Where the Grass Really Is Greener

June 5, 2016      Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland, Summit-University/Rondo, North End, Como     19 miles

This ride featured significant stops in five neighborhoods. First, Highland Park where I spotted what strikes me as a house with a mullet because it’s all business in the front and a party in the back.

The front of 1696 Hartford is a traditional 1.5 story post-WWII style.

The front of 1696 Hartford is a traditional 1.5 story post-WWII style.

But the back has modern additions, including a second story balcony.

But the back has modern additions, including a second story balcony. Hardly seems like the same house.

Macalester-Groveland

Over in Macalester-Groveland, this Nash Metropolitan hardtop model from between 1955 and 1958, sat near the corner of Saratoga and Portland. The reason it looks tiny is that it is. At 149.5 inches long, it is shorter than an original VW bug.

Over in Macalester-Groveland, this Nash Metropolitan hardtop model from between 1955 and 1958, sat near the corner of Saratoga and Portland. The reason it looks tiny is that it is. At 149.5 inches long, it is shorter than an original VW bug.

Grand Avenue plus the first Sunday in June equals Grand Old Day. Many pedestrians were strolling in the street along the 1300 block of Grand. The associated food and music of Grand Old Day, however, was not in the immediate area.

What a fitting day to talk to a Grand Avenue homeowner – like Eileen Clift – about life on that street. She and husband Adam were hosting a Grand Old Day party when I stopped. They’ve had a Grand Old Day party every year they’ve lived on Grand except once when they were out of town. The Clifts average about 75 guests at the Grand Old Day soiree, with as many as 100 on occasion.

Adam and Eileen Clift stand in front of their Grand Avenue home.

Adam and Eileen Clift stand in front of their Grand Avenue home.

The story of how the Clifts purchased 1389 Grand could make one believe in fate. The year was 2000 and it was a sellers market, so much so that Eileen had given up after an unfulfilling year of searching.

Even so – perhaps out of habit – Eileen glanced at the open house listings one Sunday. “At that time you used the paper when you looked for open houses. I opened it up and I just couldn’t help it. There were three houses I needed to drive by.” They quickly crossed the first two houses off their list, but continued Eileen, “The third one, we drove up and I took a look and I went, ‘Can we just take a few minutes? I need to go inside and look at this house. This is worth looking at.’”

Sure enough, the house spoke to Eileen and Adam. They told the owners that they were entertaining out-of-town guests for a couple of hours but, “’We’d like to put an offer in on the house so don’t sell it out from under us,’ and we gave them our information and we lucked out in that our offer was accepted.”

“When I got to the second floor and was in one of the bedrooms I had this flash of ‘I could imagine our future children in here and playing and looking out the windows.’” Eileen Clift on seeing the 1389 Grand Avenue house for the first time

Eileen and Adam were living about a mile to the north of Grand so they knew and liked the area. Eileen had no qualms about buying a house on Grand. “I thought it would be exciting. I thought it would be fun. If I’m going to live in the city why not take advantage of everything the city has to offer.

“I love the fact that we live off an emergency route so our streets are plowed curb to curb once a week. If there is a bad snow storm we have absolutely no difficulty getting our cars out and getting to work and getting to school.”

People mingle in the street on Grand Old Day 2016.

People mingle in the street on Grand Old Day 2016.

Eileen and family relish how pedestrian-friendly the neighborhood is. “There are always people out walking the dog from 5 in the morning until 10 at night and you feel pretty safe and secure knowing that there are people out and about.”

She continued, “People watching is a lot of fun. That’s the benefit of a front porch.”

People mingle in the street on Grand Old Day 2016.

A couple of costumed revelers stroll along the 1300 block of Grand.

Which brought us back to Grand Old Day. The Clifts’ Grand Old Day highlight? “We had the (Saint Paul Winter Carnival) Vulcans. The very first year (we lived here) it rained and we were in on the porch with our windows open waving at the parade as they went by and got drenched. The Vulcans came in and they marked all of us. They gave all the kids and all the adults “Vs” on our cheeks.”

Looking east on Grand from the Clift's front yard. The nearly perfect weather meant a good turnout for Grand Old Day.

Looking east on Grand from the Clift’s front yard. The nearly perfect weather meant a good turnout for Grand Old Day.

Eileen’s children look at Grand Old Day as a celebration like July 4. “You have a parade in front of your house and it’s an excuse to have a party, an excuse to invite friends over. They love living on this street.”

