September 17, 2019
Little Free Libraries have provided second, third or more lives to countless books. The wood and plastic boxes are ubiquitous in Saint Paul and beyond. The first seed library I’ve encountered is perched in front of 1930 Jefferson Avenue in Mac-Groveland.
Side note: I am collecting shots of Little Free Libraries that I see on rides for a future post on these book repositories.
For the second ride in a row I was drawn to University Avenue. Once again I noticed that businesses geared to the automobile remain plentiful, although the new car dealers bolted for the ‘burbs almost 30 years ago. Several of the blocks I rode had two, even three auto-related establishments, including body shops, repair businesses, tire shops and an auto electrician.
University Avenue is a street of businesses – dozens of auto mechanics, restaurants, banks, bars, Asian and African markets and an increasing number of apartment buildings. But on some blocks, like between Avon and Victoria, a significant number of homes remain.
And one that is home to a psychic.
University Avenue’s 700 block isn’t only homes. Glasgow Automotive Service sits at the southwest corner of University and Grotto Street. I rode into the driveway for a close look at the sensational and obviously old service station, which is where I met Mike Glasgow, second generation owner of Glasgow Automotive.
Mike began working for his dad when he was young. “I pumped gas here – grade school, high school. This was my hangout so I became intimately acquainted with the neighborhood and the neighbors.”
Mike told me the original structure, the small brick building, was built as a Standard Oil gas station in the early 1930s (although Ramsey County records say it was built in 1923.) “My father started leasing it when he got out of the Navy in 1946.”
Glasgow Automotive became a second generation business in 1976. “My dad, he hit 66 and he said, ‘I’m leaving. Bye,’ I said, ‘Whoa, you can’t do this. How about if I buy the buy it from you?’ He says, ‘Either way, I’m done.’ And so, I bought it. He didn’t own the building at the time. I bought the building from Standard Oil and bought the business from him.”
After buying out his dad, Mike added on the two garage bays to the original small office, tripling the size.
At one time Glasgow Automotive repaired many makes of cars though it specialized in the Volvo. “It got to the point where we had to find homes for our other customers and we went a hundred percent Volvo. It’s been about 15 years now we’ve done only Volvo.”
Our conversation drifted from his shop to the attitude of Saint Paul city officials toward auto repair businesses. “The city has pretty much done it’s best not to make it a very friendly place for automotive repair.
“A lot of this has to do with the environmental stuff. Let’s face it, cars are dirty. The stuff that you put in cars has to go someplace when you change it. The environmental laws are getting stronger and stronger, and I’m a big supporter of that. However, the planners are just blind to the fact that the they swallowed the idea that the car isn’t needed.
“They’re making it harder and harder for a small shop to stay in business. And I can’t fault them because their focus is housing like this apartment going up across the street. They’re not looking at all these people; they’re going to have a car, or most of them are going to have a car. They might take the light rail, but their car is still their primary means of transportation.”
Mike and I moved on to reminiscing about University Avenue at its pinnacle, which he said was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when it was “the automotive street of the Twin Cities,”
“There were dealerships from Rice street up to just about KSTP and they’re all gone. They all moved to the suburbs. And with it, a lot of the small repair shops went the same way.
“Friday nights, Saturday nights. University Avenue was a cruising street of the world.”Mike Glasgow, second generation owner of Glasgow Automotive Service
“There were two cruising streets. It was Lake Street and University, and University was the cruising thing where guys had all of their really nice older cars shined up and they just drove up and down University all night long.”
The neighborhood has been a great place for his business. According to Mike, University Avenue at one time divided the African American and Caucasian neighborhoods. “The other (north) side of University in the fifties and sixties was primarily blue collar White. A lot of people worked at the Ford plant or the Coke plant. But University was a line of demarcation. This was the Black side. From ‘66 through ‘70 all of that just started mixing and changing, and that became more of a integrated neighborhood over there. Black and White, and this became more of an integrated neighborhood. The thing that made a huge difference was owner occupancy.”
Mike’s most interesting tales of days gone by were about a bar that was right across the street on the southeast corner of University and Grotto. “It was called Marty’s bar, and then in the ‘60s it was bought and they changed it to the Badger Lounge.”
Mike continued, “It was the Badger Lounge forever and ever. And it was a family place. You could go in there with your kids and they could play pinball and you could have a beer, that sort of thing. And it was a family place.”
