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How a train line helped lift Twin Cities' underserved communities but left new challenges

Green Line at sunset
Posted at 11:22 AM, Nov 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-11 15:20:09-05

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Infrastructure projects are set to get the green light across the country. But how do those projects affect communities whose voices often don’t get heard?

The Green Line in the Twin Cities is an example of what can happen when they do.

“The Green Line is just a place of dreams, of possibilities," said Gaosong Heu, owner of Marc Heu Patisserie Paris.

The French bakery is situated on what has become a hot spot on St. Paul's University Avenue.

"I never imagined in my life that we would actually have a shop on University Avenue," Heu said.

A half-block away, Quynh McDermott runs Quynh's Beauty Salon. Small businesses like hers dot the section of University Avenue called Little Mekong. The neighborhood today resembles the one from her childhood, but with one giant exception, right down the middle.

“The light rail is different," McDermott said.

The Green Line is the 11-mile stretch of light rail that connects Minneapolis and St. Paul. It runs along University Ave, right through communities who almost saw it pass by with no connection.

Modern American history is riddled with highways constructed right through the heart of communities of color. Two blocks south of University Avenue, the I-94 freeway ripped apart the thriving Black community of Rondo. With the Green Line, the concern was different. Activists said it didn’t include enough stops through the communities where it ran: communities that could use the connection.

“You want your sense of home to exist," said Gene Gelgelu, founder of African Economic Development Solutions.

Gelgelu champions the district known as Little Africa.

“I think that’s what makes us beautiful," he said. "That’s what makes us strong, what makes us who we are as a society here.”

When the Green Line potentially threatened that, coalitions of campaigns led to governmental change. When the line opened, it included three new stops at neighborhoods in need.

One of those stops is where Heu and McDermott now stand.

“They don’t have to park," McDermott said. "A lot of them don’t have cars; they’re college students. One of my clients that lives in downtown St. Paul said that she never would have noticed my salon if she was driving.”

But success is not static. More foot traffic and more eyeballs have meant more new development and rising rents.

“There’s new developments of apartments and luxury apartments coming up on University Avenue along the Green Line," Heu noted. "It feels a bit bizarre because you just never would have expected that to happen.”

Less than a mile from Little Africa stands a two-year-old soccer stadium. More affluent Minnesotans aren’t just patronizing University Avenue; they’re moving there. Some now fear affordable housing will start to shrink.

“Gentrification is imminent," Gelgelu said.

“It’s a constant battle between community developers who are trying to stop gentrification and people who want to continue to develop," Heu said, "because they believe that Frogtown and the Green Line is a worthy area to invest in. Change is happening. It's inevitable."

It’s also complicated. For so many, the Green Line means success. Communities spoke out. Leaders actually listened. Now, Little Africa and Little Mekong are known neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. Light is shining, but the fight for that light is evolving along with the straight-line train line it shines upon.

“A lot of people that live here have grown up here for the longest time," Heu said. “It means a lot to me that we continue to honor the people who have been here, the stories that have come, but of course, always be open to grow and change as a part of life.”