The decision by the Twin Cities German Immersion school to tear down St. Andrew’s church in St. Paul is not just about a building or land rights. The issue is whether the building has meaning and who decides. To those of us who live in the neighborhood, St. Andrew’s has a great deal of meaning. For some it makes the neighborhood more beautiful, and for others it provides a connection to the past. We live here, we raise our children here, and we grow old here. St. Andrew’s is meaningful to us. Isn’t that enough? Do we need to define community?
Supporters for the demolition of St. Andrew’s frequently use the word community. They contend the decision to tear down the building was not taken lightly because they are invested in the community. How invested can they be if they don’t live here? And how much do they really care if they push forward with this plan, when neighbors beg them not to?
Less than half of the children attending TCGIS live in St. Paul and only 10 percent live in the neighborhood. In other words, most of the school’s families have chosen to live elsewhere. Como Park residents choose to live in St. Paul. We put up with high property taxes, more crime than we’d like, older houses and smaller yards. But we chose to live here because St. Paul is special, and it’s special because of places like St. Andrew’s. Our neighborhood has history and character. We are invested. We know our neighbors, our lake, our flaws and our strengths. Who will mourn the loss of St. Andrew’s more? The residents for whom it has a place in their community, or the people who drop their kids off in our neighborhood and pick them up eight hours later?
The community surrounding the church considers it special. In 2019, St. Paul we would not dare bulldoze the burial grounds of Native Americans, and to this day we cringe at the destruction of the Rondo community. As we should. Yet here we stand today, with an outside group telling another what is or is not special about their own community. Does this mean that members of a community do not get to decide what gives their community value?
The student body of TCGIS is nearly 90 percent white and only 8 percent free and reduced lunch. The school’s sense of entitlement is familiar and painful. The message TCGIS delivers is simple: “Sorry if you value that building, but what we’re doing is more important.” TCGIS rolls out statistics about their school’s success and the importance of their mission; neither of which are relevant to the debate. They simultaneously refer to this as a land-rights issue and an appeal for the good of the children. TCGIS referred to us as friends and community members until we objected to their plans. Convenient.
The St. Paul City Council also talks about the importance of community. Unfortunately, the Council, and particularly Council President Amy Brendmoen, failed to stand up for the idea of community when they voted against the motion to designate St. Andrew’s a historic structure, disregarding the objections and pleas from the community. The council disregarded that the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission and the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office supported historic designation. Council members cowered behind the argument that this was a land-rights issue, despite the fact that TCGIS is a publicly funded charter school. TCGIS used $10 million in conduit bond funding to purchase their buildings. TCGIS is not a private landowner, and their public funding makes them accountable to the public.
We were desperate for the City Council to stand up for us. At the very least, we hoped for some measure of leadership to work through this and compromise on alternatives to demolition. Unfortunately, the Council and Council President Brendmoen offered platitudes and paternalistic remarks. This is how communities are injured. Values, love and meaning are displaced by individuals who feel entitled to take what they want based on the perceived importance of their agenda. Community members are expected to “get over it” or “move on,” but that can’t happen. The loss of the building is exacerbated by the feeling of powerlessness imposed upon the community. It doesn’t heal, and it shouldn’t, because these kinds of things shouldn’t happen in a society that claims to value community. We shouldn’t be expected to move on when our city council facilitates this familiar level of entitlement and cultural superiority, allowing our community to be judged by another. Everyone should know better.
—Arthur Crepe, Como Park
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