Frogtown (Rondo)

The Martin Luther King Multiservice Center is home to both Hallie Q. Brown and the world renowned Penumbra Theatre.

The Martin Luther King Multiservice Center is home to both Hallie Q. Brown Community Center and the world-renowned Penumbra Theatre.

The Martin Luther King Multiservice Center building at 270 Kent and Iglehart, Brutalist in style, houses a couple of historically significant organization in the African American community. The Hallie Q. Brown Center was founded in 1929 as a settlement house for African Americans who were refused service by other agencies.

Students and teachers in a classroom at Hallie Q. Brown Center circa 1936. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Students and teachers in a classroom at Hallie Q. Brown Center circa 1936. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The name for the community center was selected through an essay contest in which entrants were asked to write about an outstanding leader. The winning composition about Civil Rights and women’s suffrage activist Hallie Q. Brown was written by a Hamline University student.

The original building, a Masonic Hall, stood in Rondo, on Aurora Avenue at Mackubin Street, a block east of where the Unidale Mall is today. The Hallie Q. Brown Center's current home at 270 Kent Street was built in the early 1970s. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The original Hallie Q. Brown building, a Masonic Hall, stood in Rondo, on Aurora Avenue at Mackubin Street, a block east of where the Unidale Mall is today. The Hallie Q. Brown Center’s current home at 270 Kent Street was built in the early 1970s. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

For many years, Hallie Q. Brown was a social hub for Rondo area residents. This is the annual Miss Hallie Q. Brown and Mr. Popularity contest from the mid-1950s. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Hallie Q. Brown was a social hub for Rondo area residents. This is the annual Miss Hallie Q. Brown and Mr. Popularity contest from the mid-1950s. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

For many years, Hallie Q. Brown has offered its services, which today include early childhood education, youth enrichment, senior citizen programs and a food shelf, to all who live around the Summit-University area. The Hallie Q. Brown website has much more about the organization.

The nationally acclaimed Penumbra Theater opened in this building in 1976.

The nationally-acclaimed Penumbra Theater opened in this building in 1976.

Founding Director Lou Bellamy, who sought to create an outlet for Black actors, playwrights and audiences, opened the Penumbra Theatre in the Martin Luther King Center in 1976. The 250 seat theater has impacted the theater world far beyond its size. August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is among the many successful playwrights whose careers began at the Penumbra.

Less than a mile to the north at Western and St. Anthony Avenues, is the Ober Community Center, another fixture of the old Rondo neighborhood.

The Ober Community Center looks much like it did when it opened in 1941.

The Ober Community Center looks much like it did when it opened in 1940. The major difference is that the windows have been replaced by bricks.

Established as the Ober Boys Club in 1940 by the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, it gave boys in the Rondo neighborhood a place for sports and other supervised activities, and take bible classes.

The Ober Boys Club in 1940, shortly before it opened. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The Ober Boys Club in 1940, shortly before it opened. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Many of the same activities remain popular at Ober Community Center today, and girls are welcome as well. Homework help and Christian spiritual development are offered.

Ober mural IMG_7206

A large mural decorates part of the Ober Boys Club, and now Community Center, was named after former 3M president Edgar Ober who was involved with the Union Gospel Mission.

 

Rider Academy's motorcycle training class operates out of Biff Adams Arena, Western and Minnehaha, at the far northern edge of Frogtown.

Rider Academy’s motorcycle training class operates out of Biff Adams Arena, Western and Minnehaha, at the far northern edge of Frogtown.

Saint Paul’s second curling club, the Frogtown Curling Club, is also located at Biff Adams. To no one's surprise, it is named after Clarence “Biff” Adams, who was the St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School hockey team head coach. The arena was dedicated on October 28, 1973.

Saint Paul’s second curling club, the Frogtown Curling Club, is also located at Biff Adams. To no one’s surprise, it is named after Clarence “Biff” Adams, who was the St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School hockey team head coach. The arena was dedicated on October 28, 1973.

What is it with American flags and car lots? This one is at the triangular intersection of Western and Como Avenue.

What is it with American flags and car lots? This one is at the triangular intersection of Western and Como Avenue.

North End

Two interesting structures at the intersection of Front Avenue and Farrington Street.

318 Front Avenue is multi-surfaced and multicolored.

318 Front Avenue is multi-surfaced and multicolored.

This is listed as a residence on the Ramsey County website, but I’m not convinced it was built with that intention.

