Join me for a West Side Flats History Tour this Saturday

[Empty street on the Flats.]
My local neighborhood group, the West Side Community Organization, is putting together a biking/walking tour of West Side Flats history this Saturday and you're invited.

I'm a bit obsessed with the history of the Flats, and so it's an honor to be asked to participate in the tour, spread out along a route leading from the heart of the old Mexican neighborhood over to the middle of the Mississippi. There will be four speakers, each of whom has an excellent perspective on some of the history of the neighborhood.

I'll be stationed on the middle of the Wabasha Street bridge, where I'll tell a few stories about the history of Saint Paul's Mississipppi River crossings. Highlights include: how the West Side became part of Saint Paul, the complete history of the city's Mississippi bridges,

(Some of the other stops will focus on the neighborhood's Dakota past, the Flats' Mexican-American and Catholic legacies, and a history of the ever-changing river.)

To look at it today, the Flats seems like a desolate industrial park, which it is. But before 1960 it was a densely populated working-class community that had long been home to the city's immigrant populations, especially Jews, Lebanese, Mexicans, and even my Swiss-German ancestors from five generations ago.

Today, with the old street grid all but erased, it's a challenge to imagine what the old neighobrhood might have looked like. But Saturday's tour will hopefully impart a sense of the recent history of the contested ground across from Downtown Saint Paul.

[Abandoned warehouse in a long-vacant lot on the Flats.]

What: Tour of West Side Flats history with four speakers, biking (4 miles) or walking (2.5 miles)
Who: Anyone, free to the public
When: Saturday, October 1st, from 1 pm to 3 pm
Why: To learn about the neighborhood
Where: Meet at Castillo Park (see also this interactive map); I'll be on the Wabasha Street bridge

[Wabasha Street Bridge in the wintertime.]

See also some other of my writings on the Flats and the Saint Paul bridges:

A post on the Wabasha Street Bridge christening from 15 years ago (!)
Sidewalk of the Week: West Side Flats
Is Bike Counting Quixotic?
Six Thoughts You Have Sitting Next to ... the High Bridge for Two Hours
Reframing St. Paul's iconic High Bridge to fight suicide contagion (Minnpost)
Mind the Gap: the Importance of Bridge Approaches (streets.mn)
Thune and the Port Authority Quietly Neuter Walkability on Saint Paul's West Side (streets.mn)

[The former site of the old State Street "black bridge" over the tracks down to the flats.]


Saint Paul Living History by Decade: 1860 to the Present

Have you ever been in a place — a restaurant, home,  office, or bar — and thought, “wow, it’s just like being back in time?”

Some establishments seem chronologically dislodged. The old Nye’s Polonaise Room was like that, a time capsule of the 1970s that finally met its end last year. Saint Paul, too, is full of such places, small bits of the past that together recreate the cold march of progress.

A distinction: I’m not talking simply about old buildings, places whose exteriors match a particular date. No, I’m talking about places where history is still alive, places whose uses, rhythms, and cultures still cling to some ancien regime, where lost practices of the everyday remain alive, if possibly transmuted. Places where the past isn’t just a museum display, but an actual experience.

Here’s the question: which places in Saint Paul best reflect different decades of living history?

The Still-Kickin' Decades of Saint Paul

1860s - The Stone Saloon

[Rear of the Stone Saloon, currently being restored.]
This is an 1857 lager beer saloon that is currently being painstakingly restored. It should open by next summer and, when it does, you’ll be able to actually legitimately experience what it was like in the 1860s to drink beer in small wooden room in then-nascent Saint Paul!

1870s - Forepaughs Restaurant

This is a early 1870s French-revival mansion off Irvine Park, supposedly haunted by the ghost of a maid who hung herself in the 1880s. Today it’s a restaurant, but if you sidle up to the bar or sit in front of one of the many fireplaces, you get a sense for what the place might have been like back in the Victorian era.

[Forepaughs' carriage entrance.]

1880s - Spot Bar

[The old wood walls of The Spot.]
The oldest continually operating bar in Saint Paul claims to date to 1885, and today still has the feel of the 19th century. While a lot has changed in the intervening century and a third — for example, there used to be an organ in the back, where an organist would play tunes and patrons would sing along — a lot has remained the same. You still have guys sitting around drinking all day, an occasional weekend vintage apparel sale, sometimes potluck sloppy joes, and they serve plenty of whiskey above a half-finished basement cellar.

