Second of two articles
As we discussed last week, St. Paul was founded upon Seven Hills. Depending on whom you talk to, there are about 13 or so of these Seven Hills. Five of them are undisputed. Everyone generally agrees that Cathedral Hill, Capitol Hill, and Dayton’s Bluff are the currently existing hills that form the nucleus of the Seven. In addition, two historic hills, Baptist Hill and Williams Hill – currently the site of a park and a business center, respectively – should also be included in this number.
That leaves the two remaining slots open to at least six worthy contenders: Ramsey Hill, St. Clair Hill, Mount Airy, Mount Ida, Crocus Hill, and Prospect Park.
Or four worthy contenders, anyway. Because it’s my column, I’m going to reluctantly disqualify Ramsey and Crocus Hills from the running. They’re nice enough hills. But that whole section of St. Paul running along 35E is generally known as the Hill District, because there are so many of them in such close proximity. Not only do you have Ramsey and Crocus, but Grand Hill and Summit Hill are in there, too. They’re all part of the same system of hills, within a half-mile of one another, and therefore somewhat indistinct from one another. That’s especially true considering that Cathedral Hill rests at the top of the ridge; all other hills in the area are subordinate to Cathedral Hill.
In fact, the more hills you climb in St. Paul, the more you realize that all hills are subordinate to Cathedral Hill. From every hilltop I crested, sweaty and panting and arriving at the public overlook, I’d be greeted with a familiar sight: the Cathedral of St. Paul, off in the distance, a copper papal tiara pushing up through the ozone. You start to think, after the third time, man, that cathedral is everywhere. It’s omnipresent. They should have just the named the whole city after it.
And then you realize: oh, snap, they did.
St. Clair Hill
St. Clair Hill could probably also be lumped in with the rest of the Hill District hills, but I’m going to give it a pass. For one, it’s at the beginning of the range, a little further west, and it does have a feeling of being a distinct hill. It has three sides, for example – St. Clair Avenue going east creeps up gradually, crests at Linwood Park (there is a St. Clair Park below it), and then descends again gradually past 35E. At the crest is a terrific overlook, with a recreation center and other leisure facilities. When I visited, there were a handful of sunbathers, strewn about the grass and lying utterly motionless, surrounding a multigenerational volleyball game. The game was especially dramatic-looking, playing out as it was against the backdrop of an endless vista of smaller hills rolling off into the distance, south toward the river and into Mendota Heights. Many of the other hills in this range lack public overlooks – either private houses or institutions occupy space. Linwood Park does have a phenomenal public overlook. Perhaps it’s for this reason that columnist Oliver Towne posited St. Clair Hill as one of his Seven.
St. Clair Hill is, unlike every other hill mentioned this week and last, oriented away from Cathedral Hill. St. Clair is kind of an outlier, fixing its gaze not toward downtown and the cathedral, but to the West Seventh neighborhood below. The most visible marker of Central European cultural power is not the church, but the Schmidt Brewery. I’ve written a lot about what these hills look like and to some extent how it feels to be on them, but there is also the matter of what a hill means to the viewer – an important point I’ve only touched on. Here I turn you over to Patricia Hampl, who wrote about this particular hill and the vista it provided in her memoir “A Romantic Education” (a passage I recently rediscovered via the St. Paul Almanac). Hampl would sit at the benches and write. It’s the place, she says, where she learned to be a poet. Of the vantage point, she writes: “I looked down on the old neighborhood as if from an airplane, as if on my way to somewhere more important. I was higher, bigger, more life-size than the toy houses and cars and streets, the miniature twig trees and tiny doll people down there. The only thing approaching my dimension was the brewery itself and its blinking sign. Hypnotized, I watched this sign for hours, for whole seasons. I think I sat there just to watch it.”
It’s surprising to find Mount Airy not in universal agreement as to its status as one of the Seven. It’s the only hill of all of them that feels like completely and totally hill-like. It has four sides, the roads wind up to the top, and there is a top, which you can stand on and see clearly out on all four sides for a 360-degree view of everything below you. Incredibly, none of the other twelve hills noted in this piece actually provides a 360-degree view.
