by CHRIS ROGERS
Many East Enders want to build stronger connections among neighbors, improve their neighborhood, and share positive stories about how great the East End is, according to a new Engage Winona report. The nonprofit released the report on Monday after months of conversations with East End residents and business owners. “Share the story — the East End is a great place to buy a home, live,” participants told Engage Winona.
The city of Winona hired Engage Winona to conduct the public-outreach project, dubbed the East End Neighborhood Study. Engage Winona surveyed residents and held numerous group discussion meetings to query eastern Winona residents about their values, concerns, and hopes for their neighborhood.
With a long Polish American history, an industrial tradition, and a mix of neighborhood bars, affordable homes, and small businesses, the East End is one of Winona’s most distinctive neighborhoods. It is also a neighborhood with initiative — a trait most recently demonstrated by the East End Neighborhood Watch’s grassroots effort to raise funds for the construction of the new Sobieski Park Pavilion.
Residents suggested a host of ideas and even developed a new name for a Winona neighborhood: the “East Side.” The true East End is east of Mankato Avenue, participants generally agreed, but they came up with the name “East Side” to describe the neighborhood between Mankato Avenue and Franklin Street. “The majority of folks said, ‘I feel like I’m east of something, but if I’m not east of Mankato I don’t feel like I’m really in the East End. So how about the East Side?’” Engage Winona Executive Director Brian Voerding stated.
Participants’ goals and ideas for their neighborhood included creating an East End dog park or walking park, reviving baseball culture at Gabrych Park, beautifying boulevards, creating a walking or driving tour of Polish heritage sites in the East End, assisting with the future of the Winona Athletic Club, addressing “the perception (and reality) of crime,” creating neighborhood signage, providing youth activities, hosting block parties, improving walking and biking safety, promoting the Basilica of St. Stanislaus Kostka as a tourist attraction, and creating alleyway artwork. Other suggestions ranged from creating a “Welcome to the East End” archway at a major intersection to improving pedestrian and bicycle safety on Mankato Avenue to decorating alley garages with Polish-inspired murals.
“[The dog park] was by far the most popular singular idea or project that came up,” Voerding said. “Folks know about the Prairie Island Dog Park, but it’s a long way to go especially when you just want to hop out of your backdoor and go,” he explained. Residents’ desire to find ways to meet and build relationships with their neighbors was a common theme throughout the study; hosting block parties was another popular idea. Voerding explained that people were enthusiastic not just about having a place for canine playtime, but having a place for human dog owners to socialize.
The project’s events themselves facilitated some neighbor-to-neighbor connections. “In some cases, people were talking in these small groups and realizing that they literally lived right next door to each other,” Voerding said.
East Enders and East Side residents had concerns, too. According to the report, many expressed apprehension about a railroad overpass being built in the neighborhood someday and concern about the city’s recent proposal to combine the senior center and East Recreation Center. City officials have long considered building a railroad overpass at Mankato Avenue or Louisa Street to address railroad crossing blockages that many residents agree is a problem. Most recently, in 2015, city leaders ultimately shied away from a plan which would have required destroying homes and businesses to make room for the overpass and cost $16-$25 million.
East Enders who participated in the study also grappled with negative perceptions of their neighborhood, and many expressed a desire to change those perceptions. “I was told not to buy a house on the East End — that it had a reputation of being impoverished, and unsafe, lots of drug activity,” one participant stated. “[The] neighborhood [is] seen as affordable housing by some, a neighborhood to avoid by others,” another commented.
Is there any reality behind negative perceptions of the East End? Residents expressed mixed opinions. Some praised how safe and neighborly the East End is, while others expressed concerns about suspected drug activity and the maintenance of houses and apartments. “Parents feel safe enough to let kids play outside together,” one commenter stated. Another wrote, “Love the quiet and community.” A third told Engage Winona, “Used to be [a] safe environment — now there are too many drug houses.”
“Would love to see a return to shotgun-style houses — maybe that’s Winona’s answer to affordable housing in a landlocked city,” a participant stated. “Cheap houses are perfect for a first home,” another added. Others said they felt many houses and apartments were in poor repair. One suggestion that gained traction at public-input meetings was the idea of creating a “Spruce Up Club” to help people maintain their homes.
One longtime resident told the Post, “The East End is where we could afford our first home, and we would not even consider moving from here. We love it down here, and the East End is where everything is located now.” At the same time, she added, “I am very concerned about how a neighborhood looks. And on the East End, there are many rental properties, messy yards and junky alleys. The biggest problem is absent landlords that do not care how their property looks.”
“It’s a challenge to try to change the narrative around that,” Voerding said of perceptions of the East End. “But the desire from neighbors was really just to tell a lot of good stories.” The eastern Winona has neighborhood schools, it is close to many jobs, and people like living there, Voerding noted. He added that many participants said, “We’d like to find ways of telling a new story.”
“Overall, I think it was a really good project that I think we’re lucky to have happen on the East End,” said Lydia Boysen, who directs the city’s East Recreation Center and lives in the East End with her family. Revitalizing downtown Winona has been the subject of many plans and conversations for years, but the East End Neighborhood Study was one of Winona’s first public-outreach efforts specifically focused on the vitality of a neighborhood. “I think it’s neat that some attention would go somewhere that might not be for the visitor or for a thriving downtown — although those things are important,” Boysen said. “It takes on a more personal feel when it’s for a neighborhood.”
What will happen with all the ideas this study generated? Voerding said that there is an open group of East End and East Side residents and business owners working to implement a few achievable proposals. He said that the study connected some residents to potential funding sources and to the authorities they would need to talk to, for example, to build raised garden beds in a boulevard. Voerding hopes Engage Winona can continue to help East End and East Side residents organize ongoing efforts.
Boysen said that participating in the studies’ discussions caused her to reflect on all the things she appreciates about her neighborhood. “I love my neighbors,” she stated. “I think they’re fantastic. We’re going to water their plants, and they let us borrow their truck for something, and our kids go back and forth between houses. That reinforced for me, this is a really nice neighborhood.”
The full study is available at http://www.engagewinona.org/portfolio/east-end-side-neighborhood-project/.