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On Railroad Island, buildings and parks describe St. Paul’s complex past

Railroad Island is little-known, rounded up as part of the larger Payne-Phalen area, or dismissed as a bygone part of the city’s industrial history.

Andy Sturdevant is taking the month off; this is the second of four Strolls by guest authors.

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One of the things I love best about living in St. Paul is the many opportunities to get lost – how streets change into other streets or end without warning, the differences between flat parts of the city leveled to make room for settlements and the dizzying bluffs.

Railroad Island is one of those disorienting places. It’s also little-known, rounded up as part of the larger Payne-Phalen area, or dismissed as a bygone part of the city’s industrial history. On a map, it looks like a pork chop: Payne Avenue curving around its east side and separating it from Swede Hollow Park, Phalen to the north, the railroad forming the western edge, and about a block of East 7th Street on the south. I try to walk the perimeter of the pork chop, and it doesn’t quite work. Steep hills toss streets where they’re unexpected or squish them together, and the railroad ravine limits foot traffic to the west.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
The tracks that border Railroad Island’s north side

I walk north on Payne, stopping at Morelli’s Alimentari, an Italian grocer located at the busy intersection of Payne and Tedesco. Morelli’s has been open since Railroad Island attracted Italian immigrant families in the early part of the 20th Century. Its exterior is painted with vines and shelves of wine bottles, and even early on a weekend morning, everyone and their brother on the Island vies for a parking space.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
Morelli’s, left, and Yarusso Bros., right.

Right next to Morelli’s is Yarusso Bros., another Italian standard from the 1930s and still owned by the Yarusso family. The Statue of Liberty lights the way inside for evening visitors.

Just in case you forget where you are while wandering Payne between Tedesco and Beaumont Streets, numerous paintings and banners depicting Italy will remind you. There’s even one right next to La Palma Supermercado.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
La Palma Supermercado

The railroads that give Railroad Island its name run parallel to Phalen and then curve south. About 30 baby trees have been planted on a bluff overlooking the western tracks. Because downtown St. Paul is invisible unless you’re close to East 7th, and due to Swede Hollow’s steep drop-off on the other side of the tracks, it’s easy to feel enclosed and islanded.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
Westbound Union Pacific train

I duck off of Payne once in a while, into the interior of the pork chop. Residential parts of Railroad Island are lush with trees, and cross streets are noticeably darker than the busy Payne and Phalen Avenues. I feel a little out of place, even voyeuristic, walking by all these houses, but the few people out and about are my people: sleepy-eyed, listening to music and nibbling some breakfast from the market.

At the dead end of Kenny Street sits the Benjamin Brunson House, a colonial brownstone on the National Register of Historic Places. With no sign or monument, it looks like any apartment building. While many history buffs know it belonged to the man who did the first land survey of St. Paul and served in the state Legislature, few people know that Benjamin’s missionary father, Alfred, bought the only slave to have been sold in Minnesota. The slave’s name was James Thompson, and he was sold to a Fort Snelling officer in 1827. Ten years later, Alfred purchased his freedom. Thompson lived next to the Brunsons and helped Alfred with Dakota translation work (he’d learned the language at Fort Snelling).

Photo by Natalie Vestin
The Benjamin Brunson House

I’m curious about this house and how its history fits into the larger story of St. Paul. What did Brunson’s neighbors think? What did Railroad Islanders think about race and slavery and labor in the years before the Dakota Wars? St. Paul has no shortage of historic buildings, and it’s easy to grow accustomed to them: A mill owner lived here, this one belonged to a steel investor, lumber baron over here. But the Brunson House makes me want to learn more about how economies are formed by whole stories, ugly and complex stories, full stories, that aren’t obvious unless you’re walking around, really looking at things, and asking questions.

North of Kenny Street and Desoto Avenue is Weida Park, a hilly fenced-off space containing a playground and basketball court. The park is named for Eileen Weida, an East Side community worker.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
Plaque dedicating Weida Park to the neighborhood
“fire ball”

I spent pretty much my entire adolescence shooting baskets, and every time I see a court (there are none in my neighborhood), it’s like coming home. This court is painted with messages, so you move from your dreams (peace, honesty) at the back of the court to your goals (success, education, love) near the basket.

Walking north from Weida Park on Otsego and east on Beaumont, I pass a mix of newer houses and old Victorian buildings, many of which are rentals. Some have been painted and prettied up as part of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, and some are made of unfinished/unpainted wood and roofs that could use some love – what my mom would call “lived in.” I see a number of veterans flags flying under American ones. Moving west to east and zigzagging as the streets allow, there are lots of alleys not on any map. In an alley, evidence of people’s lives abounds – baby supplies, a lovely antique rooster statue, an errant dish-drying rack that’s made its way into the street on this windy morning.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
Peace through basketball
Photo by Natalie Vestin
Colorful apartment building, part of the Neighborhood
Stabilization Program

Accounts of Railroad Island often reference its history as a settling place for Swedish, Italian and Mexican immigrants, or its role in industry. It’s been called “gateway,” “stepping-stone,” or “jumping-off place.” Somewhere to leave. A little on the rough side. Somewhere to be bettered, revitalized, stabilized. This is the goal of the walker, the person on foot: to instead see beauty in all the ways this place is home to people. I leave this neighborhood wanting to learn more about Minnesota’s hidden industrial and racial histories, the stories I’d only encounter if I were out for a walk.

Photo by Natalie Vestin
Sign in the window of La Palma Supermercado. Also, my new motto this winter

Natalie Vestin holds an MPH from the University of Minnesota, where she works as a health researcher and writer. Her essays have been published in The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. She was a 2010-2011 participant in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series program, and she’s currently finishing a book about biochemistry, faith, and dance. You can find her via Twitter ( or read more of her online work on her website (