The Past Meets the Present

by Rachel Neiwert

Plat book of the city of Saint Paul, Minn. and suburbs / compiled for and under the direction of the St. Paul Real Estate Board. Philadelphia : G.M. Hopkins Co., 1916. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

In 2004, my husband and I moved to Minnesota. I was starting a Ph.D. program in history at the University of Minnesota and he was starting a new job as a chemistry professor. We were excited for the many new adventures the move promised, but also because we planned to buy our very first house. We planned a June trip to the Twin Cities to find our home. In preparation, we looked online at houses and talked with people who lived here about neighborhoods, commutes, and the houses we were finding online. We were so excited and, I realize now, so naïve. As we looked at houses in June 2004, I imagined that the only constraint we faced was what we could afford. It was a mark of my privilege as a white, middle-class woman that I imagined this to be the only barrier. It never occurred to me to imagine that I would not be welcomed in the neighborhood we moved into and even though, I was starting a graduate program in history, I never considered the ways that history shaped the composition of the neighborhoods where we looked at houses.

St. Paul and the communities and neighborhoods that make up Ramsey County are indelibly shaped by race. Like many cities and counties across the United States, Ramsey County has a history of racist housing practices that defined some neighborhoods as only for white people, but this is not generally the story that we like to tell about ourselves. We barely talk about the fact that, of course, the land that St. Paul and its surrounding suburbs sits on, was land that belonged to the Dakota people, who were displaced to make room for white settlers. We might talk about race and housing inequality when we remember the events that led to the demolition of significant sections of the Rondo Neighborhood to make space for I-94. When we limit our stories to Rondo, it allows us to put a tidy bow around racism and locate it in a single place and a single historical moment, rather than recognizing the fact that racism was and is a horrifically influential factor in how Ramsey County developed.

Racial covenants, mob violence, redlining, neighborhood associations, predatory lending practices—these were all tools used by white people to create neighborhoods as white spaces and to work against integration, for inequality, and to make equity harder to achieve. The “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” project at St. Kate’s is working to uncover these stories that many white people in Ramsey County would prefer to forget or at least ignore. We want to understand why it is that today roughly 75% of white families in the metro area own their own homes, but only 25% of Black families own their own home. We want to consider all the impacts of the disparity in home ownership on the wealth gap, on educational outcomes, and general health and well-being. We want to understand the history that led us to this place. The stories page of our website is a place where faculty, staff, students, and community members can share what they are learning about racism and housing inequality in Ramsey County.

Check back every two weeks for a new post sharing what we are learning—it might be stories from the archives or student projects or discussions of data, health or education.

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