More than a building, a building block on city’s East Side

By John Crea, Special to The Union Advocate 

In Greg Gaut’s “Reinventing the People’s Library,” we find a nicely woven story about a place, a people and a public space.  

The place is the east side of St. Paul, where an ancient river punched through the limestone bluffs, allowing easy access to the Mississippi River.  

The people are the Dakota tribes, who had for thousands of years taken advantage of the gentle terrain to set up camp, followed by wave after wave of immigrants, the first from Europe, then Africa and Latin America and Asia. These settlers were and still are a hearty blend of working-class families and the merchants who serve them.  

The public space is the East Side Freedom Library, a magnificent edifice on the corner of Greenbrier and Jessamine, near the busy intersection of Payne and Maryland. The building is a gem, one of over 1,600 public libraries Andrew Carnegie helped build in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was designed by the prolific St. Paul architect Charles Hausler, an impressive building in the beaux arts style, with classic lines and functional space. 

We learn from the author that public libraries, like public education, are relatively recent developments, and though not uniquely American, certainly instrumental to the rapid growth of this country.  

The St. Paul Public Library was firmly established downtown on Rice Park, and to encourage access to its materials set up branch libraries throughout the city, often sharing space with larger retail stores in the neighborhoods. These temporary branch outlets proved so popular that the library worked with the Carnegie foundation to get three permanent branches built. 

 One of those, the Arlington Hills Public Library, opened its doors in 1917. The book tells us how the Arlington library served as a valuable resource for almost 100 years, serving successive communities of skilled workers and laborers. 

In 2014, the St. Paul Public Library teamed up with the City of St. Paul to construct a new building on the corner of Payne and Maryland to house a community center and the Arlington Hills branch library. This left the classic Carnegie building open and available to be repurposed.  

Stepping up to take advantage of this opportunity were Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary, two professors at Macalester College. These east-side residents have a goal of building bridges between the long-established communities in this area with the newest immigrants from southeast Asia, Latin America and east and west Africa.  

To this end, they signed a long-term lease with the City of St. Paul for the classic building on Greenbrier to house their own and their friends’ extensive personal libraries and cultural artwork from throughout the community. Rachleff and Cleary formally established East Side Freedom Library to provide the space and facilities for shared programs that support the mission of their new organization: “to contribute to the movement of social justice and equity by encouraging solidarity among working people.”  

The author, Greg Gaut, does not miss the rich irony of the very progressive East Side Freedom Library finding a home in a staid structure built on the backs of the laborers in the steel mills and coal mines of Carnegie’s empire. It would be wonderful to be able look ahead at the next 100 years of this library’s life to see how the ESFL is promoting solidarity among the vibrant tapestry of cultures that will then call St. Paul’s east side home. 

– John Crea is author of “Recalibrating the Labor Market: How to Have Your Cake and Time to Eat It Too.”  

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