On University Avenue, around Western, sit a cluster of stores with a very distinct purpose. They sit aside other things around them, despite being in the middle of Saint Paul, for one very important reason – they serve different customers than the big stores further down by the Snelling off-ramp. This is the part of the city that has yet to achieve a strong name or definition on its own despite its different nature, a part of the city more likely ignored than given a name like “Little Asia” or “New Vietnam”. Anyone who pledges to care about the future of University Avenue, or especially Saint Paul, should spend some time getting to know this world. A good place to start is the grocery store called Ha Tien.
The name itself is taken from a city in Vietnam near the border with Cambodia. I have never asked if the owners came from there or what the specific connection is. A combination of Midwestern politeness and a desire to simply be a part of the surroundings urges me to shop just like anyone else, buying the small treasures that have become staples in our family pantry. I only know that the name, like most of the customers, have come from across the sea.
Many things can be had in Ha Tien that you will not find in a typical American market. Six kilo bags of Thai Jasmine rice can be had for just a few dollars, the stack located just behind the aisle with rich Hoisin and delicate fish sauce. The tea aisle is vast, full of odd folk medicines alongside the steamy grace of Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy). All the delights of Asia can be found in Ha Tien, or at least the delights that have followed behind the refugees turned Americans who are my neighbors.
The most striking thing to anyone with western eyes are the large fish tanks full of tonight’s dinner, seemingly unaware of their fate. In any other grocery store you might see great aisles with boxes or large freezers containing the products of factories. In Ha Tien there are coolers with Lychee confections in plastic cups, among other processed foods, but far more space is taken up by the harvest of the sea delivered still alive. That difference is critical because this old fashioned store is much more alive than the large warehouse food dispensers a few miles away. It is the energy of life that defines Ha Tien like anything that is good and memorable about a city and a life worth living within it.
There is no sea of asphalt parking lot next to Ha Tien, either. A few customers park in front on University Avenue, but many take the 16 Bus to get here. Both are threatened to either go away or be severely reduced by the Central Corridor project. With a stop promised at Western it may be easier for people like me to reach this part of our city, but those who have come to rely on it for their daily groceries will have to find something else. No one has cared to think of what that something else might be.
For all the great treasures this store can offer for a few dollars, it is the customers that define it. They are why it is there, just east of Western, and why there is a living to be had operating it. They need this store far more than I need the magical experience of bringing a rich palate to the nightly experience of cooking and eating and talking that defines so much of how my kids are growing up. In the end, I have to thank not just the owners of this store but my neighbors apart who made Ha Tien necessary. We all have a common interest just by being here, together, for a short wile to do our shopping.
Anyone who has an opinion about the need for development or an increase in density along University Avenue needs to spend a just a few minutes in Ha Tien or the other stores like it if they want to know what is at stake. This humble store should come home and cross their palate of people who really want to know what this issue is about. It is, like any story of a city with a future, about life and simple pleasures made into experiences worth retelling. That is where a civilized people develop the courage to make small plans which do nothing more than fill the spaces inbetween, especially those spaces that appear to always be separated by oceans of misunderstanding.