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Cross the arching Smith Avenue High Bridge, and you're in another world-St. Paul's West Side, a world filled with the strains of mariachi bands and the seductive rhythms of salsa music. If you can't tell by the murals and brightly painted benches, you can tell by the lively mix of restaurants and ethnic markets (including the only Lebanese-Mexican deli in the world) that you are in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. For over one hundred years, Neighborhood House, the local outreach program, has opened its arms to waves of immigrants, first from Russia and Lebanon, now from Latin and Central America, Africa, Mexico and Cambodia. At Neighborhood House the newly-arrived learn to speak English and are assisted with their transition to American life. The vibrant flux of new immigrants has turned this drab industrial area into a technicolor melting pot guaranteed to overcome any case of winter blues.
Separated from the rest of St Paul by the Mississippi River, West St. Paul actually lies directly south of downtown. The bluff area was once a sprawling farm, and the earliest buildings here are farmhouses and workers' cottages dating from the mid-19th century. Many of the other houses are Midwestern squares and variations on bungalows, intermingled with newer split-levels and new townhouses. More than half the housing was built before 1940, and includes a smattering of renovated Victorians. The blocks west of Smith Avenue directly across from Cherokee Park hold stately, larger Colonials, Tudors and bungalows. Many of these properties are expected to appreciate as St. Paul continues to develop its riverfront.
Robert Street, which runs north-south, is a commercial district where you can find everything from housewares to used cars. Concord Street from the Lafayette Bridge to Plato Boulevard is the Latino strip. Check out the margaritas at Boca Chica and the cherry empanadas at El Burrito. La Placito's peaceful courtyard is the setting for lively music, plays and lectures. On the far eastern side of the neighborhood, on the flats across the river from downtown, Holman Field, a small airplane landing strip used mostly by private aviation and the Minnesota Air National Guard, is only slightly less quiet
Even if you don't move here, be sure to visit during Cinco de Mayo (in May), when the whole neighborhood turns into one big street carnival. Or come over for one of the productions of Teatro del Pueblo. While you're here, stop in at the Riverview Branch Library. On the National Historic Register, this Carnegie library has a special section for Spanish-speaking patrons.
Set atop a steep sandstone bluff, Cherokee Park offers an awesome panorama of river barges and downtown St. Paul. This is a place for solitude, and an occasional glimpse of the river's wildlife. Bird watchers can spot herons and egrets riding updrafts over the bluff's edge and, once in a great while, a bald eagle perched on a branch or soaring overhead. Below the bluffs are the sandstone walls and marshy river flats of Lilydale Park, which contain small caves created by eons of percolation and erosion. At the tum of the century, some of the caves were used by Yoerg's Brewery for cold storage of product, which was subsequently marketed as ''Yoerg's Cave-Aged Picnic Beer." Nearly all of the cave openings are now barred up because of cave-ins and other accidents, but the foundations of the brewery, the ruins of an old brick foundry, and the massive cottonwoods standing along the Mississippi flats still make for interesting exploring.
For a preview of this neighborhood, listen to Radio Rey, 740 AM. Its pro- gramming in Spanish and Hmong audibly reflects the diversity of the area.
Web Sites: www.ci.stpaul.mn.us, www.tdreenet.org
Area Code: 651
Zip Code: 55107
Post Office: Riverview Station, 292 Eva Street (all post office branches can be reached at 800-275-877n.
Police: Central District Patrol Team, 651-292-3565
Emergency Hospitals: St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center, 640 Jackson Street, 651-221-3456; HealthEast Street Joseph's Hospital, 69 West Exchange Street, 651-232-3000
Library: Riverview Branch, 1 East George Street, 651-292-6626
Community Resources: West Side Citizens' Organization, 625 Stryker Avenue, 651-293-1708; Cherokee Park; Lilydale Park
Community Publications: St. Poul Grand Gazette, 651-699-1462; St. Paul Pioneer Press, 651-222-5011, www.pioneerplanet.com
Transportation: Bus Lines: 5: Downtown/State Fairgrounds/Stryker Avenue/Inver Grove Heights; 7: Downtown/Smith Avenue/South Robert Street/Mendota Heights; 8: Downtown/South Robert Street/Inver Hills; 11: Dowwntown/Little Canada/Concord Street/Inver Hills; 29: Downtown/Riverview Industrial Park; 95 U of M: West St. Paul Park & Ride/U of M/Downtown Minneapolis.