Disrespect cripples a St. Paul neighborhood's comeback attempt

Dave Wilbur put a trash can out front his East Side auto business to combat littering. Someone stole it.

Dave Wilbur put a trash can out front his East Side auto business to combat littering. Someone stole it.

Grease and oil stain Dave Wilbur's hands black. Pessimism has already done the same to the St. Paul auto mechanic's spirit. 

The 61-year-old has owned Wilbur's Auto Services on Payne Avenue on the city's east side for more than three decades.

He once had a trash can out front of the shop to combat wanton littering. Somebody stole it. Before the thieves paid a visit, folks coming into the neighborhood would symbolically piss on the place by throwing bottles, cans, or empty cigarette packs on the concrete right next to the receptacle.

Two people have been shot outside the business, the most recent about five years ago. The victim, suffering from seven bullet wounds, straggled across the street before dying out front of the nearby muffler shop.

Youngsters and young adults with too much idle time and a hankering for highs often provide the heartbeat for Wilbur's 'hood, which once was a working-class neighborhood where breadwinners did shift work at the now-shuttered Whirlpool factory and Hamm's brewery. The area now mostly belongs to loiterers, nefarious transactions, flash mob rumbles, and sirens.

"What you have is people with no respect for anyone, including themselves," Wilbur says. "I did have hope the neighborhood would turn around. But I've been hoping that for 35 years now."       

Incivility and insult morphed into bloodshed earlier this week just a stone's throw from Wilbur's shop. Ten minutes past six o'clock on Monday in an alley behind Geranium Avenue, Payne-Phalen resident Bruce Chang returned home from work to find a throng of young people playing dice in his driveway. The 32-year-old exited his ride and told them to skedaddle.

Taking the stand almost cost Chang his left eye. The group assaulted him with sticks, rocks, and anything else they could find. One attacker plunged a stick into Chang's upper cheek, barely missing his eyeball.

The assailants, who Chang estimated ranged in age from high schoolers to early 20s, only bailed when his wife emerged from the house with a gun. Both Chang and his wife have permits to carry, but Bruce wasn't carrying at the time because he doesn't bring the firearm with him to work.

Janet and Gary Worden live two doors down from where the assault took place. The couple raised three kids in the house. Janet remembers watching them from the upstairs window as they played in the park across the street. The most cataclysmic event on the public green space could've been when the Worden's now-adult son had someone take his basketball from him as a prepubescent.

Nowadays, the Worden's front yard is guarded by a black wrought iron fence. What were owner-occupied single family homes have yielded to nomadic renters and absentee landlords. Bricks and concrete of the Arlington Hills Community Center have replaced where the Worden kids played.

After bottoming out some years back, her neighborhood, Janet wants to believe, is on the comeback trail. Affordable housing has lured some young families to set up life here. The nearby Payne Avenue business district has witnessed hip eateries open in recent times. Tests of faith keep coming, though.    

"I'm not afraid whether the bad guys are winning," Janet tells City Pages. "I'm afraid that incidents [like Bruce Chang's] will make people afraid about moving into this area.

"People need to know that, yes, there are things here still to overcome, but there's far more good people here than there are bad. That's what most important. That's why I believe the best days can still be ahead."