Once upon a time on St. Paul’s East Side, an abandoned railroad line surrounded by junkyards and mounds of asphalt covered what is now a busy commercial corridor, Phalen Boulevard. Few businesses could keep their doors open east of Hwy. 61 and most residents lived in single-family homes.
That was Ward 6 — a scene of low-density, residential development and swaths of industrial land — in 1996, when the area’s most recent elected council member, Dan Bostrom, took office.
Since then, however, new developments and residents have transformed the ward, which includes the neighborhoods of Frost Lake Park, Hayden Heights, Hazel Park, Payne-Phalen, Phalen Village and Prosperity Park.
While it still has one of St. Paul’s highest concentrations of poverty, in recent years a wave of young families, artists and entrepreneurs of color have moved to Ward 6 to live and work thanks to its relatively affordable property prices. And today, about half of the area’s population moved to the area within the past decade, according to Census and housing data.
“We have the demographics in our favor,” said Terri Thao, a former St. Paul Planning Commissioner who is now running to replace Bostrom on the city council. “It’s still a really affordable neighborhood.”
Though every St. Paul City Council seat is on the ballot this fall, six of the seven races involve an incumbent who’s already received the DFL endorsement, a huge advantage in the heavily DFL city. In Ward 6, however, six candidates — including Thao, community activist Nelsie Yang and Kassim Busuri, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Bostrom’s term last year — have filed to run for the seat, making the race the most competitive on the city’s ballot this fall.
The evolution of Ward 6
St. Paul’s East Side has gone through many iterations over the years. Drawn to St. Paul’s blue-collar jobs in construction and manufacturing, hundreds of immigrants escaping poverty from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia settled on the East Side in the mid-19th century. Then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, new Americans from southern and eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East and Mexico, joined the East Side communities.
By that time, Hamm’s Brewing Co., Whirlpool and 3M had become economic forces behind the city’s development, employing some 10,000 people on the East Side, with busy stores, restaurants and bars lining Arcade Street and Payne Avenue.
But in the 1960s, the East Side changed again, with the development of a new interstate highway system and the flight of white East Side residents to the suburbs. And by the 1970s, the area’s major employers had left or shut down, leaving dozens of abandoned buildings. At the same time, another generation of immigrants moved in, this time from Southeast Asia, East Africa and Central America. Today, roughly two-thirds of the area’s population are people of color.
The East Side’s economy took another big hit with the 2007 recession, a blow that was exacerbated by the city leadership, says Council Member Jane Prince, who represents neighboring Ward 7. A number of recreation centers closed and the city did not prioritize business or housing development, she said, potentially due to the fact that leaders in the 1990s dedicated a lot of time and money to transform the Phalen corridor.
“When I came on to the council [in 2016], even though Dan Bostrom and I would consider ourselves to be kind of different ends of the DFL Party — he being more conservative and me being kind of more on the liberal, progressive side — we came together as ward 6 and 7 council members and agreed on a lot of things because it had to do with our pushing together for investment on the East Side,” Prince said. “But in the 12 years that we weren’t seeing a lot of investment from the city, there was a tremendous amount of grassroots organizing.”
A crowded field
After Bostrom abruptly announced his retirement in December 2018, the council and Mayor Melvin Carter scrambled to interview and appoint someone new to finish his term. They selected Busuri, who became the city’s first Somali-American City Council member — on the promise that he would not join the race for a full council term this fall.
It was Busuri’s first time in politics. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, he grew up in different parts of the United States but mostly lived in Mankato, where he attended middle school and high school. He eventually moved to the Twin Cities and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s in political science and later returned to Mankato to earn a master’s in education from Minnesota State University. Since then, he’s mostly worked as an educator: He’s directed a child care center in St. Paul, served as a dean of students at the Universal Academy Charter School in Minneapolis and worked as a youth violence prevention consultant for the city of Minneapolis. Currently, he directs the Minnesota Da’wah Institute in addition to his role on the council.
Earlier this year, as Busuri acclimated to the new role, the campaign for the seat heated up. Many of the candidates who jumped in the race come from backgrounds of community organizing or in the nonprofit sector and say their existing connections to the neighborhoods will help spur economic growth in the ward, and that their experience as first or second-generation Americans and people of color will lift up the voices of constituents that have been historically left out of conversations at City Hall.
