Minneapolis

St. Paul’s newest park was a community effort

2021-06-15 21:42:28 –

Sitting Tuesday in the new St. Paul park they had dreamed about, Khamar Abdullahi and Esmael Guye applauded.

“It’s been so long,” Abdullahi said.

“But they did it,” Guye finished.

In fact, as longtime residents of a nearby apartment complex called Skyline Tower, Abdullahi and Guye were part of the community movement that created Midway Peace Park. So were the students at neighboring Gordon Parks High School.

It might be a coincidence that both neighbors looked out their windows at about the same time at the junk-filled yards and crumbling parking lots and thought: “This should be a park.” But the work they did to actually make it so — the letters, the videos, the tours and telephone calls — was intentional and coordinated.

“This project is so cool,” St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said at the opening of the three-acre island of green in a neighborhood long devoid of green space. Students and residents not only selected the park’s name but helped to decide its design and amenities.

Hahm also praised the Trust For Public Land, which acquired most of the land with private funds before donating it to the city.

“Without their partnership, there’s no way we would be doing this,” he said. “We’ve wanted to increase open space in this area for a long time.”

The nearly $6 million that paid for the park was raised by the Trust for Public Land, the city’s 8-80 Vitality Fund and a federal grant. Featuring a walking loop, multiple benches for elders to sit and rest, a playground, a full-sized basketball court and an outdoor stage, the park follows a long-term vision of outdoor gathering spaces along the Green Line.

The Capitol Region Watershed District provided a grant and designed rain gardens and a central flowing water feature to absorb and filter an estimated 1.5 million gallons of runoff per year.

While visitors see a shiny new park, Gordon Parks High School graduate Khalique Rogers sees tangible proof that civic engagement leads to community empowerment.

“We looked out at that empty space, at that unused land, that eyesore, and we knew it could be something more,” Rogers said.

Students started the process with a video promoting the transformation of a smattering of vacant lots and surface parking. The area, near Hamline Avenue just north of Interstate Hwy. 94, was once a gathering site for traveling circuses.

Soon after, students allied with Skyline residents, writing to city officials and inviting them to visit the site and hear from children and teens who needed a place to play and to talk with elders who had no shady spots to rest. In addition to a city park, Gordon Parks students hope the space will host outdoor classes, maybe even conduct experiments in an outdoor lab.

In 2016, Skyline Tower residents, including Guye and Abdullahi, invited former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman up to the 24th floor to show him the paucity of parkland below.

Rogers graduated from Gordon Parks in 2014 and is close to graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in business and marketing. But he and other former students have stayed involved all along.

“It’s nice to have a voice and to have a place at the table,” Rogers said. “But we weren’t just at the table. [Students and residents] had some leadership as well.”

Paul Creager, who coordinates curriculum and media arts at the school, said school projects became infused with the push for the park.

“Skyline Tower took nights and weekends. We were kind of the day shift of the effort,” he said, adding hundreds of students have been involved since 2009. “It’s really an authentic story of civic engagement.”

For the more than 1,000 residents of the 504-unit, 24-story Skyline Tower, the park is proof that getting involved works, said Mangala Sharma, service coordinator. As she was handing out T-shirts to residents who had participated in rallying for the park, an older resident told her: “Mangala, this is a dream come true.”

She added: “This was definitely a huge community project — not from the top down, but from the bottom up.”

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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