Off The Tracks—Land&People

Carol Carey admits that not everybody could see beauty in the abandoned railyard on the east side of downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, before volunteer and redevelopment groups in nearby neighborhoods joined forces to reclaim the land.

One of the biggest challenges was to convince others that this long-neglected property near the Mississippi River was worth protecting. "The area was a toxic mess, says Carey, who was active in the effort and now leads Historic Saint Paul, a heritage preservation organization. Oily patches contaminated the soil, and heaps of junked appliances, garbage, and moldy mattresses littered the yard. Graffiti marred the tall sandstone bluffs at the edge of the site, and thickets of spiny buckthorn made walking treacherous.

As a former industrial property, already contaminated, the 27-acre railyard had been eyed for an asphalt recycling plant or a transfer station for concrete trucks. But Carey and others believed that the land would make a great park site. A park on the land would link up four recreation trails that now end at its boundaries, protect bluff-top views down the Mississippi, and provide a natural refuge within an easy walk of Lowertown and downtown. A park would aid restoration of migratory waterfowl and songbird habitat along the Mississippi flyway.

A park also would promote the ongoing revitalization of two neighborhoods: the blue-collar East Side and Lowertown, a former warehouse district. The railyard blocked these neighborhoods from each other, from downtown, and from the Mississippi River corridor, while a cleaned-up park with bike trails would link them to downtown and its vitality. An asphalt plant or concrete station would have only reinforced an existing perception that the site and its adjoining neighborhoods were a wasteland. "It would have solidified an impression that there was no hope for a better community, Carey says.

So Carey and other neighborhood activists organized a partnership, the Lower Phalen Creek Project, to take on the quixotic, complicated task of convincing the city of Saint Paul to purchase the land for conversion to a nature sanctuary. They battled for years to turn their vision into reality, eventually assembling a broad coalition of supporters, including members of Congress, the city, the state, the county, the National Park Service (whose Mississippi National River and Recreation Area works with partners to protect lands along the river in the Twin Cities area), and nonprofits. The Trust for Public Land joined to effort to help navigate the project through a maze of legal, political, and financial obstacles and persuade the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company to sell the land.

"We walked around, pushed through, leaped over obstacles?any way we could to keep it moving forward, Carey recalls. "So many partners worked hard for years to protect this diamond in the rough; we all saw its potential through the trash and grit. Getting each key partner to succeed took patience and years of community commitment.

A Sacred History

Neighbors knew that the old railyard's history ran long and deep, spanning many cultural groups-from the region's indigenous Dakota inhabitants to successive waves of European settlers to the most recent Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants who have settled in nearby neighborhoods.

Thousands of years ago, the prehistoric Hopewell culture thrived along the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers at the edge of the Great Plains. These people built burial mounds on the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, at the point where the river makes a sharp curve southward toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Dakota people, descendants of the Hopewell, still revere a cave near the brow of the bluffs that they call Wakan Tipi-dwelling place of the spirits. Located near a historic Dakota village and below burial sites on the bluffs, the cave probably served as a ceremonial site and later as a landmark for other tribes like the Ho-Chunk and Anishanabeg. Some Dakota believed it to be the source of their origin and the home of Unktehi, a water spirit who brings forth new life each spring and protects the water. (White settlers later called it Carver's Cave, for British explorer Jonathan Carver, who described petroglyph images of snakes and buffalo he found etched inside and near the cave opening during his first encounter with the Dakota in 1767.)

In 1862, the year the railroad began laying tracks below the bluffs, almost all of the Dakota in Minnesota were forced into exile, and many were killed. The Dakota had gone to war because the federal government had not honored its 1858 treaty obligations, and they were starving. Fur traders, settlers, Ojibwe, and the Dakota themselves had hunted out most of the game; crops failed; and the federal government delayed sending promised payment and annuities for land the Dakota had given up under the treaty.

During the years of European settlement, the damp, low-lying land below the bluffs and along the river became home to recent immigrants, the working poor, and the industries that employed them. Sawmills and one of the city's first breweries tapped the power of Phalen Creek-which then threaded the property but now runs in an underground culvert-and the brewery carved out cool caverns below the bluffs to store beer. Gradually, the railroad expanded its tracks to create one of the busiest rail maintenance yards in the Midwest, blasting away some of the bluffs to make more room. On the scenic bluff tops, developers leveled all but six of the ancient sacred burial mounds to improve the views for mansions that sprouted there as the economy thrived. (Those six mounds would later be protected in the city's nearby Indian Mounds Park.)

Early in this period of development, rubble from rockslides filled the entrance to Wakan Tipi. Over the next two centuries, the cave was periodically opened, covered, and ignored. In 1913 it was opened as a tourist attraction, and in the Depression, people lived in the cave. In 1977 the city cleared the entrance with the intention of reviving the tourist trade. But when Native Americans protested that the plan would desecrate a sacred site, the city agreed to install steel doors over the cave entrance to keep tourists and vandals out. At about the same time, the railway removed its maintenance yard and later its rails. By the 1980s, the former railyard degenerated into a dumping ground, and the cave's steel doors were almost obscured by more fallen rocks.

The Greening of a Brownfield

By the time neighborhood groups began eyeing it for a park, the railyard had become what is technically known as a brownfield-an underutilized or abandoned and often contaminated former industrial property. On the face of it, brownfields might not seem like good candidates for parks. But many are located near urban downtowns and major waterways, making them ideal for conversion to parks and open space.

