Sidewalk of the Week: West 7th Street and Randolph Avenue

By most accounts, Saint Paul’s West Seventh Street is the oldest street in the city.* To this day, some of the street signs still say “Old Fort Road”, because, way back in eighteen hundred and something or other, this was the way folks got from the busy commercial port of Saint Paul to the military HQ at Fort Snelling. The road runs along the ridge on the bluff, high over the curving Mississippi River, and it could probably could tell a million stories, not all of them pleasant.

Today, West Seventh still cuts diagonally following the river leading folks from Downtown to the airport. And it forms the center of a string of interesting and downtrodden neighborhoods that sit at the base of Saint Paul’s big hills and bluffs (Ramsey hill, Crocus hill, Highland Park…). This was the street where blue collar Keanu and Cameron met in the underrated film Feeling Minnesota, and this is the working class area where Garrison Keillor set one of his a-bit-too-horny novels. Down here, along the river, sits a street with a wide range of diversity, from wonderfully preserved row houses to 50s kitsch to strip malls and ugly 70s public housing. It’s a street that will never stop surprising you.

Part of the reason for West 7th's surprise is that, like any old street (New York’s Broadway is the most famous example), West 7th wreaks havoc with the 90 degree angle street grid. Slashing diagonally through the edge of the city, the street periodically forms chaotic little 6 and 7-way intersections, opening up space into odd polyhedrons, and making what in any other city would be called a ‘square’, but in Saint Paul is just a particularly long wait at a red light.

[The odd angles of the West 7th intersction opens up unusual spaces.]

Well, if you travel from Saint Paul to Minneapolis along Old Fort Road, you’ll eventually cross a railroad bridge and find yourself awestruck by a looming, large red brick building, bursting with barricades, and topped by a tall smokestack chimney that vertically reads Schmidt’s, and horizontally reads Landmark. This is the old Schmidt’s brewery, perhaps the largest and most historical of the Twin Cities’ old breweries. “Worth preserving at all costs”, according to local architectural historian Larry Millett, the Schmidt brewery grew on this site due to the fortunate happenstance of the bluff’s cool sandstone caves, perfect for beer storage… At one point the huge old red brick brewery used to be one of the largest breweries in the Midwest and employ thousands of people (I’m guessing). Then, Schmidt's beer fell out of style and couldn’t compete with the centralized industrial Milwaukee and St. Louis beers or whatever, and the brewery died slow death, going through various owners, turning into a short-lived ethanol factory (that made the whole neighborhood stink to high heaven), before becoming nothing but a condo-filled glint in the eyes of penniless developers.

Maybe someday the old Schimidt's brewery will be restored and come back to life, but today it sits, a giant hulking mass of awesome old-ness, casting its shadow on the neighborhood. It sits, as if suspended in time, still as a rock. The building is in a brewery coma, and its only sign of life, like the periodic beep of the heart monitor, is the sidewalk-side distribution of “fresh spring water” at very affordable prices.

[The tall smokestack of the Schmidt's brewery rises over the collection of abandoned brick buildings.]

[Cool spring water from deep underneath the sandstone caves of Saint Paul is available on this West 7th sidewalk.]

But that is not the end of this West 7th Street sidewalk. In the shadows of the Schimidt's smokestack, you will find one of the best-preserved collections of old pre-War two-story, mixed-use brick buildings, with storefronts flush with the street, interesting signs hanging over the sidewalk, beautiful brickwork, and a diverse collection of uses including “saddelry”, a fire station, a coffee shop, an art gallery, and, the old favorite one-two punch, an Alcoholics Anonymous center right next to a bar.

This corner has some wonderful building stock, and forms an overlooked little commercial node. Walking along these sidewalks you can’t help but wonder what it was like when the brewery was open, and all of these businesses were booming, and filled with beer-appreciating and well-paid workers who lived nearby. You can’t help but wonder when, someday, the dreams of the artists in the beautiful art-deco Pilney Building will come to fruition, and this neighborhood will have a ‘scene’. You can’t help but wonder if this could be "the next northeast Minneapolis”, if the brewery could be filled with architects office's, hard at work designing the parking lots of Target stores, if the old row houses could restored and filled with hipsters, if these little storefronts could host chippies and bike shops and meat markets and meat markets...

[The storefronts press up against the empty West 7th sidewalks to form a great space for people.]

[At this point, this dense commercial strip has more potential than pedestrians.]

[The Pilney Building hosts the beginnings of an arts community.]

Well, hell no, that’s not going not happen. This is Saint Paul. It'll never be Minneapolis. But Saint Paul does have a style and an honesty all its own, and this neighborhood still has light industrial land uses, and a touch of the Saint Paul conservative streak. It doesn’t have nearly the church/ bar density that Northeast Minneapolis boasts, and its a long way from anyplace with young people or jobs or dramatically increasing property values.

But you can’t predict the future. Back when this was Old Fort Road and Pig’s Eye was still a pariah, nobody foresaw the future of this spot, with all its breweries and famous kidnappings and the waxing and waning of the economic tides. I do wonder if and when this part of West 7th street will take off, launching itself into some unknown future. But until then, it’s a good spot to find yourself wandering and wondering on the sidewalks.

* Though Hennepin Avenue is rumored to once have been an Indian footpath.

[For some reason, this bus stop has a glass back that opens up on a completely inaccessible, unused outdoor patio space.]

[In any other city, this intersection would be a 'square' named after a local politician.]

[The Shamrocks bar has a tiny outdoor patio, and the only nightlife in the area.]

Update: I just found this news story on the Schmidt's Brewery!


Pinky said...

What a lovely portrait of my funky neighborhood. Thanks for telling it like it is! Your blog is tops!

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