Marshalling into Lake Street


"Show me these two cities," said the out-of-towner to the cabbie. "Show me them in a single stretch, on a straight line, where I can peer out the window and see one town become another and know where it happens."

"Well, ma'am," said the cabbie, "we ain't taking River Road then. Nor are we crossing the Ford Bridge. There's nothing jarring there, no transition. University Avenue doesn't cut it either. You never notice the change. We take these paths and you'll start squawkin' like the others I take from the airport and back. You'll claim it's all one big metro now, one super-sized town.

"None of these roads tells the story you want. For that, we have one option. We drive to the east end of Marshall Avenue, where the Cathedral, the state Capitol, and downtown all meet in that well-understood St. Paul confluence of government, commerce, and religion.

"We ride that single line right into the sunset, until we cross the old river into the big town. Then we ride again, on the other side, where they call it Lake Street. I tell you, in one frozen-rope run, you'll learn as much about Minneapolis and St. Paul as anyone can in a weekend visit."

On the St. Paul side he showed her the dominance of the residential area, one regal old house after another tucked behind stately trees and green boulevards. This was a place where a homeowner had power, he said, where the businesses took a back seat to neighborhood residents.

Across the river, where Minneapolis hit, the change was startling. Residential was usurped by commercial. Here, the businessman was king. Only the blind could miss the blunt-force shift.

A mere 30 yards inside Minneapolis, the first outdoor table displayed its wine glass and beer mug. It would be the first of many. From there it was one commercial offering after another, for miles—a breathtaking spectrum of product and service. Trees and boulevards faded, the city got gritty, the use of every square foot intensified.

Back on Marshall, the golden evening sun lit the backyards and gardens, the library, the high school, the university, and the baseball diamond. On Lake Street, it shined on the bars and markets, the tattoo parlors and pawnshops.

"Lake Street will throw you curveballs, lady, in a way Marshall never does. You see the car wash, taverns, drugstores, and all the litter, and you don't expect to come upon a lush, lonesome cemetery. Graves in some cases 10 feet from a guy on the sidewalk brown-bagging his vodka. Good luck resting in peace here.

"Lake Street will demand a double take or two. For instance, that western saddle shop up ahead. Does it know what city it's in? And how about Cowboy Slim's? Hip-hop culture meets Gene Autry."

She laughed, and he rolled.

"Remember how quiet it was out your window in St. Paul? Listen to the din out there now. This is a city, honey. You're in the heart of the beast. There's even a puppet theater with that name right there. Back in St. Paul this street got so quiet there were kids playing baseball in the middle of it, remember, on that east end, where it narrowed? Imagine the casualties we'd have here.

"You run the gamut on Lake Street, wealth to poverty. You move from the middle class through the working class and come out on the far end in the upper class. Take a look out there now: Uptown, Lake Calhoun, bronze bodies, jewelry, sailboats.

"Lake Street ends with a fancy beach club overlooking the water. It's funny because that's where Marshall starts, with the Town and Country Club, where St. Paul's old money hangs out, also overlooking the water.

"But that's the only similarity these streets share. Otherwise it's a night-and-day peek into different worlds. Nowhere else in town does one bridge connect two streets more diverse. They offer a genuine taste of their town's respective differences. They tell a story.

"So welcome to the Twin Cities, ma'am. Don't let anyone call 'em one town again."