Phalen Corridor book selling fast

Not one day before the Phalen Corridor offices were closed and locked for good last week, 3M - one of the first funding partners for the $600 million roadway project through the East Side - announced that it's closing up most of its roughly 40 acres of shops still remaining in the neighborhood.

To Curt Milburn, it is, in a way, a fitting vignette of the challenges still to be faced as St. Paul's East Side neighborhoods continue to develop around the Phalen Corridor, the area surrounding the 2.6-mile roadway stretching from Interstate 35E on the west to Johnson Parkway on the east.

Milburn - until last week the project director for the twelve-year-long economic development project - thinks of 3M's end as only an optimist can, quickly rattling off two of the biggest East Side success stories: the rags-to-riches stories of Theodore Hamm, founder of the Hamm's Brewery, and John A. Seeger, founder of what eventually became Whirlpool. Both men were nearly bankrupted, then went on to achieve great success in their fields.

"That's the story of the East Side: People surmounting challenges," says Milburn. "What did Seeger do? He lost everything when his partner took off on him, and then he formed the largest refrigeration company in the world."

And that's the way he prefers to think about the East Side's loss of most of what's left of 3M's East Side presence: so much opportunity just waiting to happen.

Milburn makes clear in his recently published book - The Phalen Corridor: Rebuilding the Pride of the East Side of St. Paul - that history is rife with such examples.

That is, of course, the job of the professional optimist, perhaps a fitting description of Milburn's economic development work: Through tragedy, triumph. Or, as he says, through perseverence, success.

With the help of founts of East Side history, including Dayton's Bluff historian and onetime legislator Steve Trimble, neighborhood historian Janice Quick, and retired Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer, Milburn wrote his nearly 100-page book over a span of the last few years. Starting with the East Side's geographic history, he melds in the stories of our first settlers and neighborhoods. It's not actually until Chapter 11, more than halfway through the book, that Milburn begins writing of the birth of the Phalen Corridor.

"The Phalen Corridor had been primarily an industrial rail corridor for well over a century. As plants became abandoned, rail trafic declined, and streetcars disappeared, the area was cut off from downtown St. Paul. Residents reasoned that a road linking the abandoned sites would bring jobs to the community again.

Dick McCarthy, longtime director of Merrick Community Services and a founding member of the East Side Neighborhood Development Company (ESNDC), recalls,

It was ironic that back in the 1970s, a highway had been planned through the East Side (Highway 212) that would connect the East Side to downtown, but its construction would have removed hundreds of homes, including much of the Railroad Island neighborhood. It was kind of a twist of fate that a number of the groups that fought and blocked that highway began to advocate for a new road through the corridor twenty years later. We saw that building Phalen Boulevard might help attract more homes and businesses."

By the time this newspaper gets in people's hands, Milburn's book will have been for sale for a month, and is fast approaching a complete sellout of its entire first run of 1,500 hardbound copies.

In fact, Milburn's not quite sure what to do if the book does indeed become a sellout, because its printing - at the East Side's Ideal Printers - became possible only through donations offered via foundation funds granted to Phalen Corridor. And now the Phalen Corridor office has ceased to exist.

"It's a fascinating dilemma to be in," says Milburn, noting that there are no more funds to print any more copies.

But, ever the optimist, he adds, "you'd think that if we can sell 1,000 copies in three weeks, we can find a publisher."

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