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.

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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.