The Last Block Party

Craig Bares

It's July 31, and the sun is setting in St Paul. The last rays break through scattered clouds and filter onto the courtyard at 398 Duke St., erasing shadows from the weathered tables occupied by dozens of neighbors gathered for a final picnic. Mesquite smoke from a nearby grill fills the air. Children on bikes and skates circle the parking lot behind the courtyard, letting out shrieks at the first sign of a water fight.

Lisa Lovelace moves from one group of picnickers to the next, snapping photos of soon-to-be-former neighbors. Nearby, her mother, Arlene Lovelace, circulates a black-and-white photo of three boys with crew cuts standing in front of a tree that looks to be a century old. Her girls, Lisa and Jackie, were friends with one of those boys, Mike Taflinger, when they were all just kids three decades ago. Now, Taflinger is shooting the breeze over a beer and tossing a football around a few feet away. A knot of party goers trade gossip and news over the iron fence surrounding the courtyard, calling out to scold some exuberant youngsters.

A snapshot of the scene, pulled from Arlene Lovelace's scrapbook in 20 years, might appear to a stranger to be the record of an idyllic time past. Many of those in the picture grew up in this neighborhood, moved away, and came back to settle when the chance arose. For Lovelace, these families--headed by the kids she and longtime neighbors raised, her own daughter among them--will be remembered as the unlucky few who ended up living in Bob Hillman's homes.

While her mom makes rounds, Lisa Lovelace darts back and forth between the picnic and her near-empty house at 388 Duke, carrying paper plates and slabs of the season's first watermelon. For the past year, visiting family and old friends has been as easy as strolling this three-block area known as the Brewery District--a small urban island bounded on the west by the Landmark Brewery on West Seventh and on the east by School District 625's offices just off Colborne Street; Duke Street becomes a dead end north of Jefferson Avenue, and the Mississippi River bluffs ring the neighborhood's southern edge.

Lovelace knows the area by heart. Her sister, Jackie Brown, lived right next door on Duke; their grandmother, Martha Donner, a stone's throw down the street; and their mother, Arlene, on the corner in the green house that used to be their grandparents' place. Across the street live Tanis Nagel and Mike Taflinger. Mike's mother lived at 354 Duke. Anita Williams and her four kids had the house directly to the south. But all that familiarity is about to end.

Lovelace's fate was sealed in late April when she received a certified letter sent by the West 7th/Fort Road Federation and the city of St. Paul's Planning and Economic Development department. "The property you are renting is being acquired by the federation for the Brewery Breakthrough project," it read. Thirty-five families--more than half of the rental households in the neighborhood--opened a letter with the same message that April day. In essence, they had each been served with an eviction notice: Vacate your home by midnight on July 31.

Several residents here first caught wind of the Brewery Breakthrough project three years ago. To them it sounded like a rumor--idle talk circulating among big-league developers and city planners whose names they didn't know and whose far-fetched ideas seemed unlikely to turn into blueprints. Others date their first knowledge of the project to last year, when the talk at community meetings turned serious and financing arrangements formalized on paper. And then there are those who didn't have a clue until the certified letters showed up at their doors.

One by one the renters who received them followed instructions--boxing up their homes, loading their belongings into crammed cars, and grudgingly making their way to new addresses. Jackie Brown moved in mid-July. Mike Taflinger and Tanis Nagel have a move-in date at another house in October; they've been lucky enough to be granted a deadline extension. Anita Williams still doesn't know where she'll end up, though last week the city allowed her some extra time to figure it out. Lisa Lovelace relocated a fortnight ago to a basement apartment with a monthly rent increase of $130. Tonight, she's come back to share a last farewell with neighbors in the working-class district, among them evicted tenants who are still packing.

The Brewery Breakthrough is the brainchild of the nonprofit West 7th/Fort Road Federation, one of St. Paul's 17 District Councils set up to include residents in decisions affecting their neighborhoods. Put simply, the project's first phase calls for the buyout of more than a third of the three-block district's 75 homes; of these 28, all but four were owned until two weeks ago by Bob Hillman. Demolition is scheduled to begin at the end of August on 15 of the houses which have been deemed substandard and sit on land earmarked for high-end town homes. Some 29 houses (a mix of Hillman homes, tax-forfeited houses, and properties the federation bought from other landlords) will be rehabbed and sold off to new owners for between $65,000 and $125,000 apiece, according to the federation's estimates--nearly doubling their current average value. Plans also call for the construction of 22 upscale town homes, with units estimated to fetch between $120,000 and $150,000 apiece. Over the next two years the rest of the district will get a face-lift: an ornate transit stop at the intersection of West Seventh and Jefferson, some fancy landscaping, a public park along the Mississippi bluffs, and a pedestrian/bike trail running from Duke Street to the river. Bottom line for the project? Just over $11 million, with half of that kicked in from public tax coffers.  