This is listed as a residence on the Ramsey County website, but I’m wondering if it was a business when it was built.

Meanwhile, the square building at 320 Front is listed as a business but it looks like a residence.

Meanwhile, the square building at 320 Front is listed as a business but it looks like a residence.

 

This looks like a giant chocolate bunny.

This looks like a giant chocolate bunny on the boulevard of 1020 Farrington Street.

 

Willow Reserve along Maryland Avenue is the name for both these lots slated for Habitat for Humanity single family homes and a nearby park reserve.

The land slated for the Willow Reserve housing project was once occupied by Larson's Garden Center.

The land slated for the Willow Reserve housing project was once occupied by Larson’s Garden Center. The Reserve Park border is just before the tree line.

Property from 389 to 425 West Maryland is staked out in preparation for construction of the Habitat homes. That’s Maryland Avenue in the background.

Property from 389 to 425 West Maryland is staked out in preparation for construction of the Habitat homes. The car is driving west on Maryland Avenue.

This one of the unmanaged trails through Willow Reserve. The park was established in the 1960s and has been owned by the City of Saint Paul since then.

This one of the unmanaged trails through Willow Reserve. The park was established in the 1960s and has been owned by the City of Saint Paul but very lightly maintained since then.

Willow Reserve has been both farm land and natural growth and wetlands over the past 100 years. It is surrounded by Maryland Avenue on the south, Arundel Street to the east, Virginia Street on the west, and on the north by the curving run of the BNSF tracks.

The Willow Reserve property as seen from Google Maps. The open area along Maryland Avenue (bottom) is where the Habitat homes are going to be built. Most of the rest of the Reserve will remain park land but be adapted for easier access.

The Willow Reserve property as seen from Google Maps. The open area along Maryland Avenue (bottom) is where the Habitat homes are going to be built. Most of the rest of the Reserve will remain park land but be improved for better visitor access.

According to the Capitol Region Watershed District, almost 19 of the 23 acre Willow Reserve is wetlands. In addition to being a habitat for migratory birds, part of the Reserve holds a storm water retention pond.

Plans call for trail improvements and other upgrades to Willow Reserve to make it more usable. Everything you want to know about Willow Reserve Park and more is at The Capitol Region Watershed District website. Willow Reserve is another place I’ll visit on a future ride for deeper exploration and to check on park upgrades.

Como Park

Gene Thompson's dazzlingly green yard.

Gene Thompson’s dazzlingly green yard.

I found where the grass really is greener, if not the greenest! The house at 914 Como Avenue West boasts an absolutely impeccably kept yard. From the absence of weeds to the rich, vivid emerald color, it’s close to perfect. This was the third or fourth time I’d stopped here, but the first when owner Gene Thompson was home.

Call it Kelly, forest, moss, pine, or something else. There's nothing but green from the sidewalk to the alley.

Call it Kelly, forest, moss, pine, or something else. There’s nothing but green from the sidewalk to the alley.

Although not apparent at first glance, Gene’s entire yard – front, back and sides – is artificial turf. Like most of us, Gene had a traditional yard for a long time. “I had a nice grass yard for years. Then all of a sudden weeds started taking over the boulevard. I’m particular and I couldn’t get rid of them.”

The turf still looks good up close.

The turf still looks good up close.

It so happened that the soccer fields at nearby McMurray Athletic Fields, just south of Como Park, were being refurbished. Among the upgrades was installation of artificial turf. Gene noticed that excess scraps of turf were being tossed into a dumpster so he asked the project foreman if he could have them. “I don’t have a real big yard so I pursued it. I grabbed all the scraps they had in the dumpster, hauled ‘em home.”

According to Gene, the project foreman warned him that installing artificial turf would be a lot of work. “I watched them put it down; the way they were doing it and said, ‘I can do that myself.’”

Gene estimates it would have cost about $4,000 just to buy the field turf.

Gene estimates it would have cost about $4,000 just to buy the field turf for his yard.

Gene learned quickly that replacing his entire yard with field turf was a big project, with many steps, starting with removing the grass. “I took four to six inches of black dirt out. I threw it on the boulevard out there,” he said pointing toward the street, “and I put a sign ‘Free Topsoil’. I couldn’t get it out there fast enough! People were hauling it away for me.”

The downspouts on Gene's house go underground to a barrel he buried in the middle of the front yard.

