The ‘Ellis Island’ of St. Paul was razed in the 1960s, but West Side residents haven’t forgotten

A black and white photo of a community by a river.
Tennessee Street in West Side Flats seen during a flood in 1952.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A St. Paul neighborhood that was bulldozed nearly 60 years ago is getting new attention thanks to the efforts of a group of West Side residents. 

From the 1850s to the 1960s, West Side Flats was home to poor immigrant families with Irish, Jewish and Latino backgrounds. The area was destroyed and replaced with an industrial park.

Many of the people who were displaced are still alive, and now they’re getting a chance to tell their stories. The West Side Community Organization is hosting a conversation for St. Paul residents on Sunday, Feb. 11 at the Wellstone Center

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Monica Bravo, executive director the West Side Community Organization, about the lost neighborhood. 

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The following is a transcription of the audio heard using the player above, lightly edited for clarity.

What did you discover about the vibrancy of Westside Flats?

Westside Flats has previously been dubbed as the “little Ellis Island” of St. Paul, a very diverse community with ethnic foods and traditions, music, vibrant stores, businesses and buyers. 

And just a very tight knit community with the stories that we hear from the residents who live there. There really wasn’t a lot of crime, although they were one of the poorest of the poor communities, because it was such a tight-knit group of folks.

The last residence of the flats left in the early 1960s. What led to the destruction of the neighborhood? 

The Port Authority and the City of St. Paul decided that the flood pain was hazardous to the houses and uninhabitable for folks to live. They decided that they were going to move out all of the residents that were there and then, afterwards, built an industrial park. They then built a flood wall to protect their investments. 

That’s what we’ve come to an agreement on. And what we’re looking at right now is an opportunity to bring back the histories, the truth of the displaced families that lived there. It’s an opportunity to repair the harm that was done, and an opportunity to build neighborhood power to resist displacement so that this is like this doesn't happen again.

Displacement sounds like this similar situation — in a sense to what happened to the folks in the old Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul who were displaced by Interstate 94. What lessons are you taking from what happened to Rondo and to the former residents of Westside Flats?

It’s been really good to be in close relationship with the Rondo community, and to talk with them about the inheritance fund that has been established. To talk with them about the right to return to Rondo and to be in community with them as we journey on our side of town. 

And what it is that repair looks like for the harms that were done here. Unlike Rondo, what we have is quite a bit of a toxic site of the city. We were home to a superfund cleanup site right on the riverfront where the families were displaced after the industrial park was built, and so we have our own unique layer of harm that we need to work through as well.

How will you take these stories forward?

We’ve been journeying on a year-long process with participatory community research. And we are in a space right now where we’re continuing to narrow recommendations from the families who are most directly impacted, but also from residents who live here today. And as we gear up towards June, we will have a completed report of findings that we will put forward with recommendations.

So this weekend, we’re going to continue to hear from families, we’re going to narrow down some recommendations. And that’s a step in our process. Right now, we really do think that the city of the Port Authority has an opportunity to take accountability for the harm that was caused here in our community.

How many families were not fairly compensated for their homes? What opportunities for generational wealth building were cut short? What was the cultural cost of dispersing what are the city’s most diverse neighborhoods? And who benefited from that displacement? So these are the things that we’re looking at.

The West Side Community Organization will host From the Flats to the Future: A community discussion for West Siders and descendants of displacement on the West Side on Sunday, Feb. 11 from 1:30pm-4:30pm at the Wellstone Center.