An Old Park and a New Park

May 21, 2023
Merriam Park, Lexington-Hamline (Rondo), Frogtown, Railroad Island (Dayton’s Bluff), Lowertown, Downtown
19.1 miles

Potholes remained a problem in the third week of May thanks to the horrendous winter and the number of streets needing repair. I rode around and past some of the road hazards—but didn’t see anyone swimming in them.

Signal Garage at Cleveland and Grand Avenues has a sign that displays various messages that roughly correspond to the seasons.

I made a couple of quick stops on Iglehart Avenue. The first, a house at 1792 Iglehart built in 1999, displays a large yellow and green flower prominently mounted on the front nearly three stories above the ground.

Already unique without the large flower on the front of the house, 1792 Iglehart is sure to catch the eye or two of passersby.

Some five blocks east at 1628 Iglehart, there’s a walkway made of 12 cast iron manhole covers, which weigh in excess of 250 pounds each! Why did the homeowners use manhole covers for the walk? How did they get 12 manhole covers? When did they do all this work?

12 manhole covers make up the garden 1628 Iglehart.

Rondo (Midway)

Central Avenue runs east and west through the Midway (and the old Rondo neighborhood,) slightly more than a block north of I-94. In desperate need of pothole patching, the 500 block of Central Avenue was obviously queued up for just that.

Lots of patching was in order for the 500 block of Central Avenue West.
Cracks and potholes have been marked for repair.

Central Village Park

St. Paul’s park system has been among the best in the country for years. Como, Phalen, Mears and Rice Parks quickly come to mind but with more than 180 in the city, many others with interesting backstories are worth seeking out and exploring.

Central Village Park and in the background, homes in the Central Village neighborhood.

Unwittingly, I visited two of the lesser-known neighborhood parks on this ride. The first, Central Village Park, sits in Summit-University in what was the heart of the old Rondo neighborhood. Development of the seven-acre Central Village Park in the mid-1970s coincided with the urban renewal of the surrounding neighborhood of the same name.

The neighborhood in 1974 (left) and 1985 (right), prior to and after redevelopment into Central Village. Aerial photos: Ramsey County

The City’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority re-platted the streets—adding cul-de-sacs and U-shaped roads—to create a suburban-like subdivision in the city. Townhomes and ramblers marketed to middle-class African Americans were built in place of the homes that were bulldozed 15 or so years earlier. Central Village Park and its tennis courts, field, grill and playground were another selling point.

The tennis courts and, barely visible to the left, the outdated playground.

Today, Central Village Park still lacks basics like a marked athletic field, basketball courts, bathrooms and handicapped accessibility. In fact, the park has changed little since it was built almost 50 years ago.

A picnic table and the open field of Central Village Park.
One of the signs promoting park upgrades.

Some park-goers have expressed concerns about safety, and informally and formally, neighbors for years have been pushing for improvements. At last, planning for a significant renovation has begun.

The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department, the Trust for Public Land, Springboard for the Arts, Summit-University Planning Council, and community members are developing a master plan for considerable and very overdue enhancements to Central Village Park. Then they’ll pursue finding money for the project.

A Railroad Island Fence

A handful of the many feathers that decorate the fence around the St. Paul Police Department Training Center on Lafayette Avenue. The metal feathers are part of the Birds of a Feather art installation.

It’s easy to overlook the art on the prominent black metal fence surrounding the St. Paul Police Department’s Training Center. The fence along Lafayette Avenue features dozens of blue, red, yellow, black and white metal feathers, part of Birds of a Feather art installation. According to a plaque on the fence, Birds of a Feather honors the Mississippi River and Phalen Creek, which flows nearby.

Three of the feathers from the Birds of a Feather installation.
This aluminum plaque explains the significance of the Birds of a Feather artwork.
This weather vane, part of Birds of a Feather, is a reminder of “the transition from coal power of the railroad to a new and more sustainable energy.”

The $18 million Richard H. Rowan Public Safety Training Center, at 600 Lafayette Road, opened in 2017. Classrooms, a gun range and high-tech computerized simulators are some of the features inside the training center. The building is named for a former St. Paul Police chief.

Elsewhere in Railroad Island

Railroad Island. Map: City of Saint Paul

Railroad Island is a small, bloated-apostrophe-shaped piece of land on the far southwestern corner of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Its name originated from the way railroad lines surrounded the area—the former St. Paul and Duluth/Northern Pacific/Burlington Northern line ran to the east through Swede Hollow, the still operational Union Pacific Railroad tracks run on the north side of Railroad Island along Phalen Corridor, and multiple active BNSF lines mark the western edge of Railroad Island.

In the first 20 to 30 years of the City of St. Paul’s existence—before this area became thickly clouded by smoke-belching steam engines and non-stop thundering from locomotives and rail cars—many well-to-do families lived here.

The Old and New Homes of Railroad Island

The Benjamin Brunson House, 485 East Kenny Road.

Some of St. Paul’s oldest homes and some of its newest are ensconced in Railroad Island. Local historians believe the Benjamin Brunson House, above, built about 1856, is the oldest brick home in the city.

The newest were the seven still under construction when I visited. Part of the Village on Rivoli, a project that turned an old city street-sweeping dump into sweeping views of the Downtown skyline.

The latest phase of the Village on Rivoli is on a bluff high above Otsego Street North.
The seven single-family homes from 421 through 445 Rivoli Street North in various states of construction.

