The Last Block Party

Pig's Eye Parrant bootlegged here 150 years ago. Then came the robber barons, the great wars, the spaghetti junctions, and the exodus to the suburbs. Its glory days gone, St. Paul's Brewery District tries upscaling--and evicting renters who don't belong.

It's July 31, and the sun is setting in St Paul. The last rays break through scattered clouds and filter onto the courtyard at 398 Duke St., erasing shadows from the weathered tables occupied by dozens of neighbors gathered for a final picnic. Mesquite smoke from a nearby grill fills the air. Children on bikes and skates circle the parking lot behind the courtyard, letting out shrieks at the first sign of a water fight.

Lisa Lovelace moves from one group of picnickers to the next, snapping photos of soon-to-be-former neighbors. Nearby, her mother, Arlene Lovelace, circulates a black-and-white photo of three boys with crew cuts standing in front of a tree that looks to be a century old. Her girls, Lisa and Jackie, were friends with one of those boys, Mike Taflinger, when they were all just kids three decades ago. Now, Taflinger is shooting the breeze over a beer and tossing a football around a few feet away. A knot of party goers trade gossip and news over the iron fence surrounding the courtyard, calling out to scold some exuberant youngsters.

A snapshot of the scene, pulled from Arlene Lovelace's scrapbook in 20 years, might appear to a stranger to be the record of an idyllic time past. Many of those in the picture grew up in this neighborhood, moved away, and came back to settle when the chance arose. For Lovelace, these families--headed by the kids she and longtime neighbors raised, her own daughter among them--will be remembered as the unlucky few who ended up living in Bob Hillman's homes.

Craig Bares

While her mom makes rounds, Lisa Lovelace darts back and forth between the picnic and her near-empty house at 388 Duke, carrying paper plates and slabs of the season's first watermelon. For the past year, visiting family and old friends has been as easy as strolling this three-block area known as the Brewery District--a small urban island bounded on the west by the Landmark Brewery on West Seventh and on the east by School District 625's offices just off Colborne Street; Duke Street becomes a dead end north of Jefferson Avenue, and the Mississippi River bluffs ring the neighborhood's southern edge.

Lovelace knows the area by heart. Her sister, Jackie Brown, lived right next door on Duke; their grandmother, Martha Donner, a stone's throw down the street; and their mother, Arlene, on the corner in the green house that used to be their grandparents' place. Across the street live Tanis Nagel and Mike Taflinger. Mike's mother lived at 354 Duke. Anita Williams and her four kids had the house directly to the south. But all that familiarity is about to end.

Lovelace's fate was sealed in late April when she received a certified letter sent by the West 7th/Fort Road Federation and the city of St. Paul's Planning and Economic Development department. "The property you are renting is being acquired by the federation for the Brewery Breakthrough project," it read. Thirty-five families--more than half of the rental households in the neighborhood--opened a letter with the same message that April day. In essence, they had each been served with an eviction notice: Vacate your home by midnight on July 31.

Several residents here first caught wind of the Brewery Breakthrough project three years ago. To them it sounded like a rumor--idle talk circulating among big-league developers and city planners whose names they didn't know and whose far-fetched ideas seemed unlikely to turn into blueprints. Others date their first knowledge of the project to last year, when the talk at community meetings turned serious and financing arrangements formalized on paper. And then there are those who didn't have a clue until the certified letters showed up at their doors.

One by one the renters who received them followed instructions--boxing up their homes, loading their belongings into crammed cars, and grudgingly making their way to new addresses. Jackie Brown moved in mid-July. Mike Taflinger and Tanis Nagel have a move-in date at another house in October; they've been lucky enough to be granted a deadline extension. Anita Williams still doesn't know where she'll end up, though last week the city allowed her some extra time to figure it out. Lisa Lovelace relocated a fortnight ago to a basement apartment with a monthly rent increase of $130. Tonight, she's come back to share a last farewell with neighbors in the working-class district, among them evicted tenants who are still packing.

The Brewery Breakthrough is the brainchild of the nonprofit West 7th/Fort Road Federation, one of St. Paul's 17 District Councils set up to include residents in decisions affecting their neighborhoods. Put simply, the project's first phase calls for the buyout of more than a third of the three-block district's 75 homes; of these 28, all but four were owned until two weeks ago by Bob Hillman. Demolition is scheduled to begin at the end of August on 15 of the houses which have been deemed substandard and sit on land earmarked for high-end town homes. Some 29 houses (a mix of Hillman homes, tax-forfeited houses, and properties the federation bought from other landlords) will be rehabbed and sold off to new owners for between $65,000 and $125,000 apiece, according to the federation's estimates--nearly doubling their current average value. Plans also call for the construction of 22 upscale town homes, with units estimated to fetch between $120,000 and $150,000 apiece. Over the next two years the rest of the district will get a face-lift: an ornate transit stop at the intersection of West Seventh and Jefferson, some fancy landscaping, a public park along the Mississippi bluffs, and a pedestrian/bike trail running from Duke Street to the river. Bottom line for the project? Just over $11 million, with half of that kicked in from public tax coffers.

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