1890s - W. A. Frost

This great restaurant and bar is housed in the 1889 glorious Dacotah Buidling. While the original W.A. Frost was a dry goods general store, and today’s fancy dining experience probably doesn’t reflect the original use of the building, the trappings and accouterments of hanging out in the bar or wonderful basement lounge does feel a bit like being back in the midst of Saint Paul’s boom decades at the end of the 19th century.

[An ad for W.A. Frost c. 1893.]

1900s - The State Capitol

[Old colorized postcard of the Capitol showing the old neighborhood.]
This building, currently in the final throes of its extensive restoration, is pretty much used for the same purposes that it had when it was built in 1904. Some things have changed — for example, every type of conceivable phone — but many other things retain exactly their use and luster from the first decade of the Twentieth century. (For example, racist paintings.) Walking up the marble steps, now bowed from the subtle weight of a million fancy shoes, is to trace the steps of a century of Minnesota’s leaders.

1910s - Wabasha Street Caves

[The Caves entrance in autumn.]
If you can find your way into these caves for an event or a tour, set in the bluffs of the West Side, you will feel the presence of generations who’ve come before you. The city’s caves are surely the city's oldest useful structures, and this one was originally a mushroom-growing operation before becoming a nightclub and then speakeasy in the early 20th century.

1920s - Original Coney Island

This semi-mothballed diner and bar is half-housed in the oldest commercial building in either downtown. It dates to 1923, and what’s more, has been completely preserved (as if in amber) since it shut down in the 1990s. It’s quite literally a time capsule, as it’s only open about once or twice a year. If you get a chance to get a beer (or a coney dog!) at the OCI, don’t pass it up. You’ll be stepping back in time.

[Inside the Original Coney Island on a rare business day.]

1930s - Yarusso’s

[Painting of Swede Hollow on the wall at Yarusso's.]
This Railroad Island Italian restaurant and cultural institution on Payne Avenue doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened in 1933, in the midst of the depression. The other day, a waiter who’d worked there 53 years (!) give me a plate of “spicy rav(ioli)” on the house, and I pictured generations of hungry people coming into Yarusso’s and getting a free meatball. The whole of Railroad Island is a bit anachronistic, but Yarusso’s especially so.

1940s - Mickey’s Diner

This vintage railroad car diner  hasn’t even closed since it opened in 1939. They accept credit cards now, and I think they do change out their cooking oil every few years. But otherwise, this is as close as you’ll ever get to having World War Two-era food.

(Also note: Serlin's Café would have been perfect for 40s living history too. Plus the Turf Club actually says "best remnant of the 40s" on the sign.)

[Buncha hippies outside Mickey's during the RNC.]

1950s - Porky’s Drive-in (Defunct) / The Gopher Bar

[George, that old asshole, at the Gopher.]
Porky’s dated to 1953 and would have been perfect, but it's gone now. Places like Snuffy’s Malt Shop are 1980s re-creations of the 50s’ diner, back when 50s nostalgia was really popular. (See also, Back to the Future.)

My nomination for the best 50s-era living history remnant is The Gopher Bar, actually, a politically problematic coney-dog-slinging downtown dive that dates to 1949. It hasn’t changed much since it opened, the hot dogs certainly are the same. If you’re wondering what it was like to walk into an old hole-in-the-wall sixty years ago, uncomfortable feelings and all, step through their un-glamorous door plastered with anti-government stickers.

1960s - Rice Street Sears

This building is still doing what it was designed to do when it was designed and built in 1962 by Victor Gruen, serve as an all-encompassing store for everything. It’s difficult-but-possible to drive up, squint, and imagine what the store might have looked like when it was brand new and state-of-the-art, when it represented the ultimate retail fantasy, when its parking lot might have been full of fins and chrome. Today’s retail experience must be a pale shadow of that glorious time.

[The modernist Rice Street Sears and its massive parking lot.]

