July 3, 2016
Macalester-Groveland, Rondo (Frogtown), North End
The creativity of fellow Saint Paulites continues to dazzle and impress. Unique yards and remarkable gardens, the most commonplace form of self-expression I see on rides, is evident in every part of Saint Paul, which this trip proved.
With an abundance of streets – more than 800 miles – in Saint Paul to ride, it takes something compelling for me to spend a lot of time on one of the City’s many alleys. Portland Avenue’s change from a paved street to gravel alley where it meets Griggs Street in Macalester-Groveland provided that rationale.
The Portland Avenue alley continues west for a short block, then turns south where it parallels Ayd Mill Road and railroad tracks.
Garages line much of the gravel alley, except along a hill that leads to the tracks. Fences, chairs, a picnic table and manicured gardens led me to stop.
Donna Krause has lived along the “Portland alley” for more than 30 years. The gardens and accoutrements – her creations – are only a few years old. “It was just weeds like the patch back there that you can see beyond the yard and that’s what it was. just complete weeds all the way up to me right here.”
Donna said, “I don’t know why I even decided to do it quite honestly, it was just kind of like on a whim.”
Donna continued, “I wanted a vegetable garden. My yard was already done and I really don’t have space for a vegetable garden, right? You know unless I took my backyard and did it and so I wanted to raise vegetables. So I thought you know what there’s an ideal space; it’s doing nothing. And so that’s how it all started.”
And oh, does Donna have gardens. She has an herb garden, asparagus, flowers, 15 types of peppers, 20 tomato varieties, and potatoes. “We went crazy with the potatoes. My mom wanted potatoes. (There are) sunflowers and then these are all potatoes and cucumbers. We got beans and peas over there. We got peas along this fence here. Then these are mini garden for the mini pumpkins for the kids.”
Donna added decorative elements such as edging, fences, steps, and railings, much of which she got from cleaning out the garage. “I had a lot of spare lumber. A lot of those logs those were in my yard at one time, you know, so I just repainted them.”
“Everything (in the garden) is a little bit of a paradise.”
The neighbors, save one, love what Donna’s done with the area. Donna admitted she had a little fun at his expense. “We had a cranky guy on the end down there. He’s like, ‘You’re not coming down to my house,’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going all the way down to the river.’” She told me, laughing at the recollection.
Neighbors, Donna said, enjoy hanging out in the garden. “I think that they come up here with their kids a lot. You know, I think and just hang out and I come up here and I’ll sit here at night and stuff, but the idea is for people to come up here and sit and just enjoy it.”
“Look at the expanse of the sky you have here. Yeah, it’s huge and the moon and the stars and I mean, it’s really it’s like a little mountain top, you know in the city.”
In Donna’s view, humans aren’t the only lovers of her recreational area. “The animals obviously love it. We had deer come up here. And then we have a Rocky Raccoon around, comes and eats cat nuggets at night, and the snake lives in the rocks over there.”
“I think God brings me my vision, quite honestly, because I don’t know how I did all this when I look at it.”
Creating gardens and outdoor living spaces could become a new career for Donna, who has done accounting and finance for most of her adult life. “Ultimately I want to start a business called ‘First Stage.’ I would like to do this for people in their yards, small places; don’t have to use a lot of space, and integrate things from their garage, their house. their junk, paint it, fix it, make it look nice and have it so their kids can enjoy it or they can enjoy it and they can have food products in their yard without having to delegate a lot of space.”
The Lexington on Grand Avenue, often called “The Lex”, has been one of Saint Paul’s premier and best known restaurants since the mid-1930s. Far fewer people know of the other establishment with the same name that is just a mile to the north.
The Lex, at 976 Concordia Avenue at Chatsworth in Rondo, is a private club in the former Attucks Brooks American Legion Post 606.
The Attucks Brooks Legion Post, which closed in 2012, left a lasting mark in Saint Paul. It was an important part of Rondo, where it served African American veterans for some 40 years. The post sponsored a baseball team, coached by Billy Peterson, that produced some of Minnesota’s best ballplayers including Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor.
According to published reports, complaints from neighbors about noise, suspected drug dealing, license violations and other illegal activities at Attucks Brooks led to a crackdown by the police and city officials, and ultimately, the closing of the Post in 2012. The building was sold then and updated by the new owners, who improved the interior and exterior of the property and increased security.
Sometime after this ride, The Lex was renamed The Taste of Rondo.
