What do St. Louis Park, Paul Bunyan and Walker Art Center have in common? All three grew out of the business interests of T.B. Walker, once one of the wealthiest Americans. In the 1880s, Walker expanded his focus from timber (Bunyan being the colorful mascot for his Red River Lumber Co.) to building an industrial town just west of Lake Calhoun, where two railroad lines converged.

One of these lines, the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad, gave the town its name. Walker’s vision flourished for three years, attracting factories for farm equipment and other goods. There were stores, hotels and a streetcar connecting to Minneapolis. But the national depression of 1893 hit business hard, and several factories closed.

Eventually, the streetcar line helped St. Louis Park become one of Minneapolis’ first commuter suburbs. Today, along Hwy. 7 just west of Hwy. 100, you can see 19th-century remnants of Walker’s dream, including the two-story brick Walker Building, once the seed for an envisioned downtown.

In the 1950s, the community became a center for Minnesota’s Jewish population, with an array of temple congregations. Many of the Orthodox temples cluster in the city’s older eastern neighborhoods abutting Excelsior Boulevard. On the Saturday Sabbath, the faithful do not ride in motorized vehicles, and one sees many people dressed in black walking to services. This faith tradition almost requires relatively tight communities close to one’s place of worship.

Contrary to urbanites’ use of the term “suburban” to deride all things sanitized and boring, not all suburbs are the same. They’re not all filled with big lots, McMansions, megachurches and phony English-sounding street names.

Many of our oldest roads began as trails connecting the city with other towns. Running across several suburbs, Excelsior and Minnetonka boulevards, for example, are 150 years old and named for their historic destinations on Lake Minnetonka.

Though technically a suburb, Excelsior doesn’t fit the stereotype. It’s the town that “new urbanists” would like to build today. There are public parks on Lake Minnetonka, small houses and Water Street lined with century-old storefronts. Many long-term businesses such as Bacon Drug and Olds Dry Goods are gone. For a while in the 1990s, it looked like the whole downtown would turn into gift and antique shops.

But there’s a new Kowalski’s and pharmacy at the street’s south end, and the beloved Excelsior Theater and Excelsior Bay Books are still thriving. You can rent an office or apartment above a store. There’s Metro Transit express service to Minneapolis. This is a Twin Cities suburb where you can live without a car.

Across the metro area and very different from Excelsior, Woodbury was a farming township that never had a downtown of its own. Residents traveled to nearby hubs such as Afton or Stillwater for shopping. This history explains why you almost have to own a car there now.

Yet, beneath new developments of multi-gabled houses, there’s a telling history in place names — Hudson and Stillwater roads snaking toward those destinations, and Bailey Road — named for the family nursery still in business on its once rural site. Nationally known, Bailey Nurseries has been in the same family for four generations.

Today, Woodbury is developing the walkable cores it never had. They’re not the main streets or shopping malls of old, but open-air “lifestyle centers” replete with outdoor cafes and national chain stores and health clubs. Some have new multiunit housing and transit connections next door. They’re neither particularly diverse nor affordable. But these new centers are far more walkable than landscapes of big box stores and strip malls. The challenge will be how they age with their populations and offer expanded economic and transportation access over time.

With even Woodbury becoming somewhat denser, we should stop assuming that you have to live in “the city” to find walkable neighborhoods with strong transit.

Named for early investor Andrew B. Robbins (T.B. Walker’s brother-in-law), Robbinsdale is a somewhat forgotten railroad and manufacturing town with great promise today. There are historic buildings and small-scale lots ideal for infilling with a fine-grained array of housing, commercial and retail uses. Robbinsdale’s compact prewar neighborhoods, the planned Bottineau LRT line and exceptional downtown businesses such as the 120-year old Hackenmueller’s Meats and Travail Kitchen all point to a close-in community that may soon become “urbane” and even cool.

Falcon Heights will probably never have a downtown, but it does have some fascinating architecture in “the Grove” — a neighborhood planned beginning in the 1920s by the University of Minnesota for its staff. While many high-end new developments require minimum house size, the university stipulated a maximum size for houses, along with the stipulation that they be designed by a registered architect. The result is a remarkable collection of small houses ranging from the crafted traditionalism of Edwin Lundie to the stark modernism of Ralph Rapson.

Outside University Grove, Falcon Heights boasts many well-built postwar ramblers with fine stone details and hardwood floors. In places such as Edina, such houses are being torn down for turreted replacements three times larger. But not here; at least, not yet.

This “teardown” issue, along with the fate of postwar suburban city halls and libraries designed by the architects represented in University Grove, is becoming a hot debate in historic preservation.

There’s more history in the “suburbs” than we realize. The Twin Cities metropolitan region has nearly 100 units of government spread over several counties — all with historic reasons for their names, the outlines of their boundaries and how they look today.

Go to any local historical society from Bloomington to Long Lake and you will find stories of American Indian precedents, immigration, heroic efforts to build new schools, beloved old restaurants and waves of new development. History reminds us that our collection of “suburbs” offers many options and alternatives for the future. They are far more interesting and varied than those who would deride them ever knew.


Minneapolis writer Frank Edgerton Martin writes about urban design.