Mount Airy is located in the hilly district just north of the Capitol. It’s hemmed in by highways to the east and south, and railroad tracks to the north. In fact, these features have to curve around it, and Mount Airy looks like a hill on even a map that doesn’t show elevation. Most notably, the hill is home to 298 units of public housing, dating to the 1990s. The site has been home to public housing since the 1930s. Before that, it was a slum known as the Badlands – and not a “slum” in the cute Midwestern way, but in a way that city leaders found to be the only example locally of the sort of slum you could find on the East Coast. The loose soil and considerable height of the slopes made it difficult to develop, so Mount Airy was a lot of shacks and substandard housing literally piled atop one another, all the way to the top. It was all cleared out by the 1950s.
The best viewpoint is from the community center parking lot, at Wales St. and Arch St. You can, in fact, see the Minneapolis skyline from here, too, one of the rare vantage points where such a thing is possible.
Mount Ida is over on the other side of 35E, and also provides something close to a full 360-degree view, if not quite. The neighborhood around Mount Ida is typical of any geographically isolated neighborhood – it seems a world apart from the East Side below it. Like the rest of the Payne-Phalen neighborhoods below, it’s a mix of working-class bungalows and painted ladies. But the view and the steep inclines give the houses a more distinctive quality. The modestly named streets like Burr, Bradley, Fred and Clark give the indication that guys with those names could actually still live on them.
Despite a chain-link fence and some overgrowth, the best view is a dead end at Rivoli Street, overlooking Lafayette near where Williams Hill once stood. Off behind that is a good view of the Capitol. Looming behind that is – you guessed it – the Cathedral.
There is no end to the parochial chauvinism of a Minneapolitan, especially where St. Paul is concerned (I say this as a Minneapolitan). When first confronted with the idea of Prospect Park being one of the seven hills, I immediately regarded it as an error. Witch-hatted Prospect Park, everyone knows, is in Minneapolis, I thought. Sure, I can see where someone could make the mistake. It’s a hill, after all. And it’s right on the St. Paul border.
Of course, the mistake was mine. There’s also a Prospect Park in St. Paul, named like its opposite Minneapolis number for the prospect, or the view of a part of a landscape.
You can only ascend the Witch’s Hat on the Minneapolis Prospect Park hill once a year, but you can visit St. Paul’s Prospect Park 365 days a year. It’s near the High Bridge and part of the same ridge of hills, but offers its own vantage point. All along Prospect Boulevard there’s some good views, and then the park itself also has a few benches and observation areas. It’s all pointed directly at downtown, and this is yet another very good view of Cathedral Hill.
The park on the hill is a really great one, too. There’s a serviceable playground, some benches, and also a polar sundial, which accurately gives you the time of day based on the Earth’s rotation, and the only such timekeeping device I’ve ever seen in a park in the Twin Cities. If you have kids with persistent questions about the rotation of the earth around the sun, or how far you can see into the distance on a clear day, or why Minneapolis people are always ragging on St. Paul people even though St. Paul has all the same stuff Minneapolis has, even down to the same place names, Prospect Park can help you answer a lot of those questions.
Oliver Towne’s “City on Seven Hills” somewhat mysteriously posits “the West Side” as one of the Seven Hills, which is sort of like asking someone what their favorite movie is, and the person answering “Tom Hanks.” But this must be the sort of hill he was thinking of. It seems fitting to include one West Side hill on the list, since the West Side is notable for being one of the hilliest parts of the city.
That’s the thing about a piece of local mythmaking like the Seven Hills. Everyone knows there are seven of them, and so you have the framework of the legend, but you can mix and match the pieces yourself. This gives you a little bit of leeway to suit the myth to your own purposes. Maybe you trust one source a little more than another. Maybe you trust Oliver Towne but you don’t trust me (a very reasonable position). Maybe, if an out-of-town cycling or urban hiking enthusiast wants you to take them on a mountain-climbing expedition of all seven of these famous hills, you could tailor your choices to fit their needs. If you feel sure there should be a West Side hill represented, you can put Prospect Park in there. If they want to play volleyball too, you know St. Clair Hill has you covered. If they really like historic architecture and Jonathan Franzen novels, include Crocus Hill.
If challenged for my own personal list of the Seven Hills of St. Paul, I’d say the best picks based on historical precedent, quality of the panoramic view, and essential hilliness are as follows: Cathedral Hill, Capitol Hill, Dayton’s Bluff, Baptist Hill, Williams Hill, Mount Airy and Prospect Park. But your list may look different. That’s fine. People have been arguing about this for 150 years, and we can argue for 150 more.