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West Side Flats, St. Paul

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Black and white photograph of the West Side Flats and Wabasha Bridge, 1904.

West Side Flats and Wabasha Bridge, 1904.

From the 1850s to the 1960s, St. Paul’s West Side Flats was a poor, immigrant neighborhood, heavily Jewish and frequently flooded. In the early 1960s all residents were moved out to make way for an industrial park.

A twenty-first century visitor to St. Paul’s Riverview Industrial Park would be surprised to learn that this area was once a residential enclave. This was the West Side Flats, and for about a hundred years, from the 1850s to the 1960s, life bloomed there. A unique neighborhood in Minnesota and the wider U.S., the Flats were dense, low-income, polyglot, striving, unpaved, and unpainted.

The Flats occupy the lowlands immediately south of downtown St. Paul and across the river. Where the land rises, or turns into a bluff, the Flats end and the rest of the West Side extends up and south to Annapolis Street, the border with West St. Paul. The Lafayette and High Bridges mark the east and west extensions.

The first non-Native residents of the Flats were French Canadians and Yankees. Then came potato-famine Irish, Germans, and more speakers of French. The first bridge connecting the Flats with downtown St. Paul was completed in 1859. St. Paul annexed the West Side (then part of Dakota County) in 1874 and built a new bridge to replace the first where the Wabasha Bridge crosses today. The Robert Street and railroad bridges went up in 1886. From then on, the West Side was fully connected to the rest of the city.

Events in Russia affected the Flats as profoundly as the bridges. Pogroms and anti-Jewish laws set off mass emigration. The first Russian Jews reached St. Paul in winter 1882. About twenty of them made their way to the Flats later that year. Over the next few decades, hundreds more followed. By 1915 over 70 percent of the Flats’ residents were Jewish.

The Flats can be thought of as a village within the city. Made distinct by geography (river to the north, bluffs to the south) and language (Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Lithuanian), the Flats developed an internal economy based partly on family entrepreneurship. From a population that probably never exceeded two thousand, scores of businesses arose: junk dealers, egg candlers, tailors, cobblers, and butchers. A 1910 count found over a hundred such enterprises on the Flats.

Other men worked as laborers, and the West Side usually offered plenty of work. On the Flats themselves were American Hoist and Derrick, Minnesota Macaroni, Gedney Pickles, and the Waterous Company, maker of firefighting equipment. A little south, against the bluffs, stood Yoerg Brewery, Twin City Brick, and Villaume Box and Lumber. Farther south still were the South St. Paul stockyards.

Almost all the housing in the Flats was modest at best. There was no point in building a nice house; the Mississippi flooded nearly every spring, and on the lowland there was no escape. As early as 1917 a St. Paul housing survey found that almost half the houses in the Flats had no sewer connection. A third had no bathing facilities. The one public school, Lafayette Elementary, was poorly built and overcrowded. The city dump was nearby. There were no parks—just one playground. In all, it was “the worst kind of slum.”

People lived there anyway. They built lives, livelihoods, and institutions. Two synagogues opened in 1889. Several more followed, as did a Jewish religious school. Neighborhood House, founded in 1900, was at first a Jewish settlement house but later opened to all.

In the twentieth century non-Jews arrived in appreciable numbers, especially Christian Syrians and Mexican Americans. Their church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, opened in the heart of the Flats in 1931. By then, though, Jewish population numbers remained steady, Jews made up only about a third of the population of the Flats.

The Depression ensured that housing on the Flats, most of it built in the nineteenth century, would get worse. A devastating 1952 flood proved that frame houses built on a floodplain were vulnerable. In 1956 the city’s Port Authority announced the creation of Riverview Industrial Park—a project that needed every acre of the Flats. The city began buying houses in 1961 and tearing them down in 1962. By the end of 1963 the last residents of the Flats had left.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Pierce, Lorraine E. “The Jews of St. Paul’s Lower West Side.” American Jewish Archives 28, no. 2 (November 1976): 149.

——— . "St. Paul’s Lower West Side." Master’s Thesis University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1971.

Holmquist, June Drenning, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Rosenblum, Gene H. The Lost Jewish Community of the West Side Flats 1882–1962. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing Co., 2002.

