lowertown+nature+history+future

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St. Paul’s Lowertown is one of the best examples of past and present shoulder to shoulder. It’s a historic district, by designation, and yet the influx of fresh businesses; burgeoning nightlife, entertainment, and dining have made it one of the more modern sections of the city.

And, just as prevalent, a pure example of that constant urban duality: greenspace vs. cement, glass, and steel.

Exhibit A

Market House, the historic building facing the Farmer’s Market across the street from CHS Field will soon be home to Market House Collaborative (read more: Why the Market House Collaborative is so important). Coming this fall you’ll be able to go inside for a fish market, butcher shop, bakery, restaurant.

Down Prince Street, you’ll pass Black Dog Cafe, the coming-soon Kyatchi (to the former, beloved Tanpopo space), the AZ Art Gallery, and Nautilus Music Theater.

Do you wonder where all then Green Line trains go at night? Look to your left. The maintenance facility pampers the rail cars, making sure they’re clean and fully-functional 100% before putting them back on track.

Keep walking. Pass beneath the 52 Bridge. Low-key one of those exciting infrastructure projects St. Paul has completed in years. When the sun goes down, the lights lit beneath along the sides reflect on the water. It’s a new, stronger connection between two sides of a city split by the Mississippi (pedestrian, and bike-friendly).

Yes, it looks like we’re in a surface parking lot. Walk on by. There’s no need for cars or parking lots where you’re going. Stay to the left. The road leads further on, away from the city.

Beyond the narrow, somewhat obscured walkway beneath railroad bridges and centuries-old foliage, there’s a small road, impossibly small you can’t imagine the behemoths on the road today making it through. There’s a walkway for you. There’s a small brook to your right. Overhanging trees. Limestone walls. Crickets. The city, with its cars and shouts and sirens, growing quiet.

Exhibit B

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is connected to Lowertown here.

What is now tall grasses, trees, mire was once a bustling train yard. The original North Star Brewery Cave, founded in 1853 (and which would later become Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company), lies to your left. It’s now almost completely covered by greenery, foliage, and turned mostly into a swam guarded by a wrought iron gate.

The remnants of industry remain, and yet not in the way you would expect. There are only pieces here and there of what once the very first heartbeat of the city, now almost entirely disappeared into nature.

The main entrance to the Sanctuary is on East 7th Street at Payne. You’ll reach this at the top of the pathway if you stay left instead of right. Underneath old train bridges, rolling hills thick with trees. Payne Avenue is up above, but it may as well be miles away. You’re thick with growing plants, flowers. There’s the sound of insects and birds. A running stream along the path.

A literal escape from the city just outside of the city center.

Exhibit C

As you continue east, you’ll notice the rust-red brick of the Hamm’s Brewery castle rising into the sky. It looms overhead like a specter of St. Paul’s past, decaying, covered in years of graffiti and neglect.

But while the building, which closed completely in 1997, is falling apart, new life is growing all around it.

From the walking/bike path you’re at the base of the building looking up at what was once the 5th largest brewery in the country now reduced to a shell; a shadow its former glory. Nature, it seems, doesn’t wait for urban renewal, or gentrification, slowly reclaiming the building and the land around it.

But now, we know, we can have both.

As the building slowly comes back to life inside, with 11 Wells Spirits Company, Flat Earth Brewing Company, and Urban Organics Aquaponics farm operating in various parts of the expansive campus, so the greenspace grows outside.

There’s always something of a give and take in the city.

You’re only a mile from downtown St. Paul. But when you look back you won’t see any trace of it. For now, the sights and sounds are only those of birds, the growth comes from weeds, the fast pace of city lives a world away. and maybe the family of deer known to call this area home.

There are businesses coming back to the Hamm’s Brewery. People are using the the bike and walking trails. But for much of the day the area is still devoid of people, by those that would build skyscrapers and monuments to human ingenuity, so quickly returned to nature.

Side by side.