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‘Real work’ is an integral part of Gordon Park High School’s curriculum and focus on civic engagement

Posted on 05 June 2017 by Calvin

Students work to transform vacant lot into community park

Article and photos by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
For Gordon Parks High School (GPHS) students Jay Alrich and Alyssa Castillo (photo right), advocating for a park next to their school at 421 N. Griggs St. has been part of their coursework. (photo right), advocating for a park next to their school at 421 N. Griggs St. has been part of their coursework.

This sort of ‘real work’ is an integral part of the alternative learning center’s emphasis on civic engagement for historically underserved students, according to GPHS teacher Jamie Tomlin.

Alrich is a park listener. “My job is to ask people what they want here,” he explained. He solicits inputs at events, from teachers and students, and when he’s out in the community.

The entire process has been very community-based, according to Castillo. They’ve worked to involve the predominately Somali residents of Skyline Towers across the street, as well as Hmong neighbors.

“It’s not just a school thing,” said Castillo. They’re also working to pull together community members who didn’t know each other before.

Photo left: Gordon Parks High School English teacher Jamie Tomlin collects ideas for park names during an event on May 25, 2017.

This park will be the nearest park for residents, pointed out Alrich.

“I grew up in the neighborhood here,” said Castillo, who now lives in East St. Paul. “We had to trek to find a park.” She added that the nearest park is about a mile away. This one will be much more convenient.

“We hope it will come out as beautiful as we’ve planned,” said Castillo. “This park is going to be beautiful and amazing and everything the community wants and more.”

Students have referred to the park as Three Ring Gardens, while the city has labeled it Lexington Commons. Suggestions for the final name were collected from the community during a student-organized event on May 25 at the site, which is located between University and St. Anthony avenues. The event also included live entertainment, food, historical information, and projects by students.
Another event organized by the Trust for Public Land, Union Park Neighborhood Group, and Lexington-Hamline Community Council is planned for July 31.

For students, part of the journey has included delving into the history of the parcel. They learned that the space was once known as Circus Hill. Beginning in 1890, the circus returned to Circus Hill every year until 1965. The site’s two parcels were then used primarily for storage of overflow vehicles from both an auto body shop and the former Whitaker dealership. Most recently, the city used the land for snow storage.

As part of the process, students produced a documentary about the history of the land in 2010, and talked to neighborhood resident Nancy Bailey about her memories of the circus.

GPHS students have also worked with University of Minnesota Professor Catherine Squires to collect and digitize stories of local elders.

Photo left: Shelly Fountain mans the front table at a student-organized event May 25 at the future park. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)

“How do you keep a sense of community?” asked Tomlin, when you have neighborhoods like Rondo that were destroyed when I-94 ripped through it. Students tried to answer that question in the Legacy Class she co-teaches with Curriculum & Media Arts Coordinator Paul Creager.

“Along with the Trust for Public Land, we are gathering community awareness of the future park,” said Creager. “We think this is a great story of community-led green space development.”

Mural plants seed
Students have been talking about transforming the three vacant lots next door into a park for years, but the ball really got rolling when some students started attending community events with a mural they created under the direction of artist Peyton Scott Russell.

Photo right: Artist Peyton Scott Russell, Gordon Parks High School teachers Ted Johnson and Tom Davies, and former student Khalique Rogers talk about how the mural behind them helped students connect with their communities through the arts.

The founder of Juxtaposition Arts and Sprayfinger, as well as a 2012-2014 Bush Leadership Fellow, Russell was the first person to teach graffiti as an art form in the Twin Cities. Through a Forecast Public Art program in 2013-2014, Russell encouraged Gordon Park High School students to focus on a project through which young people could interact and connect with their communities through the arts.

Through the process, Russell asked students to consider how they communicate in different ways. The resulting mural shows eight people looking down at their phones with a text message conversation on one side.

“I love the idea of text speak,” remarked Russell. “It is redefining the written language.”

GPHS students discussed how ideas depicted on the mural evoke concerns that matter to the St. Paul community at large during a Creative Placemaking tour lead by urban planner Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities. “At the time, we didn’t really envision what it would bring to the school,” recalled former GPHS student Khalique Rogers. But that exposure prompted a private donor to step forward and pledge to make the new park happen.

“It’s really cool to see the seed planted years ago grown into what it is today with perseverance and hard work,” said Rogers, who resides in the Como neighborhood.

Last year, with $1.5 million from the city’s 8-80 Vitality Fund, The Trust for Public Land put together the purchase of the three parcels that will become a 5-acre park as part of the group’s focus on more green space along the light rail line. The land has since been conveyed to the city.

The city has yet to develop a final design or determine who will serve as stewards of the land, although Tomlin hopes that students will continue to play a role. “Keeping them involved is key,” she stated.

Students and neighbors envision a playground, outdoor classroom/amphitheater, indoor gardening space and a community orchard at this property that sits 17 feet higher than University Ave and offers a unique overlook of nearby tree tops and roof tops.

It will be a park that champions open space, equity and access.