Kunz, Virginia Brainerd, ed. Discover St. Paul: A Short History of Seven St. Paul Neighborhoods. St. Paul: Ramsey County Historical Society, 1979.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of the West Side Flats and Wabasha Bridge, 1904.
Black and white photograph of the West Side Flats and Wabasha Bridge, 1904.
Color lithograph map of downtown St. Paul and West Side Flats, 1867. Lithograph by Albert Ruger.
Color lithograph map of downtown St. Paul and West Side Flats, 1867. Lithograph by Albert Ruger.
Black and white photograph looking north across the Flats during high water 1881. The raised street is Wabasha.
Black and white photograph looking north across the Flats during high water 1881. The raised street is Wabasha.
Black and white photograph of the lower West Side and Wabasha Bridge, c.1885.
Black and white photograph of the lower West Side and Wabasha Bridge, c.1885.
Black and white photograph looking north along Wabasha, the Flats, 1904.
Black and white photograph looking north along Wabasha, the Flats, 1904.
Color postcard view of the Flats, 1910.
Color postcard view of the Flats, 1910.
Color image of a 1916 plat map of the Flats, except the northeast portion.
Color image of a 1916 plat map of the Flats, except the northeast portion.
Color image of a 1916 plat map of that portion of the Flats not included in the previous map
Color image of a 1916 plat map of that portion of the Flats not included in the previous map
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Macaroni factory, 114 West Fairfield c.1917.
Black and white photograph of Minnesota Macaroni factory, 114 West Fairfield c.1917.
Black and white photograph of Lafayette School, 1917
Black and white photograph of Lafayette School, 1917
Black and white photograph of a shack and outhouse, river’s edge, 1917
Black and white photograph of a shack and outhouse, river’s edge, 1917
Black and white photograph of Lafayette School, corner of Kentucky and Fenton, the only public school in the Flats, c.1921.
Black and white photograph of Lafayette School, corner of Kentucky and Fenton, the only public school in the Flats, c.1921.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Hebrew Institute, Kentucky Street, 1921.
Black and white photograph of the St. Paul Hebrew Institute, Kentucky Street, 1921.
Black-and-white photograph of a three-story outhouse on State Street, c.1940.
Black-and-white photograph of a three-story outhouse on State Street, c.1940.
Black and white photograph of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 186 East Fairfield, c.1951.
Black and white photograph of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 186 East Fairfield, c.1951.
Black and white photograph of a Cinco de Mayo parade, West side, 1938.
Black and white photograph of a Cinco de Mayo parade, West side, 1938.
Black and white photograph of students at Casa Coronado Restaurant, 154 E. Fairfield, 1947.
Black and white photograph of students at Casa Coronado Restaurant, 154 E. Fairfield, 1947.
Black and white aerial view of West Side during flood, 1952.
Black and white aerial view of West Side during flood, 1952.
Black and white photograph of Tennessee Street during flood, 1952.
Black and white photograph of Tennessee Street during flood, 1952.
Black and white aerial view of the Flats, 1953, showing Robert, Wabasha, and railroad bridges and American Hoist and Derrick facilities.
Black and white aerial view of the Flats, 1953, showing Robert, Wabasha, and railroad bridges and American Hoist and Derrick facilities.
Black and white photograph of State Street, 1960.
Black and white photograph of State Street, 1960.
Black and white photograph of Amhoist Complex and Robert Street Bridge, 1969.
Black and white photograph of Amhoist Complex and Robert Street Bridge, 1969.

Turning Point

In 1952 St. Paul’s worst flood on record covers the Flats and persuades the local government that no housing should be permitted in the floodplain.

Chronology

1851

The Treaty of Mendota transfers control of lands that include what will later become St. Paul’s West Side from the Dakota to the United States, thus opening it to legal Euro-American immigration.

1874

The city of St. Paul annexes 2800 acres on the West Side, the flats, and higher ground, with a southern boundary of what is now Annapolis Street. The Wabasha Bridge, originally a toll bridge, is rebuilt as a toll-free, public crossing.

1882

Over the winter, the first Russian Jews, fleeing pogroms in Russia, arrive in St. Paul. Later that year about twenty of them settle on the West Side Flats. They are the first of thousands to immigrate from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Romania.

1886

The Robert Street Bridge, a second bridge between downtown and the Flats, opens. A railroad bridge also connects the Flats with the railroad terminals downtown.

1889

The first West Side synagogue is built.

1915

The Flats’ population is 71.9% Jewish, with 463 Jewish families.

1917

World War I labor needs bring the first Mexican American settlers to the West Side Flats.

1930

The 447 Jewish families living in the Flats make up 36.6% of the neighborhood’s population.

1931

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church opens.

1938

A Neighborhood House report calls the Flats “the largest slum area in the Twin Cities.”

1952

In the spring, the worst St. Paul flood in recorded history heavily damages the Flats.

1956

The St. Paul Port Authority announces its plan to convert all of the Flats into an industrial park.

1961

Buyouts begin. There are 480 buildings to be razed and 2147 people to be moved. In March Our Lady of Guadalupe Church opens a new building outside the Flats.

1962

By December 298 buildings have been taken down. Two-thirds of residents have been relocated elsewhere on the West Side.

1964

The Flats have been cleared; a flood wall is built.