Cue sepia film and old-time riverboat music. Turn-of-the-century ladies are dashing around Lowertown’s industrial and warehouse district in trailing skirts and broad-brimmed hats. Natty gentlemen in bowlers and lounge suits light their pipes after making hefty deposits at the Merchants National Bank. They’ll tuck a fat wad into their lapel before taking an audience with James J. Hill over cognac and wine in a tricked-out train car. The area is the first point of entry to the Twin Cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a crossroads of river and rail systems at the base of Lambert Landing, a natural break in the Mississippi River’s bluffs at the foot of present-day Jackson Street. Lowertown is the place to be.
Cue the Great Depression. Building facades crumble, men sit on park benches in those natty suits because they haven’t anywhere else to wear them. Factories with busted windows stare onto the street. Secondhand dress stores, pawn shops, and boarding houses abound. Lowertown goes derelict: an empty shell, a rivertown warehouse district of former commerce and plenty.
Cue the 1970s, and with them, the artists, and necessity, the mother of invention. Those empty warehouses? Space and light and inexpensive digs. Over 500 painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, and bohemians begin to call the area home and workplace. The neighborhood is infused with color, music, character.
Cue the hipsters (and before them, no small amount of city money). “Hey, this place is cool! I want to live here!” Coffee shops, bars, restaurants, ballparks, and public transportation options fall Tetris-like into the tiny grid of Lowertown.
The entire history of one of St. Paul’s most storied places told in 250 words or less is naturally flawed and wanting. What isn’t flawed and wanting: the current echo-chamber boom of Lowertown, where a rooftop Bent Paddle leads to a “Minneapolitan” pizza pie leads to a nice Arctic char leads to a Cubano leads to a ballgame and a light rail ride home, spent and drunk and happy and ready to do it all again. The new Lowertown is so elegant and deluxe it’s practically gone “Uptown.”
But it ain’t. It’s the new Lowertown. And it’s exhilarating.