The city has a strong financial interest in the brewery project, says St. Paul City Council member Chris Coleman, who represents the brewery area and calls the West 7th/Fort Road Federation "one of the most successful and professional of the neighborhood councils." In addition to the Planning and Economic Development department's offer of around $6,000 in relocation aid to those being evicted, the city has also committed, Coleman says, "a lot of money" to the project--including $750,000 from the STAR (Sales Tax Revitalization) program funded by a 0.5-percent increase in the city's sales tax that is helping to pay for a new convention center, with the balance trickling down to cultural causes and community groups like the West 7th/Fort Road Federation. Other backers include the federal government, which is providing some $2 million in Community Development Block Grants and almost $400,000 from the HOME (Home Investment Partnerships) program devoted to affordable housing. The Local Initiative Support Corporation, a Ford Foundation program set up to revitalize urban neighborhoods, is contributing $4 million. The Brewery District, to Arlene Lovelace's memory, hasn't seen that kind of financial activity in ages--maybe since the height of the district's glory in the early 1900s.

Of the home owners who've been invited to stay and see the new neighborhood built, many at tonight's picnic say they're concerned that their properties will soon be tagged with keep-up-with-the-upscaling work orders from the city's inspections department--orders they doubt they'll be in a financial position to follow. Colborne Street home owner Larry Michaud says that sounds like what happened to him when School District 625 added onto its office building across the street a few years ago. Back then, he says, he got tagged with a work order from the city requiring him to paint the trim on his house or have the city do it and bill him afterward. As Michaud wraps up his story, other home owners chime in: Where are we supposed to get the money to fix up our homes, they want to know. Those who've gone looking say they've been shuttled between the federation and city offices, still confused about whom to apply to for fix-up financing.

The nearly three dozen families being flushed from the district take issue not only with the federation's vision but with the way it's paying for it. Most of the $5.6 million in public funds designated for the Brewery Breakthrough project are specifically earmarked for the preservation of affordable housing--not for high-end condos. On a more immediate front, they question the legitimacy of the April eviction notices sent jointly by the federation and the city before the nonprofit held legal title to the properties. They insist that they had secured verbal contract-for-deed agreements last year with their homes' owner, Bob Hillman, before he and the federation even began talking about a sale deal. Lisa Lovelace, Mike Taflinger, and many of the other displaced tenants say they'd been led to believe that they'd been paying not rent but monthly installments toward owning their homes. "Never did Bob Hillman do any maintenance on this house from day one," says Taflinger. "And I never received a rental payment receipt for my taxes"--something he would have demanded from a man considered to be his landlord. Imagine their shock, they say, when they discovered in April that their homes were about to be sold out from under them.

"I know now it was crazy," Taflinger says of his certainty that he'd be able to keep hold of his house on Duke Street without a purchase agreement and title. "Once we all sat down and talked about it, we found out that we'd all tried to get signed papers from Bob Hillman, but there was always an excuse. It's a shame we didn't get together and talk about those arrangements sooner." Taflinger says he has retained an attorney and intends to bill Hillman for $9,200--the total cost of the renovation and upkeep he's put into what he thought was his house. He plans, too, to demand from Hillman return of the $1,500 down payment he made last August on the property.  

Lisa Lovelace says that over the past year she repeatedly requested appointments with Hillman to close on her home, but that he kept stalling. "He would say, 'Isn't my word good enough?'" she recalls. When she learned that he'd been diagnosed with cancer, she declined to pressure him further, figuring that once he was in better health and spirits, the two of them would make their verbal deal good on paper. They never did.

Federation director Ed Johnson says he was unaware of any promises Hillman made to his tenants when the organization began discussing buying out Hillman's 24 homes in the district. Last week the federation confirmed that it had finalized its purchase of them--an announcement that by then came as no surprise to any of the battling parties, and which leaves the matter settled unless and until it comes before a judge. Lovelace, Taflinger, and a majority of the other displaced renters concur in their belief that the federation, without their knowledge, went directly to Hillman with the hope of buying up his houses fast--houses it needs to clear out before the Brewery Breakthrough can get going. And Hillman, they say, sold off their homes behind their backs--leaving them out on the street in a town where affordable housing is a rare find.

