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On the St. Paul street where faith took hold - 07/09/95

a guest Oct 31st, 2017 115 Never
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  1. On a corner on Galtier St., a quiet lane in St. Paul's North End, something happened the other day.
  2.  
  3. It was no big deal. And yet it was.
  4.  
  5. Bob Peternell, 70, white, stood outside his townhouse, savoring a mild summer afternoon, when Giorge Pettus, 43, black, came walking, on his way to the grocery on nearby Rice St.
  6.  
  7. "Hi, Giorge," Peternell said.
  8.  
  9. "Hey, Bob," Pettus said.
  10.  
  11. Early this century, from his boyhood to his teens, Roy Wilkins lived in this working-class district north of the Capitol.
  12.  
  13. He lived in a small clapboard cottage trimmed with Victorian posts and railings.
  14.  
  15. His neighbors were Swedes and Norwegians, Poles, Germans and Irish, first- and second-generation immigrants who sometimes came to 906 Galtier St. to ask Wilkins' aunt Elizabeth to read their papers and documents for them.
  16.  
  17. His family was one of just three black families in the neighborhood, the longtime NAACP leader wrote in his autobiography, "Standing Fast," published a year after he died in 1981.
  18.  
  19. "Everyone around us, white and Negro alike, was struggling to support a middle-class outlook on a poor man's income," he wrote. "Hard work, thrift, education for the children, a sense of pride in home and country, faith in the future - those were the ruling values up and down Galtier Street.
  20.  
  21. "I suppose the faith I have in integration comes from the days I spent in a schoolboy's cap and knickers chasing around the quiet tree-shaded lanes that stretched off and away from our little cottage."
  22.  
  23. But there was more to the Minnesota education of the man who was executive director of the NAACP for more than 20 years. He was 18 when three young black men were lynched by a mob in Duluth in 1920.
  24.  
  25. "I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us," Wilkins wrote, "and white people as an unpredictable, violent them."
  26.  
  27. The cottage on Galtier St. is gone. But children still chase around the quiet tree-shaded lanes. Life is still a struggle for some, who nonetheless care for their homes with pride and express faith in the future.
  28.  
  29. And people still talk of race with hope and fear.
  30.  
  31. Wilkins gave nearly 50 years of his life to the NAACP, and the organization will honor him by unveiling a memorial on the Capitol Mall on Thursday.
  32.  
  33. On the street where he lived - in a townhouse that carries his old address, 906 Galtier St. - Robin Wild lives with her daughter, Rachel, 8, and admits to mixed feelings about the neighborhood.
  34.  
  35. Its strength remains in homeowners who care for their property and their neighbors, she said. "The main problem with the North End is absentee landlords."
  36.  
  37. It is a diverse neighborhood, more diverse than when Wilkins lived there. "He'd probably be pleased to see all the races living here," Wild said. "It's not a white neighborhood, it's not a black neighborhood and it's not an Asian neighborhood.
  38.  
  39. "The neighborhood sticks together," she said. "I guess I want to say we're all getting along better - that we're making progress - but I don't know. I read the paper and it scares me."
  40.  
  41. Peternell is her neighbor, a former railway worker. He's lived in the area since 1946.
  42.  
  43. "We have a lot more black people here now than when I moved here," he said. "There was only two families then. The Jacksons, I didn't know too well. But the McDonalds, I did. I used to take him fishing. He worked security at a bank, but he had a stroke and that curled his arm up so he couldn't drive.
  44.  
  45. "He furnished the Cadillac and the boat, though. He was a very fine gentleman."
  46.  
  47. Pettus, a professional singer, has lived in Wilkins' old neighborhood for just a year. He and Peternell met months ago in a downpour. As Pettus walked home with groceries, Peternell stopped to offer a ride.
  48.  
  49. "Today, no place is completely safe," Pettus said, "but I feel pretty safe here. I see once in a while some of the gang-related stuff, the kids in their scarves. But I haven't seen any dramatic, violent situations."
  50.  
  51. Some of his neighbors worry, too, about gang activity, drugs and violence spilling over from Rice St. or from Frogtown, to the west.
  52.  
  53. "You can see little kids out at night here, riding their bikes to the grocery store, and you know that's a good sign," said Tom Tracy. "But I don't think you'd see that if you went very far in any direction."
  54.  
  55. A week ago, he went too far one way, and he was mugged as he entered a liquor store. He is white. The man who mugged him is black. Tracy said he brooded about it for a while, wondering if the incident was racially motivated, but he decided it wasn't.
  56.  
  57. And he wouldn't expect it to happen around home. "In this neighborhood, at least, people talk to each other," he said.
  58.  
