Sidewalk of the Week: 7th Avenue East, North Saint Paul

From the lampposts of North Saint Paul hang banners depicting a 19th century man, bearded and serious, gazing off into the horizon. The words below read, "Henry A. Castle, founder and visionary."

It's hard not to be charmed by such earnest hagiography. Searching around for Henry Castle reveals a wealthy industrialist town founder, attempting to build a utopian community a la Ebenezer Howard, a haven by his home along a less significant lake, far removed from the petty dirt of the city.

What separates this from just your average suburban bourgeois escapism? Did Castle have a vision of justice? Architectural wherewithal?

The North Saint Paul history page lists him as a "father, soldier, journalist, politician, entrepreneur, and humanitarian." That sounds to me like a list of fairly useless professions. On the contrary, he seems a typical man of his time, riding on his own coattails.

But he left behind one of the metro's oldest suburbs (along with places like Excelsior, South Saint Paul, Anoka, Hopkins). Perhaps North Saint Paul reflects some of his solitary idealism, some gleam in Henry A. Castle's eye, but walking streets you cannot but worry about a city so uniquely wedded to a single man. Do cities retail only the earnest striving, or do they also harbor one's lesser qualities? Not only a leader among men, Captain Castle was too a self-aggrandizing plagiarist. Does North Saint Paul retain his oily residue?

[7th Avenue c. 1912.]

[A nicely planted planter.]

[Bookstore and bar.]

I'm not sure, and frankly, walking the streets of North Saint Paul today, it hardly matters. This is a suburb like many others, bisected by a busy freeway and crawling with crawling curving streets. But here a downtown remains, centering the city along a main street. 7th Avenue runs diagonal north-East from the edge of Saint Paul, and its sidewalks are wide.

They remind me of Hopkins, only with fewer people. Here is another old and edgy streetcar node, since forgotten, harboring ancient bars and dusty chow mein nooks at the edge of town. A freeway rumbles off on the horizon, but here in the midst of the 20th century limited vision sit the old bricks of another era. North Saint Paul seems left alone and happy that way, an old lonely man, proud and prickly, rich in memory but a poor tipper.

The town's abbreviation of choice is "No St Paul", which seems a declarative negation. It's a common mistake to think that North Saint Paul (i.e. the smaller old suburb) with north Saint Paul (i.e. the Northern part of the larger city). I can only imagine locals' frustration with the error.  

[A classic post office.]

[Antiques, shangri-la.]

[A wide sidewalk plaza: lamppost, bench, tree, receptacle.]

[Coffee shop and pharmacy with polar bear.]

[Surveilled parking lot behind 7th.]

The sidewalks are vast. They almost echo, and have clearly received a great deal of attention. They host regular benches, all empty, an occasional wide plaza, flagpoles on every lamppost, bordered by angle parking. Flowers and flags are everywhere. Better sidewalks are hard to find in this town, more bumped bumpouts a rarity.

Shop windows too are full of books and antiques, bordered with posters for motorcycle rallys. Off the main street, the sidewalks will take you to parking lots, occasional industrial parks, shrubs and a bike trail. The high school waits across the one pedestrian overpass, a busy gas station lurking alongside.

The best thing remains the fact underfoot. You can walk these streets. It seems so possible, a rare suburb with downtown sidewalks waiting in its midst. That doesn't yet mean that people will do it. Strollers still seem extraordinary, almost existential streets. But it's possible, it's potential lies here in the earth, the grid, the sidewalks, the surrounding proximity. 

"Minnesota's oldest bar" holes up here as if in a witness protection program, one of the few places where it can survive cutthroat competition without fear. It's not alone. Next to the bar, the pizza place, the other bar, the other other bar, and down from the ice cream house sit a few vacant lots, "development opportunities" should the traffic of our times pick up around these parts, bringing people to this place of old storied possibility.

An immense concrete snowman rises in the distance, refusing to melt. Henry Castle's vision is not yet gone: a windmill, a long forgotten future, mostly symbolic, not unpractical, spinning occasionally off in the distant lands past Saint Paul's northeastern edge.

[Development opportunity.]

[Bland new office development rising at the edge of 7th probably should be housing.]

[The wide 7th sidewalks, lined with memories.]

[Even the aquarium bunker merits a warm bench.]

[A well festooned place for a cone.]

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