Martha Donner--Lisa Lovelace's grandmother and, at 90 years old, the neighborhood's matriarch--was lucky enough to be spared a certified letter from the federation. Still, she says, she's worried she might receive one any day. The home she's lived in for 62 years sits next to a house on the group's rehab list and kitty-corner from a lot reserved for a new town home. Given the age and condition of her house, she believes the city will soon serve her with a work order--prompted by a federation request--requiring her to update the appearance of her home or face fines. She's also concerned that the federation will begin pressuring her to sell. After watching 62 summers pass by her front window, Donner isn't about to be uprooted without a fight. "They can have it one way: when I'm six feet under," she says of her house on Duke Street. At that, she gathers some picnic leftovers in a napkin for her cat, grabs her daughter Arlene's arm, and heads off down Duke toward home.

From the label of a beer bottle plastered onto the Minnesota Brewing Company's West Seventh Street billboard just off Jefferson Avenue, Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant watches over the city he helped to build. Parrant founded one of the first settlements in St. Paul in 1838, though his tenancy was brief. After he and a group of Canadian colonists were kicked out of Fort Snelling on charges of using too much of the army's wood and grazing land, Parrant established an encampment in the woods around Fountain Cave--a spot now commemorated by a stone monument at the crossing of Randolph Avenue and Shepard Road in West St. Paul. A French-Canadian voyageur, Parrant caused no end of trouble for early Fort Snelling commanders: His claim to fame, and the reason he still graces the Landmark Brewery billboard, has everything to do with whiskey. Virginia Brainard Kunz, in her 1991 book Saint Paul: The First 150 Years, describes Parrant as a "coarse, ill-looking, low-browed fellow" whose single good eye was "marble-hued and crooked, with a sinister white ring glaring around the pupil, giving a kind of piggish expression to his sodden, low features." Parrant set up his whiskey business in the gorge that sheltered the mouth of a stream flowing out of Fountain Cave and into the Mississippi. If location is everything in business, Parrant had it. Customers paddled to his door, and steamboats stopped on his landing to unload stilling supplies. In 1839, with illicit liquor sales still plaguing the post, the army extended Fort Snelling's boundaries to include Parrant's colony; a year later, troops evicted the settlers and set fire to their cabins.

After the expulsion a few colonists followed Parrant into what is now downtown St. Paul. The renegade staked his new claim to extend from Minnesota to Jackson streets, and hung out his liquor shingle. In 1844, historian Kunz continues, Parrant sold his claim on the lower landing and moved to the alluvial bottomland along the Mississippi below St. Paul. He stayed only a few months before losing that claim, and set off again, this time for Sault Sainte Marie. Parrant never arrived. He died before reaching Lake Superior, Kunz writes, "of a disease resulting from his own vices."  

Around the same time, not far from Fountain Cave, a creek spilled over what was then called Buttermilk Falls. It was near these falls that Abraham Perry set up camp in the 1840s. As the settlement grew, the falls were filled in; part of what is now Palace Avenue used to be known as Cascade Avenue, in remembrance of the creek. Local historian Gary Brueggeman, who worked with the West 7th Federation in the 1980s and whose grandfather's old house at 412 Duke St. is one of the homes up for demolition, says the Perry family are the first permanent settlers he's been able to trace back to the brewery neighborhood--an area he calls "one of the unheralded historic regions in the city." When Brueggeman leads visitors on tours through St. Paul, the district is one of his favorite places to stop. "When I take people around I sometimes spend more time down there than I do on Summit Avenue." He explains that his expertise is in the history of West Seventh Street. When his talk turns to the Brewery District, he likes to tell the stories of its early years.

The Perrys were followed by a wave of German immigrants, he says. District land was well-suited for beer making, especially in the days before modern refrigeration: Beyond the turf and topsoil, the terrain is all limestone and sandstone--the bedrock, the upper strata, the river bluffs. Caves could be easily hollowed by hand from the porous rock and converted into beer storage holds. Seven companies--most with German entrepreneurs at the helm--eventually built breweries along West Seventh, three of them in the neighborhood targeted for the Breakthrough project. Up through the late 1800s, a little bar operated to the southeast corner of what are at present Duke and Palace streets. Adjacent to the now-defunct Funk Brewery, the bar served as a showcase for the outfit's latest concoctions and was among the few drinking holes where pioneer St. Paulites could taste Melchoir Funk's fare.

