Set on the hills overlooking downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River, the East Side has always been separated from the rest of the city, first by the marshy ground of the Trout Brook and Phalen Creek beds on the east side of Downtown, and then by the railroads that followed those corridors. Payne Avenue became the primary business district for the East Side, serving its many neighborhoods.
By the time St. Paul was settled in the 1850s, Phalen Creek had cut a corridor from Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River just east of Downtown. Here is where much of the first industry was established and first residents lived.
If one characteristic defined the East Side throughout its history, it is that it has been a place for newcomers. In the late nineteenth century, the Irish, Germans, Swedes and Italians made the East Side their home. As early as the 1860s, newly arriving Swedish immigrants made their way to settle in the abandoned shacks of fur trappers on the banks of the Phalen Creek ravine. Called “Svenska Dalen,” or Swedish Dale, the modest neighborhood soon was known as Swede Hollow.
Many of the men in the Hollow were day laborers, climbing the long stairway out of the ravine each day to work. Women took in sewing or laundry, and often cared for boarders in the home in addition to their families.
By 1915, most Swedes moved out of the ravine and north along Payne Avenue. But Swede Hollow continued to be an initial entry point for new residents, and Italians replaced Swedes in the Hollow. Arriving by trains, many immigrants were met by Joseph Yarusso, one of the first Italians in the Hollow, who took it upon himself to help the newcomers. The Italians, like the Swedes before them, eventually moved up the hill and became largely identified with the Railroad Island neighborhood.
Mexican Americans, who came to St. Paul beginning in the 1920s, inhabited Swede Hollow until 1956, when the area was vacated and deemed unfit for habitation. In time, the area would turn into the park it is today.
But it was up on the hill where the east side thrived. Payne Avenue and its adjacent streets buzzed with restaurants, grocery and clothing stores. The large businesses of 3M, Seeger Refrigeration and Hamm’s made development and housing boom in the area. And streetcars carried the many residents through adjacent arteries, and also back and forth from downtown.
While the 1970s saw a decline as many major industries closed, the area is now in a renaissance period due greatly to the more recent immigrants of the east side. In fact it was East-Siders like congressman Bruce Vento, himself of Italian immigrant ancestry that identified with the plight of the Hmong after the Vietnam War and was instrumental in helping establish the Hmong presence on the East Side. It was groups like these Hmong, Hispanics, and other more recent arrivals, that carried on the East Side immigrant tradition and are greatly to thank for the East Side’s survival.
Today, as popular Gastropubs, organic farms, and artist communities take root, it’s important to remember the immigrant tradition that defines and has determined the culture of this East Side neighborhood.