The downspouts on Gene’s house go underground to a 55 gallon drum he buried in the middle of the front yard.

With the topsoil gone, Gene dug a hole in the center of the yard and put a 55 gallon drum in the ground upside down and connected it to the house gutters. He also put down four to five inches of a special sand-gravel mix – so water would drain off the turf – which required tamping down with a machine, leveling and hand tamping.

Then came the turf. “I put a landscape fabric down and I put my turf down, seamed it together. Then you gotta put silica sand in it. You gotta put rubber in it – shredded rubber just like on a pro football field.”

You practically have to get down in the turf to find the seams.

You practically have to get down in the turf to find the seams.

I mentioned I could hardly see any seams, just perfect turf. Gene said he used a utility knife and a straight edge to cut the pieces of turf. “Some of the strips are probably 10, 15 feet long but they’re no wider than 3, 4 feet. I bought some galvanized sod staples – they’re six inch horseshoe-shaped staples. You had to peel the grass back, tap (the staples) in with a rubber mallet. About every 12 inches I did that to hold it down.”

Gene replaced the boulevard grass with a mix of field turf, stones, and small evergreens.

Gene replaced the boulevard grass with a mix of field turf, stones, and small evergreens.

The boulevard was the final part of his yard Gene converted to turf. “There were always weeds in it so I just dug all that out, put the rock out there, the evergreens out there. Evergreens are easy to take care of. I have a sprinkling system out there as well. On the city boulevard that I maintain. It’s their boulevard but I put a sprinkling system out there.”

“100 percent field turf! The whole yard – everything! I did it all myself. It took over the course of two or three years to do it.”  Gene Thompson on his yard

Gene gets many comments from walkers and drivers. “If I’m sittin’ out here and somebody’s walking by, they’ll stop. They’ll look at it, put their thumbs up. I’ve had taxi cab drivers, pizza delivery drivers stop by.”

Gene's front yard looking toward Como Avenue from the front stoop.

Gene’s front yard looking toward Como Avenue from the front stoop.

The reaction of the USPS letter carrier is one of the more memorable. “When he first saw it, he didn’t even want to walk on it. He’d walk around. I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. Walk across it, cut across it. You don’t have to go around there,’ I said. ‘It ain’t gonna’ hurt it.’”

Gene Thompson in his front yard at 914 Como Avenue West.

Gene Thompson in his front yard at 914 Como Avenue West.

Gene has some extra fun in the winter. When it snows, he clears part of the yard with his snow blower. “I blow out there on the boulevard. I don’t have to but I do it just for the heck of it. I get more people stopping by, looking, doing a double-take. Everything is white around here and I’ve got this green yard sitting out here.”

Gene talked about an incident several years ago that still made him laugh. It was New Year’s Even and the family was over and they saw a flash outside. According to Gene, “One of the kids said, ‘Dad! Is it lightning out?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ So I went outside and there was a lady sitting there on the grass and her husband was taking pictures of her.”

The woman told Gene, “‘Your son told us where you live. We had to stop by and see it.’” Gene laughed as he recalled the incident.

The convenience of the clock cannot be overstate.

The convenience of the clock cannot be overstated.

Another unorthodox aspect to Gene’s house is the clock mounted on the peak, which more than 10 years ago replaced a black cast iron eagle. “Birds kept building nests in there and poop kept coming down my windows. So I went up there and put some barbed wire in there and didn’t help. They still built nests, so I got rid of that.”

Gene placed this clock on the peak of his house just below the roof line in front.

Gene placed this clock on the peak of his house just below the roof line in front.

Gene worked at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch newspapers for 24 years and he told me about the clock and a co-worker, writer Chuck Laszewski. “Chuck, he lived over there by the Fairgrounds. He’d ride his bike here year-round back and forth to the Pioneer Press. One day at work he came over and said, ‘Gene. Your clock; it needs a battery. The time’s off. Every day I ride by there and look at it and see where I’m at on the way to work,’ ‘Alright Chuck, I’ll get a battery in there for you.’”

Considering Gene’s self-professed particularity, it is not surprising that his clock is aligned with the official U.S. time from National Institute of Standards and Technology in Fort Collins, CO.

We talked for a while about our mutual interests, including softball and his time at the Pioneer Press, before I pressed on with the ride home.

Here is the map of the June 5th ride.

6 thoughts on “Where the Grass Really Is Greener

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