Funk's Brewery started up operation in 1866, but it wasn't the first brewery in the neighborhood. That honor goes to the Cave Brewery, which opened in 1855, was later operated as Schmidt Brewery, and finally, in 1991, became the Minnesota Brewing Company, which still produces Pig's Eye beer today. Sometime around 1862 Conrad Wurm built a small brewery near today's school district building on Colborne Street; others followed, some as fly-by-nights, some until Prohibition shut them down, along with Funk's Brewery, for good. The stately brick mansion Melchoir Funk built for his family at 398 Duke St., next to his factory, still lords over the neighborhood today.

Shortly after the breweries set roots in the district, the train lines came through, Brueggeman says, bringing Polish and Czech immigrants during the 1870s and 1880s who settled along the blocks of Fort Road, now West Seventh Street. (A railroad trestle still crosses Duke Street nearby.) Fort Road linked river landings in the center of St. Paul to Fort Snelling, making the thoroughfare attractive to real estate speculators and industry barons. Railroad shops sprang up along the route, and in short order homes and family businesses filled the adjoining blocks. As the neighborhoods around Fort Road, Highland Park, and Macalester-Groveland matured, those who called the area home took to shopping along the street on their way to and from downtown. By the turn of the century the established district swelled with prospects and promise.

Martha Donner was born the day before Independence Day, 1908. Though her family occupied various houses on Duke and Colborne before she settled into her current home on Duke Street in 1936, she's lived all her life in the district, and remembers going to market in those early stores on West Seventh. "When I was 8, a neighbor promised to give me a penny for buying peaches at the corner store," she recalls with a laugh. "I didn't think it was enough, so I took a bite out of every peach." There were many more houses in the neighborhood then and a constant stream of traffic, making the crossing of West Seventh an adventure, especially after the trolley cars started running full swing in the early 1890s. Ancker Hospital replaced Wurm's Brewery in 1873, on the grounds of today's school district building. Donner remembers working during the late '50s and into the '60s in a hospital ward reserved for children with birth defects.

The district spread south past the railroad trestle in the early 1920s, with houses built right down to the river landings. "My Grandma Jung lived down on the levee, and Little Italy"--the Italian quarter, emptied after a flood in the 1950s--"used to be there, too," Donner says. In 1926 she married her husband, Julian, whose brother led the ill-fated Donner Party into the Sierra Madre foothills in the winter of 1846. The couple settled down at 354 Duke St. For the better part of the 1940s, their daughter Arlene remembers, "some of the houses had barns and some families still kept horses." She also recalls the caves behind the old Funk house where kids used to play, and the last member of the Funk family passing on. "When you died in those days they laid you out right in the house," she says, adding that at least two Funks were so honored in the house on Duke Street.  

By the 1950s the Funk mansion had transferred out of family hands and was modified into a nursing home, which is how Brueggeman says he remembers it as a child visiting his grandfather at his house on Duke. The economy along West Seventh held strong up until World War II. A building freeze during the Depression had led to overcrowding--with several families cramped into a single house and men sleeping on the roofs of residential hotels--but for the most part Arlene Lovelace remembers the area as a working-class neighborhood just off a busy commercial street. But the war brought radical economic and social change across the nation, and the brewery neighborhood would not be spared its share of the consequences. Nothing could have prepared its residents for the changes that followed the armistice.

Postwar America meant cars. Driveways, streets, and highways packed with cars heading downtown, across town, and most of all out of town--to middle-class suburbs where the housing was clean and roomy, and the nation's glossy magazines told Americans how to live well in them. Hard times fell on the district then, with families clearing out for the city's far reaches, shops along West Seventh going belly up from the lack of customers, and trains silenced by interstate truck noise carrying the cargo that used to run by track.

The 1960s brought no respite from the exodus. Ancker Hospital, once a neighborhood anchor as one of its largest employers, shut down. The Minnesota Department of Transportation acquired a right-of-way for I-35E, and a swath of the district's homes were demolished in preparation for the four-laner. The population shrank drastically during the decade, and property prices plummeted to a song. With a good share of home owners moving out, lower property values invited absentee landlords to try their hand at renting out houses in the district and newcomers to buy up for residency what was left.

