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For years, Dave Bredemus saw his beloved W. 7th neighborhood fading and reviving at the same time. Venerable churches and social clubs were closing, even as young families were moving in to renovated housing and restaurants were opening to get their business.

It also gave him an idea. Why not connect the area's new residents with its struggling cornerstone institutions? On June 8, the inaugural West Fest on 7th will seek to do just that.

"West 7th is an urban success story. A lot of people see it at as a very cool place to live," Bredemus said. "But we're losing, too. This is a celebration of where we've come while also helping the places that are hurting."

W. 7th, stretching from the edge of downtown west to Crosby Farm Park, is St. Paul's oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood. But what was once a blue-collar enclave of brewery workers and immigrant laborers is increasingly home to trendy bars and hipster businesses. Half its households make more than $75,000 a year. And the neighborhood's share of residents age 25 to 34 has grown by 5% since 2000, outpacing the city as a whole.

One of the historic Irvine Park homes on Thursday.
One of the historic Irvine Park homes on Thursday.

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune

Meanwhile, congregations dwindle at longtime churches and organizations like the CSPS Hall, Salvation Army and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church struggle for relevance.

Such as St. Mark Lutheran Church: After 126 years, the church at 550 W. 7th St. will close its doors for good following the 9:30 a.m. service June 2, said Diane Testa, vice president of the church council. St. Mark's has lost much of its connection to the neighborhood over the decades as its members moved away, she said. Testa herself left for Roseville after her children grew up and moved out.

Its decline sped up after longtime pastor Walt Wietzke retired in 2016. Testa said the church now has 35 members.

"We haven't gotten new families for years," said Testa. "If we get 20 [people] on a Sunday, that's pretty good."

She added: "Young people just don't join. Scouts, VFWs, social clubs. They're all crying out for members."

Yet, the neighborhood is growing — and faster than St. Paul as a whole.

Megan Chmielewski, an analyst with Wilder Research, said the W. 7th neighborhood over the past 20 years has seen its population grow by 20% and housing units by 40%, compared to 8% and 10% for St. Paul as a whole. According to Minnesota Compass, more than 70% of neighborhood residents moved into the area after 2010.

Former St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune bought his home in the Irvine Park neighborhood in the 1970s, back when area residents mobilized to save its old homes from demolition. He bought his current art gallery on W. 7th 15 years ago. He's seen the neighborhood transform as restaurants, coffee shops and vintage clothing boutiques enlivened old storefronts.

Various vintage shops line West 7th Street on Thursday in St. Paul.
Various vintage shops line West 7th Street on Thursday in St. Paul.

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune

Many were drawn by the neighborhood's walkable, historic vibe, he said.

"They're not chains. They're small businesses," Thune said. "The neighborhood is really friendly, almost like a small town."

Artist Heather Friedli shares the gallery space with Thune. She came to W. 7th in 2017 and lived for a time in the Schmidt artists' lofts. She likes the neighborhood, she said, because it continues to be affordable and "not bougie." Modestly priced restaurants and a variety of housing, from old cottages and above-shop apartments to renovated mansions, sustain a range of income levels, she and others say.

Jason Huneke, 39, and his husband, Ryan Loftsgaarden, 34, moved to the neighborhood seven years ago, drawn by Bad Weather Brewing and the area's "neighborhoody" feel.

"We've really gotten to know the people," Huneke said. "You could almost get away without locking your door."

The couple, who work in real estate, said neighbors were drawn here by the area's affordability and history. Huneke said they've committed to connecting with neighbors, hosting two to three parties each summer and attending backyard summer concerts hosted by nearby Grand Oak Opry.

Sean Kershaw and husband Timothy Hawkins started hosting shows beneath the ancient oak behind their 1856 house in 2014. Neighbor Peg Brown volunteers at each performance. A W. 7th resident since 1993, Kershaw said the area's connectedness has grown.

"Yes, new people are moving in, but it doesn't feel like they're pushing people out," said Kershaw, who is St. Paul's public works director. "Peg and I like hanging out and watching the new folks move in. And some of the same things that drew us here draw them too."

Said Brown: "It's a neighborhood that has always had a strong creative group. … The history of barrel makers or people who make things is still very present in this neighborhood. There are a lot of artists. There's this kind of creative energy that makes it better for everyone."

Keith Bohnen makes a cocktail at the White Squirrel Bar on West 7th Street on Thursday.
Keith Bohnen makes a cocktail at the White Squirrel Bar on West 7th Street on Thursday.

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune

Jarret and Dani Oulman opened the White Squirrel Bar in 2021. They moved their family to the W. 7th area from northeast Minneapolis 12 years ago, drawn by its traditional blue-collar bars and bohemian vibe. Yet, Jarret Oulman said, many of the area's newest arrivals "have started creating their own social institutions," like breweries and tap rooms.

Still, he said, things could be better. Neighbors are hoping for a solution to the recently bankrupted Keg & Case. The food court opened in 2018 at the former Schmidt brewery but was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, developer Craig Cohen said. The development went into bankruptcy in April.

Still others are feeling anxious about a proposal to tear up the street for a streetcar line, Oulman said.

But the overwhelming asset of the neighborhood "is its authenticity," Oulman said. To that end, he said he likes the idea of connecting newer arrivals with the neighborhood's old guard organizations.

Bredemus, a trustee at St. Stan's, said he hopes more of the new arrivals come around to that idea.

"The neighborhood is a success. But if we want that to be long term, we need to make these connections," he said. "The old institutions need to survive. These are all the fabric of who we are and our history. It's the connecting tissue."