My life in east St. Paul: What you learn here shapes who you are, how to get out
By Nichelle Heu
It might not be an original motto only said in east St. Paul, but it’s one that several teenagers swear by on this side of town.
The way we, as eastsiders, carry ourselves lets others know where we’re from and who we are as a community.
Trust none: Don’t open yourself to anybody because they might betray you with that information.
For me, I don’t tell anyone my business. I keep to myself. I don’t want anyone to know anything about me besides my name. The only person I trust is my boyfriend.
The people you trust are your “day ones.”
These are the friends who you know will be there in the long run, through the good and bad. It’s not based on how long you’ve known the person, but the loyalty that lies within your friendship. It’s a rare quality, and you might only have a few “day ones” you can truly trust.
Why is this important to us?
Because it helps define who we are as eastsiders.
ON YOUR OWN
Daily life on the east side isn’t all that exciting. I live on Earl Street, in the middle of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, about four blocks from Johnson High School.
I don’t necessarily love the east side, but I don’t hate it either.
After all, living here has made me who I am. It’s all I know.
Being an eastsider means I don’t let people step on me and I always speak my mind. Not that I have a tough exterior. Anyone who knows me would probably say I’m an extremely positive person, always laughing and cracking lame jokes. I do my best to make people smile.
I’m also fiercely independent. Part of that is just my nature as a young woman who needs to get things done. But most of it is also a product of living on the east side.
In fact, I don’t think you can survive here without embracing your independence. I see it in a lot of my friends. We all balance school and part-time jobs, for me, multiple ones. Not having a driver’s license means I take the bus everywhere. I always have to check my phone when the buses are due so I get to my destinations on time. That responsibility is on me, no one else.
Basically, I feel like a 17-year-old with a 20-year-old mindset. I don’t depend on my parents except for a bed to sleep in. No one asks where I am, so I don’t feel the need to tell them.
Then again, that’s also the problem. Since I’m only 17, I can’t choose to wake up to a nice breeze and ocean waves down in South Beach. I have to accept being an eastsider. My parents decided to live here, so that’s where I’ve grown up.
MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS
Just like you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose your home. This is what I want people to understand about the east side, especially with all the bad news circulating about my neighborhood.
Summer in east St. Paul was particularly newsworthy, for all the wrong reasons.
On June 11, 17-year-old Vincent Allison was shot on Payne Avenue by gang member Kelvin Nickles. Earlier that night, about 30 people had been involved in a fight. Nickles shot Allison as he and his gang tried to make a run for it.
Nickles and I attended Murray Junior High School together. We weren’t friends or talked much, mainly just walked past each other in the hallways.
But it’s a reminder that these are the people you see every day. Whether it’s to the rough-looking teen who ditches class or the popular jock everyone knows, we’re never really sure as eastsiders what could happen next on our block.
Probably the most shocking incident came on August 4 when 26-year-old Ray Widstrand was almost beaten to death after walking past a group of 40 to 50 young people watching a fight near Preble Street and Minnehaha Avenue in Dayton’s Bluff.
Widstrand, a bystander who lives in the neighborhood, appeared to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then again, I see these scenes all the time.
One night in August, I decided to take a late walk, and a few blocks from the McDonald’s on Maryland Avenue, I saw two girls fighting each other in the parking lot. A larger group had jumped in, so it was broken up fairly quickly.
Later that same night, my friends and I were walking down Maryland and bumped into one of the girls who had been fighting. We had a mutual acquaintance, so she and her friend stopped to tell us they were going to another house to fight again.
In times like that, I just try to ignore what’s happening in my surrounding area.
Don’t get involved. Don’t talk long. Mind your own business.
Like I said before, “Trust none.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
According to a Pioneer Press article about the Widstrand beating, nearly one-third of residents in Payne-Phalen are under 18.
Maybe our problems are worse than everyone else’s, I don’t know. That’s what people who don’t live on the east side seem to think.
But no one is perfect, especially not teenagers, and I think that’s what older generations are pushing us to be. It’s why a lot of us hear their advice and let it go out the other ear.
No one else really knows what my life is like, so while I don’t mind your advice, why should I listen? How can I trust it?
I think a lot of teenagers here feel the same way. Don’t try to make us be exactly like you were as a teenager. We don’t live by the same rules. We don’t have the same community.
Especially once we get to high school.
I’m proud to be a product of recreation centers on the east side. Hazel Park, specifically, played a huge part in my life.
Every day after school, I’d go there with my friends to hang out and do homework. We’d set up activities for grade school kids and help Crystal, a staff member at Hazel, pass out snacks at 4:30.
Going there kept me out of trouble and helped me concentrate on more important things. I had fun with my friends and always got my homework done before dinnertime.
But while it was great when I was at an age where I couldn’t really cause that much trouble, when I got older, I got pulled into new groups.
When teens start high school, so many factors come into the picture. You’re introduced to different crowds, your hormones are all crazy, and really big changes in your social circles can happen overnight. Everybody just wants to fit in, so maybe you start acting out, or you skip school if your friends start doing it, or because your parents don’t give you a curfew, you stay out later than you should.
Going into my junior year of high school, I realized that I needed to stop being a follower and start becoming a leader. I had to get rid of the friends that would tempt me or hurt my chances at college, so I just started saying “no.”
It’s hard at first, and they’ll give you a hard time. But then you get in the habit of it.
I had to realize that my junior year was a turning point if I ever wanted to leave the east side. I needed to start thinking about my future.
If I didn’t make that choice, I’d be stuck in the same situation all of my life. I’d end up letting what everyone told me about being an eastsider define me.
That, in the end, is what ended up motivating me to do better.
I had to want it for myself, had to want to be better than what people told me I could or should be. As much as I appreciate my neighborhood, no, I don’t want to live here forever.
I still don’t have all the solutions or know what the future will bring. But if I’ve learned anything about being an eastsider, it’s that the only person you can trust is yourself.
Do eastsiders get a bad rap? Click here to see what Johnson High School students think about living and growing up on the east side of St. Paul.