Choosing St. Paul

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by James McKenzie, Saint Paul Almanac • Moving to Saint Paul during my sixty-fifth year represents the first time I have had the joy of selecting the community I live in, rather than following the dictates of circumstance. Famously a nation of immigrants, we are also nomads. Born and raised in western Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley steel towns, I’ve also lived around the American South and Hawaii (the army), Indiana, and North Dakota, before getting to choose Saint Paul.

James McKenzie is one of the Saint Paul Almanac writers who will be reading at A Fine Grind on October 27.

It was not a difficult choice, one made easier by my wife’s landing a good, challenging, job at a Saint Paul nonprofit with a national mission. I was ready to leave academe and had but two criteria for relocation: that we be no farther from a daughter and grandchildren in North Dakota than the Twin Cities, and that we live no more than a half-mile walk from good coffee and a daily New York Times. I wanted to come home to “city,” I realize now, not yet quite understanding how good that would be.

I felt my first rush of familiarity when we stayed at what is now the downtown Crowne Plaza Hotel for Patti’s job interview. Looking out over Kellogg Boulevard and beyond, I liked the curving line of hills, the railroad tracks and lines of traffic hugging the river, the sprawl of industrial buildings and warehouses in the distance, and most of all, the signs of a working river: barges and a fleet of excursion boats, multiple bridges of different designs, especially the dark, heavy steel mechanisms of the railroad lift bridge just west of the concrete arches of the Robert Street span. I had once lived on Pittsburgh’s Bluff Street, high above the Monongahela, and gazed down upon a similar spread of landscape. I felt a frisson of recognition, staring down at the cliff on the downtown side of the Wabasha Bridge, the bare rocks of Dayton’s Bluff in the distance.

But I have chosen Saint Paul, not Pittsburgh. The sky is bigger here; sunnier, and more often blue. Cass Gilbert’s white dome and that gold quadriga glistening above the downtown, surrounded by all those other government buildings, reminds me I’m in the state capital, the city where Minnesota’s collective will, with all the necessary pushing and tugging, the compromising and negotiation, is officially enacted. The curved hatches on the Mississippi barges of Lowertown remind me that we also inhabit a grain capital—all that wheat, barley, and oats from Minnesota, Dakota, and Wisconsin farms.

My neighborhood retirement criteria turned out to deliver far more than coffee and the Times and may offer a litmus test for others contemplating relocations in this new century of changing consciousness about our environment. It is possible to live almost entirely on foot in Mac-Groveland. I’ve never counted all the bus routes, dry cleaners, good pizza shops, churches, and restaurants—Afghan, Mediterranean, Italian, Thai, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, the fifty-one-year-old Saint Clair Broiler, for a start—much less how many good coffee shops and Times venues my feet can carry me to. Here are a few walkable destinations: Saint Paul’s two remaining movie theatres (Grandview and Highland), two library branches, two guitar stores, three hardware stores, a locksmith, two dance studios, a shoe repair shop, several liquor stores (one selling only wine), a small animal clinic, two medical clinics, an antiques mall, Mississippi Market, the Saint Paul Corner Drug Store with its nickel-a-cup coffee counter since 1922. Dozens and dozens more, all on my extended campus.

Before moving to Saint Paul, I dug up a Norway maple seedling from the alley behind our North Dakota home. It’s an offspring of another seedling I’d brought from my Monongahela Valley home, planted by my grandfather in 1914, the year my mother was born. I’d climbed in four of them in front of our western Pennsylvania home as a child and wanted some continuity with those Norway maples on the upper Great Plains. I know the Norway maple is not indigenous, though there are now many in Saint Paul. Nor can it provide the sense of belonging that Mdewakanton Sioux descendants of Chief Wabasha must feel still in the Mississippi and Minnesota valleys. But that transplanted maple provides another anchor, makes me feel less nomadic. I promise I’ll not let it spread. And we have planted a prairie garden opposite that Norway.

James McKenzie, after thirty-four years in the University of North Dakota English Department, eight of them directing UND’s annual Writers Conference, volunteers at the Center for Victims of Torture and wears out shoes at an alarming pace in Saint Paul’s Mac-Groveland, Merriam Park, and Highland Park neighborhoods.