In 1971 the federal government passed the Developmental Disabilities Assistance Act, which encouraged state psychiatric hospitals to "mainstream" their patients out of the brick-wall institutions and into scattered facilities in communities. Thousands of mentally ill people, among them adults who'd lived under supervision since birth, were released from Minnesota hospitals with nowhere to go and no one to care for them. Into this situation stepped Philip Robert Hillman and his FamilyStyle Homes.

The Funk house on Duke Street still bears the legacy of FamilyStyle Homes. By 1972 Hillman owned the place and had turned it into his business's administration building. Over the next few years, he'd snapped up at bargain prices 24 houses on the district's three blocks, intending to turn them into communal quarters for deinstitutionalized residents. "He gave mentally ill people a place when there was really no place else for them to go," says Dr. James Janecek, FamilyStyle's last chief administrator. Above the door at 398 Duke St. a wooden plaque still hangs, carved with the name FamilyStyle Homes, and behind the house signs of the era can be seen posted on doors and walls and above walkways. One reads, "A great psychologist once said if you want to find God visit those who are sick or in prison."

"Hillman was a former race-car driver and mechanic," Janecek says. "He was a man's man--not the kind of person you'd expect to see running group homes for the mentally ill." Hillman housed as many as 225 residents at one time during his tenure. Arlene Lovelace and her mother, Martha Donner, made their livings for years at FamilyStyle Homes, with some of the properties a quick walk next door or around the block to work in the morning. For more than a decade Donner made beds, cleaned rooms, and worked in the kitchen; Lovelace served with the laundry staff. When Hillman was in charge of operations, the two recall, the premises were well maintained, professionally managed, and run in the spirit of charity.

"Mr. Hillman was so good," Donner says. "It's such a shame what they did to him. He spent his whole life taking care of people. When he was in charge of FamilyStyle Homes he was down here 24 hours a day." Donner says that while Hillman ran the business he arranged for arts-and-crafts workshops and outings for the residents at least three times a week. He encouraged them to work in the garden of the courtyard adjacent to 398 Duke and was just generally, says Donner, "good about getting people doing things."  

Janecek says that in its later years, during the mid 1980s and early '90s, FamilyStyle housed no more than 150 patients at a time. The average stay was six months, he recalls--the idea being to get residents stabilized and ready to live independently elsewhere. "It wasn't a place where people came to stay permanently," he says, but a kind of transition point between state-run hospitals and apartments or homes with support staff around the city.

The West 7th/Fort Road Federation came into being in 1973 as an activist group, made up of a handful of area residents, concerned about remedying problems in the district's business economy and housing. The private nonprofit's purpose, as spelled out in its still-in-effect mission statement, was "to provide social, physical, and economic development for the people who live, own real property, or are employed in a business in the West 7th/Fort Road Community." Over the years, the federation has backed some 40 single-family home rehabs in the district, says executive director Ed Johnson--so many that fix-ups of private homes are by now "no-brainers" for the group. In its 25th-anniversary booklet, the federation details its fight to preserve Irvine Park, one of the city's stately historic districts, which St. Paul's Housing and Redevelopment Authority intended to demolish and replace with an industrial park. In the mid-'70s the federation and its supporters nominated the CSPS Hall--originally a two-story lodge housing the Czech-Slovak Protective Society--for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in order to stall a city plan to tear down the building to make way for a strip mall. The group's wish was granted in 1976, and activists undertook a 10-year project to revitalize the hall. More recently, in March 1997, the federation won another victory when the City Council voted in favor of the group's plan to build housing on the site where Koch Refinery and Mobil Oil storage tanks once stood at West Seventh Street and Otto Avenue. Originally the city had meant to give the site to Plastics Inc., an industrial firm displaced by riverfront development downtown.

But in its fledgling days, one of the nonprofit's primary concerns was what members saw as the disproportionate growth of group homes on the Brewery District's three-block stretch. According to a report it issued in 1980, "The federation organized community people and sought help in preventing the neighborhood from becoming a treatment ghetto."

According to a timeline provided by federation board member Dan Coffeen, between 1970 and 1977--a period in which Hillman was acquiring his properties--the group was busy protesting to city officials about what it perceived as the area's plight: too many group homes for the mentally ill. Their efforts spurred a July 1978 WCCO-TV (Channel 4) investigative team to report on living conditions at the FamilyStyle homes. The broadcast was followed, according to Coffeen's chronology, by a critical federation task force report on "the situation" in September.

