The Black Dog Coffee House: What We’ll Miss Most About Lowertown

Photo of Sara Remke, Black Dog owner.

Without a doubt, Sara’s smile and warm welcome will be missed when we move to the North Loop next week.

With only a week remaining until our move on the Urban Deluxe countdown calendar, the last pieces of sale furniture making their way to new homes, donation-making and packing in its last stages, John and I are taking a last look around our Lowertown St. Paul neighborhood to say our goodbyes.  One of the most difficult parts of our life to let go of will be our second home at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar.  Nestled on what was once an obscure backstreet, but will soon contain the maintenance hub of the Central Corridor Light Rail system, the Black Dog has been where we have met friends, listened to great music, enjoyed a constant rotation of innovative and local art as well as gotten to know friendly baristas and proprietress, Sarah  Remke.

After leaving a secure job to dive into start-up, mission-based entrepreneurship, the Black Dog was my office. Sarah and her crew know the story of how I started my company, and all about my staff, many of whom live with disabilities.  They have supported and encouraged my work, evening donating gift cards to our first company picnic.  They have become a part of the story of our life here in many ways and it will be an adjustment not to have them be a part of our daily routine.

John and my weekly Sunday ritual of attending meditation and the dharma talk at the Clouds in Water Zen Center, then migrating down the hall for a leisurely dark roast (for me) and triple shot espresso (for John) at the Black Dog, will be over after this weekend.  It is with tears in my eyes that I think of that and write this blog entry.

What can make a place that special in the hearts and minds of a neighborhood? That could be difficult to say, but I’ve got to try.

First, we’re certain that the Black Dog has, hands down, the best coffee in the city.  They’ve got an amazing cup of standard brew and unparalleled espresso.  This has been perfect for us as a couple because both of our signature drinks are covered.

Colored sketch of musicians with instruments playing on the Black Dog stage.

An artist’s view of the Black Dog, where great music, wonderful art and friends always greet you.

My daughter, Liv, is a formally trained barista in Chicago where her place of employment sent her to a “coffee college” to learn how to roast beans and create what she calls “real” coffee beverages. (Timed-frothing and all the technical trimmings.)  “There are very few coffee houses I’ve been to where I feel that they probably know more about making good coffee than I and my coworkers do,” Liv said just last month when she was visiting us, “and one of those is the Black Dog.”

Second, local art and music abounds here; that kind of atmosphere takes you out of yourself and calls you to be something better every time you’re around it.  Part of the reason we moved to Lowertown was to support the arts community and immerse ourselves in it.  However, I don’t think we’ve always understood how much being around local art and music has prompted us to discuss and think about things we might have otherwise ignored in the world around us. That experience has made us grow as people and happens every time we walk through the Black Dog’s door.

Third is that the Black Dog truly is the place where everyone knows your name, or at least acknowledges that you are part of the community.  There are neighbors we only interact with at the Black Dog, many of whom we never exchange names with, but whom we greet weekly and speak with often.   That type of feeling is something you can’t force or manufacture; it comes from an atmosphere where people are welcomed and respected.  Whether the day has been bad, or good, the Black Dog is a place you can go to relax and, with the nod of a head from a neighbor or barista, know you’re accepted.

Lap top computer open on a table with a cup of coffee next to it.

A view from my Black Dog virtual office, stationed at  a familiar table near the window.

Fourth is that the Lowertown artist community holds court at the Black Dog every day of the week.  To those of us who work jobs that are far less creative and live lifestyles not quite as avant-garde, you value being able to eaves drop on stimulating conversations about who sold one of their pieces and who just got an exhibit somewhere. I’ll admit it. I live vicariously through these folks when managing staff  issues and trying to pay the bills for a struggling little startup seems overwhelming.  Drifting away on their conversation, I can imagine myself living in the Tilsner, throwing a pot on a wheel or boldly placing paint strokes on a canvas while preparing for the next Art Crawl.

There will be no replacing the Black Dog Cafe in our new neighborhood, but we look forward to keeping the people, and the coffee, we’ve enjoyed in Lowertown deep in our memories into the future.  We also gently remind ourselves that, despite that fact that we are now carless, the rail line just outside the Black Dog’s door will connect our new Minneapolis North Loop home to Sarah, the baristas and the coffee in just a few short months.

