I discovered the Xcel Energy Center on Sunday night, when I had the good fortune to get to see the Minnesota Wild play their final pre-season hockey game (which they won -- yeah! -- though that's relevant neither to the story nor the Wild's standings). I didn't know it at the time, but I would be returning to the vicinity of the arena repeatedly, as the adjacent RiverCentre was the conference headquarters. I also hadn't realized that the "From Immigrants to Sports Fans: Transformations in the West Seventh Street Neighborhood" tour for which I was registered was focused on the area immediately surrounding the Xcel Center -- though had the title specified hockey fans, I might have caught on a bit sooner.
I decided to take this particular tour because I wanted to see how St. Paul handled development in the surrounding area. Washington, DC, my home for nearly 10 years, built an arena in Chinatown just before my arrival that inspired a tremendous economic boom, but also caused the flight of the immigrant population who gave the neighborhood its name. With the exception of the arch over H Street and Chinese characters on the signs for chain restaurants and shops, the streets surrounding the Verizon Center could be anywhere. The local character has been erased almost completely. I needed this tour to tell me that other cities find a way to combine growth and development with maintaining the unique flavor of a neighborhood.
And, I am happy to report, West Seventh appears to have managed this delicate balancing act. Local joints like El Patio (which apparently makes a heck of a margarita) and McGovern's Pub (home of a delicious hot turkey dish, I'm told) fill the street. When I asked about the lack of chain restaurants on the commercial strip, our guide told me there was strong anti-chain sentiment -- and seemed abashed that a Starbucks had snuck in. I may have done a little dance for joy; I don't recall for sure.
Nothing, though, made me feel that original character had been maintained like Irvine Park. Located just a couple of blocks from the Xcel Center, it is St. Paul's last remaining frontier neighborhoods. Threatened with demolition for "urban renewal" in the 1970s, Irvine Park and the houses that ring its perimeter were saved through the efforts of those who lived there, an act which one guide characterized as the birth of historic preservation is St. Paul. While this act of saving the neighborhood predates the late-1990s development nearby, it clearly created a community that can withstand change -- even the addition of a massive sports arena and conference center right around the corner.