June 5, 2016 Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland, Summit-University/Rondo, North End, Como 19 miles
This ride featured significant stops in five neighborhoods. First, Highland Park where I spotted what strikes me as a house with a mullet because it’s all business in the front and a party in the back.
Grand Avenue plus the first Sunday in June equals Grand Old Day. Many pedestrians were strolling in the street along the 1300 block of Grand. The associated food and music of Grand Old Day, however, was not in the immediate area.
What a fitting day to talk to a Grand Avenue homeowner – like Eileen Clift – about life on that street. She and husband Adam were hosting a Grand Old Day party when I stopped. They’ve had a Grand Old Day party every year they’ve lived on Grand except once when they were out of town. The Clifts average about 75 guests at the Grand Old Day soiree, with as many as 100 on occasion.
The story of how the Clifts purchased 1389 Grand could make one believe in fate. The year was 2000 and it was a sellers market, so much so that Eileen had given up after an unfulfilling year of searching.
Even so – perhaps out of habit – Eileen glanced at the open house listings one Sunday. “At that time you used the paper when you looked for open houses. I opened it up and I just couldn’t help it. There were three houses I needed to drive by.” They quickly crossed the first two houses off their list, but continued Eileen, “The third one, we drove up and I took a look and I went, ‘Can we just take a few minutes? I need to go inside and look at this house. This is worth looking at.’”
Sure enough, the house spoke to Eileen and Adam. They told the owners that they were entertaining out-of-town guests for a couple of hours but, “’We’d like to put an offer in on the house so don’t sell it out from under us,’ and we gave them our information and we lucked out in that our offer was accepted.”
“When I got to the second floor and was in one of the bedrooms I had this flash of ‘I could imagine our future children in here and playing and looking out the windows.’” Eileen Clift on seeing the 1389 Grand Avenue house for the first time
Eileen and Adam were living about a mile to the north of Grand so they knew and liked the area. Eileen had no qualms about buying a house on Grand. “I thought it would be exciting. I thought it would be fun. If I’m going to live in the city why not take advantage of everything the city has to offer.
“I love the fact that we live off an emergency route so our streets are plowed curb to curb once a week. If there is a bad snow storm we have absolutely no difficulty getting our cars out and getting to work and getting to school.”
Eileen and family relish how pedestrian-friendly the neighborhood is. “There are always people out walking the dog from 5 in the morning until 10 at night and you feel pretty safe and secure knowing that there are people out and about.”
She continued, “People watching is a lot of fun. That’s the benefit of a front porch.”
Which brought us back to Grand Old Day. The Clifts’ Grand Old Day highlight? “We had the (Saint Paul Winter Carnival) Vulcans. The very first year (we lived here) it rained and we were in on the porch with our windows open waving at the parade as they went by and got drenched. The Vulcans came in and they marked all of us. They gave all the kids and all the adults “Vs” on our cheeks.”
Eileen’s children look at Grand Old Day as a celebration like July 4. “You have a parade in front of your house and it’s an excuse to have a party, an excuse to invite friends over. They love living on this street.”
The Martin Luther King Multiservice Center building at 270 Kent and Iglehart, Brutalist in style, houses a couple of historically significant organization in the African American community. The Hallie Q. Brown Center was founded in 1929 as a settlement house for African Americans who were refused service by other agencies.
The name for the community center was selected through an essay contest in which entrants were asked to write about an outstanding leader. The winning composition about Civil Rights and women’s suffrage activist Hallie Q. Brown was written by a Hamline University student.
For many years, Hallie Q. Brown has offered its services, which today include early childhood education, youth enrichment, senior citizen programs and a food shelf, to all who live around the Summit-University area. The Hallie Q. Brown website has much more about the organization.
Founding Director Lou Bellamy, who sought to create an outlet for Black actors, playwrights and audiences, opened the Penumbra Theatre in the Martin Luther King Center in 1976. The 250 seat theater has impacted the theater world far beyond its size. August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is among the many successful playwrights whose careers began at the Penumbra.
Less than a mile to the north at Western and St. Anthony Avenues, is the Ober Community Center, another fixture of the old Rondo neighborhood.
Established as the Ober Boys Club in 1940 by the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, it gave boys in the Rondo neighborhood a place for sports and other supervised activities, and take bible classes.
Many of the same activities remain popular at Ober Community Center today, and girls are welcome as well. Homework help and Christian spiritual development are offered.
Two interesting structures at the intersection of Front Avenue and Farrington Street.
Willow Reserve along Maryland Avenue is the name for both these lots slated for Habitat for Humanity single family homes and a nearby park reserve.
Willow Reserve has been both farm land and natural growth and wetlands over the past 100 years. It is surrounded by Maryland Avenue on the south, Arundel Street to the east, Virginia Street on the west, and on the north by the curving run of the BNSF tracks.
According to the Capitol Region Watershed District, almost 19 of the 23 acre Willow Reserve is wetlands. In addition to being a habitat for migratory birds, part of the Reserve holds a storm water retention pond.
