June 20, 2014
Highland Park, West End, Lowertown, Downtown 16.5 Miles
A record-setting June for rainfall prompted me to make another trip along the Mississippi River to see how bad the flooding was. The 4.13 inches of rain that fell on June 19, a day before this ride, was the fifth wettest day since 1871, according to Weather Service records.
I began the ride with a visit Crosby Farm Regional Park, off Shepard Road on the southern-most part of Highland Park. The barricades on the access road foreshadowed what I’d see down along the river.
The Upper Landing neighborhood consists of more than 600 high-end condominiums and townhomes, apartments for all income levels, two parks and some retail space.
The $175 million Upper Landing project is situated on 22 acres-seven city blocks-along the Mississippi River, between the Smith Avenue High Bridge and Eagle Street. The history of the Upper Landing area is noteworthy, with a bit of irony. More on that shortly.
Early on in Saint Paul’s history as a city, the Upper Landing became home to new immigrants. In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants joined those of German and Polish decent who settled, or more accurately, squatted, in this same part of Saint Paul. At that time the area was known as the Upper Levee Flats. Many of the men worked as laborers, often for local railroads. Nearly all of the homes – typically small, wooden structures – were built by their residents. “Little Italy”, as the neighborhood was also called, even got its own modest, four classroom elementary school, Mill Street School.
A Saint Paul Pubic School’s document indicates the school was constructed on Mill Street in 1922 and closed in 1954 but the 1916 map (below) clearly shows the building. By the look of it, someone added the school to the earlier 1916 map.
Little Italy suffered from a couple of fundamental problems-a lack of City services, particularly sewers, and, because it was built on a flood plain, regular flooding. The completion of Saint Paul’s sewer system in the 1930s eliminated one issue but there was no way to keep the Mississippi within its banks.
The extraordinarily devastating 1952 flood convinced City officials to condemn Little Italy. Crews demolished the last house in 1960 and prepared the land for construction of Shepard Road and a metal scrapyard.
In the late 1990s City officials, perhaps with some prodding by developers, finally came to the realization that there are considerably better uses for this prime riverfront land. Planning began in 1997 for the modern adaptation of the Upper Landing which included housing- the irony I mentioned earlier. The first phase of the massive project entailed moving Shepard Road north, away from the banks of the river. That opened up the acreage for the new residential development. However the soil, so contaminated from 100 years of human and industrial waste that it was named a Superfund site, had to be removed. To alleviate flooding, clean fill brought in raised the land above the 500 year flood point. Construction on the Upper Landing was completed in 2006.
In a nod to the past, some Upper Landing streets have been given the same names as those in the long lost Little Italy and others were named after prominent residents of the Flats.
Less than a block away from the river and the Upper Landing, at 225 Eagle Parkway to be exact, is the stately John M. Armstrong House. Built Downtown at 233-235 West Fifth Street as a double house in 1886, where it stayed until a 2001 move to its present location.
According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form from 1988, Armstrong rented out the home, likely to railroad workers. The home stayed in the Armstrong family until 1943. Five years later it was sold again and converted to the Key Hospital for alcoholics. The same owners, in 1965, changed the name and mission of the house to the Quinlan Care Home, a nursing home. The story of this unique house picks up again in 1988 when the State of Minnesota purchased it to use as part of an arts school. The school was built elsewhere so the Armstrong-Quinlan House languished, unoccupied for 13 years across the street from what is now Xcel Energy Center. The Pioneer Press newspaper reported the 2001 move of the 900-ton house to Eagle Parkway took eight days and cost the City more than $2 million. Restoration of the Victorian beauty began in 2005 and the four condos were purchased in 2007 and ’08.
Being a day before the summer solstice, June 20th was one of the longest days of the year. The time was drawing close to 9 p.m. and sunset was a couple minutes beyond that, so I presumed Pleasant Place was my last stop. That changed when I turned on Goodrich Avenue and spotted a lemonade stand in front of 333.
One of my hard and fast rules is to purchase a drink at lemonade and Kool-Aid stands run by children. I downed a cup and talked to 8-year old Alisia about the lemonade business. Alisia told me she, her sister and friend Claire were swimming at Claire’s when they agreed to open the lemonade stand, “I said to my mom, ‘Hey Mom, can you help us set up a lemonade stand?’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’ So we just took a pourer and then we put water in it and lemonade sugar and then we just pumped it up. And then we just took mini-cups and we just started selling it.”
I inquired about their profits, “So far”, said Alisia as she counted the earnings, “Three dollars seventy five cents!”
Alisia told me they advertised by developing a catchy chant, which they vociferously demonstrated for me. “We love lemonade, yes we do! We love lemonade, how ‘bout you? We like…LEMONADE!”
The enthusiasm the young ladies displayed elicited a chuckle from a couple of parents and me. I thanked Alisa and company and road off into the darkening summer evening.
Here’s where I rode on June 20th.