May 21, 2023
Merriam Park, Lexington-Hamline (Rondo), Frogtown, Railroad Island (Dayton’s Bluff), Lowertown, Downtown
Potholes remained a problem in the third week of May thanks to the horrendous winter and the number of streets needing repair. I rode around and past some of the road hazards—but didn’t see anyone swimming in them.
I made a couple of quick stops on Iglehart Avenue. The first, a house at 1792 built in 1999, displays a large yellow and green flower prominently mounted on the front nearly three stories above the ground.
Some five blocks east at 1628 Iglehart, there’s a walkway made of 12 cast iron manhole covers, which weigh in excess of 250 pounds each! Why did the homeowners use manhole covers for the walk? How did they get 12 manhole covers? When did they do all this work?
Central Avenue runs east and west through the Midway (and the old Rondo neighborhood,) slightly more than a block north of I-94. In desperate need of pothole patching, the 500 block of Central Avenue was obviously queued up for just that.
Central Village Park
Saint Paul’s park system has been among the best in the country for years. Como, Phalen, Mears and Rice Parks quickly come to mind but with more than 180 in the city, many others with interesting backstories are worth seeking out and exploring.
Unwittingly, I visited two of the lesser-known neighborhood parks on this ride. The first, Central Village Park, sits in the Summit-University in what was the heart of the old Rondo neighborhood. Development of the seven-acre Central Village Park in the mid-1970s coincided with the “urban renewal” of the surrounding neighborhood of the same name.
The City’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority re-platted the streets—adding cul-de-sacs and U-shaped roads—to create a suburban-like subdivision in the city. Townhomes and ramblers marketed to middle-class African-Americans were built in place of the homes that were bulldozed 15 or so years earlier. Central Village Park and its tennis courts, field, grill and playground were another selling point.
Today, Central Village Park still lacks basics like a marked athletic field, basketball courts, bathrooms and handicapped accessibility. In fact, the park has changed little since it was built almost 50 years ago.
The Saint Paul’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Trust for Public Land, Springboard for the Arts, Summit-University Planning Council, and community members are developing a master plan for considerable and very delinquent enhancements to Central Village Park. Then they’ll pursue finding money for the project.
A Railroad Island Fence
It’s easy to overlook the art on the prominent black metal fence surrounding the Saint Paul Police Department’s Training Center. The fence along Lafayette Avenue features dozens of blue, red, yellow, black and white metal feathers, part of “Birds of a Feather” art installation. According to a plaque on the fence, “Birds of a Feather” honors the Mississippi River and Phalen Creek, which flows very nearby.
The $18 million Richard H. Rowan Public Safety Training Center, 600 Lafayette Road, opened in 2017. Classrooms, a gun range and high tech computerized simulators are some of the features inside the training center. The building is named for a former Saint Paul Police chief.
Elsewhere On Railroad Island
Railroad Island is a small, bloated apostrophe-shaped piece of land on the far southwestern corner of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood. It’s name originated from the way railroad lines surrounded the area—the former St. Paul and Duluth/Northern Pacific/Burlington Northern line ran to the east through Swede Hollow, the still operational Union Pacific Railroad tracks run on the north side of Railroad Island along Phalen Corridor, and multiple active BNSF lines mark the western edge of Railroad Island.
In the first 20 to 30 years of the City of Saint Paul’s existence—before this area became thickly clouded by smoke-belching steam engines and non-stop thundering from locomotives and rail cars—many well-to-do families lived here.
The Old and New Homes of Railroad Island
Some of Saint Paul’s oldest homes and some of its newest are ensconced in Railroad Island. Local historians believe the Benjamin Brunson House, above, built about 1856, is the oldest brick home in the city.
The newest were the seven still under construction when I visited. Part of the Village on Rivoli, a project that turned an old city street-sweeping dump into sweeping views of the Downtown skyline.
