It’s been 17 years since Mychael and Stephanie Wright organized the first Selby Avenue JazzFest on the corner outside their fledgling coffee shop. A lot has happened since.
Golden Thyme has become a cultural hub in St. Paul. The Wrights have devoted themselves to improving once-struggling Selby. And JazzFest? What started as a way to draw a few extra folks to the area is expected to attract 15,000 fans to the transforming neighborhood.
“You’ve got to do something to change, to make a draw,” Wright said of his once-troubled corner. “Honestly, this is the last place where I wanted to open a business … but once we did, it just kind of snowballed.”
Robin Hickman, a longtime neighborhood champion whose office is across Milton from Golden Thyme, said the Wrights are helping fill the void left by the bulldozing of the old Rondo neighborhood.
“I say to Mychael: ‘Do you realize how much we all appreciate what you’re doing?’ ” Hickman said. “Golden Thyme has been an anchor. And it’s proof that if we have the vision, we can reclaim what we have lost.”
At corners up and down the avenue, between Lexington Parkway and Dale Street, are signs of Selby’s continuing renewal — several old two-story buildings renovated by Stephanie Wright’s brother, new mixed-use buildings nearing completion on a pair of long-vacant lots. This stretch of Selby is home to several businesses that were inspired at least in part by the Wrights, said longtime area resident Yusef Mgeni.
“Mychael has promoted, encouraged, assisted, advised anybody who has wanted to do business in Summit-University and not just Selby,” Mgeni said.
The Selby Milton Victoria project comprises two three-story buildings: a 24-unit structure on a lot at Victoria and Selby that’s been vacant for 40 years and a 10-unit building near Milton on a lot that stood empty for 25. In addition to low-income senior housing, the buildings will have 9,300 square feet of street-level commercial space for small minority-owned businesses.
The Rondo Community Land Trust, of which Mychael Wright is a board member, owns the land and has raised more than $500,000 to help keep the commercial leases affordable. The project is being called the first commercial land trust of its kind in the Twin Cities.
“Mychael was instrumental in getting the project off the ground,” said Greg Finzell, executive director of the land trust, adding that it was Wright who suggested using the land trust model to cut commercial rents. An expanded Golden Thyme will relocate to one of the $13.2 million project’s street-level spaces.
Selby has been changing for decades, as the eastern end near Western Avenue and the western end near Snelling attracts outside investment in housing, shopping and restaurants. The Wrights, said Mgeni, are helping preserve a place in the middle for several of the neighborhood’s black business owners.
“The beneficiaries of these projects are the people they serve, the people within walking distance,” he said. “People of all colors and classes.”
Wright said he always wanted his own business. As a boy, he and his brothers worked for a neighbor selling flowers, lugging 5-gallon buckets to area hospitals. “That’s how we acquired the jingle in our pockets,” he said.
A 1976 graduate of St. Paul Central High School, he learned the entertainment business managing his brother Gilbert Davison’s Minneapolis nightclub, Glam Slam. Twenty years ago, he shifted his sights to St. Paul and began the work of opening Golden Thyme. Wright said he was undaunted by the now-closed after-hours club notorious for trouble that was across the street.
To honor an uncle who played jazz clarinet and saxophone — “the coolest guy I ever knew” — Golden Thyme is filled with the sights and sounds of jazz. The menu features specialty drinks named for jazz artists. But it’s also filled with community, with a common room he used to use for movie nights and now occupied morning to night by local groups.
“This area wasn’t a very nice area to a lot of people,” he said. “But I never have had one negative incident since I opened. How? You get what you give. I gave respect.”
JazzFest came a year later, in 2002. It has since grown exponentially, attracting well-known artists and thousands of folks toting lawn chairs. Saturday’s festival, Wright hopes, will provide another example to area entrepreneurs and music fans alike that area residents working together can create a safe neighborhood bursting with opportunity and equality.
“I want to see businesses on the avenue, great businesses, run by people of a different hue,” he said. “I want white folks to understand that black folks have been here. And I want everyone to have an opportunity and be the captain of their own ship.”