I’m a brown homeowner in a racially segregated city

I've been thinking a lot about the impact of where I live, and how it would form the imaginations of children when it comes to race.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of where I live, and how it would form the imaginations of children when it comes to race. I’ve now lived in three neighborhoods in Saint Paul, Minnesota, all with distinct histories, identities, and reputations. The Merriam Park neighborhood, where I began my time in Saint Paul, is north of the University of St. Thomas and south of I-94. It consists mostly of large well-maintained homes owned, as far as I could tell, mostly by white families and landlords. After Merriam Park, I lived in Crocus Hill, a relatively wealthy area that requires a parking pass and allows one to walk to such stores as Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, and Lululemon. Finally, I ended up buying my first home in the West Frogtown neighborhood, a neighborhood largely shaped by the construction of I-94.

An important piece of understanding the history of Saint Paul is the construction of I-94. Saint Paul was incorporated in 1854 and, for a time, was home largely to a working class immigrant population from Western Europe. Historic Saint Paul directories indicate a very small population of black and brown residents. (Black and brown residents had the word “colored” or “col’d” next to their names in the directories.) As local industries grew, those white working class immigrants and their children became wealthy politicians, educators, and business leaders, developing land and real estate west of downtown, including what are now the Crocus Hill, Merriam Park, and Frogtown neighborhoods. In the middle of Saint Paul, the Rondo neighborhood also flourished with economic and cultural development in the early twentieth century. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood at first and was known for music, culture, and the push for civil rights. The Jewish population eventually moved across the city as they found greater wealth and cultural acceptance, and into the 1930’s the Rondo neighborhood had immense growth in its black population. About half of Saint Paul’s black residents lived in the neighborhood by the end of the 1930’s. Black residents were able to achieve wealth and status in the unusually integrated schooling and other systems, which drew to Saint Paul many black Americans living in the South.

At the same time, however, racism was still at work in the Twin Cities. Many white Americans, supported by the Federal Housing Administration, viewed “better” neighborhoods as white neighborhoods, and the practice of redlining became a way of legally preventing black and brown residents from buying homes in many parts of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In addition to redlining, white residents began putting racial covenants into housing deeds so that black and brown persons would be prevented from buying homes in perpetuity. But this was not enough. In the mid-twentieth century, the wealthier classes (largely white) in Saint Paul began to move to the suburbs. They continued to work in the city, however, and they wanted a highway constructed in order to facilitate their commute. So I-94 was planned.

Despair and outrage struck the black community when it was discovered that I-94 was routed to destroy the Rondo neighborhood. It was not enough that white residents had put into housing covenants from the 1910’s to the 1950’s such requirements as, “Premises shall not be sold, mortgaged, or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.” (An ethics handbook published in 1924 by the National Association of Real Estate Boards, even codified a realtor’s responsibility to keep white neighborhoods white.) Nor was it enough for white residents to seek refuge from “undesirable” neighborhoods and populations by moving to the suburbs. To pour salt into open wounds, I-94 was planned in such a way as to avoid disrupting predominantly white neighborhoods and constructed to run right through the middle of the predominantly-black Rondo neighborhood. By the time the highway was completed in 1968, it had displaced nearly 600 families and 300 businesses. One in eight black Saint Paul residents lost their homes. The city forcibly removed those who refused to leave, and they were often forced to sell their homes for far below their value, resulting in a significant loss in the accumulated wealth of these residents.

Saint Paul is both racially diverse and racially segregated. Wealthy white residents in Saint Paul have moved south of I-94, while black and brown residents in Saint Paul continue to be driven north of it. Middle income white residents currently want to move into the neighborhoods of wealthy white residents, and also the (predominantly white) Como neighborhood northwest of Frogtown and the (predominantly white) Saint Anthony neighborhood a few miles west of Frogtown. I don’t fully understand all the dynamics. It was only in retrospect that I realized that in one of my friend groups, I am among the highest wage earners, and am also the only BIPOC person, and am also the only homeowner to purchase a house in a neighborhood that is not predominantly white. Somehow fate (or perhaps policy) had filtered us into the neighborhoods where racism of the last century intended us to be.

