August 11, 2022
Macalester-Groveland, Midway, Frogtown, Downtown, North End, Summit-University
It’s difficult to ride a bike above street level but there is a way. I’m talking about parking ramps, which I’ve taken to exploring. So far, the ones I’ve ridden through have been underused or empty, like at the shuttered St. Joseph’s Hospital Downtown. Certainly, it offers a perspective of the city not usually accessible and sometimes, those views can be gorgeous.
The former Bethesda Hospital, two blocks due north of the State Capitol, is another historic hospital closed in 2020 by Fairview Health Services. It too has a parking ramp, which presented a safe and easy opportunity to explore the Capitol area from above.
Back on street level, I found Charles Street near the Capitol in desperate need of repaving.
I rode along Lyton Place, a tranquil tree-lined residential street with houses that appeared newer than others in the area. I bumped into Arther as he worked in his well-cared for yard.
Arther and his wife, Reva have lived in the house at 47 Lyton Place since 1998. Early in our conversation it became apparent that Arther’s Christian faith is very strong and has a prominent place in his life. We chatted about the neighborhood, bordered by the pastoral Oakland Cemetery less than a block to the east and the delightful Lyton Park slightly farther to the west.
Arther said he and Reva moved to Saint Paul because they had a son with a disability and the city and Ramsey County offered excellent programs to assist them. In 1998, workers broke ground on a one story handicapped accessible home with modifications for their son. Shortly after construction began, however, their son passed away. Arther and Reva and their contractor reworked the design and instead built the two-story home that stands at 47 Lyton Place.
Upon moving in, Arther and Reva quickly discovered their new neighborhood was a bit raucous. They prayed and used the Biblical story of the Battle of Jericho as the basis for settling things down. In the Battle of Jericho, explained Arther, God instructed Joshua to have his army march around the city once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. On the seventh day, according to the Bible, the walls of Jericho miraculously fell.
“We figured since we got problems over here, let us march around our neighborhood so the walls of disruption can come down and there’ll be peace in our neighborhood.” So that exactly what Arther and Reva did. “We walked around our property, completely around the whole block, seven times praying and trusting God.”
“First of all, prayer works. Second of all, it’s about reaching out to individuals because we can’t do nothing by ourselves.”Arther on how prayer helped improve their neighborhood
Arther followed that with barbecues for the neighborhood kids. “The kids that was having more fun than they should be, I invited ’em over [to] have hot dogs and hamburgers, and talk to them about the neighborhood.”
It didn’t take long for Arther and Reva’s presence—and the barbecues—to have the desired effect. “The neighborhood got quiet as it is today for the last 22-plus years. It took a little bit for it to get quiet. Out of that we’ve had peace throughout the neighborhood. It’s very peaceful and we just give God the praise for that.”
The lot on which 47 Lyton rests is considerably larger than the standard residential property in Saint Paul and there’s a delightful story behind it. After settling in the neighborhood, Arther began taking care of the empty lot next door. “I would cut the grass when I cut mine and shovel the snow when I do mine because I didn’t want it to pile up.”
At some point, Arther said, a small garden sprouted on the land, so he and Reva decided to try to purchase it. Eventually they determined the city owned the property so Arther called to see if it was for sale. “They told me it was $6,000. Well, I wasn’t gonna pay $6,000. We put that to the side and kept maintaining both properties.”
Arther let some time pass before he called the city again. “It was still up for sale. But at this time, the gentleman on the phone asked me to make an offer. Well, I didn’t really wanna make an offer. I wanted to know what they were selling it for.”
The city official convinced Arther to make an offer. “I just threw out a number, not believing that he would sell it for that. I personally said 15-hundred. And when I said that, he said, ‘Sold!’
Arther was extremely pleased—until the city worker told him, “‘If you’d have offered 12-hundred, we’d have took that.’ So I said, ‘Well, let me get it for 12-hundred.’ He said, ‘No, you already said 15, so if you want it, we can give it to you for 15.’ And that’s how we got the property for $1,500.“
Arther is certain mowing the lot and shoveling its sidewalk gave him the inside track at purchasing it. “By me maintaining it for over a year and the city didn’t have to do anything. So I had a foot in the door, but I guess I didn’t have it in deep enough,” he said, eliciting a laugh from both of us.
Arther and Reva’s newly enlarged lot quickly became a favorite spot with their young children and others from around the neighborhood. “This is where they played baseball and little touch football and other little games to get together. My life became the second little park for kids to play in.” During summers Arther and Reva also put up a swimming pool for the kids and kept up the neighborhood barbecues.
Now, more than 20 years later, Arther mentioned their large yard doesn’t draw children like it once did. “They all grown and gone now and we tired of the land, tired of cutting, tired of shoveling at 65.”
Arther believes that the care he and Reva put into their yard and home has spread among the neighbors. “Because of what my wife and I do with our home, it causes them to keep theirs up. And it just called a ripple effect. Somebody got it started and once this gets started, now everybody can enjoy the fruit of what we’re doing.”
Arther explained that everyone like the peace and quiet of Lyton Place. “We’re very proud of our area and our neighborhood,” and he added, “We have, Somalis, we have Hmong, we have Vietnamese, we have Mexicans, we have African American, we have Caucasian, Spanish. And it’s always been like that from day one.”