  59. When Wilkins lived on Galtier St., the next-door neighbors were the Hendricksons. Mrs. Hendrickson treated Roy "as one of her own sons," he wrote. That included chewing him out occasionally in Swedish.
  60.  
  61. "A few years ago, during a trip back to St. Paul, I stopped by the nursing home where she was living to see her," he wrote. "She was sitting in a wheelchair, but when she saw me come in, she rose to her feet and cried, `My boy, my boy.' We both cried a little after that.
  62.  
  63. "Perhaps I'm a sentimentalist, but no one can tell me that it is impossible for white people and black people to live next door to one another, to get along - even to love one another.
  64.  
  65. "For me integration is not an abstraction constructed on dusty eighteenth-century notions of democracy. I believe in it not only because it is right but because I have lived it all my life. Where there are decent, loving people like the Hendricksons, integration works."
  66.  
  67. Like some other North Enders, Ben Wind worries that the neighborhood could deteriorate. He talks about it more directly than most.
  68.  
  69. He is 62, the son of immigrants from Hungary. He worked in the old American Can factory until it closed, and he has lived for 30 years in a tidy house just off Galtier St.
  70.  
  71. "I have mixed feelings" about the neighborhood's growing diversity, he said. "My fear is you'll get the violence of north Minneapolis or Dale St. I'm not prejudiced at all, but I'm afraid of the blacks."
  72.  
  73. Wind turned from the white man who was asking him questions and faced the black man who was taking his picture. "Well, you're one," he said. "You know how they are."
  74.  
  75. How are they?
  76.  
  77. "It's the intensity," Wind said. "They have that emotional, explosive temperament in them. . . . It stems from their background. Maybe it stems from slavery, which was the most horrible thing in the history of this country."
  78.  
  79. What would happen if more black families moved in?
  80.  
  81. "I would be afraid the white people would get scared and move out."
  82.  
  83. Chuck Bauer, 25, a truck driver, moved into the neighborhood about a year ago with his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Ashley, 17 months.
  84.  
  85. Chuck's background is German. Lisa is Hmong.
  86.  
  87. "There's a pretty interesting racial mix here," he said. "A lot of the older people are white, and they're nice people. And there's a lot of minorities. A minority could walk up to anybody in this neighborhood and start up a conversation. That's why we stayed as long as we have."
  88.  
  89. There may be whites with misgivings about Asians who keep to themselves, he said, but that will change. "They're starting to come out more and be in the community. That will help them."
  90.  
  91. He drives a school bus in the winter, and he watches the children. "You see a lot of minorities and nonminorities, or whatever we are, hanging around together. It's normal."
  92.  
  93. At Mary's Curly Top Salon, owner Mary Lytle said she's both hopeful and fearful for her neighborhood.
  94.  
  95. She worries about drugs and drug-related crime. Race gets involved, she said, because older white residents perceive young blacks - without jobs or money or hope - to be especially vulnerable to the promise of easy drug money.
  96.  
  97. "Everybody buys it," she said, "so it hurts everybody. And then you get fearful. You get a lot of break-ins. A lot of my ladies, their places have been broke into.
  98.  
  99. "It's just a different world from what we grew up in," she said. "Young people have nothing to compare to, but we do."
  100.  
  101. She does not get black customers at her shop. "It's not that I wouldn't do them, but I don't know how," she said. "I'd like to know how."
  102.  
  103. Increasingly, her clientele includes Hmong women. The growing Hmong population has caused some strains in the neighborhood.
  104.  
  105. "I think there should be a universal language," Lytle said. "They should have to learn English before they enter school. Our teachers are so busy helping them, our children are being left behind."
  106.  
  107. As Lytle talked, she combed Lorraine Engfer's hair. Engfer listened, occasionally nodding.
  108.  
  109. What would Roy Wilkins think if he could come back for a stroll through his old neighborhood?
  110.  
  111. "He'd be a little disappointed," Engfer said softly. "You want to believe the neighborhood would go up rather than down."
  112.  
  113. To others, the neighborhood still seems pretty good, and they think Wilkins would agree.
  114.  
  115. "I would say he'd be encouraged," said Frank Kubitschek, 79. "Everybody's taking care of their places. You can leave a bicycle outside and in the morning it'll be there."
  116.  
  117. Jennifer Heying, 20, works in a youth tennis program, teaching the mysteries of the racquet to all varieties of North End children.
  118.  
  119. "They're all friends just from hanging out here," she said. "They've grown up together, and they're loyal to each other."
  120.  
  121. Jason Acosta, 11, hadn't heard of Roy Wilkins before. But he thought the man would feel at home on Galtier today.
  122.  
  123. "He'd see we're getting along," Jason said, "and not too many bad things are happening."
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