May 20, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — You can see Selby Avenue's transformation in its buildings. The Blair Arcade is a huge Victorian hotel that fell into disrepair. Now the brick building has been restored to its original elegance. Across the street is the St. Paul Urban League office. This section of Selby Avenue -- from the St. Paul Cathedral to Dale street -- also includes an Arthur Murray Dance School, the home of the St. Paul Curling Club, and half a dozen restaurants.
Bonnie Alton, president of the Selby Avenue Business Association, opened her Great Harvest Bread Company on Selby a year ago after leaving the high-traffic retail area of nearby Grand Avenue. She says rent got too expensive on Grand. Then big chains like Pottery Barn moved in. She says Selby Avenue is different.
"I really see Selby as a place where independent businesses have an opportunity to thrive. It's very well supported by a neighborhood of people who value having small businesses nearby that they can walk to, that they can enjoy knowing the owners of, those kinds of collegial aspects of it," she says.
Just west of Alton's bakery is the intersection of Dale and Selby. Today, an organic food cooperative called Mississippi Market dominates the corner. But 20 years ago, Selby/Dale was a place to avoid. It was home to bars like EJ's where resident Nathanial Khaliq says, gambling, drugs and danger were common.
"I had cousin and one of my childhood best friends was killed up there," he says. "And so we started a petition to close the place down. And we ended up getting almost over 500 signatures from neighborhood people asking the city to close the place down."
Khaliq has lived most of his 62 years in the Selby/Dale neighborhood.
Driving around the area in his green SUV, Khaliq wears a close beard, a baseball cap, and tinted glasses. He points to restored Victorian homes and recalls the days when they were abandoned or gang headquarters.
"This whole block here was infested with crack houses or drug dealers and now there $200,000 or $300,000 homes there," he says.
But, the redevelopment of Selby Avenue is by no means complete. Just a few blocks to the west, the avenue has none of the upscale look of its refurbished eastern section. There are fewer businesses and more vacant lots. Many buildings look empty with droopy awnings and peeling paint.
"To be perfectly honest with you, this was the last place on my list of places to put a coffee shop, by far," says businessman Michael Wright, one of several African American entrepreneurs hoping to revitalize this stretch of Selby Avenue, which was also known for drug dealing and prostitution.
Wright says he and his family took a boarded up, "eyesore" of a building, and transformed it into a hub for the neighborhood; a coffee shop and meeting place called the Golden Thyme Cafe.
Wright says business is good, but it hasn't been easy selling gourmet coffee in a neighborhood that, he says, is still in transition.
"We have a ways to go. And we're just now starting to green it up by adding trees to soften the lines of the buildings, also with banners and things of that nature. So we're really looking to make it more appealing," he says.
Back at the Great Harvest Bread Company, Bonnie Alton says the Selby Celebration will mark the fact that her section of the neighborhood has made the transition from its difficult past.
"Selby has morphed into this wonderful group of food and beverage businesses in particular that have something in common. And that is that they have outdoor patio dining. And it really is St. Paul's patio district. And we wanted to do something to open it up to the public and give them a chance to come and try it out," she says.
Even as business owners celebrate the economic revival of a segment of Selby, it's clear that prosperity has yet to reach as far down the street as trouble has.