1970s - Red’s Savoy Pizza

[The anti-car barrier outside Savoy Inn.]
Walking into Red’s, which was founded in the mid-1960s, does feel like what I imagine the 70s to have been, all weird color palettes and urban dystopian vibe. I’m sure the pizza hasn’t changed much, either, nor have the sometimes-questionable bar conversations about East Side crime or the struggling economy.

1980s - Café Latté

I remember going to this amazing café in an “urban mall” (how 1980s!) back in the day when it was new, before Starbucks when the word “latté” was really exotic. To take a tray with a piece of cake, a coffee, and a Oblaten wafer up the very-80s staircase onto the terrace just screams “Miami Vice” to me. And in the best of Saint Paul fashion, the place hasn’t changed much. They muted their color palette a bit and added a wine bar in the rear, but other than that it’s pretty much the same.

[Top-down view of the counter at Café Latté, with the 80s staircase in the background.]

1990s - Galtier Plaza (Faces on Mears)

[The very-90s courtyard outside Faces on Mears.]
Speaking of urban malls, Saint Paul’s Galtier Plaza still houses a restaurant in the midst of the failed trappings of the old downtown stab at retail pizazz. Despite a few different remodeling attempts, the keynote restaurant, now called Faces, still has a 90s feel. Maybe its the nearby food court or large windows? If retro-trends are any indication, the 90s are going to be cool again soon, and maybe Galtier and the 1990s will become the next big thing in Lowertown, instead of the whole 1890s that’s happening these days?

2000s - Kinkaid’s

The 2000s are still sort of a blank slate. If we were in Minneapolis, I would have said that Block E was the ultimate in 2000s-era living history.

In Saint Paul, it has to be the much-less-ill-fated Lawson Commons building, and the anchor restaurant Kinkaid's might be the classic example. I’ve never been there, to be honest.

2010s - Saint Dinette?

I went to Saint Dinette the other day and it seems like a cutting-edge trend. When we look back and ask ourselves, years from now, what were the 2010s all about, maybe this place, with its wide open feeling and mix of low- and high-brow foodie culture, might be just the thing.

[The Lawson Building.]


*** 25 Weekend Sidewalk Links ***

Sidewalk Rating: Soggy

You’ve said, “Tourism is a sin, but travelling on foot is a virtue,” and your ability to go to other places and to immerse yourself in the world of other people is impressive. You seem very comfortable in places where a tall German guy might stick out.
Well, the world belongs to those who travel on foot.

[A grass-filled curb cut on Saint Paul's West Side.]



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We drive these vehicles that weigh 4,000 pounds and are built to carry five people and eight suitcases, and most of the time, it’s just one person and this giant machine going to work. We’ve got transportation overkill.


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Six More Thoughts You Have While Sitting in a Slightly Less Vacant Lot next to the High Bridge for Two Hours

Well it happened again. I went and sat in a vacant lot (note: this vacant lot is actually sort of an unofficial official City of Saint Paul “park” called “Capitol View Park” or something though it does not seem like a real park as it is literally just a green grassy vacant lot with one tree next to which I sat, but someone must mow it so I guess it is a park of sorts) for two hours and watched cars go by, all the while counting the people and bicycles as they went by on a lovely afternoon in the early Fall.

This time, instead of a view of the dingy liquor store, the other vacant lot, and the Burger King drive-thru, I enjoyed one of the best view in the Twin Cities. The Saint Paul bluffs and downtown skyline spread out before me like a grand buffet, the Cathedral and the still-shrouded Capitol (like a particularly boring work by Christo, the saffron-themed public artist), punctuating the gentle lines. So, even in the worst-case carpocalyptic bike-counting scenario, at least the afternoon’s vantage would not be a total loss.

As it turns out, there were some lovely things about bike/ped counting at the top of the high bridge for two hours on a Tuesday. As I settled in for my now-familiar annual routine, I contemplated the fate of my city in general, and this bridge in particular. This time next year, the bridge will be traffic free, as it’s being completely re-decked as part of a reconstruction of the entire MN-Highway 149 urban corridor. (More on this in subsequent posts.)

[The Saint Paul panorama.]

