a blue-and-white Argentina kit to The Cro during the game, but nobody cares. He’s allowed to drown his frozen pizza with pepper flakes in peace. He and two buddies spend most of the game divvying up piles of pull tabs, which, to be fair, are arguably more suspenseful than the lopsided game on TV.
The boost from a World Cup run is a nice moment in the sun for The Cro, but it’s really every day life that keeps this place going. When the final whistle blew, and even though Croatia had lost handily, nobody minded all too much. People were passing around shots of Slivovitz anyway. At the very least, the World Cup gave the Biljan brothers a chance to get out the potato salad recipe.
“We’re just …” Tim said explaining the situation.
“… trying to keep it going,” said Tony, finishing his sentence.