Exploring St. Paul's West Seventh Street

What does it look like when a neighborhood is on the cusp of coolness, riding the vacillating wave up from disrepair and disrepute to artist-driven bohemian cachet? Find out on St. Paul’s West Seventh Street—one of the original settlements in the Twin Cities and home to waves of immigrants and the breweries they constructed—which is undergoing an undeniable renaissance.

The comparisons to northeast Minneapolis are frequent and apt. When Minneapolis’ North Loop caught the eye of high-end developers and its rents rose out of reach for the artists who populated its lofts and warehouses, they absconded across the river to Northeast, where they drove a cultural and economic growth spurt.

Likewise, Lowertown has long served as the artists’ neighborhood in St. Paul, but its limited capacity, combined with the same kind of cultural and economic energy that transformed the North Loop (new sports stadium, light rail terminus, an influx of killer restaurants—sound familiar?), is driving an overflow of artists, young families, and entrepreneurs to reinvigorate West Seventh.

The Schmidt Artist Lofts (schmidtartistlofts.com), born of the abandoned, crumbling 1855 Schmidt Brewing structures, have become live-work spaces for artists that are defining the neighborhood’s revival. Since opening in late 2013, the lofts have become home to artists ranging from painters, chefs, and playwrights to jugglers, musicians, and tai chi instructors. (Residents must submit a portfolio of their creative work as part of the lease application.)

schmidt artist lofts and st. paul art crawl photos by amy zellmer, artword mural photo by mo perry

Every spring and fall, the artists open their doors to the public for the St. Paul Art Crawl (stpaulartcrawl.org), but dropping in on the Brewhouse lobby offers a peek at a commissioned work that incorporates pieces of machinery left over from the brewery’s functional days into a painted wall-size mural.

This mix of the historic with the new is a defining characteristic of the area as a whole. Local institutions such as DeGidio’s Restaurant (degidios.com), a homey Italian joint established in 1933, are interspersed with newcomers like Artista Bottega (artbottega.com), a quirky shop and art gallery owned by a scenic designer who has a workshop next door.

The same block is also home to Burn Unit Coffee Ward (facebook.com/BurnUnitCoffeeWard), which makes what may be the best Thai coffee in town (by secret recipe) and bakes from scratch all manner of delectable goodies, including Ghirardelli strawberry muffins, gluten-free brownies, and fresh cherry and apple pies. The owner’s fiancé runs the funky Bearded Mermaid Bazaar (facebook.com/TheBeardedMermaid) a few doors down, home to what may be the only taxidermied giraffe (or third of a giraffe—all the shop’s ceiling can accommodate) in the Twin Cities.

germanfest photo by amy zellmer, burn unit coffee ward photo by christina ziton, scarborough fair photo courtesy scarborough fair

Scarborough Fair (scarboroughfairshop.com) holds down the corner of James Avenue and West Seventh Street with its appealing mix of vintage-inspired jewelry and bohemian garments that create what its owners like to call a “divinely feminine experience.” Next door is Supatra’s Thai Cuisine (supatra.com), which also offers classes on how to prepare favorite Thai dishes if you want to bring the restaurant’s flavors home.

The neighborhood’s next big project in development stands to transform the Schmidt Brewing Keg House site into a festival marketplace along the lines of the Midtown Global Market, with an outdoor farmers’ market complementing retail and restaurant spaces inside.

Until then, this month’s second-annual GermanFest (germanfestmn.org, June 19-21) will unleash polka dancers, food trucks, and boots of craft beer into the streets. It’s a great excuse to explore West Seventh, so when it reaches its inevitable peak of popularity and hipness a few years down the road, you can confidently say you dug it before it was cool.

christina ziton, photo courtesy christina ziton

A West Seventh Local’s Favorites

Christina Ziton, proprietor of Burn Unit Coffee Ward, describes her favorite neighborhood pit stops: “7th Street Barber is a cool place to stop in for a haircut. It’s been around for 120 years and going there is like stepping into the past. It’s a great place for fathers and sons to bond—kind of a men’s shop. Artista Bottega is great for everything from kitschy bracelets to pottery to things you’d probably never buy but are fun to look at. My fiancé, who runs the Bearded Mermaid, loves the pizza at Goody’s Hot City Pizza, but I prefer their roast-beef hoagie. And Supatra’s Thai Cuisine has some of the best pad Thai in town.”