A Cyclist’s View of ‘the Jungles of East St. Paul’

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.

The Cathedral of St. Paul and the downtown skyline, as viewed from the west on Dayton Avenue
Two-way protected cycletrack 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.

What a permanent implementation of the Capital City Bikeway looks like on Jackson Street in downtown St. Paul

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.

The Drewry Street Tunnel leading out of Swede Hollow

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.

Businesses and bike lanes on Payne Avenue

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.

Another continuous row of brightly-colored businesses on Payne Avenue

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.

A map of my bike route
Wrigley Brick

About Wrigley Brick

Wrigley Brick is a University of Minnesota student interested in transit, cycling, and urban development. You can find him on the bus or on Twitter @wpb003.

23 thoughts on “A Cyclist’s View of ‘the Jungles of East St. Paul’

  1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    this is lovely! thanks for writing, Wrigley. A portion of this is my daily commute, and it’s nice to see it through new eyes 🙂

  2. Heidi SchallbergHeidi

    Nice post! Payne is great. I started calling the “georgraphically western” part of the city the “left side.”

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Nice post, and nice to see other folks who appreciate Payne Avenue. One of the reasons it survived so well is that it was never a county or state designated highway, so the engineers didn’t get to widen it / bulldoze everything.


    As a 35 year resident of the East Side and frequent bicyclist, I can assure that the purple line project that you are “excited” about is no friend to bicyclists. It will literally destroy the 2nd nicest bike trail on the East Side, which is of course the Bruce Vento Trail. None of the local residents are “excited” about this project, which is being forced on us by a Met Council that still is under the delusion that just building Bus Rapid Transit Lines will encourage riders to flock back to them. The Bruce Vento Trail as it exists now is a pretty good tree-lined railroad grade bike trail that connects the East Side to the North Maplewood commercial district, in a cheap, safe and environmentally friendly manner. Running busses on that same line will mean the clearcutting of the tree canopy and be a hazard to future trail users (if there are any) and add to noise and air pollution to pollute a fairly good greenway. This purple line that you touted in your column is for us the equivalent of running busses across the stone arch bridge in Minneapolis. For some reason that is unthinkable for Met Council but they have no problem destroying our beloved Bruce Vento Trail.
    Your excitement about the bike lanes on Payne Avenue is also curious because those bike lanes are not very safe at all. The right-turning vehicular traffic and parking lot access traffic make them a nightmare to navigate safely. It is also interesting that your bike trip ignored the Gateway Trail and the Wheelock parkway portion of the Grand Round. Those are in my humble opinion the two other crown jewels of East Side Cycling. They also provide access to the East Side from the Geographic west side without having to contend with downtown traffic. So next time you venture into the East Side on a bicycle, I would suggest doing a little research first and find the real gems instead of the iron pyrite.

    1. pannierpacker

      I regularly bike on Payne Ave and don’t feel unsafe during any parts except maybe if I am going down that hill too fast (Payne has a nice hill on it). Payne Ave was milled and overlaid prior to the “CyclePath” craze, which I am totally fine with.

      I agree that it is disappointing about what is proposed to happen with the Bruce Vento Trail. I really just hope that maybe they’d repave the rough spots and install some better lighting on it. It’s a nice trail.

      The Gateway and Wheelock are nice trails too. It is tough to hit up every good trail in a single bike trip. Gateway could also stand a little repaving though…

      1. Roger Goerke

        Thanks for your reply. I will agree that for an experienced cyclist, the Payne Avenue bike lanes are adequate for safety and I also agree with you that the Gateway trail and Vento trail could use re-paving or at least mill and overlay, but a few bumps in the road is better than having to contend with busses. This reminds me of the genius idea that they had to run busses and bikes only on Nicollet Mall, enough said.
        I would like to point out that for a bicyclist traveling from Phalen Boulevard to Maryland in the Payne Arcade neighborhood, the best bet is Edgerton Ave (parallel to Payne just a little west of Payne. Edgerton has very little traffic wide shoulders and no stop lights in that area.
        Thanks again.

