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Ha Tien

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.

18 thoughts on “Ha Tien

  1. I have to see Ha Tien for myself. The way you describe it makes it really come alive. Thank you!

  2. Beautifully expressed, Erik. I too worry about what’s going to happen to those small businesses once construction begins. Thanks for writing this; I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

  3. Small businesses like this are always the first ones to be victims of government. That’s what is happening here, the same old story as we have seen many times before.

  4. Thanks everyone.

    I don’t want this to become a general complaint about government. Certainly the power of big projects like transit has the potential to do a lot of damage, and this is no exception. But there is still the power to make useful things, which includes transit. The difference is really a matter of scale most of the time. That’s always my point.

  5. I think that the market’s main customer base will still go there because they need/want those products and most of them are not carried anywhere else nearby (or are they?)…

    The light rail project is one that will benefit the greater community at large. Unfortunately, as is often the case with such projects, some “little guys” here and there will be affected adversely. It’s up to the customers to try to mitigate the damage, really.

  6. I still believe very strongly that this project will not be built. It has moved from being “inevitable” to what Peter Bell confessed on MPR as “50 to 75% likely”. That’s a pretty major admission from the project’s head cheerleader.

    Why won’t it be built? Because, though they loathe to admit it, the Met Council knows that these lawsuits are very likely to stop progress on this line entirely. It comes down to how the EIS that has been written can stand up in court – and it’s a really lousy EIS. I do not see it standing up in court, especially when it is compared to the same documents used in other cities.

    That is why I constantly stress that there is a viable “Plan B” in the form of a modern streetcar system. The sooner we abandon the over-engineered and over-scaled plan we have, the sooner we can move on to something that works.

  7. Well, being on the inside of the general counsel’s office at the U, I know that the U’s concerns are very valid and I am glad they filed suit to force them to be addressed–too bad it had to go that far, though. Too bad the Met Council doesn’t realize the extent of the value the U and its research facilities adds to MN and to the world, and would rather push their project through than make sure it works for all concerned. And to have it go down Washington Avenue (and not underground)? Crazy. That street is already way too crowded with cars, bikes, buses and people.

    A streetcar system would be awesome!!

  8. I find myself again at odds with you on the transit project. As a nearly daily consumer of that corridor both for its businesses and for transit between Midway and the west bank or downtown, I think I can be a fair observer. I have a great appreciation for the numerous small and well-liked businesses as Ha Tien, the French Vietnamese Bakery Trung Nam, other groceries and restaurants. But there are also large strips of University that are vacant, undeveloped, abandoned or being used poorly. Empty car dealerships and burnt out fascades are not charming.

    The current buses are inadequate. The four mile trek (as the crow flies from Midway to the west bank of the U) takes 22-24 minutes per the 16 schedule plus waiting time between buses, but the real problem is that once within the University area the buses become so crowded the drivers frequently must reject potential riders. The University of Minnesota student body is one of the top consumers of the service – yet the University itself is an impediment to improving the service.

    The initial light rail proposal (the Hiawatha Line) looked liked a boondoggle, but the convenience and speed of service to what looked like an unlikely, low-demand area built demand. The stops needed expansion to accomodate more volume. This cental corridor is a known high-demand area, I don’t see how street cars would do anything but replace one inadequate system with another.

    I reject the idea that the proposed system spells inevitable death to the businesses that currently exist on University. I also suspect many of these businesses might take issue with a paternalistic portrayal of their bread and butter as quaint shoppes in a land that time forgot atmosphere.

  9. The U doesn’t want to be an impediment–it supports the project overall. It has been forced to file suit because the Met Council wasn’t cooperating with the U’s efforts to negotiate some way that the project can be done without adversely affecting its many labs that are so close to the proposed line. The U’s research is very important, not just to the U, but to everyone. It should be taken seriously.