Plans call for trail improvements and other upgrades to Willow Reserve to make it more usable. Everything you want to know about Willow Reserve Park and more is at The Capitol Region Watershed District website. Willow Reserve is another place I’ll visit on a future ride for deeper exploration and to check on park upgrades.
I found where the grass really is greener, if not the greenest! The house at 914 Como Avenue West boasts an absolutely impeccably kept yard. From the absence of weeds to the rich, vivid emerald color, it’s close to perfect. This was the third or fourth time I’d stopped here, but the first when owner Gene Thompson was home.
Although not apparent at first glance, Gene’s entire yard – front, back and sides – is artificial turf. Like most of us, Gene had a traditional yard for a long time. “I had a nice grass yard for years. Then all of a sudden weeds started taking over the boulevard. I’m particular and I couldn’t get rid of them.”
It so happened that the soccer fields at nearby McMurray Athletic Fields, just south of Como Park, were being refurbished. Among the upgrades was installation of artificial turf. Gene noticed that excess scraps of turf were being tossed into a dumpster so he asked the project foreman if he could have them. “I don’t have a real big yard so I pursued it. I grabbed all the scraps they had in the dumpster, hauled ‘em home.”
According to Gene, the project foreman warned him that installing artificial turf would be a lot of work. “I watched them put it down; the way they were doing it and said, ‘I can do that myself.’”
Gene learned quickly that replacing his entire yard with field turf was a big project, with many steps, starting with removing the grass. “I took four to six inches of black dirt out. I threw it on the boulevard out there,” he said pointing toward the street, “and I put a sign ‘Free Topsoil’. I couldn’t get it out there fast enough! People were hauling it away for me.”
With the topsoil gone, Gene dug a hole in the center of the yard and put a 55 gallon drum in the ground upside down and connected it to the house gutters. He also put down four to five inches of a special sand-gravel mix – so water would drain off the turf – which required tamping down with a machine, leveling and hand tamping.
Then came the turf. “I put a landscape fabric down and I put my turf down, seamed it together. Then you gotta put silica sand in it. You gotta put rubber in it – shredded rubber just like on a pro football field.”
I mentioned I could hardly see any seams, just perfect turf. Gene said he used a utility knife and a straight edge to cut the pieces of turf. “Some of the strips are probably 10, 15 feet long but they’re no wider than 3, 4 feet. I bought some galvanized sod staples – they’re six inch horseshoe-shaped staples. You had to peel the grass back, tap (the staples) in with a rubber mallet. About every 12 inches I did that to hold it down.”
The boulevard was the final part of his yard Gene converted to turf. “There were always weeds in it so I just dug all that out, put the rock out there, the evergreens out there. Evergreens are easy to take care of. I have a sprinkling system out there as well. On the city boulevard that I maintain. It’s their boulevard but I put a sprinkling system out there.”
“100 percent field turf! The whole yard – everything! I did it all myself. It took over the course of two or three years to do it.” Gene Thompson on his yard
Gene gets many comments from walkers and drivers. “If I’m sittin’ out here and somebody’s walking by, they’ll stop. They’ll look at it, put their thumbs up. I’ve had taxi cab drivers, pizza delivery drivers stop by.”
The reaction of the USPS letter carrier is one of the more memorable. “When he first saw it, he didn’t even want to walk on it. He’d walk around. I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. Walk across it, cut across it. You don’t have to go around there,’ I said. ‘It ain’t gonna’ hurt it.’”
Gene has some extra fun in the winter. When it snows, he clears part of the yard with his snow blower. “I blow out there on the boulevard. I don’t have to but I do it just for the heck of it. I get more people stopping by, looking, doing a double-take. Everything is white around here and I’ve got this green yard sitting out here.”
Gene talked about an incident several years ago that still made him laugh. It was New Year’s Eve and the family was over and they saw a flash outside. According to Gene, “One of the kids said, ‘Dad! Is it lightning out?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ So I went outside and there was a lady sitting there on the grass and her husband was taking pictures of her.”
The woman told Gene, “‘Your son told us where you live. We had to stop by and see it.’” Gene laughed as he recalled the incident.
Another unorthodox aspect to Gene’s house is the clock mounted on the peak, which more than 10 years ago replaced a black cast iron eagle. “Birds kept building nests in there and poop kept coming down my windows. So I went up there and put some barbed wire in there and didn’t help. They still built nests, so I got rid of that.”
Gene worked at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch newspapers for 24 years and he told me about the clock and a co-worker, writer Chuck Laszewski. “Chuck, he lived over there by the Fairgrounds. He’d ride his bike here year-round back and forth to the Pioneer Press. One day at work he came over and said, ‘Gene. Your clock; it needs a battery. The time’s off. Every day I ride by there and look at it and see where I’m at on the way to work,’ ‘Alright Chuck, I’ll get a battery in there for you.’”
Considering Gene’s self-professed particularity, it is not surprising that his clock is aligned with the official U.S. time from National Institute of Standards and Technology in Fort Collins, CO.
We talked for a while about our mutual interests, including softball and his time at the Pioneer Press, before I pressed on with the ride home.
Here is the map of the June 5th ride.