One district resident, who lived in the neighborhood during the FamilyStyle days and has worked on various federation committees, characterizes Hillman's group homes as a drain on the neighborhood: "It was obvious that people were being warehoused there," he says. "You would see wandering, listless people. There were problems enough with the group homes to have them shut down"--problems, he adds, that sprung up as a result of the concentration of facilities located in such a small area. "It was a situation of Hillman taking advantage of an opportunity and buying up the neighborhood cheap." Eventually, half of the houses on Duke Street were FamilyStyle homes, he says. "It became kind of a joke. There wasn't another person who wasn't medicated until you got halfway up the block."

More serious worries cropped up in 1978 and 1979, says the federation's Johnson. "There were concerns regarding a lack of oversight at the facility. Patients were seen wandering around a lot in the neighborhood." The WCCO I-Team investigation, Johnson goes on, brought the district to the attention of the Ramsey County officials in charge of FamilyStyle's rights to run the homes. In the early 1980s FamilyStyle administrators promised not to purchase any more homes in the area but, Johnson says, didn't follow through on the pledge. "In the early '90s we pushed for the state legislature to deconcentrate the residential facilities. The state gave the county a three-year implementation schedule," he claims. In the meantime, the federal government handed down a decision to no longer fund residential facilities with more than 16 beds. It was a combination of the federal money drying up and the state's action, Johnson says, that led to the final lights-out for FamilyStyle Homes in 1997.  

Larry Michaud moved into his house on Colborne Street in 1978. He remembers a vastly different FamilyStyle Homes than does the current federation. The district, he says, was quiet with mentally-ill home residents as neighbors: staff made rounds every hour on the hour, and during both Hillman's and Janecek's tenure as administrators there were no problems with crime caused by those who lived in the facilities. "You could leave a bicycle sit in your front yard overnight and the next morning it would still be there," he says, adding his belief that the federation took its discomfort with FamilyStyle's presence to extremes. Still, the group found grounds to assist in escorting Hillman out of the picture.

Martha Donner was working on the morning WCCO reporters arrived on Hillman's doorstep. She and her daughter Arlene have discussed that day often since then. "He was set up," Donner says. And, she adds, "The federation said he became friendly with one of the female residents"--an allegation that only added to the station's negative report. Though no charges were ever filed, Hillman resigned his position as administrator in 1983 under accusations of mistreatment and poor living conditions, with the shadow of possible inappropriate conduct with a resident surrounding him. For the next 14 years, Dr. James Janecek owned the FamilyStyle business and ran the homes--a period during which, he says, the company sank $750,000 into its properties.

However, Hillman's going didn't rid the district of what federation supporters saw as FamilyStyle's drag on property values. Hillman still owned the properties, 21 of which he'd purchased before city officials changed St. Paul's zoning code in 1979 to require a quarter-mile minimum between treatment facilities. Under the new code the FamilyStyle residences already owned were grandfathered in, leaving three purchased after 1979 in violation of the spacing requirement. In 1983 the city granted the trio of houses five-year permits to operate as group homes, on condition that the company work toward dispersing its other 21 facilities to scattered sites. By 1988 none of FamilyStyle's homes had moved, and the city set a deadline for shutting down the three. Janecek and FamilyStyle sued, arguing that the zoning code violated Federal Fair Housing law prohibiting discrimination in housing for protected groups, including the mentally ill. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, which ruled in favor of the city and forced FamilyStyle to shut down the three homes.

That verdict was the beginning of the end. The final blow for FamilyStyle came in May 1996, when the Ramsey County Board voted to cancel its annual $2.6 million in funding for the 21 remaining homes and divert the money to outpatient services and independent-living programs. Soon after, plans were made for nearly three dozen low-functioning residents to move to other facilities around the city. The rest slowly made their way to new living quarters, and in July of last year FamilyStyle went out of business, with no love lost between the company and the federation. Titles to FamilyStyle's houses, 24 in all, remained in Bob Hillman's hands.

Federation representatives say the mentally ill residents who once occupied the homes are better off now than when they lived in the Brewery District. "I think that's wishful thinking," Janecek says. "I still get calls on some of these people, so I know there are those who aren't making it."