  10. Bruce:

    The choice we have in front of us should NOT be LRT versus a “no build”. The reason I am scaling up my posting on this topic is that I sense that this project is beginning to face what I consider inevitable – that it would be stalled out for a while before it dies a slow death. That is not because we do not need transit, but because it was poorly conceived and designed.

    There is an alternative, which is the modern streetcar. Please see the previous post to understand how this has been implemented in other cities and why it is the correct choice for a rail system on University Avenue. I offer this as a “Plan B” when this project finally collapses of its own weight.

    There remains a somewhat trickier potential to use existing right-of-way in the BN, CP, or I-94 corridors for high speed mass transit of the LRT design. That could also work, but it would take longer to implement given how much time we have wasted over-engineering University.

    As for a “land that time forgot”, that was never my intent. At Western, however, there is a definite sense that it is a different place than anywhere else on University – and in Saint Paul. The local businesses have several times asked for special decorations, public sculpture, etc to designate that area as some kind of “Little Saigon”, but it has never materialized. Part of the issue is that there are several distinct “Asian” groups that do not agree to the name. But the designation as a place apart is not only very real but has been proposed many times by the businesses themselves as a marketing tool.

  11. I just realized that not everyone understands the difference between LRT and a Streetcar. There has been a tremendous amount of confusion here, the two terms being used interchangeably at times. I believe that some of this confusion has been intention on the part of advocates and/or the Met Council.

    Here is the best summary I’ve seen yet of the distinction, prepared for Denver (in pdf format):

    Streetcar and Lightrail Characteristics

    The meaty table is on page 6, but I recommend the whole document. It shows the wide range of options that other cities consider when they compete with us for Federal money and decide how to fit a transit system into an urban landscape.

    • I am left with a number of objections. Of course the characteristics of an area cannot be unchanged by any transit project. The passage of time too will alter a neighborhood. One of my points was, there is a lot of University Avenue. Some will be improved, perhaps some harmed. But a large-scale transit project is my lens.

      The U’s interest in protecting its research is legit. I accept that. My understanding is that the Met Council and U had an agreement about vibration-abatement – the U changed their mind? Please correct me if I am mistaken. If their goal is to “derail” (pardon the pun), then “impede” is the correct verb.

      Finally, my greatest concern is if a transit solution has to go through an entirely new evaluation, i.e. back-to-the-drawing-board or not-yet-on-the-table streetcars, no solution will happen in my working lifetime. There are thousands of people who live disenfranchised by our area’s poor transit. If a few stores must move or lose their character to correct that, so be it.

  12. No prob, Bruce, there are a zillion details here. I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not always presenting what I have in a way that helps make sense of them. It’s a work in progress.

    It’s MPR that thought they had an agreement, but then went ahead with a lawsuit:


    All I know is what’s in the article on the suit. The “floating slab” is what’s at stake here, and one was indeed implemented in Charlotte. I’d like to note that Streetcars make this a lot easier to implement because the lower weight means they rest on a slab to start with.

    Portland got their streetcar running in 3 years, design to build, from 1998-2001. By my watch, if you want a line running in 2014 we still have some extra time to deal with the issues unique to University Ave. I realize that’s pretty glib, but these other cities are our competition after all. If the Vikings don’t win the ring, we demand changes rather than fault the Saints for being good.

    I completely agree that poor transit is a huge problem. Having been close to this process off and on for 20 years (I served on two committees looking at the West End) I’ve come to fault our team for their poor performance. I think the examples of Portland, Tacoma, Charlotte, Atlanta – and many other cities – shows that we have a unique problem.

    Can we run an appropriate line along University that *improves* local service and preserves parking? Yes, we can. I have a drawing located here, poor as it is:


    This is one set of trade-offs, your mileage may vary. But it fits if you do it right. The current plan doesn’t accommodate either parking or pedestrians very well and cuts back on the 16 rather dramatically. That’s a pretty big failure, IMHO, especially since there are so many alternatives on a 120′ wide street.

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