#1. Speed Matters on Busy Roads

[It's a van and it sgoing slowly.]
The way that the top of the High Bridge works: the bridge is a 1/2 mile long stretching from the low bluff of West 7th/Smith Avenue (aka “upper town” the name that nobody uses) over 100’ in the air to the top of the Cherokee Heights bluff. For the most part, it’s a straight shot as it rises at a angle up over the river valley, but right at the end of the trip it curves slightly as it reaches the intersection with Cherokee Avenue, before traveling one more block to George Street. This curve reduces sight lines for drivers coming up the bridge, and probably encourages people to slow down slightly during off-peak hours.

During rush hour, though, speeds here are pretty low due to mild queuing at the George Street traffic signal. In fact, they’re very low! Based on my non-speed-gun-having intuition I’d venture to say that 90% of the cars moving along this stretch of road are traveling less than 30 miles per hour, and probably over half of the cars were at 20 miles per hour or below.

(On the bottom of the bridge, on the other hand, it’s completely a different story, as numerous homeowners whose homes have gotten in the way can attest. And what happens during off-peak hours, who can say?)

More notably, the slow speeds on this stretch combine with mild congestion, so that cars basically crawl along slowly but steadily along this block or two at the top of the bridge. It’s not a traffic jam, but it’s not a high-speed road. It’s something in between, like the driving behavior on the denser parts of Grand or Payne Avenues or some of the better downtown streets like Wabasha. It’s a happy middle ground that is very rare in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, where cars are traveling at around 20 miles per hour on a commercial street. Granted this is only two blocks of the street, but for me those speeds and capacities are close to the ideal for an urban commercial street. I’d love to see our urban arterials re-designed to be 20 mph medium-congestion streets, and I think they’d work well and be much safer.

(Granted, this is a two-lane road; a four-laner would likely be a different story.)

#2. Noise is a Huge Variable

Apart from safety, one big reason why the 20 mph speed is so important is that car noise is greatly reduced. According to my handy decibel meter, from where I was sitting 20’ from the travel lanes, the average noise level sat in the 70 to 80 db range, well within the parameters where two people can carry on a normal conversation without shouting. Occasionally, a truck or school bus or motorcycle would go by and it might beak at mid-90 db, but compared to the traffic noise on a street like Snelling, the experience was pleasant enough.

Apart from freeway walls, noise is one the factors that is rarely considered when thinking about urban road design. Being next to a busy road with cars traveling around 40 miles per hour is loud and unpleasant. This stretch of street, on the other hand, was almost enjoyable, though there remains a certain soul-sucking erosive quality to the endless stream of cars.

Also motorcycles are terrible. Bicycles, on the other hand, are so sneaky and quiet! Sometimes a downhill-traveling bicyclist would zip by my perch so quietly and quickly that I might have missed one or two while distractedly staring at my phone.

[File Photo.]

#3. The High Bridge Crosswalk Design Confounds, is Ignored

Years ago, in one of my first official Transportation Committee (of the Planning Commission) meetings, I heard a presentation about the new bike trail extension that connected the new Ohio Street off-street bike trail West across Smith Avenue over to the Cherokee Park. The trickiest part of the route was the crossing at the top of the High Bridge, and the engineers planned a “detour” of sorts where the bike route would veer away from the bluff line and travel two blocks up to  George Street where there is a signalized intersection, before continuing back over to the bluff on the other side.

At the time I remember pointing out that that "design" (sharrows and a one-block long bike lane) was going to be basically useless, and asked wouldn’t it be better to actually try and improve the curb-cuts and pedestrian / bike crossing at the "intersection” of Cherokee and Smith Avenues where the bridge meets the bluff?

The engineer or designer (I forget who it was by now) said “that wouldn’t be safe” and listed reasons about the curve, the sightline, the “false sense of security” argument about crosswalks.

At the time I thought, “yes, but people will use it anyway, and nobody, like 1% of people, will use the signed and designated route. So what are we accomplishing with this design then?” (I.e. CYA LOL.) There was also some talk of a future trail cantilevered underneath the bridge, though I cannot fathom how that would ever happen.

Well anyway, the detour design is what happened. And it turns out that almost everyone ignores it and continues crossing at the unmarked crosswalk. Dozens and dozens of people do this every day, including people walking dogs, groups of bicyclists, pairs of runners, etc. Sometimes, especially when the traffic speeds are low like this, drivers even stop to let them cross!