In the late eighties, said Mike, the Badger Lounge became a drug hangout. “It just changed complexion completely. It was a drug magnet from all over the upper Midwest. People would come in here and say, ‘You know where the Badger Lounge is?’ ‘It’s right there. You don’t want go in there though.’ They were looking for drugs and they found them. You could find drugs anytime.”
Police visits to the Badger were frequent, Mike told me. “The Saint Paul police department used to make raids with buses and paddy wagons and they’d pull up with the bus and pull up with the paddy wagons in the back and the front. I was in there once, having a Coca Cola at the end of the day and they pull up in the bus and all of a sudden you, all you hear is the drugs hit the floor and the whole place is just full of little baggies of drugs. It was funny. Of course, nobody had any drugs on him when the police came in. “As soon as they closed that place, the magnet was gone. It was a bad, bad spot.”
Mike was one of many neighbors who were ecstatic when Ramsey County successfully used nuisance laws to force the shuttering of the Badger Lounge. A February 10, 1998 article in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press reported that neighborhood residents joined in a “Bury the Badger Lounge” ceremony and cheered when the bar’s sign was taken down.
The same article quoted one neighbor as saying, “This is a great opportunity to make the corner a community resource rather than a community trouble spot. I remember seeing one or two drug deals from my office. I’m glad I don’t have to see that – or the SWAT team – again.”
Glasgow Automotive will remain in the family for years to come because Mike’s son, Mike Junior, is a mechanic, making a third generation business.
These days, Mike said, the Volvo business is good. He credits word of mouth for a customer base that comes from “as far as Milwaukee on the East and as far as the Black Hills on the west.”
The area around the teeming intersection of University and Dale was the site of the rest of my stops. First, it was the mural on the side of 625 University Avenue West.
The apparently untitled work was produced by Broken Crow, a collaboration between Twin Cities artists Mike Fitzsimmons and John Grider.
The Hickory Hut, a University Avenue fixture, proudly shouts out that its chicken wings feature Art Song’s secret seasonings.
Who was Art Song? He was an entertainer and entrepreneur from Chicago who created an unbeatable spice mix for chicken wings, according to the Miracle Seasoning website. Song moved to Minneapolis in the mid-1940s, and over the next several decades, opened (and closed) restaurants noted for delicious wings.
Fire station 18 has been standing proudly at the corner of University and St. Albans Street, its firefighters protecting Frogtown for more than 115 years. The attractive design of the station is unequaled in any other Saint Paul fire house, either in-use or decommissioned, that remains standing.
Station 18 opened in 1908 with two horse-drawn rigs (Engine 18 and Ladder 9), 20 firemen and a couple teams of horses. The fire house had a stable behind it that was home to the teams of horses.
Just five years later, two motorized fire trucks replaced the horse-pulled rigs and, of course, the horses.
Bouncing back to the east and across to the south side of University Avenue, the final stop was at the Rondo Community Library. There, a gentleman was meticulously affixing colorful circles onto the brick exterior of the library at Dale and University.
The kaleidoscope of color bursting forth was the first time the public saw the results of a community art project which from a 2017 St. Paul Knight Arts Challenge awarded by the he John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The goal of the artists was to “transform the exterior of the Rondo Library with public art and greenscape that captures the creativity and knowledge inside the building and throughout the neighborhood.”
Visitors to the Rondo Library, Saint Paul’s busiest branch, designed and colored the circles, according to Andres, who was installing about 300 of the circles, “A lot of folks like helped, like people who are hanging around here or getting stuff from the library and swung by and started a circle.”
Andres told me the circles are a special polyester material called PolyTab or parachute cloth. “You prime it and then you paint on top of it and then it’s solid as a like a wallpaper.
“It was perfect for the community events ’cause we just cut a bunch of circles. …at the end of the project, we just varnish, all the pieces and it will last, almost like 25 years…”
Andres added that library visitors who created the artwork were of many ages and ethnicities. “Every time they walk by the library, they’re going to see it, and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh I did that!’ That’s the most fulfilling part of these community art projects.”
Andres was happy to be involved in the community art project. However, he lamented the difficulty Latino artists have getting grants even with Minnesota’s focus on the arts. “There’s not much [sic] Latino people applying for grants or winning those grants. The thing is about writing the whole proposal, you have to be like charming with the words. So yeah, I would love to see more Latino people winning grants and drawing things and putting up art pieces.”
Andres and others are working to improve grant accessibility for Latino artists. CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unitas en Servicio) created a Latino Muralism Apprenticeship program, which ran from September 2019 through May 2020. The intensive program for artists included workshops on community engagement, project management and fundraising.
Below is the map of the September 17, 2019 ride.