Many cities lose manufacturing plants and wind up with abandoned buildings, but not in St. Paul, Minnesota. When the last Ford Ranger pickup rolled off the assembly line in 2011, demolition crews moved in to take down the huge buildings.
Big side-loading dump trucks carried away the concrete. Girders became piles of scrap iron to be hauled away. Soil-testing groups assessed the damage to the ground. Four years later neighbors peering through the fence see open space waiting to be built upon.
The 122-acre site is prime land. The Mississippi River runs along the west side of the property. A parkway winds along the river bluffs. There are bike paths, trees and flowers, even a waterfall. Deer and foxes live in the woods.What kind of a community can St. Paul build that will preserve the beauty of the area? Who will get to live and work there?
Highland Catholic School is just down the road from the old factory. Hi-C students play baseball on the Ford fields. When thestudents heard about a community meeting with state legislators, city council members, and city planners, they wanted to be there. They wanted their voices to be heard.
“Kids’ voices should be heard because we want to make a difference in the world, and we want that to be a good difference,” says fifth grader Grace.
“People who are poor can’t always speak on their own behalf,” adds classmate Anna.
The Hi-C students began creating projects to share at the meeting. They asked themselves: if, as Catholic social teaching says, we put the needs of the vulnerable and the poor first, what can that look like on this site?
One class chose the 10 most important things that they felt should be a part of the new area in their neighborhood and created a banner showing each of them.
Five of the things that they chose to build into the new neighborhood:
1. A community garden
2. Jobs that pay well
3. Homes that all kinds of people can afford
4. Local businesses with free gathering spaces for the community
5. A park for all ages
Another class used Google Maps to print out the whole site and drew in their own plans for the layout.
One group of students chose to write paragraphs encouraging city leaders to include ideals of charity, justice, equity, and diversity in their plans.
One student wrote, “We live in a world that doesn’t have enough time and space for nature. I think that’s something that needs to be changed.” He went on to describe a park that he would build and make suitable for people ages eight to eighty.
Another student described a community garden/soup kitchen that would bring the whole community together in service and hospitality.
The night of the big meeting, Highland Catholic teachers shared their students’ work with the community leaders.
“It is an example of how the eyes of the youth are the clearest and the voices of youth are the strongest when looking at issues of equity and justice,” said state Representative Dave Pinto. City planners asked if they could post the work of the students on the city’s website. City Council member, Chris Tolbert, invited the classes to come to city hall.
“We need to find a way to build on these 122 acres in a way that we can be proud of and that can be an example to other cities around the nation,” says Highland Catholic School principal Jane Schmidt.
When asked why they received so much positive feedback about their plans, one student responded. “Kids don’t care as much about property prices and stuff like that,” says Luke. “We just want to help others.”
“Yeah,” adds his classmate Ashley. “Sometimes adults forget some of the important things, and I think we helped remind them.”