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.

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.

A Secret Lowertown: The Community Before the Rush

A view through a fence of Lowertown's historic buildings.

Not long ago, Lowertown was an abandoned urban center that housed a close-knit community of artists and people who appreciated their work.

When my daughter and I moved to Lowertown seven years ago, we were deeply moved by the amazing sense of community we found here. What many people who come here for park concerts, bar crawls and weddings don’t realize is that , before it became the “hippest” place to move to in the Twin Cities, it was a small, close knit community of artists, and people who appreciated their work.  Before Barrio and the Bull Dog beckoned young suburbanites and peddle pubs to our streets, buildings may have been empty, but our neighborhood  was full of people who knew each other and lived together very well.

Just as little as 10 years ago Lowertown was a neighborhood that had been  ignored by it’s own city government for so long that weeds had taken over a good share of Mears Park, and citizens were taking it upon themselves to prune trees and pick up garbage along the streets.  When I moved here, the city had acquiesed to providing garbage pick up service in the park once a week, but those of us who cared purchased our own plants and maintained the gardens and grass ourselves.

Despite the neglect, our community thrived.  Artists came to live here and put on amazing cultural events.  People who believed in the potential of community built an independent coffee house, called the Black Dog, and provided a wonderful venue for musicians.  And those of us who admired the creativity came here to be next to it all. That’s why we didn’t mind pulling our own weeds, picking up our own garbage and being ignored by the rest of the world.  Most of my friends and coworkers had no idea what I was talking about when I told them that I lived in Lowertown. (Lower..what?)  But those of us who lived here knew we had the best kept secret on earth.

As John and I prepare to leave behind a neighborhood we invested ourselves in, made friends in and even fell in love in (our first date was

Friends having dinner at Lynn and John's Lowertown apartment.

Our community was made up of people who knew each other well and socialized often.

at Loto, now known as Faces on Mears Park), I like to look back and remember that we were a part of a community here.  As the walls of the Gillette building come down, and a youthful bar patron screams at his friends beneath my bedroom window tonight, I want to remember how safe, welcoming and harmonious it felt to live here once.

Neighborhoods and cities aren’t that different than children.  They either grow or they die.  But the growth may not always be something you can live with.   So we move on with the hope that we recapture something of that safe, nurturing community in our next neighborhood.

Urban Renewal Gets Personal

Photo of lyn and jon

When we decided to wed nearly three years ago, moving to my already established home in Downtown St. Paul seemed like a natural fit.  We loved the building, and the quiet urban center that was Lowertown was less than a mile from my post at the State Capitol.

But before long, the evenings we once enjoyed listening to the local jazz trumpeter playing in Mears Park next to the lapping brook were quickly replaced by a newly developed entertainment district’s sound-ordinance breaking speakers and young suburbanites shrieking at 1

a.m. while groping for their car keys on the sidewalk.

While we applauded the conversion of Union Depot back to its origins as a transportation hub, its renovation marked the beginning of summer after summer of jack hammers and madly beeping construction vehicles as a parade of apartment, condo buildings, and finally a new ballpark, shattered the daytime peace as well.

Mears Park had also become a magnent for every type of band, festival and wedding imaginable. We found ourselves compelled to leave our apartment several evenings each week during the summer due to the noise level.  Finally, we vacated a stunning fourth floor park view apartment halfway through our first lease for a quieter unit overlooking Fifth Street.

The “band” problem persists so heavily throughout Lowertown on an even larger scale now. A friend who lives in the Great Northern building believes the City of St. Paul has someone employed full-time to locate every potential band in the metro area so that they can be placed in some area of Lowertown each night of the week, with the intent to drive out its residents. Bands are now apparently disturbing her home life every Wednesday evening from the platform of the Union Depot.

It was becoming obvious that the once welcoming city neighborhood we loved wasn’t really interested in the fact that we could no longer sleep or work in our home.  It was more excited about attracting students and young professionals who wanted to watch a baseball game before hitting the tequila bar, and then enjoy the luxury of walking to an apartment to sleep off the hangover.

We knew we had to leave.  We also knew we loved urban life.   So we wondered: is it possible to live in an urban center and not have to use earplugs to get a good night’s sleep? Does every city have someone employed to find bands, install bars and hire screaming 20 year-olds to

Photo of Mears Park in Lowertown St. Paul

Lowertown St. Paul looking out onto Mears Park

plague its residents?  It may be a huge gamble, but we’re betting not.

We have discovered a unique, remote neighborhood at what we’re calling “the end” of the Minneapolis North Loop.  It was the building that attracted us first.  Sleek, Swedish and a model for green living that seemed to actually be feasible.  But when we discovered it was located on the far edge of downtown, close to both of our workplaces, and how the builder had been “sound conscious” in its construction (using the double-paned glass concept most large cities use for sound control in urban residential buildings), we thought we had a shot.

So, we’re sorting, selling, packing and praying that our little piece of urban heaven lies across the river.  We’ll keep you posted.