Making Midway
Peace Park

Even America’s best city park systems
come up short on equity.
At St. Paul’s new Midway Peace Park, neighbors came together to change that.

If there’s one thing that 13-year-old Yakub Yussuf does on a daily basis, it’s hang out with his siblings and friends at the newest park in St. Paul, Minnesota. The teens get to do anything they’re in the mood for at Midway Peace Park—things like playing basketball, riding bikes, or just roaming around.

The best part about the daily ritual for Yakub? He doesn’t have to travel long distances or cross busy roads to reach the park. The five-acre facility sits right at the foot of Skyline Tower in the Midway neighborhood, where he’s shared an apartment with his family since emigrating from Kenya in 2018.

Yakub Yussuf, 13, is one of the many kids who now have access to a park close to home thanks to the opening of Midway Peace Park.

But before Midway Peace Park opened to the public in November 2020, access to nearby green space had been out of reach for Yakub and other predominantly East African dwellers—most of whom are immigrants and refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia—of the low-income high-rise.

On a recent summer afternoon, Yakub told me about the challenges he and his peers faced before Midway Peace Park came into being. His go-to outdoor space at the time was Skyline’s on-site playground, which has two sets of spiral slides, a few swings, and metal benches—a perfect spot for little kids. But for older ones, the playground lacked the things they needed most: a basketball court, an open field for soccer or football, or enough space to run around.

As an alternative, some of the young teens turned to the narrow hallways of Skyline. Here, they played soccer and rode their bikes. Sometimes, the youngsters would accidentally smash the balls or bikes on the walls. “They used to crack open walls, and then just leave it there,” Yakub said. “People used to get angry at the kids.”

The dearth of open space in the area wasn’t only a problem for teenagers in Skyline. Adults, too, often opted to stay in their apartments since they couldn’t easily walk to a nearby green space. This is partly because Skyline Tower is sandwiched between the Interstate 94 freeway and the Green Line light rail, cutting off area residents from accessing parks and green spaces.

Even as the Skyline community struggled to access green space, St. Paul and Minneapolis park systems have consistently ranked among the best in the nation. The Trust for Public Land’s 2021 ParkScore® index places the St. Paul park system second, behind Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis third. One criterion on which the annual report bases its rankings is whether parks have such amenities as playground equipment, basketball hoops, splashpads, and recreation centers. The Park-Score index also rates cities on their per capita park spending, their park acreage and median sizes, the number of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park, and, starting in 2021, new measures of equity.

Since The Trust for Public Land began to publish its annual report ten years ago, the Twin Cities have scored pretty high in most of the categories. According to the 2021 ParkScore rankings, 99 percent of St. Paul residents and 98 percent of Minneapolis dwellers live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

But those rosy numbers obscure the fact that—here in the Twin Cities and in communities across the country—many people of color live in neighborhoods that lack access to adequate green space. Indeed, residents of neighborhoods in St. Paul with a majority of people of color have access to 30 percent less park space than residents of majority-white neighborhoods. In Minneapolis, that number is 58 percent.

That leaves tens of thousands of people, and especially people of color, shut out of the proven health benefits that parks provide. As Kathleen L. Wolf, a University of Washington professor and nature expert, notes, parks and open spaces can improve one’s physical and mental health. “Nearly 40 years of research evidence confirms that nearby nature, including parks, gardens, the urban forest and green spaces, support[s] human health and wellness,” Wolf writes. “The research about active living and opportunities to avoid chronic diseases ... is particularly relevant to large parks where people can enjoy walking and bike paths, and playing fields.”

Mindful of these benefits, high school students, neighbors, and advocates in St. Paul embarked on a journey to bring a park to Midway a decade ago. To realize their ambitious vision, these advocates got in touch with The Trust for Public Land. The result was Midway Peace Park.

High school students, neighbors, and advocates in St. Paul embarked on a journey with The Trust for Public Land a decade ago to realize their ambitious vision for a Midway park.