The Racial Dot Map uses 2010 census data to give a sense of the racial makeup of these neighborhoods at the time. (Note that Rondo no longer exists as a neighborhood, but I have indicated where it used to be.) Black and brown residents live largely where the racist policies of the twentieth century wanted us to be. According to this data, those policies were, and continue to be, highly effective:

The Demographics Research Group’s Racial Dot Map, with an overlay of the estimated location of the Saint Paul neighborhoods.

Since moving into my home in West Frogtown, I have heard of people referring to my neighborhood as “the ghetto,” “dangerous,” and “the hood.” People have expressed concern for my safety. And for every comment I hear about, I know there are a multitude of comments left unsaid. These comments, however, don’t always match up to reality. For example, if City of Saint Paul crime statistics are to be believed, my western part of the “dangerous” Frogtown neighborhood is actually much safer than my previous home in the western part of “nice” Crocus Hill:

To be sure, the south-central part of Frogtown has higher rates of crime, undoubtedly in large part the result of racist housing covenants (which drove black and brown persons to concentrate into certain neighborhoods) and then racist city planning (which robbed them of wealth they’d built in homes and businesses). If there are higher rates of crime, it’s because of city planning. But, in terms of my old home in the “nice” neighborhood in Crocus Hill and my new home in “the hood” of Frogtown, it’s stereotype rather than facts or actual experiences which give my racially diverse neighborhood a bad reputation.

Neighborhoods do a lot to both drive and perpetuate the various forms of racism, from malicious discrimination to racism’s more subtle forms. The reputation that my neighborhood has demonstrates, once again, how powerful racist policies have been. My neighborhood’s reputation suggests that those racist city planners and community members got what they wanted. My neighborhood has exactly the reputation that they wanted the neighborhood of a brown homeowner to have.

I didn’t move into my neighborhood in order to make a statement or an impact when it comes to racism in my city. But one question I have asked myself since moving into my current neighborhood is: What story does my neighborhood tell about black people? If I have children, how will my neighborhood form their imaginations when it comes to race?

My Crocus Hill neighborhood, as far as I can recall, would tell my children: black people don’t live here. Perhaps it would tell them: black people don’t belong here. It would tell them: black people are people who work at the gas station.

My Merriam Park neighborhood would tell my kids: black people mow lawns, work in food service, and rent in the house across the street where the police come from time to time.

My Frogtown neighborhood would tell my kids: Black people mow their own lawns. They are homeowners and business owners. Some work in food service. Others have office jobs. They have nice kids.

Another key question is: what story does my community tell about other neighborhoods? The story told by my kids about West Frogtown, if they grow up in it, would probably be: “It’s a nice place to live.” The story told by my kids about West Frogtown, if they grew up in the Crocus Hill or Merriam Park neighborhood, would probably be: “You don’t want to live there.”

My neighborhood deserves much more than what has been given it, in terms of policy, investment, and reputation. Crime is high in much of it. Much overdue investments should be made in it and its longtime residents. The neighborhood deserves much more than what the city has given it, and how the city has spoken of and treated it. I’m proud to be a brown homeowner in a historically black neighborhood, and it’s a disgrace that it continues to be harmed by the long-term impacts of racism. What I’ve described above is a form of racism, a cycle begun in the last century which has yet to be disrupted.

Some resources:

Chris Damian

is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.

1 comment on “I’m a brown homeowner in a racially segregated city

  1. Chris, thank you so much for your reflections on this. I am interested and resonate with so much of what you have describe for many reasons. First, when I was in St. Paul I worked for the Human Rights department of the city. I learned all about what happened with Rondo and heard the stories of what it was like before I-94 came and those stories have stuck with me. I saw the segregation you talk about. My impression, not being Minnesotan, was that while Minnesota was more diverse than it would seem on paper, it is not integrated. Your heat map clearly supports my experience. Second, I now live in DC and just a couple of months ago we moved into a new home in the SE part of the city, which is 92% Black. We’re in it for the long haul here and it is so meaningful to read your reflections and thoughts about the narrative your neighborhood speaks over other neighborhoods and other people. I appreciate the perspective, it gives me new dynamics to consider as we’re settling in.

    By the way, these are the best neighbors I’ve ever had in my life. It struck me the other day that these people are going to be the ones to teach us, tangibly and indelibly, how to love your neighbor well.


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