The Borderlands: The Geographic One

I drive Larpenteur Avenue every day on my way to work. Although the memorial to Philando Castile is west of Snelling (the main, north-south thoroughfare connecting St. Paul and the suburbs) and the church is to the east, Larpenteur functions as a border between St. Paul and Falcon Heights.

The difference between St. Paul and the suburbs like Falcon Heights if you’re a black or brown motorist is stark: you’re 7 times more likely to be stopped by the police in the suburbs as in the city if you’re a person of color.

In 14 years of driving, Philando Castile had been the subject of routine traffic stops no fewer than 46 times before his life ended during that 46th one.

Much has been written and said about black motorists and routine traffic stops, along with what has been written and said about black inmates and mass incarceration in our nation’s prison system.

But Falcon Heights has this big “T” shape if you look at it on a map, and when you’re on the ground, walking or driving, Larpenteur is often the dividing line, but not always.

This first impressed me as an invisible border. When my wife, Linda, and I were on our first visit to Falcon Heights this past July, before the church called me to be their pastor, we took many walks through the surrounding neighborhoods.

And there are sections where Larpenteur is NOT the boundary, in fact, the boundary is unclear and you don’t know when you’re in St. Paul and when you’re in Falcon Heights.

Falcon Heights street signs have a little falcon logo on them that tells you which side of Larpenteur, or Hoyt (one of the other border streets, a few blocks south of Larpenteur) you’re on, city or suburb.

Much of Falcon Heights, though not all, obviously lacks sidewalks. (I imagine this as a decision of the city planners back in the late 1940s to distinguish the new suburb from the surrounding city, though I don’t know for sure.) The immediate neighborhood of my church is in such a section lacking sidewalks.

All of which leads me to conclude that the physical, geographic borders that distinguish Falcon Heights from the city to the south are, if not wholly invisible, at least hard to see and, if you look like Philando and not like me, tricky to avoid, at times.

Which can characterize the everyday experiences of black and brown people in America: sometimes you know not to cross a line, other times you find out only after you’ve crossed it and find yourself in a place you’re not welcome.

For more on Larpenteur’s function as a dividing line between city and suburb, I urge you to listen to Cheryl Corley and Eyder Peralta’s reporting on the NPR Code Switch podcast HERE:

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