John Prine once sang about the “jungles of East St. Paul.” Being from the geographically western portion of the city (just don’t call it the West Side!), I don’t know too much about the East Side, or East St. Paul, as some may put it, so I decided to head over there one cloudy Sunday morning and see what I could find.
Any route from geographically western St. Paul to the East Side will involve passing through downtown. Thanks to the tangle of hills and highways between downtown and points west, this is not an easy task on a bike. Fortunately, recent investments have simplified the routing once you arrive downtown. My preferred route from the west into Downtown St. Paul is Dayton Avenue. While not an official bike route, it is smooth and lightly-traveled, and offers incredible views of the downtown skyline and the Cathedral of St. Paul. After passing the Cathedral, I turn to the east through the parking lot of the Minnesota History Center. Following the route out of the lot, I end up on 10th Street in downtown St. Paul.
Tenth Street is home to the newest leg of the Capital City Bikeway, a planned system of protected bike routes circumnavigating St. Paul’s downtown and Lowertown districts. The northern section on 9th and 10th Streets opened in 2020 as a temporary implementation, while funding for a permanent installation is accumulated. Even as a temporary fixture, the cycletrack is positively luxurious compared to most bike infrastructure in St. Paul. Concrete separates the cycletrack from vehicle lanes, and bollards prevent mistaken turns into the track.
I made my way through downtown St. Paul, heading east toward the trailhead that would lead me to the East Side. I love the old railroad bridges here. Many are still active, while some are now the trails that I will be using. Most recreational trails in the area were created from old railroad right-of-way that was abandoned and purchased, usually by the county, for preservation as future transitways. In the meantime, they are converted to recreational trails. As for the active railroad tracks, they lead to Westminster Junction, the site of one of the only railroad tunnels in the state, and still a very busy junction for freight traffic. I’m always amazed by the quality and quantity of trails on the East Side. The geographically-western portion of the city simply cannot compare.
Finally, I entered Swede Hollow, a unique nature area, and relatively recent, too. Starting in the 1860s, Swede Hollow was home to immigrant communities, first Swedish immigrants, then Italians, then a Mexican immigrant community. The influences of all three communities can still be seen in the neighborhoods surrounding the ravine. In the 1950s, however, the city of St. Paul demolished what remained of the neighborhood, which lacked electricity and water, and turned the area into the nature park that it is today.
The gateway into Swede Hollow is an interesting structure called the Seventh Street Improvement Arches. Their skewed, stone-arch, helicoidal construction is apparently one of only a few examples in the country, and represents an engineering feat that continues to be a marvel today. When the structure was built in 1884, it carried not just pedestrians and vehicles, but also sewer and water infrastructure. At one point, streetcars also ran over the bridge.
A steep and spooky tunnel led me out of Swede Hollow. From here, I headed north on Payne Avenue, the main commercial street of the Payne/Phalen neighborhood on the East Side of St. Paul. One of the first things I noticed was the steep hill as I made my way north. I also took note of the intersection of Payne Avenue and Phalen Boulevard, the future site of a station on the Purple Line BRT. To me, this seems like a good place for a rapid-transit station, close to reasonably-dense housing and the Payne Avenue commercial corridor. I am excited to see this project moving forward.
I appreciate that Payne Avenue has a bike lane. It’s rare in St. Paul for a major commercial street to have a bike lane, even though most comparable streets, like Grand Avenue for example, have plenty of space. Cyclists patronize local businesses, too, and we deserve a safe way to get to them. Another striking difference on Payne Avenue is the continuous row of storefronts, creating a cohesive and charming atmosphere. This is something that many other streets in St. Paul, such as Grand, are missing out on. It seems that Payne Avenue didn’t fall victim to the “pave paradise to put up a parking lot” craze that much of the rest of the city did.
One of the biggest differences between commercial streets in the Twin Cities and commercial streets in comparable cities is the urban fabric, or lack thereof here in St. Paul and Minneapolis. This is why I appreciate Payne Avenue so much. The continuous line of storefronts, uninterrupted by parking lots, is beautiful and engaging, providing a sense of place and putting everything in close reach for someone walking or biking. Perhaps with St. Paul’s elimination of parking minimums, we will be able to rebuild the continuous urban fabric that once defined our neighborhoods. Not only does it provide aesthetic value, but the increased supply of commercial and residential space that is possible without parking minimums will help to keep St. Paul affordable for small businesses and residents new and old.
I enjoyed my excursion to the East Side of St. Paul thanks to the plentiful and high-quality bike infrastructure, the lovely commercial streets, especially Payne Avenue, and of course, the rich history that remains largely intact, unlike in other parts of the city. The rest of the city has much to learn from the East Side, from providing bike infrastructure on main streets, to preserving commercial space, even at the expense of parking lots.