In 2011, a group of students from Gordon Parks High School, which sits half a block north of the new park, contacted The Trust for Public Land about the five acres of vacant, fenced-off lots that students passed by every day on their way to and from campus. These were three lots that belonged to car dealers and auto repair shops with businesses on University Avenue. They used the lots as storage for old vehicles and abandoned equipment surrounded by chain-link and barbed-wire fencing.

“It’s pretty fascinating and pretty inspiring that the dream of some sort of park or outdoor space came from two different neighbors.”

Students at Gordon Parks High—which is named for the prominent St. Paul civil rights leader, filmmaker, and photographer—follow a curriculum that encourages real-world, community-based projects and activism. They knew their campus, and the whole neighborhood surrounding it, was short on green space. What better project, students figured, than figuring out how to transform all that underused space right out the backdoor into a public park?

Around the same time that students at Gordon Parks were in conversation with The Trust for Public Land, Skyline residents were asking the City of St. Paul about creating a park on the same underused lots. “It’s pretty fascinating and pretty inspiring that the dream of some sort of park or outdoor space came from two different neighbors,” said Susan Schmidt, Minnesota director of The Trust for Public Land. Midway Peace Park is one of three parks that the organization has helped cocreate and bring to life in St. Paul. The other two are Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, 27 acres that became open to the public in 2005, and Frogtown Park and Farm, a 13-acre park, also home to a community-run urban organic farm, that opened in 2015.

Soon after, what started as quiet phone conversations about the idea to create green space became a rallying cry that united residents, students, advocates, and neighborhood associations for one common goal: park equity in Midway. These groups included Gordon Parks students and teachers, Skyline residents, and representatives from Union Park District Council, Hamline-Midway Coalition, and Lexington-Hamline Community Council.

In the spirit of their school’s namesake, Gordon Parks students produced advocacy videos and wrote to local newspapers about the need to bring green space to the area. In 2015, two students reminded Pioneer Press readers of the potential green space behind the school and accentuated their unrelenting support for the project. “Our school,” they wrote, “has championed this green space through grants, films, presentations and websites.”

In the same year, Skyline residents wrote more than 400 postcards to then mayor Chris Coleman. In these messages, they persuaded the mayor that the neighborhood was in dire need of green space and that the underused lots could serve as a space for thousands of people living in the high-rise to get in touch with nature.

Meanwhile, The Trust for Public Land was working with residents, neighbors, community advocates, and the city of St. Paul through a planning process to ensure that the end product would represent what communities wanted in the park. For this information-gathering process, The Trust for Public Land hired community members to talk to their neighbors about the park idea, on the streets, at community centers, and in their homes. The organization also worked with neighborhood district councils to host listening sessions that drew neighbors to the vacant lots for input.

“This park is an example of what can happen when people come together.”

Through these outreach efforts, The Trust for Public Land learned that the community wanted a walking path, a playground, a basketball court, an open field, an amphitheater, and trees—all of which today make up the core of Midway Peace Park.

In the meantime, The Trust for Public Land raised money and negotiated with the owners of the three lots. By 2016, the organization had acquired the five-acre space and transferred it to the City of St. Paul, which later constructed the park with funds raised by The Trust for Public Land and investments by the city and then incorporated it into its park system. A grand opening celebration, postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, took place in June 2021. The party drew 500 people, including Melvin Carter, mayor of St. Paul.

“This park is an example of what can happen when people come together,” Carter told the crowd. “We have to depend on resident leaders in our community who know how to just push, and push, and push, and push, and push, and never give up on a big dream.

“The Trust for Public Land,” Carter continued, “is an organization that we rely on and will continue to work with as they just keep on coming through.”

While St. Paul and Minneapolis park systems have consistently ranked among the best in the nation, residents of neighborhoods with a majority of people of color, like Skyline, struggle with access to green space. Midway Peace Park is helping close that gap.

Midway Peace Park now serves more than 3,500 residents living within a half mile. The park is particularly loved by the hundreds of immigrants and refugees who live in Skyline Tower, which is surrounded by physical barriers—a highway on one side and light-rail on the other—that prevent residents from easily visiting the parks and open spaces in other parts of the city.

