Joy Benn crafts her lampwork beads in a studio in northeast Minneapolis, recently named the country's best arts district. But she lives at the Schmidt Artist Lofts along St. Paul's W. 7th Street, another area fast becoming known as a hot spot to live and work.

"It's super convenient to downtown, and I love being so close to the river," Benn said. "I love the neighborhood bars. There are so many unique little places."

W. 7th Street may be the quintessential St. Paul boulevard, cutting on a slant through several cozy neighborhoods and leaving a trail of multi-cornered intersections as it runs between downtown, the old fort for which it was first named and the airport.

But for a long time the strip that runs through what locals call the West End was one of St. Paul's biggest afterthoughts, with a reputation for abandoned homes, dismal crime stats and seedy parlors. Longtime residents stayed loyal, but most others sped through on their way to somewhere else.

All that has changed, due to years of grass-roots efforts and city backing that are increasingly drawing residents, small businesses and developers.

Hundreds of houses have been rehabbed with the help of the West 7th/Fort Road Federation, the neighborhood's activist district council and development arm.

Entrepreneurs are snapping up charming old storefronts to open funky shops with names like Mojo Monkey Donuts and Bearded Mermaid Bazaar. Even old W. 7th establishments like Joe and Stan's Bar have been remodeled.

The opening of Xcel Energy Center in 2000 ignited the commercial district on the east end of W. 7th Street, fueling a boom that soon will bring a hotel and market-rate apartments to the area. Then there is Victoria Park, a former oil tank farm near the river that after a slow start is being remade into an urban village with hundreds of new apartments and parkland.

But the biggest sign that W. 7th is entering a new era was the $123 million transformation two years ago of the vacant castle-like Schmidt brewery, a local landmark, into the hippest apartment complex in town — nearly 250 lofts for artists like Benn, along with studios and galleries for their use. It was developed by Plymouth-based Dominium with the help of public cleanup funds and tax-exempt bonds issued by the city.

Important corridor

After the Artist Lofts opened across W. 7th from her last year, Nance Derby Davidson started the Artista Bottega shop and gallery. A scenic artist who has painted TV and movie sets and once did work for Prince, Davidson moved into her century-old storefront in 1997 and had always planned to open a gallery there.

"It's a solid working-class neighborhood with shady trees, close to the river, close to downtown. And it has a small-town feel," she said.

One of the summer's biggest attractions is the Grand Oak Opry, a free (donations accepted) acoustic music series staged in the Goodhue Street backyard of Tim Hawkins and Sean Kershaw. About 90 attended the last show on June 27.

"We put out an old rundown carpet for the bands and run a power cord from the kitchen window," said Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League.

At the same time, W. 7th Street's standing as a local and regional corridor has re-emerged. Last year the St. Paul City Council chose it for the city's first modern streetcar line, should it build one.

The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority is conducting a $1.45 million study of possible routes and vehicles for the Riverview Corridor, which tracks W. 7th between downtown, the airport and the Mall of America. Options range from light rail to streetcars to enhanced bus service.

"It's really exciting to see the new developments along West 7th, and the potential is even greater with the study of the Riverview Corridor," said Donna Drummond, St. Paul's planning director. "We expect and hope that will continue."

Longtime Uppertown resident Joe Landsberger said that members of the West 7th Business Association, which he serves as president, once numbered in the 30s. Now there are 75, and they're shooting for 100 by the end of the year.

"There's more of a buzz, but that's really the product of a lot of years of work," he said.

History was key

Community leaders and longtime residents say the foundation for W. 7th Street's turnaround was laid decades ago, starting with the rehabilitation of the Irvine Park neighborhood in the 1970s and the federation's efforts to rehab and create housing.

"Many look at the Schmidt Artist Lofts as the major catalyst, but the groundwork has been building for years," said Shawn Devine, the federation's president. "It's a strong neighborhood because of the residents who care about it."

City Council Member Dave Thune, who owns an art gallery on W. 7th, said that the neighborhood's history was key to early restoration efforts. The focus on preservation helped train community leaders who then went on to spearhead other battles, such as those to save the C.S.P.S. Hall, a Czech lodge once visited by Dvorak, and close a smelly ethanol plant at the Schmidt brewery.

Newcomers have been just as active. Marit and Tom Brock loved the area when they moved there in the late 1990s but were troubled by irresponsible landlords and a growing number of foreclosures. In response, they formed the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association to promote housing, safety and livability in the area between Grace Street and Smith Avenue. The group's latest project is landscaping the Interstate 35E bike path.

"It was easy to bring people together around this neighborhood association. The energy and enthusiasm is pretty amazing," Tom Brock said.

'Keep West 7th Weird'

Both ends of W. 7th also are seeing change.

In the Seven Corners area near Xcel Energy Center, construction is expected to begin next month on an apartment and retail complex where a church and hardware store recently stood. The six-story building will include 191 market-rate apartments, street-level retail space and 300 parking spaces, said Matt Rauenhorst, the project's lead developer for Opus Group development. Houston-based Vista Host also is planning a 160-room Hampton Inn and Suites next door.

Neighbors were relieved that Opus is planning a relatively low-slung, brick-faced structure that reflects both W. 7th Street's vintage architecture and the contemporary hockey arena across the street. "Opus has been very respectful … there's been no fight about anything," writer and consultant Erik Hare, said.

At the other end of W. 7th, local developers Paster Enterprises and Bader Development plan to replace the Sibley Plaza Shopping Center, a 60-year-old strip mall, with a $50 million mixed-use complex including stores, a fitness club and 120 market-rate apartments. Construction is expected to begin next year.

If there's any downside to the attention that W. 7th is drawing, it's the fear that somehow the spotlight will alter the street's authenticity.

"I want to get bumper stickers made, 'Keep West 7th Weird,' " said Hare, who lives in Irvine Park. "This is a very strange area. People feel like you can be yourself; that's what attracted artists more than anything else. Also, the rent is cheap."

Kershaw thinks the neighborhood's affordability and blue-collar heritage will keep it rooted.

"It feels like the attention is coming back to what's always been here," he said. "I really believe that neighborhoods have a culture, and this culture goes deep."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035