Building community and a transit system at the same time
By Katherine Stillings Barta and Kevin Barta
We moved to the Lowertown historic district in St. Paul nearly a year and a half ago as renters. We were attracted by the short commute time to our respective places of work, the beautiful historic buildings, a robust farmers' market and an opportunity to live in what we believed to be an up and coming area of the Twin Cities.
While St. Paul had been referred to us as the sleepy sister of Minneapolis, we found the exact opposite to be true in Lowertown. There were new bars and restaurants popping up all over the place, a thriving artist community, the farmers' market and the centerpiece of Lowertown -- Mears Park, which is home to such events as Music in Mears, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Concrete and Grass, beer tastings and more.
The construction that is now seen throughout the district began while we were still renting. Even so, we were thoroughly enamored with Lowertown and decided to become permanent residents.
In all fairness, the construction has been difficult for residents. Each day offers something new -- one road closes and another reopens. Sidewalks change, routine walking and driving patterns are adjusted. And as tenants of the Union Depot building, we've also had our water and electricity turned off on multiple occasions, as well as a gas leak that forced us all to evacuate - although we did get to evacuate with movie stars Alan Arkin and Greg Kinnear, as they were shooting a movie in Union Depot that night.
Such is the price of progress. We are looking forward to what lies ahead -- St. Paul's restoration as a regional transport hub and the establishment of an expansive light rail system throughout the Twin Cities metro. Having lived in several cities that have extensive public transportation systems already in place (London, Paris, Prague, Melbourne and Washington, D.C.), our own experience tells us that it will be well worth the growing pains, so long as we can all survive them.
This is where the idea for our website, Lowertown Landing, came in. One night as we were perusing the Internet looking for updates on the development and construction, our frustrations culminated in a single question: Why can't everything happening in Lowertown be in one place?
So we started our website as a pet project, driven by a thirst for information on what was going on in Lowertown and a desire to help businesses that were struggling during the construction. However, this initial idea quickly expanded into a large website with sections on history, photos, events, future development, etc. Businesses and residents began contacting us with requests that we add everything from information on their events to classes in the park for yoga. We also managed to start a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, and began hosting events for the Lowertown Meetup group. We're no longer doing this alone; other local residents have joined in to help out as well.
Ultimately we realized something: that the construction in Lowertown, which has been an inconvenience to some and a financial dilemma to others, has also had a positive effect. It's building community. We're all trying to help each other survive through this transition period -- whether by starting websites, buying our milk at Golden's Deli or our wine at Lowertown Wine and Spirits, eating dinner at small restaurants like Tanpopo or supporting new restaurants when they arrive, such as Heartland and Faces. We're all working together to try and keep the work that has been done to rejuvenate the area alive and to showcase one of the true gems of the Upper Midwest.
If you haven't already done so, come visit. There's more than construction under way.
Katherine Stillings Barta and Kevin Barta founded Lowertown Landing, a website that provides information on the historic Lowertown district of St. Paul.