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How gentrification killed Lowertown's once-thriving metal scene

Capitol Guitars owners Eric Berg, left, and Billy Bergeron, right, with their Invasion Earth bandmate Tony Bergeron

Capitol Guitars owners Eric Berg, left, and Billy Bergeron, right, with their Invasion Earth bandmate Tony Bergeron Tom WItta

Tony Garfield had arrived.

For the first time, the teen reared on Twin Cities rock luminaries of old like the Litter and Chameleon was about to play the same club his idols and musician father routinely rocked. Grunge was beginning to sweep the nation, but hard rock and heavy metal still ruled at Ryan’s, a headbangers’ clubhouse that thrived in downtown St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood during the 1980s and ’90s.

As a 16-year-old drummer, Garfield felt like he’d made it playing the bar with his older Metal Trolls bandmates. But that night in 1992 didn’t exactly play out like a rock-star fantasy.

“I remember getting kicked out of there for drinking Bacardi and Kool-Aid and falling off the riser,” Garfield says with a chuckle. “This one bouncer had, like, my whole band. He had one dude over his shoulder, the other he was kicking out, and he was like, ‘You! You get out, too!’”

A decade later, Garfield became the one tasked with bouncing underage drinkers and daytime drunks after the club became the Lab and later 4th Street Station, the predecessor to Station 4. Through its various incarnations until its 2013 closing, the venue steadfastly booked metal bands. Many of the local scene’s denizens — including Garfield, who played in pornogrind pillar Anal Blast — lived and rehearsed in the studios above the club.

At the time, Lowertown was a desolate area, one in which inked-up longhairs wearing Cannibal Corpse shirts could “hang out and not get fucked with,” Garfield recalls. It belonged to artists, heavy-metal misfits, and vagrants who would hit the bar for 25-cent daytime tap beers. With Station 4 as the scene’s longtime ground zero, metal-leaning shops Capitol Guitars and Into the Void Records moved in.

Customers thumb through Into the Void's all-metal CD selection

Customers thumb through Into the Void's all-metal CD selection Star Tribune

Then Lowertown became cool.

Since Lowertown’s explosion of new bars, restaurants, condos, and stadium traffic, all three businesses have closed or relocated. St. Paul has always been the more evil twin, but as Lowertown gentrifies, it’s lost its crown as the home of Twin Cities metal. 

Here comes the neighborhood

Eric Berg and Billy Bergeron, owners of Capitol Guitars, could tell the end was nigh. As Lowertown became more desirable, the rent increases began. Theirs shot up 60 percent over the last three years, and the influx of game-day traffic from CHS Field, the newly erected home of the St. Paul Saints, only hurt business. The bars were packed, but baseball fans weren’t stopping in to pick up a Gibson Flying V before first pitch.

Unable to find another affordable location in the area, the two purchased a larger building in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood earlier this year. Berg and Bergeron, both musicians who spent their formative years rocking Ryan’s and Station 4, hope to reopen their shop soon.

“I still love it down there,” Berg says of Lowertown. “I like everything that’s going on down there. It just got too expensive.”

Shane Kingsland, who ran Into the Void for three years next to Capitol Guitars, similarly isn’t bemoaning Lowertown’s evolution — he too enjoyed the wellspring of new eateries and the recently closed Bedlam Theatre.

He shuttered his all-metal record store last year to move near Bemidji, where his wife landed her dream job. But the annual threat of rent hikes already had Kingsland considering leaving the neighborhood, one that initially lured him with cheap rent and proximity to Station 4. Though Lowertown’s unholy metal trinity coexisted for less than a year, touring artists often made in-store appearances at Into the Void or Capitol Guitars before gigs at Station 4.

During his Lowertown tenure, Kingsland watched the “starving artist crowd” give way to a more moneyed demographic.

“You wanna feel good about it on the surface, because you see an area is thriving,” he says. “But once you read the fine print... it seems like it’s a haven for eating and drinking, because when I was there it seemed like everyone else wasn’t doing that phenomenal.” 

Station 4’s creeping death

Station 4 co-owner Steve Ledin will never know how new-look Lowertown would take to his venue that once thundered with guttural screams and blast beats. The club weathered light-rail construction outside its front door for two years, despite losing $1 million in revenue as a result, he estimates. Ledin says Station 4 was in relatively good health before it closed, though patrons reported the bar was often half-stocked — usually a troubling sign.

Before the building was condemned last year, Ledin’s partner, building owner Alan Peterson, unveiled plans to revamp the space into a more neighborhood-y bar and grill, with more subdued live music. Ledin, a lawyer by day who was often spotted behind the bar during shows, was not involved with the new project.

In 2013, Peterson told City Pages “St. Paul people” pressured them to go “a little bit more mainstream,” easing up on the extreme metal acts that dominated the club since the Lab days. However, with the space needing a spendy new HVAC system, those plans never materialized.

The Metropolitan Council estimates downtown St. Paul’s population will shoot from 7,900 in 2014 to nearly 14,300 by 2020 — an 80 percent surge. Ledin acknowledges that rock clubs bring elements residential neighborhoods tend to shun, like noise and increased traffic. But before fleece-clad dog-walkers spilled onto the streets from their condo buildings, Station 4 existed without issue.

Shane Kingsland, owner of Into the Void

Shane Kingsland, owner of Into the Void

“Nobody in the neighborhood complained when a band like Goatwhore played,” Ledin recalls, laughing. 

A scene marches on

With local metal bands like False, Obsequiae, and Panopticon earning national attention, the Twin Cities metal scene is stronger than it’s been in years. Still, Garfield says the loss of Station 4 had a “huge” impact, leaving developing local bands without a stage to regularly share with larger touring acts. The more corporate Mill City Nights picked up the metal slack over in Minneapolis, but it’s slated to close at the end of the month. In its wake, longtime West Bank hippie hangout the Cabooze is adding more metal shows.

But, as Kingsland notes, metal fans are finicky about their choice clubs. Station 4 was home.

These days Garfield rarely makes it to Lowertown. He admits he only recently learned CHS Field was built there. He fondly remembers the three years he and a cadre of death metal musicians lived, worked, and played at the Lab during the early ’00s.

Sleep was hard to come by, as bargoers would file into the upstairs studios after last call to party until sunrise. Some of the studios were nice, including one occupied for years by local R&B hitmakers Mint Condition, but perhaps not ideal living spaces. Without anywhere to do laundry, Garfield once kept his shoes and socks on for an entire month and “damn near lost a toe.”

One of Garfield’s two shared bathrooms always seemed to be padlocked, so some enterprising tenants made use of empty Gatorade bottles, chucking them into the streets once re-filled.

“We’d be walking down the sidewalk like, ‘Don’t kick that! Don’t! Ugggghhh,’” Garfield says. “But you get used to it.”

Walk the suddenly upscale streets now, and Lowertown’s heavy-metal heyday seems like a distant, blaring memory. Through all the changes, Garfield can still detect traces of the neighborhood’s grungier past — at least in the alley behind the former Station 4.

“It will always smell like bum piss no matter how much they cover that shit up,” he says.

Put that in the condo brochure.