Often, when people retire, they slow down a little. They take it easy, travel more, work less.
Peter Rachleff is not one of those people.
He spends more than 40 hours a week volunteering his time on what has become his post-retirement passion — the East Side Freedom Library.
On a recent day the library was hopping with activity. Rachleff, one of its founders, chatted with members of a bakers' union, who were just finishing up a meeting as a Hmong theater group was loading in props for the evening's performance.
"It is so satisfying to see the place being used this way," Rachleff said.
Rachleff taught U.S. labor, immigration and African-American history for 30 years, mainly at Macalester College and Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
Years ago, Rachleff and his partner, Macalester Professor Beth Cleary, met a couple in New York City who had turned their home into a community space, hosting conversations in front of a live audience. Rachleff and Cleary started dreaming about how they could do something similar in Minnesota.
• Topic: Arts
They live in St. Paul's East Side. Over the years they watched as thousands of unionized blue collar jobs disappeared. White families moved out, making way for newly arrived immigrants looking for affordable housing and access to jobs.
"So people from Southeast Asia, East Africa (and) Central America began to move into the houses that white people had moved out of, and we could see that there was misunderstanding, tension, fear," Rachleff recalled. "Lots of ways that people were not connecting with each other."
Rachleff imagined creating a space that empowered the different groups to build bridges to each other by using culture and history. "And not just the history of bad things that have been done," he said, "but the history of the ways that Mexicans in the 1910s and 1920s built community here on the East Side. The ways that Poles and Serbs came to the East Side and organized unions and built churches."
• Topic: Twin Cities
Over his career, Rachleff had amassed an extensive personal library on immigration and labor history. Several other professors and activists donated their collections to the project.
Rachleff and Cleary leased the former Arlington Hills Public Library, one of three historic Carnegie libraries in St. Paul. The stately building now holds more than 15,000 books, and there are still boxes more in the basement waiting to be cataloged. In the two and a half years since it opened, schools and students have increasingly used the library as a resource for research papers.
The space has hosted poetry readings, book group discussions and film screenings. But the East Side Freedom Library is also being used in ways Rachleff never imagined. It's become home to a Karen weaving group and to the Hmong Archives — a massive collection of artifacts of the Hmong diaspora.
Rachleff said he's been inspired by the generosity of neighbors who have donated their time and talents — building bookshelves and taking care of the garden out front. But he worries about the future.
While the library is staffed by a team of dedicated volunteers, it takes $4,000 a month to keep the building up and running, and it is in dire need of a new boiler. Rachleff said he's been surprised by how hard it is to raise money.
"We invested a great deal of time and energy and hope in the Minnesota Legislature last year, hoping for bonding money," he said. "And nobody got any. That was a very depressing political education."
He's also finding the foundation world difficult to navigate, he said. Or perhaps it's the foundation world that's having a hard time navigating the East Side Freedom Library.
At a time when schools, arts organizations, community centers and history museums often get their funding from different pots, the East Side Freedom Library is all of the above.