Saint Paul's Merriam Park a Study in Neighborhood Vitality

The Pioneer Press recently published an article about the small-scale retailers that have helped reinvigorate the Merriam Park neighborhood in Saint Paul. Local business owners and entrepreneurs have brought much needed food, retailers, and services to places where they could truly benefit the community.

For decades Marshall Avenue was a bustling streetcar route, a major artery that crossed the Mississippi River to link the Twin Cities. Shops focused on everyday needs, even after buses replaced streetcars.

In 1965, this single block boasted a remarkable assortment: a corner drugstore, a grocery store, a hardware store, a bakery, a Laundromat, a paint store, a barber shop, a cafe, a beauty salon, a variety store, a TV repairman, a restaurant, a dentist's office and, in this strongly Catholic neighborhood, a Catholic gift shop.

By 1980, virtually all were gone. The rise of freeways, malls, suburbs and national chains sapped its vitality. Marshall's traffic plummeted, after Interstate 94 opened nearby in 1968. So a new type of tenant came to the block, one that didn't rely as much on passersby.

There was a prosthetics business, a siding shop, a used furniture outlet. Neighbors still smile about some of the more unusual enterprises — the flag store, the baseball card shop and a shop that sold chairs from old sports stadiums.

But circumstances are always fluid. Older neighborhoods were beginning to be recognized once again for their charm. And local residents dreamt of making a real contribution toward helping the community thrive.

In 1989, Pat and Dick Trotter opened a small bakery called Trotter's Cafe. From the start, they were passionate about local before it was a movement. They insisted on using natural foods from small local suppliers and made it a point to attract the neighbors as customers. Remaining true to its local roots even 20 years later, every Saturday it celebrates "Locals Night," when neighbors get a 10% discount.

In 2000, Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel also yearned to bring vitality in their neighborhood. Their Izzy's Ice Cream has grown locally famous for its premium ice cream and cones topped with a small "Izzy scoop." It recently marked its 10th anniversary.

Ted Kvasnik and his wife, Elaine, helped the area, too. They slowly acquired buildings on the block and then rented them out at reasonable rates to carefully selected new businesses. Though they tried to get a franchise or a national chain to come into the neighborhood, none were interested in coming to this neglected area. Now all of their tenants are locally owned and operated businesses, with many of the proprietors living right in the neighborhood.

The block along Marshall Avenue near Cleveland Avenue is home to a mix of businesses now. A sampling:

David Lanegran, a Macalester College geography professor who has studied the changing fortunes of neighborhood retail in St. Paul and Minneapolis, believes the revival at Marshall and Cleveland avenues is part of a larger trend. The City is filled with old commercial strips that sprouted along St. Paul's old streetcar lines — Grand Avenue, Snelling, Seventh Street, University Avenue, Como. During their declining years after the rail lines stopped, some slumped more than others. And in recent years, some have recovered more than others.

Ultimately, whether a local community thrives depends on residents like the Trotter's and the Kvasnik's to take the risks and put in the effort. Over time, communities with services and retail options nearby tend to do better economically and real estate values tend to be more stable. As evidenced here, all it takes are a few people to step forward in order to inspire other like-minded individuals to take the leap, too.

Does Merriam Park sound like a great place to live with community-minded neighbors? Take a look at the homes and real estate Saint Paul's Merriam Park has to offer.

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