Beyond social and socioeconomic factors, though, the next Ward 6 council member will face unique challenges on the council: East Side neighborhoods are home to a significant proportion of the city’s crimes, while also being the site of a potentially massive project — the redevelopment of the 112-acre Hillcrest Golf Club.
The first real sign of the race’s competitiveness came in April, when the candidates and DFL activists gathered at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy for the ward’s party convention. After five ballot counts, no candidate reached the 60 percent threshold to get the party’s nomination. (Yang and Thao received the most votes.)
Then, in May, Busuri joined the crowded race, going back on his promise not to seek a full term. In response, some current council members urged Busuri to step down, saying they and Mayor Carter appointed him over other candidates specifically because of his initial vow — and that his reversal could give him an unfair advantage over other candidates.
Busuri didn’t step down, however; he continues to attend council and to campaign for the seat. “By the time I got appointed, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I changed my mind because of the work that needs to be done, and the work that I see, and I’m capable of doing it.”
“The constituents are very happy with what I’ve done so far and what I’m going to be doing,” he said. “I need to continue fighting for the East Side.”
In a recent interview, Council President Amy Brendmoen said she had no comment on Busuri’s decision to file for election, though she did highlight his late start to campaigning. “There are people who’ve been working hard on the election for, you know, months and months,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”
One of those who’ve been campaigning for months is Nelsie Yang, a second-generation Hmong-American who grew up in North Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park before her parents moved to Frogtown. At Minnesota State University, Mankato, Yang began dabbling in politics; on breaks from school, she volunteered for current Ward 1 St. Paul Council Member Dai Thao, who represents Frogtown and Summit-University, and later worked on campaigns for DFL state and congressional candidates. She also rallied support for St. Paul’s minimum wage increase and criminal justice reform with TakeAction Minnesota, and chairs an advocacy nonprofit called Hmong Americans for Justice.
Yang said she filed for office to challenge the city’s budgeting process — what seem like disproportionate investments in affluent neighborhoods over the East Side. “[Good leaders are] making sure that the decisions that they make have a very positive, long-term impact on the community and are [working toward a] greener, cleaner, sustainable, racially-equitable community,” Yang said. “I don’t see that type of leadership in Ward 6, nor do I see the investments that we need.”
Like Yang, Thao is also the daughter of Hmong parents. When she was 7, she and her family moved to St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, where she attended St. Paul Public Schools. She later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Between 2009 and 2018, she served on the St. Paul Planning Commission, reviewing designs for long-term zoning changes and development that included bikeways and Green Line light rail stations. Currently, she is program director for the nonprofit Nexus Community Partners, which trains people of color for seats on boards and commissions, and serves on the board for the Minnesota Housing Financing Agency. She lives with her husband and two children, ages 10 and 8.
She said she joined the race, in part, because of new momentum among nonprofits and volunteers to improve the East Side. “It’s, you know, the absence of leadership that says we need this money; we need these resources. From the nonprofit and philanthropic side, we had to come in and do a lot of that work,” Thao said. “[The East Side] has been forgotten.”
An organizer for the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Danielle Swift decided to run to increase protections for renters and residents’ access to home ownership. After observing the party convention in April, the political newcomer, previously worked at the St. Paul-based Hiway Federal Credit Union, said she felt turned off by the endorsement process. “I felt like I would have had to conform to a certain culture if I wanted to participate, which I’m not willing to do,” Swift said.
Other candidates who have filed for the office are Alexander Bourne, a former business owner who has made news for his criminal history and Greg Copeland, a Republican activist who has unsuccessfully run for city elected positions in the past.
What to do with Hillcrest site
The debate over what to do with the 112-acre former home of the Hillcrest Golf Club will dominate much of the next council member’s 4-year term.
Earlier this year, the St. Paul Port Authority took the lead in buying the property at Larpenteur Avenue and McKnight Road from a local union, which took over the club after it closed to golfers in 2017. Then, in July, the city council set aside $10 million of taxpayer money for the purchase.
The city estimates that 1,000 new housing units, 40 acres of green space, 1,000 new jobs, and an additional $5 million per year in tax revenues will come out of the Hillcrest redevelopment.
To Brendmoen, whose Ward 5 includes north-central St. Paul, the project is an exciting opportunity for economic development and growth in a critical part of the city, and whomever wins the Ward 6 election will have a big say in what to do with it. For starters, the Ward 6 council member will help lead the master planning process to learn what, exactly, residents want on the site.