Neighborhood residents Lisa Lovelace, Anita Williams, Mike Taflinger, and Tanis Nagel all remember their fateful meetings with Bob Hillman. With little variation, their stories, like those of other district tenants, sound the same theme: They met Hillman while growing up in the neighborhood, through a friend, or working for him at FamilyStyle homes. He seemed like a honest man, they agree. When they toured the district with him after the company shut down in 1997, leaving Hillman holding the deed to two dozen vacant houses, he told them to take their pick. He also, they say, told them they could buy the homes on a contract-for-deed basis, even convincing Williams to give up her Section 8 voucher on the promise of becoming a home owner. Neighborhood resident Larry Michaud remembers Hillman telling him that those who would live in the former FamilyStyle homes would be "renting to own."

Last summer Taflinger and Nagel were getting their Hillman home ready to move into, with the expectation of closing on a purchase agreement within months. According to the federation's timeline, a STAR funding application filed with the city at the same time contained a commitment from Hillman to sell the homes to the organization. When notices went out to those living in Hillman's properties in late April this year, the federation didn't yet own the homes. By mid-July, when City Pages reached Hillman's attorney, Ray Rossini, the sale papers hadn't yet been signed. "There is a deal in progress and I'm glad you're interested," Rossini said, "but we have no comment at this time." The papers transferring ownership of the Hillman properties to the federation weren't signed until the third week in July, less than two weeks before the July 31 move-out deadline; Hillman's tenants, for the most part, were still under the assumption that their homes belonged to them and that they'd have titles to prove it once Hillman--who was being treated for cancer--signed the papers.  

Fourth-generation district resident Mike Taflinger was born at Ancker Hospital on Colborne, a couple of blocks from where he now lives at 395 Duke St. Taflinger comes across as a man likely to give you the shirt off his back while ferociously defending his home. It's clear that Taflinger still carries resentment for the way he believes the federation has treated his family over the years. When his grandfather died in 1985 there were outstanding loans on the property at 508 Jefferson Ave., financed through the West 7th Federation. The terms included a clause stating that in order for the loan to be forgiven, his grandfather must live in the home for 10 years. Taflinger says his grandfather died just short of that date. After the death, he says he attempted to work out a repayment plan with the federation, but higher-ups there insisted he pay it in total or watch the house be condemned. When Taflinger couldn't come up with the full amount, he says, "They tore the house down. There's still an empty lot there today."

So when Taflinger got the eviction notice in April, he considered it the second time he'd been thrown out by the federation. Taflinger says that Hillman offered him and his companion, Tanis Nagel, one of the former FamilyStyle houses in June of last year. Taflinger says he'd been doing some contracting work for the aging Hillman at the time and assumed the man was good for his word. He says he set to work fixing up the house he and Hillman agreed on--spending, between July and August, more than $9,000 out of pocket on the renovation, based on his belief that Hillman would follow through on his promise and close on the house in short order. The couple and their six children moved in last August. Taflinger says he started asking Hillman to set a closing date for the sale from the very beginning. But Hillman had become severely ill and, Taflinger says, got in the habit of offering excuses for delaying the deal. Taflinger even delivered a $1,500 check to Hillman on August 1, 1997 for down payment on the house, he says. In the end, Taflinger was left with an eviction notice and no title to his house.

"Hillman used us. I wouldn't have put all that money into it if I didn't think it was my house," he says. "He just needed bodies to fill his houses so they wouldn't be condemned." For now, the family of eight is in a holding pattern until their next house in West St. Paul is ready in October. Once again, attorney Ray Rossini says that he has no comment on the Hillman properties or his client's role in the renter's relocation.

The shortage of affordable housing in St. Paul and around the Twin Cities only exacerbated the already emotional move for Hillman's evicted tenants. The vacancy rate for rental housing in the Twin Cities currently hovers around 2 percent. According to the St. Paul Tenants Union, there are 68,900 renter households with annual incomes below $10,000 in the metropolitan area, but only 31,200 units available at that income level--a shortage of some 37,000 homes for those, like the bulk of Hillman's renters, in need of affordable housing. The St. Paul Tenants Union became involved in the project when evicted residents contacted the organization regarding their situation.