Imagine what might be possible at this crosswalk if we actually signed or striped it? Would it give people a false sense of security and lure them to their death? Would it improve walking and biking crossings here and help boost active living, like so for example you could bring a family here? Would it slow traffic down here where the bridge meets the neighborhood? Might there be a way to re-design this crossing design a situation where everyone can more easily communicate with each other?

I don’t know, but as it is today there’s certainly a huge design gap. The official bike/walk route is completely ignored by users, while the actual bike/walk route is completely ignored by the street design, and into that chasm falls all kinds of confusion and nonsense.

[This isn't even all of them. More like 2/3 of a two-hour sample.]

#4. The "Urban Bridge Problem" can be Solved

[Going down the hill to the Marshall Avenue bridge.]
I’ve written before about the problem of bridges, where the absence of intersections or curves catalyzes high speeds that often come crashing into dense and chaotic walkable areas. The classic example of this was the old Washington Avenue bridge that fed four-lanes of high-speed car traffic into the very middle of an urban University campus, but this is a problem that occurs at the ends of nearly every bridge. (On- and off-ramps have the same problem by the way, and more frequently.)

The list of problem bridges is long, and includes nearly every river bridge in Saint Paul. Wabasha might be the best of them, certainly Ford and Marshall are badly done, while Robert is likely the worst. Given the design differences between simple bridges and complex streets, “the bridge problem” seems insoluble.

But since I first wrote about bridges back in 2013, Minneapolis and Hennepin County have done wonders with two of their bridges. First it was the Plymouth Avenue bridge, where the City installed a protected bike lane. Then just a month ago, the re-decked Franklin Avenue bridge re-opened [pictured below], and raised high the bridge bar. The new Franklin design is amazing for bikes and people walking, and keeps cars contained at low speeds without much impact on traffic. 

There are lots of bridges where we could remove a traffic lane or make some design changes that would lower speeds in the interest of reducing speed differentials. Minneapolis' amazing new bridge designs (now including a real bike lane on Hennepin!) are shining examples for Saint Paul and Counties to follow.

[The new Franklin Avenue bridge should be a model for the rest of the urban river bridges.]

#5 This is the Most Scenic 1/2 Mile in the Twin Cities

Speaking of which, slowing speeds on the bridge might not be a bad thing, as the 1/2 mile stretch of road has the best view in the entire Metro area. Why not design the bridge to reduce speeds, and let people savor the journey just a bit? I go over the bridge hundreds of times each year, and it still takes my breath away.

Watching people running, biking up (slowly), biking down (quickly!), walking around and snapping photos at the top of the bluff, it would be really nice if the car traffic didn’t detract from the experience. Ideally, the Smith Avenue bridge could feel more like the River Road, which it is, in a way. Lowering the design speed with lane widths or something similar to the Franklin Bridge would be good for both adjacent neighborhoods, help alleviate some of the negative mental health impacts of the bridge itself, encourage walking and biking and spending time over the river, and have little-to-no impact on traffic flow.

#6 The People-Watching Threshold Offers Positive Early Returns

At any rate, people seem to love going up and down the bridge, on bikes and on foot, relatively speaking. Compared to the other West Side bridge roads that I’ve counted, this spot had the most bike and recreational traffic. (The Wabasha bridge, by contrast, seemed to be mostly people walking to and from their parking spots.) And that activity made a huge difference for how the street and the neighborhood felt as a public space.

I left with the thought that it doesn’t take all that much to transform a desolate sidewalk into one that seems social and active. In other words, the “people watching threshold” is fairly low. Just 10 or 20 people passing by per hour can end the boredom, and give you something to see, people to notice, an occasional light conversation. As I see it, the relationship between people density and public space is sort of an S-curve shape, with a lot of work being done by those first dozen or so “early activity adopters”, and the people-watching interest intensifying gradually, accelerating at around 100 people per hour, until reaching some sort of diminishing return toward what I might call the “State Fair limit point,” at which you get a bit overwhelmed by a crowd.

In sum, it’s nice to sit on the bluff and bike down the bridge when cars are going slowly but safely down the street. It’d be nice to design streets and bridges that encouraged that sort of thing.

Now that I've completed the West Side bridge-crossing trifecta, I wonder what's in store for me next year?

[Beautiful Saint Paul autumn sky.]