“[We need] somebody who is really willing to kind of do the organizing piece of the work and and be approachable,” said Brendmoen, who is running for re-election this year. “Somebody who has the ability to relate to people from different cultures and backgrounds so that they feel like they’re represented at the council table.”
Chuck Repke, who is executive director of the District 2 Community Council, which represents the northeast neighborhoods of St. Paul, said neighbors already have huge concerns over how the project will impact the area. He said they want a Ward 6 leader who advocates for the people who live there now and pushes for new investments to make sure the growth doesn’t have detrimental effects. “Where are these [new] people going to get any services?” he said. “How does it directly benefit the neighbors? Is it just going to put additional traffic on the street?”
Beyond Hillcrest, the next Ward 6 council member will also have a say in trying to get more housing developers to build in the area. Like most Twin Cities neighborhoods, the area is short on affordable housing, while it struggles to preserve what’s often referred to as NOAH, naturally occurring affordable housing.
But the East Side is in a unique position to address the issue: Ward 6 has 101 vacant commercial and residential buildings, city data show, and most of the vacant properties are single-family homes.
Thao said she’ll push for proposals that add density; the redevelopment of the former Hafner Bowling Center on Randolph Avenue and support new transit lines, such as the planned bus rapid transit route that will run through the East Side to White Bear Lake, called the Rush Line. Also, if elected, Thao has said she wants to work with her colleagues to invest in programs that help minority-owned businesses pay for remodeling or upkeep of their buildings, since many times entrepreneurs can afford the initial cost of buying commercial properties but then struggle for money to keep them in good condition.
“[East Side residents] have had a lot of reinvestments, you know, certainly brought on with the advent of the light rail. …But then you have these key sites, like the ‘Payne Reliever,’ which did what it sounded like — it was, you know, a bar-strip club joint — which was redeveloped and now it’s an adult senior center,” she said, using that as an example of construction she’d like to continue.
Public safety also an issue
Another key issue for many of the Ward 6 candidates: How to make East Side residents feel safer. “We do have a higher crime rate on the East Side than the rest of the city, which is partly because areas of concentrated poverty tend to be victimized at a higher rate,” Prince said.
Since 2014, residents of the Greater East Side and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods filed more than 10,600 reports of stolen cars or other thefts — almost one-fourth of all similar crimes in St. Paul; there were also 3,000 reported robberies or burglaries (about one-third of the city’s total); 2,800 reports of illegal drugs and 1,100 weapon assaults or gunshots (both more than one-fourth of all citywide). Last year, alone, the Greater East Side and Payne-Phalen neighborhood recorded six of the city’s 15 homicides and 77 of the city’s 277 total sexual assaults.
Thao has said she believes in the St. Paul Police Department’s vision for policing on the East Side, and she wants officers to have a visible presence on the streets to help deter crime. Busuri also emphasized that it’s important for officers to be out and about so residents can build relationships with them.
Yang, however, wants the city to think less about its number of cops of streets and more on societal problems that cause people to break the law, as well as how it pairs first responders with mental health professionals.
Most of the current candidates also agree that city needs to focus more on “community-based” efforts, such as diversion programs and restorative justice, as well as investments in recreational facilities that keep kids busy. That approach fits in with Mayor Melvin Carter’s vision for public safety, which he outlined in his 2020 budget address last week.
For Yang, those solutions to crime are connected to not only residents’ safety but also the area’s economy. “Providing higher, more access to jobs for our young people, like working-families here, making sure that they’re getting paid equitable wages so they actually do not have to go out into the streets to find their way to make a living out there,” she said.
During his time representing Ward 6, Bostrom made a point to focus on ways to keep city services running efficiently, including improving public safety and road maintenance. He touts the opening of the Arlington Hills library and community center on Payne Avenue as well as improvements to the area’s housing stock.
He said criticism about the area lacking investment is rooted in a lack of knowledge about the history of the area. “They [new candidates] just don’t know where we came from and what we had to deal with over all of these years,” he said. “Some of the dilapidated properties that we had to take down — it’s been a real struggle over the years. But it’s considerably turned the corner from where it was.”
To his successors, he emphasized: “The biggest thing is to keep the momentum going. …It’s very easy to talk to the talk. But as far as really being able to get stuff done, it’s an entirely different ball game.”