The unique project has been developed by the nonprofit Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services for low- to moderate-income people. These Village on Rivolo homes, with three bedrooms and 1,500 square feet of living space, are priced around $250,000. That’s significantly less than the average St. Paul home value, which according to Zillow, is $287,000.

Among the noteworthy aspects of these homes is their thoroughly modern designs by noted Duluth architect David Salmela. Another is the use of high-end, energy efficient materials and techniques. Then there’s the 16-foot width of each unit, much narrower than most new homes.

Insulated panels await corrugated metal finishing on 445 Rivoli.
An alley runs behind the homes to tuck-under single car garages. Large windows allow light in and offer many angles to take in the spectacular views of Downtown and beyond.
Looking down at Otsego Street from in front of 445 Rivoli.

After unexpected problems, this phase of the Village on Rivoli neared completion. The original general contractor pleaded guilty to two counts of theft by swindle related to the project.

With my exploration of the Village on Rivoli complete I returned via Otsego Street and then Lafayette Road into the light industrial section of Dayton’s Bluff. This underutilized slice of the neighborhood includes a smattering of businesses, warehouses and a couple of large surface parking lots.

The Wacouta Commons Neighborhood

Traveling from Dayton’s Bluff into Lowertown along 10th Street East, the road magically becomes Ninth Street East as one crosses the bridge over Interstate 94. If you guessed this oddity directly resulted from how the interstate truncated many local streets, you’d be correct.

This part of Lowertown is sometimes called Wacouta Commons, likely due to its proximity to Wacouta Street. The street, neighborhood and park are all named for Wacouta (Wakute), chief of the Red Wing band of Mdewakanton Dakota.

Kate trimmed a rose bush at the Ninth Street Lofts garden.

As I continued east on ninth Street I bumped into Kate (figuratively speaking of course) as she tidied up bushes next to the Ninth Street Lofts, where she lives. Kate moved from a single-family home with 1 3/4 acres of land in Mahtomedi to her condominium in 2011. “I needed a place with a garage that was underground, a place that was secure, a place in the city where I could turn the key and lock it and leave town for a couple weeks without worrying about a backyard, shoveling snow and all those good things.”

The Ninth Street side of the Ninth Street Lofts. The building opened in 1910 as offices and production facilities for the McGill-Warner Company, a large printer.

More than a decade later Kate remains pleased with life in Lowertown. “I like living Downtown. The farmer’s market’s five blocks away. We’ve got a really nice community in the building. Diverse people. They’re fun to talk to and work with.”

Company offices were located on the first floor, according to the 1989 National Register of Historic Places Registration form. Printing presses and the bindery sat on upper floors and paper was stored in the basement.

Kate is one of several Ninth Street Lofts residents who volunteer to tend the gardens at the building. She’s also helped with interior decorating. “I’ve got some artwork up in the hallway. We did a little history project at the building, with another bunch of people in the building. This was once the McGill-Warner Publishing Company,” which built and moved into this building in 1910.

One of the brick pathways through Wacouta Commons Park.

Kate’s green thumb also gets a workout across Ninth Street at Wacouta Commons Park, a block-square city park. “I just stepped up with a bunch of people in the neighborhood. We just wanted to see some improvements in the garden and we kinda recruited a bunch of people to do some of the gardens.” Those volunteers make up the Friends of Wacouta Commons Park.

A gathering area at Wacouta Commons Park, which was dedicated in October 2005. The Whitley Apartments overlook the east side of the park.
A lovely pergola provides shade for the park path.

The Friends of Wacouta Commons Park frequently collaborate with the St. Paul Parks and Recreation department, Kate said. “We are always talking to the city; getting the water turned on, getting the grass cut, getting another pile of mulch delivered or topsoil.”

Tools and mulch await park friends.

Not only do the Friends maintain the gardens in Wacouta Commons Park, they raise money for improvements. In 2019 the group donated $18,000 dollars to purchase and plant 14 trees around what was a virtually shadeless park. A much-needed new playground was completed in early 2023 with funding provided by the Friends, the St. Paul Parks Conservancy and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The newly completed play area.
The park entrance at the corner of 8th Street East and Wacouta Street. The play area is just left of the path and the First Baptist Church of St. Paul, dedicated in 1875, is on the far right.

St. Paul has an amazing array of parks. That’s something that the Trust for Public Land has recognized many times. The two parks in which I spent time this May day presented some interesting contrasts. An obvious one is citizen involvement. Wacouta Commons Park is a great example of cooperation between nearby residents, park users and the city. The very active, strong Friends group has contributed significantly with volunteer labor and money since the park opened in 2005.

Central Village Park, and a number of others, have limped along with modest volunteer support and facility improvements over years or even decades. Fortunately, St. Paul Parks and Recreation is working to improve underfunded, outdated playgrounds. In July 2023 the city, the St. Paul Parks Conservancy and national nonprofit KABOOM! announced a partnership to close gaps in access to quality places to play. The goal is to raise $7.5 million “to address gaps in access to quality places to play in communities that disproportionately lack resources.” If successful, St. Paul Parks will go from second place in the national rankings to second to none.

Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from Wolfie Browender’s blog, Saint Paul by Bike: Every Block of Every StreetAll photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Wolfie Browender

About Wolfie Browender

Pronouns: He/Him/His

Wolfie Browender has lived in Saint Paul with his wife, Sue, since 1986. His two adult daughters also live in the Capital City, one Downtown and the other on the East Side. Wolfie bikes for fun and exercise. Follow his travels along the more than 800 miles of streets in his quest to ride every block of every street in Saint Paul on his blog Saint Paul By Bike at