In Saint Paul, the soil at the railyard had been tainted by years of train maintenance with carcinogenic petrochemicals and toxic metals. Remnants of a nearby coal gasification plant and a petrochemical storage facility added to the mess. Because the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway was potentially liable for cleaning up the contamination, the company was more inclined to sell the land to another industrial user who would pave it over and be done with it, says Cordelia Pierson, TPL's project manager in Saint Paul. And the city was wary about accepting land where contamination and liability might be issues. The area was zoned for industry, Pierson notes, "so that was always out there as a threat to us in trying to create the nature sanctuary.

But the community rallied behind the idea, and the Lower Phalen Creek Project grew to include more than 25 partner organizations. On the strength of that support, TPL opened negotiations with the railroad and, over three years, devised and executed a plan to clean up the contamination with private and public money, reducing that potential expense to the railroad and city and further protecting them by purchasing insurance against costs from unforeseen environmental problems.

A wide variety of nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies contributed to the cost of cleaning up the land-more than $3.4 million-and its acquisition for a city park, with TPL taking the lead on fundraising. One early and important commitment came from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' recently established Metro Greenways program, which recognized the site's significance as a natural resource in the heart of a city.

Because the site would also become part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota congressman Martin Olav Sabo secured federal funding from the National Park Service to purchase the land for the new nature sanctuary, which was named after Congressman Bruce Vento, who served 12 terms in the House and died in 2000 from asbestos-related cancer. Vento was an ardent supporter of parks, and Congress agreed that creating one in his home district would be a fitting tribute. Even after he became ill, Vento took a keen interest in the project-for example, joining neighbors to plant lily pads in a nearby pond. Vento's successor, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, has also lent important support to the project.

Building Community

Creating the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary has done more to draw local communities and the Dakota Nation together than any civic project in recent memory. Many residents have been motivated to help improve the site because their own immigrant relatives originally put down roots nearby, while neighborhood leaders have been excited by the project's potential to revitalize communities and economies and to honor the site's spiritual significance for the Dakota.

"This is a place where people can find rest, be regenerated, and then go back to the urban center, says Weiming Lu, president of the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation. Lu sees the sanctuary as essential to the economic success of the former warehouse district, which is close to downtown and only a short walk from the new sanctuary. The neighborhood's redevelopment has attracted artists and high-tech enterprises with a mix of affordable and upscale housing and work space. Had the railyard become an asphalt plant rather than a park, Lu believes the traffic and pollution might have spun Lowertown into another decline. "We are building community, rather than just building projects, he says.

Neighbors, particularly minority and immigrant residents, contributed thousands of volunteer hours to sanctuary projects, helping city workers haul away 50 tons of debris.

Recently, teenage interns from the East Side Hmong community helped rid the sanctuary of buckthorn. "It's hard work, 16-year-old Keng Lee told a visitor. "Buckthorn is a really tough plant to get rid of. It takes a lot out of you, and the thorns-they're huge. Another young worker, 15-year-old Pakou Thao, discovered a side of herself and a side of nature she hadn't known existed. "I'd never really seen what nature has for me until I worked here, she said. "I didn't think it could be possible for this to be a park, but it is possible. I'm proud because I made it happen-I'm part of it.

In recognition of this land's importance to their heritage, American Indians have been deeply involved in its rehabilitation. Federally recognized Dakota tribes joined the coalition to reclaim and restore the railyard. Young students from the city's American Indian magnet school are growing native plants for the sanctuary, and learning their own history in the process.

At the request of local Dakota people, the steel doors to the cave remain in place. But the cave's immediate environment is now more in keeping with its spiritual nature. The debris that once degraded the site is replaced by a small lake, wetland, trail, and trees. Jacob, an 11-year-old Ojibwe student at the Indian magnet school, says that he's happy park planners let the Indians decide whether to reopen Carver's Cave. "People were very careless with that cave, he says. "The government doesn't really let Indians make choices a lot, so I think that's good for the Indians to get to choose if they want it closed or if they want it open.

At a ceremony to dedicate the sanctuary last spring, in a drenching rain, Jim Rock-a Dakota math and science teacher-offered tobacco, sweetgrass, strawberries, and prayers-a ritual for healing and the wiping away of tears. Growing up, Rock heard stories of Wakan Tipi and wandered through the former railyard's trashed landscape. Later he too joined the coalition.

"We are here today for good feelings, he told all of those who had worked to make the project happen. "We hope what has happened in these 140 years, the pain, can be in the past. There is history that needs to be taught, to be acknowledged, to begin the healing. May it never happen again, and please, when you're on these sites, treat them with reverence and teach your children what reverence means-the meaning of respect for the ancestors and for the earth.

Three months later, in July 2005, the campaign that created the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary won a national award from Take Pride in America, a partnership established by the U.S. Department of the Interior to engage, support, and recognize volunteers who work to improve our public parks and public lands. The award stressed the partnership of 25 public and private organizations that "turned a community eyesore into a unique urban open space, with recreational, cultural and natural benefits.

"Creating this nature sanctuary has been a true cooperative effort and a labor of love for a huge and diverse group of people, says TPL's Cordelia Pierson. "The neighbors are the heroes here. They saw what this place could be and rallied all of us to make it happen. Now we all can find sanctuary in this place that has been so important for so many cultures over so many generations.

Vicki Monks is a freelance print and broadcast journalist currently working on a book about environmental threats to Indian lands in Oklahoma.