From the South Side to St. Paul

Paris Porter
Paris Porter's family moved to St. Paul from Chicago in 1996 seeking safety and a better life.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I'm from the south side of Chicago. I moved to St. Paul with my mom and sister in 1996. I was 6 years old.

I just remember getting off the Greyhound bus, it must have been October or November. It was chilly outside and I couldn't wait to see my pops. He picked us up because he was already living up here. We had a short ride to the first place in Minesota I ever lived.

Old house on Blair Avenue
This rental house on Blair Avenue in St. Paul is where my family stayed the first year we were here.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

The house on Blair Avenue in the Hamline Midway neighborhood sits empty now. My older cousin who rented it has passed on. There are foreclosure notices pasted to the front door and the porch is quiet. I remember it as a lively place.

I was welcomed by cousins and aunts and uncles who had already been living up here. They knew who I was because they'd seen me when I was a baby in Chicago. They called out my name, "Paris, Paris," pronouncing it "Paree" like the city, and said how much they had missed me and how glad they were to have me. I remember I watched the Chicago Bulls game with my older cousins and M.J. dropped 40 points.

I live eat and breathe sports every day. Minnesota gave me a great chance to get involved with sports, like playing basketball in recreational leagues. But, most importantly, Minnesota was a much safer place to live.

There was too much violence in Chicago. I remember my mom would wake my older sister and me up in the middle of the night and we would all crawl to the bathroom where there were no windows because there were drive-by shootings.

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About 6,000 people were moving from Illinois to Minnesota each year in the 80s and 90s. My family was a part of that migration. I was very young at the time, so I didn't know, but Minnesota was having a lot to say about people like us moving in from Chicago.

Porter doing research
Newspaper clippings from the early 90s document Minnesota's debate over assistance for new arrivals like my family.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I stopped by the Legislative Reference Library to read old newspaper articles from the 90s. Minnesota was trying to limit welfare benefits for new arrivals and lawmakers were worried Minnesota was becoming a "welfare magnet."

In a story from Minnesota Public Radio's 1991 archives, Dean Johnson, a state senator from Willmar, said Minnesotans were feeling overburdened.

"I am willing to help those people who are down and out but I think we have an obligation to the citizens of Minnesota first before we help people from other states," said Johnson in a speech on the Senate floor. The law limiting benefits for new arrivals passed, but it eventually got overturned by the courts.

Looking through the old articles, there was also evidence that some Minnesotans were frustrated with so many new people moving in and bringing their problems with them.

Graphic: Migration in Minnesota
Data from the Minnesota State Demographic Center shows that for much of the state's recent history, population growth in the state was the result of births exceeding deaths, not a large influx of residents from other places.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

In 1993, Teresa Hawkins of St. Paul published a letter to the editor in the St. Paul Pioneer Press headlined "Minnesota's Generosity in Welfare Being Abused."

She was concerned about the lack of background checks for the people coming in. She refers to a story about women moving up from Chicago, getting subsidized housing and then being joined by their boyfriends who were gang members.

Some of what she's saying could be very true. In some cases, that probably was what was going on. They probably had boyfriends in gangs and Minnesota was an easy place to do their thing. I know cases of people moving here just for welfare. But in most cases, people were moving here to have a better life.

My mom, Patricia Porter, was on public assistance when we moved here. I asked her if she remembered how the benefits compared.

"I think I was getting like $300 for two kids [back in Illinois] and here in Minnesota they give you, maybe $500 or $600 for two children," she said.

Porter and state demographer Tom Gillaspy
Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy (right) has found that people move to Minnesota for jobs and opportunity, not welfare benefits.
MPR Phpto/Sasha Aslanian

Tom Gillaspy, Minnesota's State demographer, has investigated the "welfare magnet" theory several times since the 1970s.

"The conclusion is always the same," Gillaspy said. "There really isn't any kind of systematic movement that we can find."

Gillaspy said about 75,000 to 80,000 people migrate to Minnesota each year and about the same number leave. He said the people who come to Minnesota tend to be workers in their 20s and 30s and have children. Retirees tend to leave the state, although the very old return.

When my family came in 1996, Gillaspy said Minnesota was growing fast. And there was one big reason: jobs.

"Minnesota had a tight labor market," Gillaspy said. "We were generating more jobs than we had warm bodies to fill them."

My mom got one of those jobs, she's a nursing assistant.

"I wanted to be employed," she said. "And making sure my kids see me, being a hard working parent and responsible, therefore when they graduate, they'll have high goals, they're going to work hard and be very successful children."

My mom pushed us hard to make that happen. So did my teachers.

Porter's former teacher Sarah Young
Sarah Young was one of my teachers at Highland Park Junior High who encouraged me to be a writer.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

On a recent visit back to my old school, Highland Park Junior High, I stopped in to see Sarah Young. She was my sign language teacher in 8th grade and made a huge difference when I was hanging with the wrong crowd and needed help to stay on track.

I told her that she made me want to be a writer because she told me a speech I wrote was good when I thought it was awful.

"The ideas were good," Young said. "I remember when Mrs. Battle, the principal, read that speech and everyone was crying, I was crying. And it was just so nice to come from you because everyone knew you had struggled with your behavior and I think people came to see you as a kid who really did want to make good choices."

She's taught at the school for eight years and has seen a lot of kids go through the struggles I went through and make the wrong choices.

"They don't care to stop fighting or buckle down or see that education is their shot out of poverty," Young said.

Siverhus high five
Pat Siverhus, Assistant Principal at Highland Park Junior High, gives me a high-five for my accomplishments and we reminisce about the all times I used to have to go to her office.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I told Ms. Young that I've started college this fall. My goal is to be a journalist, probably a sports reporter.

If I'd stayed in Chicago, I'm not sure I would have developed this passion to be a journalist. Sometimes my older brother Sidney and I talk about the life we left behind.

"Most people stay there, they love the 'hood life," Syndey said. "That's all good. I love it too, no lie. I love it too. But, you know, to me it's an aspect in time when we all have to grow up." Sidney is 24 years old. He's working at a nursing home, and putting himself though college. He thinks his life would have been a lot different if he'd stayed in Chicago.

In the studio
In the studio recording this piece for MPR.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"I feel I'd either be dead or on a corner, selling dope," Sidney said. "That's the only way I would survive out there. Like I said, I feel I got a second choice on life by moving up here."

I feel like that too. I felt welcome when we moved here. Putting together this story, I learned that my family was part of a controversy as Minnesota grew and changed.

I appreciate the chance we got in Minnesota to have a better life.


This story was a collaboration between Minnesota Public Radio and ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.