Our neighbors by the numbers

By Helen Warren

I drive by them nearly every day: The new apartment buildings in south St. Anthony Park along or near University Avenue.

By rough estimate, 700 apartments, mostly studio or one-bedroom, have opened since 2020. What might I have in common with these new residents? In what sense might they become my neighbors?

My neighbors along Commonwealth Avenue in north St. Anthony Park are familiar to me. Some have been my neighbors since 2005 when I moved in. Others have purchased homes in the past few years, as older neighbors move to apartments, most remaining in the 55108 and 55114 ZIP codes.

I know my neighbors thanks to weekly happy hours started during COVID, at safe social distance. Even in the winter months, we bring our chairs and solo stoves to Polar Bear Island, the grassy, tree-filled space that separates the two lanes of Commonwealth.

We also gather for Solstice and Christmas celebrations, a book group and monthly parties of women and children. I greet my neighbors daily when I walk my dog. I check the progress of their front yard gardens and know their dogs and cats by name.

Beyond Commonwealth Avenue, I can learn about my neighbors by consulting demographic data collected by federal and metropolitan governments. I’m fortunate that Mark VanderSchaaf, a neighbor in Westgate and a retired city and regional planner, analyzed U.S. Census data about St. Anthony Park. These data have been assembled by the Minnesota Compass program of the Wilder Research Center and are accessible on their website, mncompass.org/profiles/neighborhoods/minneapolis-saint-paul.

The data Mark analyzed are drawn from both the decennial census, which seeks to count everyone, and the American Community Survey, which provides estimates based on annual surveys conducted by the Census Bureau. The American Community Survey intends to “help policymakers and nonprofit, business and community leaders identify, understand and act on issues that affect lives and communities.”

These data document realities I hadn’t grasped previously. For instance, I didn’t realize that the population of St. Anthony Park grew 28% between 2010 and 2020, the third highest growth rate among the 17 neighborhoods in St. Paul.

More than 9,000 people resided in St. Anthony Park in 2020. Only about 40% of them own their homes. Even before the new apartment buildings rose along University Avenue, the majority of St. Anthony Park residents rented their homes.

The Green Line light rail service attracted the development along University Avenue. In fact, data Mark assembled show that 20% of south St. Anthony Park residents rely on public transit to commute to work, a rate that exceeds the figures for all other neighborhoods in St. Paul. That percentage may increase sharply as new apartments are rented.

When I look at those boxy structures adjacent to University Avenue, I picture hip young professionals making their ascent up the corporate ladder. I assume that the average age in St. Anthony Park will trend lower, its median income will increase and its diversity will increase.

Of course, it’s too soon to test my predictions against solid data about new residents. So I consider what I know about neighbors in south St. Anthony Park, the community I travel through to get to University Avenue. Mark’s report about 2020 data tells me a lot about those neighbors I didn’t know.

About 30 % of St. Anthony Park residents live south of the railroad viaduct, the unofficial boundary between the north and south sections of the neighborhood. The proportion of white residents in south St. Anthony Park (68%) is less than the proportion in the neighborhood as a whole (72%). The proportion of south St. Anthony Park residents who speak a principal language other than English (21%) is higher than the comparable proportion in north St. Anthony Park (14.2%).

Slightly more than 29% of households in south St. Anthony Park reported income less than $35,000, compared to 21% of households with income at or below that level in north St. Anthony Park.

Another measure of financial stability is the percentage of households where more than one-third of monthly income is devoted to housing. Such households are known as “cost-burdened.” Overall, 30% of households were cost-burdened between 2016 and 2020. Likewise, south St. Anthony Park, 36% of households and 41% of renters were considered cost burdened.

These 2020 data points comprise a baseline against which to measure demographic shifts in our community as we welcome new neighbors along or adjacent to University Avenue. Of course, some shifts will be driven by the financial and social repercussions of the pandemic that shapes all our lives.

Reaching out to neighbors

My purposes are less analytic. The demographic data, especially the comparisons between the north and south sections of our neighborhood, help me overcome reticence about engaging neighbors I don’t already know well.

Mostly, the data suggest that assumptions of similarity, that other people’s lives resemble my own, must be tentative. Kind attention and steady observation are more useful to me than my default assumptions. What I don’t know about my neighbors is an impetus for engagement and conversation.

Our happy hour conversations about the apartment boom in south St. Anthony Park are often punctuated by gaps of silence. We don’t have much solid information to share with each other.

So we worry about congestion along our regular routes and in our regular gathering spaces in the neighborhood. We wonder what our civic, religious and business leaders will do to build understanding and rapport with our new neighbors.

Apart from these collective efforts, perhaps each of us can do our part, basing our efforts on a sound grasp of solid evidence about our neighbors. 

Helen Warren is a St. Anthony Park resident and interested in the community.

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