Continuing with Frogtown landmarks, the historic West Minnehaha Recreation Center – a.k.a. West Minne – sits mid-block on Minnehaha Avenue at St. Albans in the northern edge of Frogtown. The original rec center, which is dwarfed by multiple additions, was another of Cap Wigington’s designs. Wigington was the first Black municipal architect in the U.S.
The Nickel Joint bar has been at the corner of Blair Avenue and Mackubin Street since 1903, 1905 or 1906, depending upon the source.
The Nickel Joint is best known as the home of the Baseball Old Timers Hot Stove League since January 1939. According to a Saint Paul Historical article by Jane McClure, the Hot Stove League was started by 14 members of the New York Yankees farm system who lived in Saint Paul. That’s interesting because at that time the Saints were a minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.
Topping Street sits about two blocks north of the North End – Frogtown border. Topping is another zoning oddity with three homes and several industrial properties, including the City’s asphalt plant.
The front of the small, light green home at 461 Topping Street was nearly obscured by bushes, interrupted only by a narrow driveway. A post adorned with three signs sat prominently in a lily-filled garden adjacent to the driveway. The most intriguing sign read “Foundry Park Botanical Rock Gardens” meaning there was a story to be discovered.
Kevin O’Connor has lived on Topping Street since he was born in 1960, except for the four years he served in the Navy and a short time after he got married. He spent his formative years with his parents living at 463 Topping. Kevin bought 461 more than 30 years ago so he could help his mom as she aged.
“This (street) used to all be residential all the way up there, all the way to the corner,” Kevin said pointing west, “and then people got older moved out, and the empty lot down there, that house caught on fire and they took it out.”
And that left three homes on Topping Street. “When I was a kid growing up there used to always be this rumor that the asphalt plant, which goes up to these three houses, that the city’s going to buy these three houses at some point so they can round off the asphalt plant. It’s comical that these are last three standing.”
As industrial as Topping and Burgess Street, a block north of Topping, are today, they were all the more so 40-plus years ago. “All this stuff used to be Peerless Welding along here,” Kevin remarked as he pointed east along Topping Street. “They worked with Amhoist and a lot of that stuff and then when they left it all went empty and now it’s Pallet Recycling over there and Martin Furniture Warehouse over there.”
The Asphalt Plant predates Richard’s time on Topping Street by many years. According to the City’s Public Works Department website, this facility, built in 1962, replaced one constructed in 1912. Kevin recounted a childhood memory related to the plant. “I used to have a Sandbox in the backyard and workers used to bring get a thing of sand and dump it over the fence. That was kinda neat.”
As you’d imagine the asphalt plant generates noise during production and when loading trucks, but most of the time, Kevin told me, it’s a great neighbor. “It’s very quiet evenings and weekends. There’s nothing going on. During the day, it’s busy; the trucks are lined up and you got that big drum going around. In the winter, there’s nothing, so that’s a nice thing. You do get sand blowing around and makes a little dust here in there but then again, it’s, you know, the price you pay for having no neighbors on one side of ya’.”
Kevin’s yard, which he dubbed “Foundry Park Botanical Rock Gardens”, is quite a hangout. The moniker evokes the similarly named Foundry Park, which was a small green space nearby created for employees of the long-gone St. Paul Foundry. That park was redeveloped about 1937.
Kevin’s yard has an abundance of flowers. “I started out mostly with the planting day lilies and irises and stuff. They’re hearty. They grow well and come back every year. Then I decided I wanted to start making butterfly gardens to try to help monarchs along the way. “
Kevin collected his first milkweed plants growing wild around his neighborhood and branched out from there. “I started buying different kinds of milkweed. These are white milkweed. I have some swamp milkweed.” Over the years Kevin has added more flowering plants like cone flowers and the oddly but aptly named Licorice Mint Hyssop, which smells like a mix of licorice and mint.
Upon leaving Kevin’s I took my time looking over the immediate neighborhood. Of particular interest was the Rube Goldberg-like asphalt plant next door.
Another large presence along the 400 block of Burgess Street is Peterson Brothers Roofing.
Wrapping my stops for this ride on Burgess, and in the North End, was at the City’s Sewer Maintenance building and yard at 419 Burgess.
This ride increased my interest in researching the rich history of the near North End. Between its ties to Saint Paul’s prolific railroad industry and the mix of homes and industry, no doubt there will be much more I’ll learn here on a future trip.
Click here for the map of this ride.