Monday, August 2, 2021

About This Place Where I Live

Bill Lindeke's new book, St. Paul – An Urban Biography, is like Glinda the Good Witch when compared to her counterpart the Wicked Witch of the West, better known as that 1956 Minneapolis Centennial book I found recently. Lindeke's book is thoughtful about the city it explores instead of plainly boosterish, and he devotes its pages to the area's social history, whether from before Europeans arrived or after.

The Great Men are not so great in Lindeke's telling. Instead, when they aren't enacting the will of God or the right way to do things as they saw it, they're setting up deals for themselves (and somehow those things always seem to coincide). For instance,

The 1837 treaties...were also a boon to the early St. Paul economy, bringing large sums of federal money into the territory. While the annuities [paid to the Native people] were intended to help the Dakota and Ojibwe, their corrupt administration meant that white traders made healthy profits off annual payments. By the 1840s, the long-established fur trade was near its end because, increasingly, land was becoming more valuable to the invading immigrants for purposes other than trapping. As land was ceded, Native hunters were less able to repay their debts with fur, and traders like Henry Sibley, the head of the American Fur Company post just across the river in Mendota, increasingly turned to Native annuities as an income stream. ...Henry Rice...later bought up many of the best land claims in early St. Paul, investing wisely and becoming the town's biggest booster. He dedicated the city's first park... (pp. 18-19)

Which still bears Rice's name, I note.

The treaties of 1851 were even worse than those of 1837, it sounds like, beginning "the biggest era of land speculation in Minnesota history" with Sibley, Rice and other long-time fur trade veterans "first in line to receive payments for debts alleged against Native peoples." They extracted so much in payment that there was little left from the government payments for the lands. The land was often then resold for ten times as much a year later.

I learned a number of things from this book:

  • How much of St. Paul's history is soaked in alcohol (in contrast with that of Minneapolis, which was more a place of Puritan temperance). It started with the French and Irish and continued with the Germans (Bavarians, really, I think), who brought brewers yeast with them after leaving Prussian dominance.
  • How unfortunately flexible St. Paul Democrats have been when it comes to placing business over principles through the eras. For instance, rich Southerners liked to take their summer vacations in cool Minnesota and, of course, they wanted to bring their "property" with them, and some Democrats were of a mind to make that easier for them so they'd keep coming as tourists. "At one point during the 1860 legislative session, St. Paul representative Charles Mackubin proposed legalizing slavery in the state, but only between the months of May and October..." (p. 33). In 1860! Read the room, Charles! And this guy still has a street named after him!
  • How, despite the very problematic exploitation of the old fur traders, the European immigrants who came later were worse in their way of dealing with the Native peoples. The traders had "exploited the power dynamics between the federal government and the...tribes," but they spoke the Native languages and English (which many Native people had learned). The newcomers "spoke European languages and were baffled by Native American cultures. They also tended to vote Republican [and] supported more harsh treatment of Native people..." (p. 36).
  • That James J. Hill's wife, Megan Mehagan, was part of St. Paul's Irish community, and that fact was key in cementing him in the community and helped his success first in warehousing and then railroad empire-building.
  • That the Twin Cities had a knock-down, drag-out fight over the 1890 census, in which both St. Paul and Minneapolis tried to cheat on the count. (I actually laughed out loud when reading this section.) The Feds had to throw it out completely and have it redone, and when the dust settled, Minneapolis had passed St. Paul in population for the first time, and has been a larger city ever since.
  • That St. Paul is more pro-labor than Minneapolis (which wouldn't be hard, since big-business-oriented Minneapolis is very anti-labor) but also that St. Paul is "the Minnesota poster child for conflict avoidance" (p. 75).

The chapter called "Bulldozer," about racial covenants, red-lining, and the construction of Interstate 94 through the Rondo neighborhood, was not news to me, but is very well put together, demonstrating the deep-seated racist world view of the government planners and money-men who made the decisions that shaped what our city became in the 20th century. There are official documents that referred to areas where Black people lived as "racial encroachment," for instance (p. 107)! Or to the city's West Side (across the river from Downtown St. Paul) as "a ghetto district—Russians, Jews, Mexicans, Chinese, and riff-raff live here, the most undesirable district in Saint Paul" (p. 109).

I did learn one thing about the destruction of Rondo by I-94, when it came to choosing that final route vs. the possible northern route along an existing railroad corridor, which would have been less disruptive: because northern plan was based on a surface boulevard instead of a raised or lowered roadway, it didn't qualify for the 90% subsidy from the federal government, and that put it out of contention. (Why wasn't a surface boulevard fundable? No good reason, I'll bet. It just wasn't considered the "best practice" at the time or some b.s. like that.)

St. Paul is now engaged in the same struggle the U.S. finds itself in: the effort to become a pluralistic democracy. Honestly, I think our city is quite a bit farther along the path than our country is, partly because — despite all of its problems — it's a lot easier to govern close to where people live and when you represent many fewer people, than it is to govern when you're far away and you represent way too many. With national government in a large country, there's too much at stake, too much money involved, and too many big corporations with interests. Organizing is never easy, but it's easier at the local level. You can be heard.

St. Paul has changed as its people have changed, and our most recent immigrants (many who were refugees and the children of refugees) have reinvigorated the place in undeniable ways. As city institutions increasingly reconnect with the Dakota people who have been here all along, largely unacknowledged by white people, and our electeds look more and more like the city's population, I feel a little bit of hope for this place, at least. 

Thanks to Bill Lindeke for writing about St. Paul at this time and giving me both a look back and a look ahead.

1 comment:

Bill Lindeke said...

Wow thanks for the kind review Pat!