Payne Avenue acts something like Main Street for the East Side of St. Paul, with rows of storefronts not yet ravaged by parking lots. Years of neglect have taken their toll in parts, but the street is still incredibly walkable. It looks as though it could be Grand Avenue’s less-bougie, rough-and-tumble little brother. Through its ups and downs, one thing is for sure: Payne is developing an identity all its own.
The Payne of the past
Payne has a long and storied past. We won’t go into too much detail, as there are already great sources for reading up on the history of one of the city’s most interesting stretches.
Payne has a history as a business hub; a neighborhood full of working-class (hard-working might be a better name) Scandinavian, German, and Italian immigrants. Hamm’s, Whirlpool, and 3M offered thousands of jobs to these East Side residents, and, up and through the 1950’s, Payne Avenue enjoyed the fruits of the American dream, lined with thriving shops, bars, and restaurants.
It was a small town in and of itself.
The area fell on hard times after those businesses moved away in search of more space and lower taxes. As jobs disappeared, so did the dollars that once flowed into Payne Avenue businesses; many of Payne’s stores moved or closed up shop as well.
(For a more in-depth look at Payne Avenue’s heyday: What was St. Paul’s East Side like in its economic glory days?)
In more recent history, Payne was best known for the infamous Payne Reliever gentleman’s club. The avenue still had a few places catering to families and residents, but once the club closed Payne was typically only mentioned in conjunction with unfortunate acts of violence, and blight.
But that is changing.
There is plenty to do on the Payne of 2016. Ward 6, the popular cafe/gastropub, is now in its 4th year of operation. Tongue in Cheek is one of the best restaurants in St. Paul, offering playful “teasers” that toy with molecular gastronomy and create unique flavors and textures in small bites, as well as sophisticated entrees, for a more creative approach to dining. Cook is not only one of the best places around for breakfast and lunch, but has proven itself to be one of the most exciting pop-up incubators in the Twin Cities.
But it isn’t just the dining that is exciting. Caydence, a record store/cafe hybrid serving coffees, teas, and espresso to drink while you peruse the eclectic record selection, recently opened in a long-vacant former drugstore. Cookie Cart, a bakery focused on job training for teens, opened just last year. Sidhe Brewery offers cold beer and music to anyone visiting the hopping Plaza Del Sol mall in which it is housed.
And there are still a few remnants of Payne’s glory days: Uniform-store Donaldson’s, open since 1952, hearkens back to a simpler time. Morelli’s, open since 1915, and Yarusso Bros restaurant, open since 1933, stand as a testament to the area’s Italian heritage.
It’s important, especially as the city grows and changes, that nothing gets left behind. While all eyes are on neighborhoods like Lowertown, it’s important that we don’t forget about other pieces of the city. Payne Avenue is bringing back an area that often feels cut off from the most-visited parts of St. Paul. These businesses are doing well, and the area will continue to thrive, but only with the continued support of the community.
The Payne of the future
St. Paul is lacking in destination neighborhoods. Outside of downtown/Lowertown, only Crocus Hill and Cathedral Hill are really known as “travel-worthy.” It seems it won’t be long before Payne Avenue joins the ranks, but perhaps what makes this area so special is that it’s not only trying to cater to visitors, but also to area residents.
Gentrification, and resulting population displacement, typically causes more problems than it solves. Payne Avenue is striking a balance between what the neighborhood already is, and what it should be:
Ward 6 and Cook bring new life to the area, without pretense. Tongue In Cheek, which could appeal to the fine-dining crowd, doesn’t set price points so high as to alienate residents of the neighborhood, and works to incorporate the area’s melting pot of cultures into its dishes. The continued support of the necessary stalwarts like Morelli’s, Loeffler Shoes, and Donaldson’s, remind us that Payne may have been down, but never out.
And with new restaurants opening soon to supplement the places already open, like gastropub Brunson’s opening in the former Schweitz Saloon, it’s clear that Payne’s recent restaurant success is not just a one-off.
Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary will also play a role in Payne’s future. At the south end of Payne Avenue, a previously-hard-to-find entrance to the park is getting a full makeover. BVNS is an incredible piece of St. Paul greenspace, with bike lanes, hiking trails, and historic treasure hunts. Its close proximity (you wouldn’t know it from the street, but Payne runs right alongside the park) is an added benefit to the recovering avenue.
Payne is continuing its steady climb back to Main Street-status as businesses, jobs, and families return. It may become a destination neighborhood, as the trend suggests, or it may return to its roots as a St. Paul enclave; that small town in and of itself.
Either way, the future looks bright.