The unique project has been developed by the nonprofit Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services for low to moderate income people. These Village on Rivolo homes, with three bedrooms and 1,500 square feet of living space, are priced around $250,000. That’s significantly less than the average Saint Paul home value, which according to Zillow, is $287,000.
Among the noteworthy aspects of these homes is their thoroughly modern designs by noted Duluth architect David Salmela. Another is the use of high-end, energy efficient materials and techniques. Then there’s the 16 foot width of each unit, much narrower than most new homes.
After unexpected problems this phase of the Village on Rivoli neared completion. The original general contractor pleaded guilty to two counts of theft by swindle related to the project.
With my exploration of the Village on Rivoli complete I returned via Otsego Street and then Lafayette Road into the light industrial section of Dayton’s Bluff. This underutilized slice of Dayton’s Bluff includes a smattering of businesses, warehouses and a couple of large surface parking lots.
The Wacouta Commons Neighborhood
Traveling from Dayton’s Bluff into Lowertown along 10th Street East, the road magically becomes Ninth Street East as one crosses the bridge over Interstate 94. If you guessed this oddity directly resulted from how the interstate truncated many local streets, you’d be correct.
This part of Lowertown is sometimes called Wacouta Commons, likely due to its proximity to Wacouta Street. The street, neighborhood and park are all named for Wacouta (Wakute), chief of the Red Wing band of Mdewakanton Dakota.
As I continued east on ninth Street I bumped into Kate, figuratively speaking of course, as she tidied up bushes next to the Ninth Street Lofts, where she lives. Kate moved from a single family home with an acre and three-quarters of land in Mahtomedi to her condominium in 2011. “I needed a place with a garage that was underground, a place that was secure, a place in the city where I could turn the key and lock it and leave town for a couple weeks without worrying about a backyard, shoveling snow and all those good things.”
More than a decade later Kate remains pleased with life in Lowertown. “I like living Downtown. The farmer’s market’s five blocks away. We’ve got a really nice community in the building. Diverse people. They’re fun to talk to and work with.”
Kate is one of several Ninth Street Lofts residents who volunteer to tend the gardens at the building. She’s also helped with interior decorating. “I’ve got some artwork up in the hallway. We did a little history project at the building, with another bunch of people in the building. This was once the McGill-Warner Publishing Company,” which built and moved into this building in 1910.
Kate’s green thumb also gets a workout across Ninth Street at Wacouta Commons Park, a block-square city park. “I just stepped up with a bunch of people in the neighborhood. We just wanted to see some improvements in the garden and we kinda recruited a bunch of people to do some of the gardens.” Those volunteers make up the Friends of Wacouta Commons Park.
The Friends of Wacouta Commons Park frequently collaborate with the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation department, Kate said. “We are always talking to the city; getting the water turned on, getting the grass cut, getting another pile of mulch delivered or topsoil.”
Not only do the Friends maintain the gardens in Wacouta Commons Park, they raise money for improvements. In 2019 the group donated $18,000 dollars to purchase and plant 14 trees around what was a virtually shadeless park. A much-needed new playground was completed in early 2023 with funding provided by the Friends, the Saint Paul Parks Conservancy and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Saint Paul has an amazing array of parks. That’s something that the Trust for Public Land has recognized many times. The two parks in which I spent time in this May day presented some interesting contrasts. An obvious one is citizen involvement. Wacouta Commons Park is a great example of cooperation between nearby residents, park users and the city. The very active, strong Friends group has contributed significantly with volunteer labor and money since the park opened in 2005.
Central Village Park, and a number of others, have limped along with modest volunteer support and facility improvements over years or even decades. Fortunately, Saint Paul Parks and Recreation is working to improve underfunded, outdated playgrounds. In July 2023 the city, the Saint Paul Parks Conservancy and national nonprofit KABOOM! announced a partnership to close gaps in access to quality places to play. The goal is to raise $7.5 million “to address gaps in access to quality places to play in communities that disproportionately lack resources.” If successful, Saint Paul Parks will go from second to second to none.