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The Last Art Crawl: Saying Goodbye to the Lowertown Artist Community

Photo of one of Caroline Mecklin's nudes on canvas

Lowertown artist, Caroline Mecklin, is one of the Jax Building artists facing potential eviction as upscale condos and apartments overtake nonresidential artist studio space.

This weekend heralded not only a closure to mild summer-like weather, but also the last Saint Paul Art Crawl John and I will attend as residents of Lowertown.  Each spring and fall we’ve participated in these events as spectators, art patrons and neighbors to the extremely talented people living and working a stone’s throw outside our apartment door.  This is evidenced by the original artwork that graces our home from Lowertown talent such as Rhea Pappas (now a Minneapolis artist) to Barbara Evans and Caroline Mecklin (Jax Building/4th floor.) It’s also apparent in the Lowertown-handcrafted jewelry that is a part of my everyday wardrobe.

It has been both a pleasure and a luxury to be able to watch such creativity happen around us and to bring it into our home twice a year. The Art Crawl and the live music we’ve enjoyed at the Black Dog Cafe, will no doubt be the most significant experiences we will miss as we move to the Minneapolis North Loop in late November.

It is interesting to read the local papers as “experts” and city leaders continue to insist that the art scene hasn’t changed in Lowertown, and won’t, once the ball park and bars begin to gear up in the next two years.  But for those of us who have lived here prior to the “Lowertown hype,” the change is already marked and very apparent.  Long time resident artists, such as Mike Hazard and Rhea Pappas have already left for more receptive artist neighborhoods.  And, the building that houses some the artists who John and I feel are among the most talented in the district, the Jax Building, is rumored now to be slated for the wrecking ball or refurbishment, in order to make way for–you guessed it–another luxury condo or rental community.

Jax Building artist, Caprice Glaser, spoke with us today as we visited her studio. “We hear that we will all probably have to leave,” she explained to John and me. “The building won’t house artist studios anymore.”  When I asked her how she is dealing with losing her studio space she said, “I try not to think about it.  I just come in and work on my art.”

Artists sketch and instructions on how to purchase from their studio.

A sample of some of the unique signs independent artist in Lowertown create for the Art Crawl each year.  It was this kind of creativity that drew us to the event.

If you believe that Lowertown is beyond “gentrification” because two of the buildings are designated as artist cooperatives (Northern Warehouse and Tilsner, both artist studio/residences) you may want to take a closer look into reality artists are facing down here.  The former abandoned warehouse space in the neighborhood was artist-friendly because it enabled individuals with less financial means to afford studios here.  The Jax Building in particular enabled individuals who did not want to live in their work space, to have studios.  This means that, for artists who don’t wish to, or aren’t able to reside where they work, Lowertown will likely not be a viable place for them for much longer.

Some of the artists we chatted with today also stated that they were being compelled to consider relocating because the increasing neighborhood noise was interfering too much with their creativity as they attempt to work in their studios.  No amount of designated artist funding will shield these people from the sound of construction (which, we’re being told, will be complete in about 5 years), increased

Metal table top and hanging sculptures by Caprice Glaser, displayed by a window in her stuido.

Also in the Jax Building, the studio of Caprice Glaser, a favorite Art Crawl artist. Caprice concentrates on her art rather than considering the loss of her beloved studio space.

traffic and the inevitable cacophony that comes from people patronizing an entertainment district and ball park.

Another change John and I noted in the Art Crawl this fall is that non-independent artist participation is seeping into the event.  For instance, Blick Art Supply had a booth stationed on the corner of Prince Street, in front of the Black Dog Cafe, giving out logo tote bags, almost as if the event were part of the Minnesota State Fair.  I remember when, as recent as last spring, the Black Dog reserved this prime spot for local jewelry makers and portrait painters.  It would appear that even our local cafe has gotten caught up in a movement that favors sponsors who can rent space, over the local artists displaying their goods.

As much as John and I would love to believe that the Art Crawl, and the artists we supported and enjoyed, will be here when we come back to visit, it’s hard to deny the signs that the future in Lowertown may not include them.