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Fort Road Federation

The crowd took their seats slowly, grudgingly giving up the moment to catch up with neighbors they hadn’t seen in a while.  The formal program of the Fort Road Federation Annual Meeting started off last night with the same kind of connection, a brief talk by former Mayor George Latimer.  As Mayor 22 years ago he had butted heads with many of the people in the room who had their own ideas about how the community should develop and proceed, different from the city of St Paul’s big plans.  But through a few jokes, salty comments, and heartfelt statements of respect he made it clear – what makes the West Seventh community strong are the neighbors that make it work.

Neighbors, that is, and their connections that become community – something beyond each and every one of us.

Not every city has organizations like the Fort Road Federation to knit together the commitments and connections into one coherent whole that can make a difference. But they should.

The Fort Road Federation is one of many District Councils throughout the city, and organized form of citizen participation in the nitty-gritty details of how the city is planned and run.  It was under Mayor Latimer that they were organized in 1976, bringing communities together to work on their own problems and help guide city planning.  It was a bold experiment in many ways, but it reflected the unique way St Paul has always been organized.  This is a city of 17 small towns but one Mayor.

Outsiders and the city staff probably know the Fort Road Federation more for what it has prevented from happening than anything else.  As the western edge of Downtown, tucked between the tall bluffs of the Cathedral and the Mississippi River, a lot of traffic is funneled through West Seventh on its way from somewhere to somewhere else.  To us, however, it is home, and massive projects like Interstate 35E, a Shepard Road interchange, or a dedicated busway down the middle of West Seventh would have turned us into little more than the gap between here and there.

But at the Annual Meeting we spend more time talking about the incredible work being done by so many people to make their neighborhoods stronger that has benefited from the organization and influence of the Federation.  The Little Bohemia Neighborhood has been tackling the ravages of bulk foreclosure and vacancy, rehabbing some houses and taking down some to make way for new development.  Marit Brock gave us all an update on how they are progressing.  It’s a process much like the successful “Brewery Breakthrough” in 1995 that changed around an entire neighborhood on the edge with 44 new or re-made units.

And then there is the old Schmidt Brewery itself, a development about to move ahead in earnest after 5 years of negotiation and planning.  261 units will be crafted by the developer Dominium and the Federation itself will rehab the Rathskeller and some commercial space around it.  It’s an impressive project that will place the soul back in the heart of the community at this great landmark old brewery, and a daring venture for a community to undertake on its own.

But these are only the big projects.  There are the community gardens of shared 12×12 plots.  The Healthy West Seventh project links United Family Medicine to smaller projects to promote wellness rather than wait for patients to show up sick at their practice on West Seventh.  The Great River Passage master plan for the Mississippi through St Paul has been guided and shaped by the great vision and care of Kent Petterson and many others.

Plus there was time out to honor our great community organizer Betty Moran for her 40 years of service in what was once a neighborhood on the edge, dotted with crime and general bad behavior, now recognized as one of the great communities of St Paul in no small part because of her tireless efforts.  As Richard Miller said, “She leads from within.”  They had to sneak the award onto the program because if Betty has always shied away from recognition, demurring to the many people of the community who make things happen.  But without her organizing, many small voices might have remained just that had she not been there to make one strong arm of action.

The Annual Meeting of the Federation is a time to catch up with what’s going on both with neighbors and with the neighborhood itself.  A pile of bricks only becomes a strong wall when mortar fills the spaces inbetween, laid down with care and skill. The strength of the Federation is in both the people and their connections, but it all starts with care and commitment.  That is what makes a great community in any city.

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16 thoughts on “Fort Road Federation

  1. District Councils are a great part of St Paul. People really take care of their own neighborhoods and that is what makes this such a cool place to live. It’s good to hear what you are doing. Can’t wait to see the brewery become the artist’s lofts. That is still the plan, right?

    • District Councils are great, but it’s very important to remember they are not a layer of government – just a tool for organizing and developing citizen participation. The most important thing is for people to get involved because the ones that don’t work as well as the others generally rely on a very small group more than the whole community. Encouraging participation is really the most important thing.
      Space for artists to live and work is still the plan for the Schmidt Brewery, and it’s moving ahead!

  2. Impressive work. West Seventh has always been an interesting part of St Paul full of history and real characters. I can only imagine that it takes a lot of getting to know before anyone can say what is best for the place. But the city has its needs and you can’t always stand in the way of progress. I35E is a real joke at 45 miles but I will bet the city gets income off the tickets they sometimes sit out there and write.

    • There is a balancing act for everything and it works best when the city engages the neighborhood. For example, there is now a plan to improve the speed and presence of the 54 express bus down West Seventh for about 1/10 the cost of the busway that was defeated – it will accomplish everything the more expensive plan would have but with far less damage to the street.
      I-35E was one of those things – a compromise no one is really happy with. I don’t think the city writes tickets, but the state does sometimes. Remember that it took out about 1/4 of the housing in that part of West Seventh when it was built, which could have been devastating. It took us years to recover from the loss, but I think we’re OK now. Little Bohemia is one of the neighborhoods that was severely damaged by that freeway. So anything to minimize the damage is still a good thing.

  3. Where does the money come from to do all these projects? Don’t mean to complain but a big project like Schmidt might not work in this market and it really matters who is on the hook if it does.
    Good blog, good to see people taking care of business in their own community.

    • There is some subsidy that comes from city/state/fed sources, and there is also some support from foundations going into some of the Little Bohemia efforts. The Schmidt Brewery has some subsidy in the form of tax credits that come from Historic Property renovation that Dominium can use to offset profits elsewhere. There is not a lot of public money on the hook unless sales suffer greatly. That’s part of the reason the project is being done in phases – to minimize risk.

    • “Just” a neighbor? Tsk, tsk … 🙂
      Seriously – I’ve been on the Federation Board of Directors off and on for 20 years (had a break when my kids were first born). I’m the Secretary.

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