I’ve been going past the red brick triangular building at West 7th and Leech for most of my life, and for pretty much the whole time, it’s been a dilapidated, sad place. For a while in the early 2000s, the building housed a marginal coffee shop. It was once one of many such cafés in St. Paul that struggled along with barely a paying customer for half the day. My good friend from high school worked there there as a barista, and my buddies and I would stop by to keep him company, get a cup of coffee, and shoot the breeze as he worked his minimum wage job and kept the building technically occupied. Like lots of parts of West 7th Street, which runs at an angle from downtown St. Paul to the airport, the old building was in a weird location on an oddly-angled corner, a forgotten spot amid the auto shops and parking lots.
That said, it’s always been a beautiful building. The three-story building was built in 1902, and its acute triangular shape comes to point on the corner in a dramatic fashion. The cornice and red brickwork are straight from of another era, and the half-circle wrought-iron balconies offer the kind of detail you will rarely find in a mundane city like St. Paul. For as long as I can remember, the beautiful potential of the spot was cloaked with neglect. After the coffee shop closed, the storefront was vacant for at least a decade, another part of St. Paul just waiting for the rainbow.
That’s why it was such a lovely boon when, about a year ago, a new thrift shop opened up in the long vacant spot. The store was called Scout, and the shop owners had an amazing sense of style and design. The whole place was full of local goods, vintage clothes, and they sold hand-made banners that said GIVE A DAMN.
Here’s a glowing review of the store that appeared in Minnesota Monthly earlier this year, describing the vibe:
[John] Migala handles a lot of the day-to-day operations with more than 20 years of retail, sales, buying, and product design experience behind him, and Thompson brings his creative background to a lot of the digital and marketing front. Both still have other full-time jobs, so for now, their store is running on passion, overtime work, and people who also believe in what Scout can become.
The store reminded me of the shop that David Rose opens up in the TV show Schitt’s Creek (if you’ve seen it), all full of artisanal goods and curated by a lovely couple. In this particular spot in Saint Paul, it was a godsend.
Imagine pouring all your free time, every spare dollar, years worth of energy and sweat equity, and a lifetime of passion into a business in a marginal, historic, beautiful building in a marginal, historic, and beautiful city. Imagine having the business actually succeed, getting through the first difficult year, jumping through all the regulatory hoops, and (finally!) becoming a stable part of the neighborhood and your life. Imagine having your bucket list dream come true, after years of thankless work. You finally have a business that reflects your carefully crafted sense of self.
I imagine that was what it was like to be John Migala and Ben Thompson, the owners of Scout Boutique, up until last Friday.
Then everything changed when an SUV speeding down West 7th Street plowed into the front of the building.
Read about it for yourself (emphasis mine):
Crews were on scene stabilizing the basement and main floor before they could remove the SUV. West 7th Street was shut down for a period of time to establish a collapse zone as a precaution.
The vehicle was safely removed from the building without collapse, but the store and apartments have been condemned. The sidewalk will also be closed until further notice due to safety reasons.
Officials did not immediately say what led to the crash.
Imagine pouring your soul into a business, and then, in less than thirty seconds, one person in a speeding car does something reckless (or something) and your store is shuttered, and the hundred-year-old building is condemned.
This is the kind of unnecessary tragedy that happens all too often in St. Paul. This wasn’t even the first car to run into a thrift store on West 7th and close it down in the last year or so. There are dozens of examples that I can personally name where speeding cars have slammed into local businesses and shut them down for a time.
Please note: this store is a block from the spot where Jose Hernandez, a dishwasher riding a bicycle home from his work on Grand Avenue after his late-night shift, was hit by a speeding driver and killed back in 2017.
Shoring complete and the vehicle has been safely removed. The store and both apartments above have been condemned. The store will be boarded up and the sidewalk will be closed for safety reasons until further notice. West 7th has been opened up again to traffic. pic.twitter.com/pmHtywsJUb
— Saint Paul Fire Dept (@StPaulFireDept) August 16, 2019
Cars run into businesses all the damn time in this city. They slam into the sides of buildings that house pizza places (I can name more than one), lingerie shops, fire stations, corner stores, hardware stores, bars, schools and countless other things.
This is not to mention people’s houses and bodies, which are also plowed into all the time by people driving cars way too fast in this city, as is the case for the poor folks who were forced to leave their homes that very day because their affordable housing was condemned or for the dozens of people who have been killed over the last few years.
I get so frustrated about this particular example because West 7th has been a death trap that positively encourages speeding and reckless abandon for decades. The four-lane design here, combined with the wide angles of the intersections, is a recipe for crashes and fatal mayhem.
I wish that business associations and city leaders tasked with economic development would see traffic and speeding drivers as a problem rather than the something to be desired. Long ago, we should have re-designed this street to make the sidewalks wider, the corners tighter, and removed a the extra lane of traffic that encourages people to speed and weave around other drivers.
I’m amazed there are any historic buildings left on West 7th Street, and unless we begin change the environment, there might not be very many that survive long into the future. According to their Facebook page, Scout will re-open. Hopefully the residents of the apartments in 327 7th Street won’t be displaced for very long.
It’s time to stop the mayhem of car culture in St. Paul, calm traffic, and let our city thrive again.