Pulling a small grocery cart, Francine Folson didn’t have to look far for an inviting place to sit while waiting for a bus in downtown St. Paul on Wednesday. There, at the corner of 5th and Minnesota streets, were brightly colored patio tables and chairs — along with Adirondack chairs, lawn games and signs saying “All Are Welcome.”
It has been only a week since this corner of downtown, near the Green Line’s Central Station, has been transformed into a tiny spot of hospitality on an otherwise vacant lot. But Folson said she likes the change.
“I think it’s a good thing for older people. They can sit down and rest,” said the East Side resident. “I think the color is what attracted me. Nice bright colors.”
The cheerful plaza is part of a yearlong effort to add energy — and safety — to the Central Station area, outside and in the nearby skyway.
Max Musicant and the Musicant Group are working with the city of St. Paul and Metro Transit to attract more people to an otherwise-unattractive block. In the winter, there was a winter solstice pop-up event featuring outdoor games, a marshmallow roast and hot chocolate. This summer, it’s food trucks and music and beanbag toss.
For Musicant, whose consortium was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, it’s all about chasing away bad behavior and would-be bad actors by making a space so inviting that it draws transit riders, downtown residents and visitors.
There is still a ways to go.
On Wednesday, as threatening skies and raindrops kept people away from the space, a splash of vomit on the new concrete patio needed cleaning up. Nearby, the elevator leading from the Central Station to the skyway reeked of urine.
“It’s just part of the process,” Musicant said. “We’re chipping away at it.”
John Shaw, Folson’s friend, said it’s working. Just a few days ago, he saw children playing the games that have been left out and made available to anyone who stops by.
“They’re not scared,” Shaw said. “Maybe that will make the trouble go somewhere else, because it’s nice.”
Maygen Keller, community manager for Pop-Ups at Central Station, said some have expressed incredulity that none of the games or furniture has been taken.
“A visitor said, ‘Wow, you’re leaving all this stuff outside, trusting people. That’s crazy,’ ” Keller said. “But all the materials are still here.”
The hope is that lunchtime visitors stop for a food truck sandwich, relax at a table, play a game of ladderball, listen to some music and start talking to each other, she said. That, in turn, will bring more people and even more positivity.
“People assume that spaces like this aren’t for them,” Keller said. “We want to change that.”
As Keller spoke, Marlowe Teichman, a student at St. Paul’s McNally Smith College of Music, strummed vigorously on her ukulele. Hired to play in a series of Wednesday lunchtime concerts in the space, Teichman played enthusiastically even though the dreary weather meant few were there to listen.
Teichman is convinced that playing at the pop-up events at Central Station can help people connect to the world around them.
“Music is like the best medicine for anything,” she said. “I like it when people stop to listen. If I can make someone’s day, it makes my day.”