March 30, 2014
14.7 miles – Highland Park, West End, Downtown
Saint Paul is a beautiful place but like any city fighting its way out of winter’s lassitude, finding its charms is more difficult at this time of year. Winter clings in the form of dirt crusted snow banks, grit lined roads and potholes of assorted size and shape. The obvious signs of spring like greening grass, emerald colored leaves on trees and the rich yellows, scarlets and purples of tulips and irises, remain some weeks out.
It is those realities that prompted me to plan today’s ride to the industrial area around Holman Field on the West Side. The early spring dormancy would detract little from light industrial buildings and concrete.
The journey began with a cruise down a couple of streets in Highland Park that I’d not ridden. (completing one section of the City will give me a sense of progress.) There wasn’t much to see besides snow, potholes and some stray holiday decorations, but numerous upbeat people emerging from six months of hibernation.
There was the usual Saturday flurry of activity along West 7th Street.
Nice weather brings folks to the car wash. To my surprise, Soapy Joe’s Car Wash had only a short line of cars waiting for a bath.
Joe Lindsay, general manager and co-owner of Soapy Joe’s, told me this weather is usually perfect for business. “This is ideal right here. High temperatures where people are going to get the itch, driving around with their windows down, you want a clean car.”
Soapy Joe’s opened about 2 and a-half years ago with equipment from a Chaska car wash that closed. “There was this other car wash that went out of business and they wanted us to buy the whole building. We offered to buy just the used rack of equipment and they went for it. So we took it apart piece by piece, brought it up here, put it in here, and we added a few other items as well.”
Soapy Joe’s strives to cut water use by recapturing water, processing and reusing it.
Joe encourages everyone at the car wash to be personable. “We’re really pushing our people to smile, show your personality, have fun. I want people to wake up and enjoy coming to work, not, ‘Shoot, I gotta go punch the clock.’”
Despite 12 hour days, six days a week, Joe couldn’t be happier. “I really enjoy it. There’s a lot of people that come in who are just genuinely happy. I’ve met a lot of people through here. My employees are great.”
I jumped off West 7th to escape traffic and explore the nearby residential neighborhoods. I rode upon streets with women’s names like Ann, Emma and Grace (which actually isn’t having been named after Bishop Thomas Grace in 1872.) About a block away, on Banfil Street, is a uniquely renovated building that is home to an advertising agency.
A few doors to the east, Julia Reimer was working on her yard at 261 Banfil. She sincerely told me she lives in the best neighborhood in the City. “It’s people who are pretty community-minded. People really watch out for each other.”
Julia also told me about the neighborhood garden on Dousman and West 7th and a puppet theater that performs in the summer in what is known as the driveway tour or garage tour.
“It’s very diverse in terms of income, in terms of ethnicity, but people get along, partly because it’s (the street) blocked off on both sides, it’s pretty quiet.”
“People who really know Saint Paul, it’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah. I do know where that is.’ But really, there’s this block and on the other side of 7th there’s maybe four or five more blocks. But it’s just a really small street. I think that’s one of the things that makes it a hidden treasure.”
Julia discovered Banfil Street about a dozen years ago when visiting friends who live down the block. “It just happened that this house was for sale. I had lived in this general neighborhood before, just on the other side of Smith. The history is part of it. The fact that you are on the street here and you have to get to know your neighbors. So you can sit on your porch and you see people, you’re not just shut away in your house all the time and I really wanted something like that.”
Some of Saint Paul’s oldest homes line Banfil and other nearby streets. Julia believes her house was built in 1858 by a shoe store owner with the last name of Dolan. The age of the homes means some unusual ‘charms.’ “Everybody has limestone basements, everybody has garter snakes in their house ‘cause you kinda can’t help, the snakes get in there. Kinda yucky basements but some really neat details on the inside of houses.”
Another draw is the many small businesses. A favorite of Julia’s is the nearby Claddagh Coffee Shop on West 7th. “One of the things that’s particularly wonderful about it is it used to be an adult book store. Jeffrey, the guy who owns the whole building, he kinda polled the neighborhood and said, ‘What would you guys want to see there because I don’t want the adult bookstore to be here anymore.’ And people said, ‘A place with wine, a coffee bar kind of place.’”
Moving on from Banfil Street, I cruised several other side streets, then on to West 7th. I didn’t know it then but the planned Holman Field trip was about to get canceled. On 7th, just east of Forbes Avenue, a van with two women and five children inside sat in the parking lane with a flat tire. I stopped and offered to change the flat. I don’t change tires like a NASCAR pit crew, but I’ve changed enough tires to be confident in my skills. Stephanie and her family piled out of the car and onto the sidewalk and I began lowering the spare tire stored underneath the back of vehicle. For some reason the cable and bracket holding the spare descended but the spare tire didn’t. ‘I’ll come back to it,’ I thought, ‘I’ll remove the lug nuts from the flat tire first.’ The first four came off as they should but the last one wouldn’t budge. Try as I might, I succeeded only in stripping the lug nut. Time for a call to AAA Roadside Assistance for help.
As I worked on the tire, Stephanie called her husband for help. Rockett arrived soon after with a four-way lug wrench that fit better than the multipurpose wrench/jack handle that came with the van. A few turns and the lug nut came off, so I canceled AAA.
Back to getting the spare to drop from the undercarriage. Despite multiple readings of the car’s manual, Rockett, his son Jeremiah and I still couldn’t get the tire to release. (This may be one reason GM no longer makes minivans.) I made a second call to AAA. Rockett grabbed the spare from his Mercury hoping it would fit the Chevy, but no such luck. As this man-against-machine battle played out, Stephanie left with the younger children and took the flat to a tire store in Rockett’s car to buy a replacement.
There we sat, waiting for AAA, when a gentleman stopped to help. Less than a minute after he crawled under the back of the van, the spare tire released. We all thanked the man and I made my fourth call to AAA, this time to cancel the service request. Rockett talked about the man and a couple of others who offered assistance. “I’ve been in this world a long time, 54 years, and I haven’t seen three people in one day stop to help me do nothin’ really. That just lets me know that I’m at the right place and I live in the right town.”
After two and a half hours and the van finally ready for the new tire, Rockett suggested I take off and thanked me for my help. There wasn’t time to get to the Holman Field area so I visited a few more West End roads, including Douglas Street.
Some interesting notes from Don Empson’s “The Street Where You Live” on a couple of the West End streets I traveled.
- Dousman Street was named for Hercules Dousman of Prairie du Chien, WI who is recognized as the first person to suggest the name ‘Minnesota’ for the territory.
- Douglas Street, named in 1851 for U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who ran unsuccessfully for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
It felt great to be back on my bike. It was a nice first ride of 2014, even though it didn’t follow my plan. A March ride is a huge win, especially since the weather last year didn’t allow me to get out until May.
Click the link below to see the map of today’s ride.
I love reading your work. This is such a unique neighborhood and you bring out the reasons why our neighborhoods mean so much to us.
PS I am half in love with that W 7th chiropractor sign as well.
I agree with Bill. I really loved reading this piece about people living in a locale with a strong sense of place and neighborliness.
Thanks for this intimate look at city life from a Greater Minnesotan who doesn’t venture into the Cities all that often.
So the West End does include the area south of the bridge with Randolph where those dive bars are, right? Still have yet to check out Skinner’s and I have to say the neighborhoods are totally different on either side of the railroad tracks/Grace St. I’m surprised there’s not a sub-neighborhood name for each.