This was a gap that Skyline residents and Gordon Parks students were trying to fill, noted Eric Weiss, The Trust for Public Land program director in St. Paul. “You don’t want to cross busy streets or the highway to go to a park,” Weiss said. “So people wanted something close to home: a place they felt like it was theirs, that they belong, that they didn’t have to rush across the streets trying not to get hit by a car on their way to the park.”

For 10-year-old Hayu Haji (left), the Midway Peace Park serves as a social hub that connects him to friends and classmates. His father, Hussein (right), says his son had struggled to make friends at another nearby park.

On a recent afternoon, Megan Frank watched her four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter as they dangled from monkey bars at the park. Before Frank and the kids arrived at Midway Peace Park, they had looked up an outdoor space around their neighborhood where they could get some fresh air and run around outside. Google gave them a list of options that included Midway Peace Park, one of a few parks in the area the Frank family hadn’t visited.

“These guys, everywhere we drive, they point out parks,” Frank said of her children. “They like to visit lots of parks.”

A few steps away from where Frank sat watching the kids, some half a dozen Skyline residents sat relaxing on the benches while others took a walk around the park.

Yakub Yussuf’s older brother, Ridwan, scanned the park from a bench, admiring the open green space that caught his eyes. He thought of the nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic that locked down many of his Skyline neighbors in their apartments. “No one wanted to go outside,” he told me. “There was no motivation.”

Midway Peace Park has changed that, Yussuf added. Now, not only does he come out to the park for fresh air, but his mother and younger siblings do so every day. “We come here just to have fun and get connected with the community,” he said.

For Yakub, the creation of Midway Peace Park is a solution to the longstanding problem he witnessed among his peers who brought their balls and bikes to the hallways of Skyline. Now that there’s a great big park next door, Yakub said, the youngsters he watched practice their biking or soccer skills in the hallways have much more room to spread out. “It has a nice area,” Yakub said of Midway Peace Park. “It has a climbing thing, it has a slide, and it also has a [hilly] area where you can ride a bike or just sit around. I come here every day. Playing basketball is my favorite thing to do here.”

For 10-year-old Hayu Haji, the new park serves as a social hub that connects him to friends and classmates. Before Midway Peace Park was opened to the public this June, Hayu often used to ask his father, Hussein, to take him to Como Park, which is about three miles away from his house. But Hayu struggled to make friends there. “He felt lonely,” his father said.

“Thank you for building the park because it not just brings joy to Skyline; it brings joy to the community.”

At Midway Peace Park, things have been different. Hayu has at least ten friends living in Skyline Tower. When he comes to the park, he meets most of them for soccer, football, and basketball games. “It has a big yard,” Hayu said.

Hussein said he’s happy to have a new park close by and see his son socialize with friends he likes. “There are a lot of Somalis, Oromo, and Ethiopians who live here,” Hussein said, pointing to Skyline. “Nice children play at this park. My child learns from them. I’m so happy to be here.”

Like Hayu, 12-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez makes new friends and meets old ones at Midway Peace Park. Stephanie, born and raised in Skyline Tower, said she comes to the park a few times a week to hang out with friends and family. “I feel happy, and I feel like it’s a good park because a lot of people can come here and have fun,” Stephanie said. “Thank you for building the park because it not just brings joy to Skyline; it brings joy to the community.”

About the author
Ibrahim Hirsi

Ibrahim Hirsi is a Minneapolis-based journalist and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota. He’s covered immigration and communities of color for various news outlets in the Twin Cities, including MinnPost, Minnesota Public Radio, and Sahan Journal. Ibrahim’s writing has also appeared in such national publications as Politico, Truthout, and PRI’s The World.

@iHirsi

 
About the Photographer
Caroline Yang

Caroline Yang is a documentary photographer based in St. Paul, Minnesota, who strives to create photographs that reflect the depth and complexities of the human experience and bring understanding and connection to our communities. She works with clients such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many others.

@carolineyangphoto

This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2021 issue of Land&People magazine, an exclusive benefit to Trust for Public Land members. Join today and never miss an issue.

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