Walking through history in the Creative Enterprise Zone

Ten years ago, when the Carleton Artist Lofts were taking shape in the shell of the Johnson Brothers liquor warehouse on University Avenue, the developers included Brad Johnson of that same family. Still active in the area, Johnson helped lead a Creative Enterprise Zone walking tour earlier this fall, one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s occasional public tours of Twin Cities neighborhoods. Recalling the planning process for the lofts, Johnson said he relished the challenge of placing a contemporary interior—one with many artist amenities—inside a legacy building.

When you step out of the Carleton, you’re in the University-Raymond Commercial Historic district, the quarter-mile stretch of University Avenue between Hampden Avenue and highway 280. In that streetscape, most facades retain their original character, dating from the Midway’s fifty-year heyday—1891 to 1941— as the Twin Cities’ industrial hub.

Much of that industry was transit-related, evolving from rail to trucking to automotive over the decades. In 1915 at the corner of Franklin Avenue, the Twin City Four Wheel Drive trucking company built a triangular office building, ornamenting it with relief sculpture celebrating the wheel. Today, it houses Agharta Records, Dick & Jane Letterpress, Black Coffin Tattoo, and more, with artist studios on the second floor. In 1926, the Mack Truck factory and salesroom opened across the street. Non-transit enterprises sprang up, too. Louis F. Dow's printing outfit opened in 1923 at the corner of Hampden; today we know it the Dow Gallery and frame shop, also housing 30 studios.

The Carleton was a plus for local creatives when it opened in 2009, but other signs along University Avenue were grimmer. In 2010 the Chittenden & Eastman building at the corner of Raymond, once home to 40 studios, was sold for conversion to market-rate apartments. And the years-long Green Line construction project was straining the small businesses all along the avenue: restaurants, resale shops, and many one-of-a-kind ventures.

Enter the Creative Enterprise Zone task force. A small group formed in 2011 by the St. Anthony Park Community Council (District 12), it aimed to strengthen this loose community of makers and entrepreneurs, hoping to see them through that pinch point and beyond.

What the CEZ team found and supported—and named—was a flourishing, collaborative local spirit. And the walking tour could offer only a glimpse of the dynamism along the five-block historic district of the larger Zone, which stretches east to Prior Avenue.

At the Dow Building, the walkers browsed the gallery, chatting with owner Khanh Tran (pictured above). At Workhorse Coffee Bar, in the Security Building, they peered at the display in the vintage fire hose box known as the Smallest Museum in St. Paul. At Succotash, around the corner on Raymond, they reminisced over the mid-century memorabilia (pictured below).

At Studio on Fire—fine printing, housed in a former semi truck repair shop—they learned the mechanics of a Heidelberg press.

As a post-tour bonus, Johnson offered a peek at his latest project, The Ray micro-apartments. On Charles Avenue a block north of University, The Ray lies just outside the historic district, But its rooftop deck offers a view of it, and of the broader CEZ. To the east, the water towers of 550 Vandalia and 755 North Prior mark the edges of this remarkable zone we call home.

We’ll alert you to the Minnesota Historical Society’s 2018 CEZ tours as they’re scheduled.

Julie James