St. Paul’s Lowertown is one of the best examples of past and present standing 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 and nature vs. the ever-present cement, glass, and steel of the city.
Market House, the historic building facing the Farmer’s Market across the street from CHS Field is home to the Market House Collaborative (read more: Why the Market House Collaborative is so important). Inside is a fish market, butcher shop, coffeeshop & bakery, restaurant and coming-soon brewery.
Down Prince Street, you pass Black Dog Cafe, Kyatchi (a more-than-worthy heir to the former, beloved Tanpopo that called the space home), the AZ Art Gallery and Lowertown Underground Artists (LUA), and the Nautilus Music Theater.
Do you wonder where the Green Line trains go at night? They’re across the street: The maintenance facility pampers rail cars, making sure they’re clean and fully-functional 100% before putting them back on track.
Pass beneath the 52 Bridge, where, especially at night, you can see innovative infrastructure design at work – it’s low-key one of the most 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 (and it’s also pedestrian, and bike-friendly where the former bridge was not).
Pass the surface parking lot. Ignore it. There’s no need for cars or lots where you’re going. Stay to the left as the road leads further on, and away from the city.
Beyond the narrow, somewhat obscured walkway beneath railroad bridges and centuries-old foliage, there’s an impossibly small road, so small 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 behind you.
The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary connects 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), is 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 a few steps from the city center.
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, Urban Organics Aquaponics farm, and roastery and a cafe maybe coming soon, operating in various parts of the expansive campus, nature takes back the bricks and 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.