Saturday night in St. Paul was one of those extraordinary summer evenings when everything seems to click—a womb-like ambient temperature, no threat of rain, a scarlet and tangerine sunset, music on every street corner—and seemingly everyone was outside enjoying it.
Downtown, in Lowertown, thousands of the young and hip dodged traffic cones and detour signs for the privilege of cramming themselves into Mears Park to hear local favorites Mason Jennings, Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, Cloud Cult, Peter Wolf Crier, and several other bands jam the night fantastic. And jam they did, one right after the other, in what amounted to a collective affirmation that the local music scene is as good or better as it has ever been.
If you were from Minneapolis and weren’t paying attention to traffic reports, you no doubt discovered with some dismay that I-94 back across the river was closed for re-paving. Which meant you had to take the long way home, either south on I-35 to 494 or up one of the avenues: University, Summit, Grand.
But there are worse things than being trapped in St. Paul. If you chose to get home via the urban splendor of University Ave., for example, you may have had occasion, as I did, to stop in an abandoned parking lot across from a Wal-Mart to take in the Saturday night cabaret of Wing Young Huie’s University Avenue Project, which I wrote about in the May issue of Mpls./St.Paul magazine.
The cabarets (there are three more scheduled this summer) feature local performers playing onstage while photos from Huie’s University Ave. Project are projected on giant screens behind the performers. A few hundred people gathered last night to hear a variety of local acts you’ve probably never heard of: Kevin and Pada, Shirley (Kartarik) Michienzi and the chorus from the Episcopal Homes, Fres Thao, Brian Laidlaw, PosNoSys, The Dirty Darlings (not so dirty after all), Gigie Blue with Gray Sage, and guitarist Ben Glaros.
Wing Young Huie himself was there, taking pictures (as always) for a book that will commemorate the project after the fact. He seemed pleased with the turnout. Admittedly, the volume and intensity of the festivities in Lowertown could not be matched by the performers on University Ave., but that was okay, because the magic of the event was really that it happened at all. Because for every summer in modern memory, the patch of asphalt across from Wal-Mart on which we were standing has been just that, a forlorn swath of emptiness in the long stretch of nothing that this part of University Ave. has become. With the help of Public Art Saint Paul, some legacy funding, and a gaggle of enthusiastic volunteers, that weedy box of asphalt has been transformed this summer into the multimedia epicenter of Young Huie’s University Ave. Project, an ambitious effort to document on film the people and places of University Ave. before the backhoes start ripping up the street for the Central Corridor light-rail line, which will change the character and tone of University Ave. forever—and, we can only hope, for the better.
A few hundred folks gathered there last night to experience that elusive quality of city living that urban planners are always talking about but never bother to define very clearly: “community.” But you know it when you see it. On Saturday, it existed in all sorts of places in St. Paul (okay, and probably a few in Minneapolis), and it was rather awesome, in a quiet, humble, St. Paul sort of way. Earnest acoustic music, photos of ordinary people, a few flickering fireflies, the occasional mosquito or three. It was a summer night to savor.
After we packed up our camp chairs and headed back out into the night, there was only one thing that could have made it more perfect for my crew: a trip to Dairy Queen. And that’s precisely where we went.