Arther drew my attention to the homes across the street, on the south side of Lyton Place, and a puzzling peculiarity about their addresses.
Plaques on several of the houses clearly specified their address as being on “Lyton Park Place.” Here the internet proved to be extremely helpful. A search turned up several pieces of information that explain this unique, forward-thinking subdivision.
The 21 home Lyton Park Place development, built in 1991, populates the full blocks of both Lyton Place and Sycamore Street, between Park and Sylvan Streets. Lyton Park Place replaced twice that number—42 tiny homes—which stood for about 100 years. Those houses, packed in like sardines, were built for railroad employees who worked in the nearby Saint Paul & Pacific (later, Northern Pacific) engine and rail car shops and yards. Factoring the small lot size, inadequate (even by 1990 standards) size of the homes and their deteriorated condition, city officials decided building new instead of renovating was a better use of money, according to a St. Paul Pioneer Press article from June 3, 1991.
The outdated, decaying houses came down in 1988 and the often soggy land stabilized with fill. It took time to pull funding together, overcome neighborhood opposition to affordable housing and select a developer, so construction began about three years later, in spring of 1991 and was completed by the end of that year.
The 21 two, three- and four-bedroom affordable homes were built through a unique partnership between developer Justin Properties and Habitat For Humanity. Justin Properties built 13 of the homes and Habitat constructed the other eight. The houses range in size from 1300- to 1800 square feet and feature one of eight different floor plans.
Pioneer Press newspaper stories put the cost of the Lyton Park Place development—including demolition, site preparation, infrastructure construction and completion of the 21 new homes—at about $2.46 million. Funding came from an unusual mix of city, state and federal dollars, donations and loans. Most of the homes sold for between $40,000 to $75,000 ($87,000 to $164,000 in 2022 dollars), significantly less than the $114,000 average cost to build them.
Short term, Lyton Park Place lost money. However, to me, and many others more knowledgeable about affordable housing and redevelopment, this project has been immensely successful. First, the development resuscitated a section of the city that was in obvious decline and at risk of becoming blighted. Second, it gave 21 low- to moderate-income families the chance to buy a well-built home and start building equity. Third, the new homes reinvigorated other nearby parts of the North End, proving that well-built, attractive affordable housing is a good investment. Finally, well-constructed structures inherently last longer and are environmentally superior.
Lyton Park Place received recognition for its designs and quality construction:
- Design honors in 1991 from the American Institute of Architects Minnesota for LHB Engineers & Architects
- Featured in the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) 2004 publication Good Design-The Best Kept Secret In Community Development
- Write-up in the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Gallery of High Quality Affordable Housing website
After close to an hour, I vacated Lyton Place via Park Street, traveling north about a mile, until Park ends at Ivy Avenue.
The two blocks of Ivy Avenue between Rice Street on the west and Sylvan to the east is light industrial with some apartments and a sprinkling of residences.
The vehicles—mostly buses—within the Quality Truck and Auto Repair lot got my attention. A couple dozen adroitly parked black, white and pink buses filled much of the lot. Once again, the internet clued me in on the story. While the sign remains, Quality Truck and Auto Repair doesn’t. One of the businesses behind the fence is Luxury Party Bus Rental, illuminating the reason for the bevy of buses.
Ivy Avenue West dead ends at Sylvan Street. Technically, I’d call it the origin of Ivy Avenue West. In Saint Paul’s address number scheme, Sylvan is the delineation (“zero”) point of addresses for east-west thoroughfares. In other words, addresses get larger as you move both east and west of Sylvan.
Just north of Ivy, I found a troubling sight at the edge of the woods beyond the Sylvan Street cul-de-sac. An unsightly heap of construction debris, broken furniture, a television and other trash had been dumped requiring a public works department employee and garbage truck to clean it up.
Moving Back South
With the route north cut off at Ivy, I retreated south on Sylvan Street. Along the east side of the street are a couple of good-sized warehouses with large blacktop lots to accommodate semi-trucks.
Sylvan Park Area
Continuing south along Sylvan I crossed the busy Maryland Avenue to Sylvan Park. The total renovation of the park in 2019 included a new playground and artificial turf athletic fields which are named after long-time Rice Street resident and volunteer Joe Zschokke.
The Saint Paul Music Academy is less than a block south and east of Sylvan Park. They’re so close that students use the park as their playground. A Saint Paul public school has occupied this block for all but two years since 1889, when Smith School opened. (During those two years, 1969 to ’71, the old schools was demolished and the replacement built.)
Smith was named for Saint Paul mayor Robert A. Smith, who was in his second year as mayor when students first walked through the doors. In 1969, the old building was razed and after two years of construction, replaced by a new building named North End Elementary School.
Now Saint Paul Music Academy resides within the former North End building. The kindergarten through grade five school is an Achievement Plus school, a partnership between SPPS and Wilder Foundation which strives to improve student and family success.
Simple, well-kept homes line Geranium Avenue, across from the school.
On the ride home a couple of North End houses all but demanded my attention. First, the very blue house at 88 Geranium.
Then, three blocks south, the City of Chicago flag on 97 Cook Avenue.
Although unplanned, this ride was my second consecutive focused on the North End. It resulted in a chance meeting with Arther, another Saint Paulite who’s elevated their neighborhood through words and deeds, big and small.