The new/old West Seventh: Artist-led renewal honors the fabric of St. Paul's first neighborhood
Fourteen years ago, artist Nance Derby decided she'd had enough. A scenic designer who works in film and theater, advertising and museums around the country--Macy's holiday and spring flower shows are among her commissions--Derby had tired of renovating warehouse spaces throughout Minneapolis, then having her rent raised, forcing her to move out. So she bought a dilapidated storefront on West 7th Street in St. Paul. "It was a wreck of a building, the worst building on the block," she recalls, laughing at the memory.
"But it had high enough ceilings to accommodate the work I do," she continues, which includes theater sets and large murals. She also wanted to live where she worked, to be available for her daughter; and, she says, to "make my footprint smaller" by decreasing the time and fuel she spent driving. Finally, "I thought, I can buy this building and the whole block will look better," she adds. "It appealed to my sense of cleaning up the neighborhood."
So she moved her business, Acme Scenic Arts
, and her family into the building and has thrived ever since. So has the neighborhood. "Since I moved here, the changes in the community have been monumental," Derby says, which she attributes to the proactive, progressive district council, the West 7th/Fort Road Federation
, also known at the District 9 Community Council. Building Up the Neighborhood, One Artist At a Time
In the last decade, in addition to focusing attention back on the Mississippi River as a primary natural and historical amenity in the neighborhood--the district is also bounded by 35E, Kellogg, and I-494--the council has also helped promote and preserve the area's historic architecture, encouraged new business along the West 7th commercial strip, and created parks. Moreover, in 2007, during its annual meeting, the council approved a resolution, set forth by community activist Joe Landsberger, to institute and support an arts component.
"We knew there was a whole group of artists who weren't being served, who didn't know each other and weren't connected with each other," recalls Betty Moran, West 7th/Fort Road Federation community organizer. Artists such as Nance Derby, and painter Deborah Padgett and her husband Michael Padgett, a ceramist and former chair of the art department at UW-River Falls. (Their studio, next to their home, was designed by architect John Yust, who also lived in the neighborhood).
Down the street from the Padgetts lives painter David Rich, whose work is in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Weisman Art Museum. With his wife, the acclaimed book artist Paulette Myers-Rich, he bought and renovated an old commercial building. And in addition to sundry dancers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, writers and designers, nationally renowned and exhibited printmaker Mary Esch also lives in the community.
"We also thought that by bringing the artists together, we could highlight the neighborhood as a welcoming, livable, affordable community in which artists work and live," Moran says. So West End Arts
was born, as a subcommittee of the district council, which acts as the group's fiscal agent. Shortly thereafter, Sokol Center, a designated historical site that serves as a community center for Czech and Slovak immigrants in the neighborhood, hosted the first meeting of West End Arts. Nearly 100 local artists attended. West End Arts in Action
The group's inaugural art exhibition was held during July and August 2008 in the historic, Flatiron-esque Pilney Building. "Nearly 450 people showed up," says Derby, currently a coordinator of West End Arts along with Deborah Padgett. "It was a great success for us. People came together to submit their art, to hang the show, and to see the show. The artists took turns gallery sitting, and people from the neighborhood just walked in to check out the buzz."
The first annual West Seventh Iron Pour followed that October, on the grounds of the historic Schmidt Brewery. Additional events at Sokol Center, at the Padgetts' studio, another Iron Pour, and, most recently, a show curated by the Padgetts at the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church followed. Meanwhile, other creative businesses have moved into the community. DeZinnia, Inc.,
a firm specializing in graphic, web and package design, now occupies part of the Pilney Building and hosts a monthly three-day pop-up marketplace called the W7 Collective, which brings artists and shoppers from outside the neighborhood to the community. Brewery Dreams
While hubs like the Day By Day Café, the Pilney Building and Sokol Center regularly bring residents together, the community also has its sights set on the redevelopment of the Schmidt Brewery. According it to long-time District 9 Council member Dave Thune, who also owns the Saint Paul Gallery (which is next to Acme Scenic Arts), local developer Dominium, which specializes in artist live-work space, is still considering the site.
The redevelopment might include "live/work studio housing for artists, galleries, a foundry, print shops, retail," Thune speculates. "It would become a real arts hub in the community, one that would further improve the community and focus attention on the arts." Adds Moran, "We'd love to see the brewery, which is a such a landmark in our community, become robust again."
Towering brick chimneys mark the brewery's Romanesque-style complex from a distance, the last remaining brewery out of several that sprang up during the founding of St. Paul. According to Moran, the West 7th neighborhood is the city's oldest, as immigrants settled here as a result of boat traffic on the river's upper and lower landings, activity at Fort Snelling, and multiple railroads along the riverfront. Keeping It Real
Generations later, many of those settlers' descendants still live in the neighborhood. "The best way to describe us today is that we have three Catholic churches: one is an Irish parish, one is a German parish, and one is a Czech parish," Moran says, chuckling. As a result, the neighborhood remains largely residential, its small houses boasting neatly kept yards just off the commercial activity on West 7th.
"We never fell into the trap of gentrification, where we replace the old people with a new class of people, and change entire ethnic makeups and economics," Thune adds. The community's population of 10,000 has stayed "very consistent, but instead of everyone just going to the church for social activities, now we also can go to art galleries and events." Derby doesn't believe the neighborhood is in danger of gentrification either, as she's seen happen in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, and which could happen in Northeast Minneapolis.
"None of us are in large warehouse spaces. We own our buildings. Even people who are renting art space are renting in smaller buildings," Derby explains. Because the neighborhood is solidly working-class residential, she adds, "people care deeply about making this a safe, happy and productive place for everyone. It's been so interesting to me, their openness to all of us artists, maybe because artists have strong sense of keeping it local. We use local businesses, because we are also small businesses."
A "homegrown arts organization," as Thune calls West End Arts, is fast creating an identity that's strikingly different from that of other arts hubs in the Twin Cities; one that's strongly based in a historic urban neighborhood, where affordable home (and studio) ownership is a reality. As for West End Arts' impact on the West 7th/Ford Road district? "West End Arts shows and events bring people into the community who might not have aware of our neighborhood," Moran says. "The artists bring attention to our area, and demonstrate to people through the Twin Cities that there's a lot more here than just the Xcel Center." Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul-based arts journalist.