    2. on_the_near_east_side

      I agree with your summary of the Met Council’s senselessness when it comes to destroying one of the bike/walking trails that bolsters other East Metro trails. The Vento Trail’s connection to parks and public spaces helps make St. Paul a wonderful outdoor area to explore. As a resident of the Payne Phalen neighborhood, I appreciate it as a visual and spiritual buffer to the city streets and manufacturing lots that accompany it.

      Losing this biking and pedestrian trail – which had been established with such fanfare – to trains, or even noisy, stinky buses, has not garnered palpable excitement in our neighborhood (unless you count the angry kind). Not only that, adding the Purple Line has been met with official opposition from the communities of Maplewood and White Bear Lake. Perhaps it is a hopeless thought, but I wish the Met Council would start listening to the residents and businesses in the East Metro.


        Could not agree with you more on the near east side. I read all of the 99 comments on the environmental impact assessment (when they decided that clearcutting this green way had no environmental impact), and only two were in support of the plan, a manager/owner of Hmong Village Shopping Center and an executive from Health Partners. It is unlikely that either of those two will ever ride the Purple Line should it be constructed. I agree that Hmong Village Shopping Center should be on a bus line and it would take substantially less money to re-route the 64H line down Phalen Boulevard so it could serve Hmong Village, Cub, Aldi’s and Hillcrest.

  5. Sheldon Gitis

    Thanks for the Payne Avenue recognition. I spent a good portion of my grade school years in the vicinity of Payne and Minnehaha, where my father’s business, Sonny’s Meatshop, was located. I looks like Karibu Grocery Deli is there now.


    The painted bike lane on Payne looks a lot safer than the “protected” lane on Jackson. The Jackson lane looks like an accident waiting to happen. I suspect most of the motorists racing into and out of the parking lots on Jackson are not going to be too concerned about the odds of encountering a bicyclist.

    1. Melissa Wenzel

      The Jackson part of the Capital City Bikeway was installed ~5 years ago. I’ve had more problems with pedestrians crossing than auto drivers. The latter are around peds/bicyclists in downtown regularly and (naturally) some pedestrians cross anywhere they want at times. People with dogs may get pulled in directions they didn’t anticipate going, too, so there’s that.

      1. Rich Passmore

        Part of the problem with pedestrians on Jackson is that there are relatively few cyclists using the bike lane so complacency sets in. We just got back from Amsterdam…can’t afford to be complacent there!

        1. Jack B

          I completely agree with the starting comment that the bike lanes on Payne not only appear—but in fact are—much safer then the ridiculous sidewalk like infrastructure they call a protected bike lane. between the dpg walkers and the blind crossings, I avoid the downtown PBLs.

  6. Lou

    Thanks for the great article on St. Paul’s bikeways. I need to revisit St. Paul by bike, because none of this existed when I moved out a decade or so ago. Props to the city (and advocates and Engineering) for doing this. I’d kill for that “temporary”-but-protected bikeway in any suburb.

  7. pannierpacker

    Interesting that you took the Swede Hollow connection out of downtown off of 4th street. Glad to hear that has reopened! I have been using either a combination of Phalen-Blvd/Jackson or just using East 7th/Payne to get in/out of the east side when doing trips downtown. Jackson could really stand some improvement where it comes out of downtown and connects to Phalen Blvd. I will have to try out Swede Hollow one of these days as part of some trip (been years since I’ve been down there).

  8. Melissa Wenzel

    Grateful for this article! I live in SE Saint Paul (almost south Maplewood-gasp!) and believe there’s a lot of charm and benefits to the east side. Those of us who live “over here” don’t take it for granted!

    1. Pete

      Isn’t it amusing when folks from the other side of town “discover” the East Side? God love ’em, it’s like Columbus discovering the New World. Well, minus the enslavement and genocide part.

  9. Scott BergerScott Berger

    I really enjoyed your write-up! The east side of St. Paul is criminally under-rated in general, and there is even affordable housing if you know where to look.

    The Summit-to-Downtown bike connections are really lacking today, so I can’t wait to try this MN History Center hack/shortcut!

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