Two by two, clad in black, with many wearing masks, they marched in time to funeral dirges played by a small brass band. Starting at the steps of St. Paul’s Union Depot, winding up Wacouta, and then over to 5th and Sibley, the 100 or so mourners crossed Mears Park, set down the casket and paid their last respects to a Lowertown legend.
The Jax Building, a former warehouse that has housed artists’ studios since 1977, has been sold for redevelopment. All of its tenants were out as of April 30. This was its wake.
Some of the mourners won’t be going far. The nonprofit group Artspace has found several of them new studios in a Lowertown building nearby. Others are eyeing more affordable swaths of space elsewhere.
But the New Orleans-style funeral march marked what many say is the passing of the spirit of Lowertown — a creativity that once oozed from dozens of old, inexpensive buildings that housed painters, potters and dancers before redevelopment. They fear that the neighborhood on the edge of downtown might be losing its soul to a burgeoning number of high-rent apartments, foodie-loving restaurants and costly condos. So, on Friday, they filled the air with lamentations.
“We have created. We have loved. And we have done all we can to stay passionate and to be here for each other,” said Cami Applequist, a writer who rents space at the nearby Lowertown Lofts Artist Cooperative. “We get to grieve.”
Heather Matson, a photographer who had rented space in the Jax for the past 18 months but who had shared a studio with another artist who had been there 18 years, said: “I think this represents a possible big event for the artistic future of Lowertown. People live here. But there aren’t a lot of nonresidential artists lofts left.”
What is happening in Lowertown has happened across the country, said Melodie Bahan, vice president of communications for Artspace, which began in 1979 as a referral service to match artists with affordable space in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District.
Now, Artspace has more than 40 projects in 18 states to give artists affordable space where they can live and work. In the past month, Artspace has helped relocate several former Jax tenants into the Northern Warehouse in Lowertown, which it bought and developed into dedicated artists’ space in 1990. It also owns the Tilsner Building next door, another project Artspace used low-income residential tax credits to help redevelop.
But the low-cost, unused space that once attracted artists is nearly gone in Lowertown. “We can provide a toehold in the neighborhood that is never going to be market rate,” Bahan said.
Kelley Lindquist, Artspace’s president, said preserving the creative vibe in Lowertown and places like it “is something we struggle with in our work.” But that vibe is critical to the livability of cities.
“I believe that artists act as a continual magnet, not only for the arts but for a family-oriented environment,” he said. “These spaces are transformed and become attractive because of the activity of the artists, the spaces, the shows, the coffeehouses. When artists are kicked out, that creative magnet that creates economic development and quality of life disappears.”
Hundreds of Lowertown spaces for artists have gone away in just the past few years, he said.
Remembering the lost
Mike Savage, wearing a macabre black suit and a top hat as master of ceremonies of the Jax wake, stood and read a list of dozens of names — former Jax tenants — pushed out after the building was “fatally punched.”
Others in the crowd were invited to call out the names of those priced out of other places. After flamenco dancer and former Jax tenant Tara Weatherly pounded her heels on the top of the coffin, she and others wailed loudly for what has been lost.
“We are the weird. We are the strange,” Savage said. “We will find new places.”
City officials say they are working to keep artists in Lowertown — or at least not far away, perhaps in affordable space on the West Side Flats.
Joe Spencer, St. Paul’s director of arts and culture, in a recent interview pointed to the properties owned by Artspace, as well as the Lowertown Lofts, the Bedlam Theatre and the St. Paul Art Crawl as reasons to hope Lowertown’s Bohemian vibe will endure.
Artspace’s Lindquist said he thinks it will, too — the Jax wake notwithstanding.
“I believe that Lowertown will remain very creative, that in 10-15 years it will still feel like a creative community,” he said. “There still is creative energy — events and open houses, good loud music and poetry readings. There still is a natural creativity quotient. We just have to keep working to preserve that sense of place.”