The fountain is on. Word goes through the neighborhood as if it has to, forming language to express what anyone hears well enough as the murmur of water. We say it to each other not because we have to tell the story, but because something deep inside us says we have express our joy. The Irvine Park fountain is on! It’s summer in Saint Paul, finally!
My neighborhood is named for the public square of two acres in the middle of it. It interrupts the grid where Walnut Street and Ryan Avenue should intersect, standing apart from the streets of the city rather than allowing itself to be defined by them. It’s named for John R. Irvine, the man who homesteaded this peace of land long before there was a city. Eventually, Rice and Irvine’s Addition made it into a formal platt map and legal description, covering this end of Downtown and a bit beyond.
The idea of a formal square was important in those days as a kind of common. It was where the horses could graze apart from the houses. This piece of land was eventually set up to include a more urban feel and layout. Seven Corners was where streets came together that went to Fort Snelling, the Upper Landing of the Mississippi, the Lower Landing, and off into the city. Exchange Street, where the banks were, was one block off from this central market. The docklands and their burly mix of warehouses, whorehouses, and bars was down Eagle Street. In a small frontier town, this cacophony was all good enough.
Everything fell on hard times as the jumbled up mixed uses of the urban core seemed a bit too public for an expanding city. The trolleys meant that people could live far away from the docks and the markets and so they made a residential only neighborhood “Up the Hill”. The first fountain was installed in 1893 in an attempt to make it pretty, but it was still a rough neighborhood. The oak trees at the center were apparently planted then, if not earlier.
About ten years ago an old guy was walking through with two women who were clearly looking after him. He told me that when he was a kid he and the other poor kids in the declining neighborhood would sometimes catch fish in the Mississippi, two blocks away, and put them in the fountain. The problem with this story is that the first fountain was torn down for scrap in World War I. I was able to confirm that he was a lot older than he looked, and he told me a few other stories of life back then.
After the first fountain was taken out, and the neighborhood continued to decline. By the 1970s it was a haven for homeless and a lot of scary people. The city had a plan to build an industrial park with a concrete housing unit overlooking the Mississippi. What was going to happen to the old houses? A lot of people got together and put a stop to it. They simply insisted that the heritage was too important, and eventually the first National Historic District in Minnesota was formed. Houses were bought up by the city and sold to anyone who would fix them up for $1,000 – and a labor of love, not money ensued.
The City of Saint Paul’s commitment included the restored park and a new fountain, first turned on in 1979. It is now 30 years old.
Like any public park, it has its share of wear. At least two cars have hit the fountain, one of them a drunk two years ago who apparently thought that Walnut Street should go straight through. It doesn’t. Kids routinely bathe in the water in the summer, even when it gets a little bit on the green side. Young lovers sometimes think that no one is watching them, a ridiculous idea in a neighborhood like ours.
What we look forward to more than anything, however, is when the long dormant winter springs to life as water from the fountain. It’s a reminder of everything we were and everything we went through turned into a promise of warmer days ahead. The fountain is on! It’s summer!