West Side Story

One day each spring, thousands of partygoers descend on St. Paul’s West Side to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. On the other 364 days, the parade route along Cesar Chavez Street—including the business district branded and marketed as District del Sol—is something of an urban hamlet. Geographically protected by the Mississippi River from years of downtown development (and redevelopment), and isolated by steep bluffs and caves along its other borders, District del Sol has always marched to its own beat. The only connections to St. Paul proper, it seems, are a bridge and one of those odious Peanuts statues, although this version of Linus wears a cheeky sombrero.

District del Sol was the sticks back in 1874, when the city of St. Paul absorbed it. Lying south of downtown at a bend in the river, which somehow confuses everyone into calling it the “West Side,” it was thought too removed for residential and business development by downtown sophisticates. So immigrant communities started settling the cast-off river flats: first the Germans in the late 1800s, then Eastern Europeans and Russian Jews. By the 1920s, a wave of Chicano immigrants had settled the West Side; their influence remains most visible today.

Spanish-language medical clinics and tax services dot Cesar Chavez Street. A mosaic monument identifies the local playground as Parque Castillo (Castle Park). A few retailers are scattered throughout the district: a grocery with a portrait of the Virgin de Guadalupe in the entry; a boutique bursting with tiny white shoes and christening dresses; two Western wear shops with walls of cowboy hats in numerous shades of tan. Storefronts are plastered with signs advertising, in Spanish, everything from homes for sale to outdoor festivals. But the neighborhood’s biggest draw is its dozen Mexican restaurants and cantinas. Some, like Boca Chica, are well established and tastefully decorated in colors of the Aztec palette, while others seem pulled together with found furnishings, like the scrappy Mi Tierra.

According to the Ramsey County Historical Society, the oldest structures in Del Sol are “architecturally insignificant,” a status that likely stems from their ornament-free utility. Bright, hand-painted signs and murals bring a cheer to the kind of industrial structures that elsewhere meet bulldozers. Whereas the bright yellow and red logo of a global fast food joint might look garish among more manicured brownstones, in this neighborhood it appears almost drab alongside the jaunty, hand-lettered pink and green sign for Don Panchos Panaderia.

Similarly, the bleached housing complexes cropping up along Del Sol’s periphery counter the neighborhood’s tidy row houses. This clash of threadbare and new, modest and lively, defines the handmade texture of Del Sol. Strolling the sidewalks, your feet pick up dust and BK ketchup packets, while the sizzle of fresh carnitas and the sunshiny ring of mariachi music, piped outdoors from the swankier restaurants, fill the air.
—Christy DeSmith