Photo: Peter Ladd

On a balmy weekday evening in the long light of June, I stopped to talk with other residents in Lowertown’s Gateway Park and noticed something remarkable: of the fourteen people enjoying the evening in the vast shade of our buildings, not one was wearing a watch. What, I ask you, are the odds that 100 percent of fourteen Americans in 2007 would be watch-less?

Welcome to the off-the-clock lives of artists in downtown Saint Paul. Thanks principally to the City of Saint Paul, the former Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, ArtSpace, the Saint Paul Art Collective Housing Corporation, and local foundations, Lowertown—a district that by the early 1980s had lost most of its commerce and stood semi-abandoned and down on its luck—is thriving again. As the city shrewdly recognized when it offered to help make this happen over twenty years ago, artists’ presence has spurred private development as well: formerly empty warehouses and factories are now being rehabbed as residential rentals and pricey condominiums.

In the bad old days, recalls Tom Nordyke, who worked for ArtSpace, the not-for-profit developer that turned the Northern Warehouse and the Tilsner into artists’ cooperatives, “Lowertown in the 1970s and 1980s was a ghost town—you could lie down in the street after 5 p.m. and not get run over.”

The Union Depot, the Landmark Courthouse, and the McCall Building stood empty. Weiming Lu, who oversaw the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation from its start in 1979 through its closing in 2006, remembers Lowertown in 1979 as a neighborhood in crisis: “Abandoned warehouses and parking lots. There were winos in Mears Park; Garrison Keillor called it a brickyard.”

Lu sought development funds from the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the St. Paul Companies, and the City of Saint Paul’s PED. Private pledges brought in $10 million; the city pledged $100 million—a huge increase from the $22 million that had been invested in Lowertown in the 1960s and 1970s, $16 million of which went into the Gillette factory.

Marla Gamble, a painter and jewelry maker who moved into the Rossmor Building in 1976, remembers Lowertown in the 1970s as a neighborhood whose traditional businesses—the paint and liniment makers, harness and leather makers, printers—were moving to newly built industrial parks: “Warehouses in Lowertown are vertical, and loading docks and trucks are better suited to horizontal buildings.”

One by one, the buildings emptied out, and artists began moving in. “At first, it was mostly sculptors and printmakers— people who need lots of space,” says Gamble. “It wasn’t legal to be living in there, then, but people were doing it.” Gamble paid $60 a month for her 1,000-square-foot space in 1976.

As the city had foreseen, developers started moving into Lowertown. A 1982 meeting of artists who worried that they might be displaced led to the artist-run development corporation, Saint Paul Art Collective Housing Corporation, which incorporated in 1984 and which still operates the Saint Paul Art Crawl.

George Latimer’s administration hired Bob Tracy to run New Works and to coordinate efforts with local artists. Artists held exhibitions in Lowertown’s buildings to call attention not only to their own work but to save buildings from being destroyed by developers. “Lowertown could have gone the same way as the Gateway in Minneapolis,” says Lu. “We’re a bit slower in Saint Paul, so it didn’t happen. Nobody knew at the time if redevelopment would work here.”

Happily, it did. There are now 2,600 residential units and 12,000 jobs in Lowertown. And despite the glitzy new condos popping up seemingly on every corner, one-third of Lowertown’s residents have incomes of less than $25,000 a year, making Lowertown one of the most economically diverse neighborhoods in Saint Paul.

Today, Saint Paul boasts one of this country’s finest public markets in Lowertown. Nearby warehouse buildings have been scrubbed, rehabbed, and rented out. Once-bedraggled Mears Park is nationally acknowledged as an example of smart urban design. A sunny deck along the northern side of the Northern Warehouse invites customers of the Japanese noodle house, Tanpopo, and the Black Dog, a locally owned coffee house (with monthly tango lessons!), to lounge in the building’s bulky shade. Leave your watch at home and come visit.