A: Minneapolis is a little big city, and Saint Paul is a big small town.
Sometimes it strikes me, that’s just a witty way of saying that Saint Paul has long been the red-headed stepchild of the Twin Cities, fostering an inferiority complex that would put Chicago Cubs fans to shame. Ever and onward the claims of political importance, historical precedence, or cultural relevance echo like so many steamboat horns from the cries of Saint Paul’s defenders, and always the epicenter of the Twin Cities moves westward, slouching towards Edina and America's suburban future. Saint Paul and the East metro are left to fend for the scraps of modernity, grasping at straws, hockey, and the hopes light rail lines.
The Twin City relationship is nothing new, of course. Ever since the great Twin City census war of 1890, each has been trying to outdo the other. Yet, while Saint Paul has a few advantages, the wrestling match today has all the suspense of a Globetrotters v. Generals contest.
The case in point? Each town’s downtown pedestrian mall.
Now, a pedestrian mall is a tough thing to pull off. Like many of the 1960s' modern downtown planning trends, most did more harm than good to their cities’ . Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall is a national exception, somehow managing to barely hang on to a critical mass of retailers and street activity through the 20th century’s bleakest urban decades.
Saint Paul was not so lucky. As with many futuristic panaceas, Saint Paul watched what its more successful sibling was doing across the river, and then kind of half-heartedly copied it.
(It makes you think of the popular song, “Everything you can do, I can do too / Yet always in a more depressing way... / Pave the roads and live with me / In the Capitol Ci-tee!”)
Instead of a long, landscaped stretch of street running through the center of town, Saint Paul’s downtown mall is single seedy block of antiquated rarity, a microcosm of economic futility and humble charm.
[The Great Waters Brewpub sits on the corner in the beautiful and gargantuan Hamm building, where the 7th Place Mall ajoins the historical center of the city.]
If Saint Paul is a big small town, then the one block long 7th Place Mall is like the convenience store where locals sit and to watch traffic going by. Its a fine bit of sidewalk with a bleak sort of charm. It epitomizes Saint Paul's micro-energy, the sense of unique cultural remoteness that makes the Twin Cities great. You see, there’s a special creativity to boredom and abandonment, and when the 7th place mall fills up with a few folks, you really start to feel special, part of a small world where everybody knows your name.
A complete list of things found in 7th Place: The pair of bars on the end of the street, The Artist’s Quarter jazz club, the Park Square theater, the huge and abandoned Palace theater, a pair of dueling sandwich shops, Candyland, and an impossibly-early-closing drug store. Closed off on one end by the epic revitalization failure of “town square” and on the other end by the absurdly out-of-place Saint Paul Cos / Traveler's building, which fits into its historic neighborhood with all the grace of a Smithfield pig at a hypochondriac convention, 7th Place is a lovely mix of Saint Paul's historical pasts and its economic present.
Sometimes the bleak emptiness of the 7th Place mall overwhelms you with the distinct sense of being a restless teenager in downtown Mandan. But on other nights, it can have the warmth and coziness of the New York’s famous Paley Park, a little pocket of life in the middle of a city. As you turn the corner and walk down the little block stretch to find your way, to find a blues guitar player or an old man picking his nose before a pigeon, you realize that Saint Paul is not a place that will overwhelm you. It’s a place that’s just big enough to understand, just big enough to make you feel at home. And someday, when the 7th Place mall fills to capacity, it might just exceed your expectations.
[An elderly fellow picks his nose before a pigeon on a bench in the 7th Place Mall.]