Saint Paul is a gateway city, originally settled as one of the last places accessible by boat on the Mississippi River. The city flourished on the prosperity of the railroads developed by tycoon James J. Hill, a robber baron on par with the Morgans and Rockefellers of the time. This history is ever-present in a city that is also currently experiencing a revival of sorts. Here, Passport Express passenger, Roxana Moussavian, gets to know the people of the city, past and present.
I counted at least four concurrent gasps as we walked into the empty James J. Hill Reference Library this morning. (Yes, mine was one of them.) With five-stories that are covered floor-to-ceiling in books, narrow staircases dispersed all along the walls, and little pockets of light seeping out of just the right places, the building is a playground that drew each of us in different directions, excited about different books, lights, walls, tables, stairs and corners. But one that inspired the same reaction in each of us.
Once we tired of having each other pose for one another’s photos, we had the chance to learn a little about the late James J. Hill himself, who is the benefactor and original mastermind behind the building. A dual Canadian-American citizen, Mr. Hill was a railroad executive who built lines throughout the Midwest, Great Plains and Northwest. Like the stories of transformation F. Scott Fitzgerald helped make synonymous with the American Dream, Mr. Hill became known during his lifetime as “The Empire Builder,” even though he came from humble origins. A childhood accident left Mr. Hill blind in the right eye, and after the death of his father he had to leave school. His first job was working as a bookkeeper. As a testament to the successful business and management skills he honed throughout his career, Mr. Hill was able to increase the net worth of his railroads during the nationwide depression of 1893, a time when nearly every other transcontinental railroad went bankrupt. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was also from St. Paul, lived in a rented home in the shadows of James J. Hill’s glorious mansion, which we also had the chance to tour later in the day.)
After the library fun our group had some free time. Inspired I think in part by the story of such an influential figure in St. Paul’s history, I decided to learn more about life in St. Paul today. So I walked around the city a bit, and met people who were willing to teach me something about what it is like to live here. I have done similar walking / interviewing tours of other cities in the past, and I can confirm that folks in Minnesota really are some of the nicest I have come across. Here are a few of the people I met.
Barbara is turning 95 years old in 9 days. She is from St. Paul, and was an accountant for the federal land bank for many years. She explained: “When I started, I didn’t even know what a ‘trial balance’ was! But I had the guts to try it.”
Natalie is two and a half hours older than Nick. They are both freshman at St. Paul’s Conservatory for Performing Arts, where they are studying musical performance. “We have never been out of state, yet. Well, I’ve been to Wisconsin but it doesn’t really count,” explained Nick. Both wish more people knew how much of an active art scene there is in St. Paul.
“Three years old.” Amanuel immigrated from Ethiopia 8 years ago, and though he taught his daughter his mother tongue, Aramaic, she has already forgotten all that she once knew.
I remember fighting with my parents once about whether I was allowed to travel abroad for a high school trip, and my mother said: “All these places you want to go see, they look the same. They look the same as here, they look the same as everywhere.” There is just no way, I argued back. It isn’t possible.
Years later, it is having developed an appreciation for that sameness that my mother spoke of, that I think makes travel so important. An appreciation that we all need to eat and sleep. That shoes protect everyone’s feet. That standing in cold rain will give us all goose bumps. That little kids like to smile and laugh, everywhere. That everyone feels a little uneasy when they do not understand, and that everyone likes feeling connected.
There are differences, there always are, but I find beauty in the sameness. Our group of travelers is a microcosm that illustrates this. In the past few days, we have shared stories with one another that dig into the unique crevices that make us each so different. In terms of our ages, our racial and religious backgrounds, our day-to-day lives and future career aspirations, we are an incredibly diverse group. But there is no denying that over the past few days a sameness and common ground has emerged, that’s made it possible for us to share and connect in ways that have helped us each learn and grow.
The contrast between the immerging sameness amidst all of our differences is a beautiful thing. One that I look forward to further exploring in the days ahead as we continue to explore St. Paul and then head west for Montana.
Come along for the ride.
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