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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As Lowertown Changes: The Space That Remains

As John and I take in the rapid changes occuring in Lowertown, it’s interesting to watch the neighborhood transform from a tranquil artist community to Minnesota’s answer to Chicago’s Wrigleyville.  Having attempted to pick up a pizza order from a Wrigleyville restaurant on game day last year, I can already see the demographic of Lowertown changing to resemble that neighborhood.  Twenty-something sport-interested office workers and students are beginning to outnumber the resident artists, older professionals and retirees who were once the predominant population.

Two women and a man dressed in Santa outfits drinking at a bar.

The new face of Lowertown: revelers at the Santacon pub crawl patronizing Barrio Tequila Bar.

My twenty-something daughter, a resident of Chicago for the past four years, added this observation to a recent conversation we shared on the subject, “The only people who want to live next to a stadium are the ones who want to watch sports, get drunk and walk home to pass out.”  Given the city’s plans to add more bars and food venues to Lowertown, and considering that there has been no consideration for where to route the additional traffic in and out of the stadium (which will be directly under the window of the apartment we’re vacating), it does appear to me that the neighborhood is preparing to welcome a younger, more boisterous resident.

This morning,  John, I, my twenty-something daughter and her twenty-something fiance (who are visiting this week from Chicago) attended meditation at Clouds in Water Zen Center in the building one block away from the new stadium site.  During the dharma talk, the center’s lead teacher, Judith Ragir, commented that part of the center’s annual meeting today would be discussing where the zen center would be moving to in the next year.  She explained, “Given the plans that the city has for a ballpark and bars, this neighborhood is no longer conducive to the contemplative goals of our zen center.  But I want to say that I think the change is positive for St. Paul.  It just simply no longer works for us.”

Judith went on to explain how our zen center had been founded, more than 15 years ago, in the space in which we were seated.  The zen center had been an abandoned “junk room” that had periodically housed the homeless.  She went on to talk about the hard work of volunteers that had transformed the space to the peaceful zendo we were now enjoying.

I felt very proud at that moment to be a part of a spiritual organization that could surrender their space, a place they had worked so hard

People engaged in meditation in Cloud in Water Zen Center.

The Northern Warehouse junk room that was transformed into a zen center: Clouds in Water will be moving out of Lowertown in the next year.

to create, so cheerfully to a purpose and environment that seems, in many ways, directly opposite to their purpose and reason for existence.  The center’s leadership and membership has chosen to take a positive stance on the realization that the neighborhood is no longer welcoming to us.  It also makes me wonder if the city leaders realize what they, and Lowertown, are losing when people and organizations like this, leave a neighborhood.  I hope that something positive will fill the space.

Lowertown Sunday Morning

Photo of the cafe paito with iron chairs and lush summer plants.

The heart of Lowertown, the Black Dog Cafe, where the baristas remember you and there were good friends to be met.

As John and I begin to sell furniture, sort belongings and pack boxes in the remaining  few months before our move to the Minneapolis North Loop, we are savoring our Lowertown Sunday morning ritual in a bittersweet fashion.  Our weekends for the past four years have been accented with Sunday meditation and a dharma talk at Clouds in Water Zen center, followed by coffee on the Black Dog Cafe patio and completed with a trip through the Farmer’s Market.

True, the neighborhood is much more populated and bustling than it was when we begin this routine, and yes, many of the familiar faces and neighbors we used to greet on those Sundays, have left for other neighborhoods which were more receptive to artistic creativity  and residential quiet.  But it is not without some pangs of sadness that we embrace our last autumn of this warm weather ritual.

Thus, we are dedicating this edition of Urban Deluxe to a Lowertown Sunday morning that will live

Photo of tomatoes lining a table at a farmer's market.

We have been told that there will be three Farmer’s Markets in the North Loop area, but we will still miss this one that was just outside our door.

on in our hearts and memories.  We share it with you in photographs.  Please share with us what you love about them, your own Lowertown experiences and anything else that moves you.  Enjoy.

Brick warehouse buildings with the sun shinning on them.

Lowertown’s beauty stems from its neglect. A forgotten neighborhood withstood the urban renewal of the 1970’s and we enjoy its beauty today in century old warehouses.

Yellow and purple mums planted in mounds in a flower bed.

A Sunday stroll in Mears Park yields views of a lovely fall garden by our friend and downtown business owner, Bill Hosko.