Sidewalk of the Week: Iris Park

There's poetry in the fact that diversity means so many things to so many people. I suppose most often diversity refers to ethnic or cultural difference. Think of the shops that line Nicollet or University, wandering around the Midtown Market, or hearing a dozen languages whispering down Lake Street. There are less common forms of diversity, too. Things like diversity of age or gender or sexual expression.

There are all kinds of ways to think about the gaudy complexity of humanity. I try to savor these experiences.

But one of my absolute favorite kinds of diversity is one that's rapidly vanishing from our modern city spaces: diversity of land use. This might not seem important, but to me it's exciting. We've devoted the 20th century to zoning this kind of diversity out of existence, to planning quiet leafy streets of homes, surrounding retail with concrete moats, and helping factories and office buildings retreat to far corners of the region. We've filtered both dissonance and harmony out of sight and mind.

We've come to accept this. Nowadays, it's common sense. The idea that different land uses are better off left to their own devices seems correct to most people. We assume that life is better this way, free from the hassle and hustle of daily difference, of the beeping of a truck backing up, a waft of woodsmoke, or a backyard party. But now I'm not so sure.

[The Cinderella homes of Feronia Avenue.]

[A majestic building meets the railroad with mirrored glass.]

[The park fronts University, soon to have its own light rail platform.]
[A working alleyway connecting the backsides of buildings.]
[A wintertime Iris Park bench sits like a wayward eyelash.]

Somehow I found myself walking the sidewalks of Iris Park, a tiny St Paul neighborhood wedged between the freeway, the railroad, and University Avenue.

When it comes to land use, these sidewalks have more diversity than anywhere in the city. It's as if all the possible forms of urban experience are crammed up together, a small world of work and play and sleep rubbing shoulders, sharing a meal. You'll find large detailed homes lining leafy curving streets next to classic two-story mixed-use urbanism next to squat industrial alleyways and long concrete buildings willed with truck bays. You'll find a blacksmith shop beside a hand-built home along a three-story 30s apartment building.

The sidewalks of Iris Park tell a tale of togetherness, that maybe we can all just get along. Forget  misanthropy. Maybe we don't need to tense and shun a factory or apartment or the elderly. Iris Park is a world in miniature. It shows how the city can combine into a complex whole, that sidewalks can catalyze a current of imagination to form a surprise greater than the sum of its parts.

The history is probably messy. When they built Interstate 94 through the western half of St Paul, the concrete trench ran like a kebab stick through a string of small green parks. Today they barely survive, clinging to the sound walls for dear life: Desnoyer Park and Hampden Park and Merriam Park and Union Park and this one, tiny Iris Park just west of Fairview.

Discovering Iris Park feels to me like William H. Whyte walking into his beloved Paley Plaza, hopping into a light green nook with a pond in the middle, and a fountain in the middle of that. I imagine that the park was named for a woman or a flower, but to me it is the iris of an eye, the round center of a surrounding vision, a retina of life.

The park is the perfect size. It's just large enough to feel the sky open above you, but small enough so that you can see from side to side, feel the size of the place like a grand room. There's a fountain in the center with a bench and a railing. In the wintertime I dearly wish I could skate on it.

  [A perfectly sized park, technically possible to shout across.]

[A claptrap alleyway home.]

[Some sort of studio with muraled un-fenestrations.]

[Illustrations on an auto shop.]

Ringing the park runs Lyndhurst and Feronia, streets lined with large 20s homes with grand porches, the kind of curving street found in early railroad suburbs filled with chief clerks of industrial barons. This street could sit comfortably on Crocus Hill or Linden Hill or any of the posh pockets of the city, except that when you reach the end of it, you're met with a rapid change of heart.

A quiet industrial neighborhood appears with a start, a tall three-story ornate brick building abutting a railroad trestle and narrow wide lanes of truck traffic running through a small valley of elbow grease. You'll find single-story warehouses, chain-link fences surrounding a car repair shop decorated with false 20s cartoons, an actual blacksmith, and the truck bays of what looks to be a Coors beer distributor.

Cutting in between this bit of walkable industrialism are back alleys with layers of porches, small homes built by hand with windows walled with hoardings, and assorted strange spaces being made useful. Finally, wander long enough north through this thicket of practicality and you open onto University Avenue. You can stand next to a classic streetcar commerce, by a this mixed-use apartment housing a Somali corner store.

Many of the larger buildings in Iris Park have their own names, Lyndhurst or Feronia, their etched identities faded by a century of sunlight. Buildings with names are from another era, hiding forgotten stories. Our age of numbered anonymity seems empty beside it.

Walking through Iris Park is like finding a lost civilization of civility, a temple of toleration, a place proving the impossible. Wending along these sidewalks is the rare spirit of diversity of everyday life. It gives me hope for a future city, one where difference means more than identity and embraces the full spectrum of sight and sound.

[A building with an almost illegible name.]

[An doubly-flagged actual blacksmith edging the pocket neighborhood of Iris Park.]


jinwen said...

Is the bended over flag pole in the last pic from the wind? looks wired.

Unknown said...

I go by that three-story red brick building on the 87 bus all the time. Just beautiful. I'd love to have an office in that place.

Anonymous said...

Drive by this neighborhood nearly every day. The flag poll isn't bent per see but constructed of PVC pipe.

A lot of effort has been put into the crosby block building towards redevelopment. The final disposition (from the Pioneer Press)

Built in the 1880s and almost torn down eight years ago because of neglect, the wedge-shaped Crosby-Block building at 1956 Feronia Ave. in Merriam Park could soon gain a new lease on life. The St. Paul Planning Commission approved a conditional-use permit April 6 for Transition Homes Corp. to operate a transitional housing facility for 25 residents recovering from mental illness and chemical dependency. Plans call for adding an elevator to the three-level, 12,000-square-foot building, which would elevate the renovation to $1 million.


Would be nice if the proximity to light rail improved the neighborhood a little.

Anonymous said...

What an incredibly beautiful and perceptive narrative. Keep up the good work, and you'll inspire more hope and action. Thank you!