In desperation, five of the evicted tenants turned to attorney Gerry Kaluzny of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. He still can't understand what authority the city and the federation had for serving notices to move in April, he says. He sent a letter to the St. Paul city attorney's office asking for an explanation. "The response was that they are basing their actions on the Federal Uniform Relocation Act," Kaluzny says. "But that's not a valid response. That act has to do with paying relocation benefits and finding comparable housing." It does not, he concludes, give the city authority to relocate people for its pet projects. Kaluzny believes there are two legal issues involved in the July 31 deadline: First, there has been no legal notice to vacate posted by the city because neither the city nor the federation owned the houses in question when the letters were issued in April. Legal evictions, he says, should be initiated by a property's current owner. And second, the list of apartments and duplexes provided to evictees by the city's Planning and Economic Development Department as replacement dwellings don't qualify as comparable units, as specified by federal law. Kaluzny adds that the city's "threats" to revoke relocation benefits for uprooted district residents not out by the end of July--around $6,000 for each family--are illegal.  

Assistant City Attorney Peter J. McCall, who responded to Kaluzny's letter, says that the Federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 trumps state law in this situation. The city had authority to issue the April vacate notice, McCall claims, since it is "providing federal funding for this project and the federation is carrying out the project."

What's more, federation director Ed Johnson says, many of Hillman's renters have been there only a short time, a year at most. He adds that the nonprofit had hoped to purchase the homes as soon as FamilyStyle shut down in 1997 but "funds just weren't available at the time." Johnson defends the eviction notices penned by the city and his organization; the city attorney's office had responsibility for the legal issues involved, he says, and he assumed the eviction letters conformed to law. He also seconds the federation's use of public funds for the Brewery Breakthrough, figuring that a third of the properties will be marketed to low- and moderate-income families looking to buy a home under $100,000. "The new town homes will cost around $115,000, which is easy for a family of four with low- to moderate-income to qualify for," he reasons, perhaps unrealistically. Johnson defines a moderate income as $46,000--about 80 percent of the city's median household income--though he doesn't make mention of the fact that the majority of tenants evicted by the federation and the city earn a good deal less than that.

The July 31 picnic was meant to be not a sad occasion but a celebration--of good times gone by, of better times to come, and of the evicted residents' ability to organize with the help of the Tenants Union to protect the relocation rights that were being threatened. But amid the laughter, the shared meal, and farewell hugs, questions remain. For those who've already moved from the district, there are adjustments to be made for new schools, new bus lines, new neighbors they don't yet know. For those with extensions on their evictions, the Brewery Breakthrough project has already started on their streets: Surveyors have been seen recently around the three-block area, confirming federation head Johnson's claim that the organization's schedule simply won't allow for delays in siting and construction. "At the beginning of August we need to get into those homes and take measurements in order to get a scope of work put out," he said a week before the deadline, with home demolition expected to start at the end of the month. Construction of 10 town homes and overhaul work on 10 existing houses is set to begin in early autumn. Another 10 houses are scheduled for renovation next spring, with 10 more next fall. A dozen more town homes should be up and occupied by the close of 1999.

The federation has been busy designing the upscaled neighborhood with Minneapolis-based Brighton Development, which in the 1980s worked on affordable-housing developments like Riverside Plaza on Minneapolis's West Bank. Brighton also had a hand in the high-end Lourdes Square Townhomes on the Mississippi's East Bank and will soon convert the Minneapolis riverfront's North Star Woolen Mills into upscale lofts and town homes priced between $140,000 and $585,000. Johnson says it's still not clear what the Brewery Breakthough units will look like. He's certain of one feature they'll have, however: maintenance-free exteriors that should last a good 50 years.

Jane Dunlap lives next door to Mike Taflinger and Tanis Nagel. Dunlap joined the St. Paul Tenants Union and got the organization involved when she heard about her neighbors' evictions. Since then Dunlap has committed to making Minnesota lawmakers mindful of the affordable-housing crisis in the city. She's a district renter as well, but managed to avoid the shower of eviction notices in April. Still, she has worries about her future and that of her neighborhood when it comes to the federation. "I keep asking if they have plans for my house next," she says--a question to which she's received no clear answer. "I just hope the neighborhood doesn't get turned into some kind of upscale chichi place with a Starbucks on every corner. That seems to be where we're heading."  

As mosquitoes took over the courtyard of 398 Duke on the evening of July 31, Lisa Lovelace brought out the bug spray, and stragglers finished cleaning up after their last block party. One by one they sat down together to finish their beers and share a few memories of the neighborhood. Before heading off into the dark just before midnight, their talk turned to the future. Those staying and those going all agreed: Their age-old, working-class Brewery District is about to become history.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >