Saint Paul Insiders: Carl Atiya Swanson
Carl Atiya Swanson is a Saint Paul creator, performer, writer, artist and dad. He’s the Associate Director of Springboard for the Arts and spends his days finding ways to amplify the fantastic work being done by local artists throughout the Twin Cities.
What is your connection to Saint Paul?
I moved here in high school and graduated from Highland Park Senior High in 2001. I left and, like so many other people, came back to the Twin Cities and I've been working in Saint Paul for the last seven years for Springboard for the Arts.
Tell us a little about Springboard for the Arts.
Springboard for the Arts is an artist-led economic and community development nonprofit. We’ve been based in Lowertown for 27 years. We've done work all across the Twin Cities, especially along the Green Line. During the Green Line’s construction, we ran a program in partnership with the City of Saint Paul to engage artists to do projects along the route to shift the narrative about what was possible on the Green Line. We’ve really grown and adapted from an organization solely focused on individual artists to artists living and working in and with communities. We have this new space on University Avenue we're calling SpringBOX. It’s an old auto dealership, so it’s a big flexible room right on the Green Line with big open windows—to us it really represents what comes next, where our work has been and where it's going. We want it to be a community space and a creative hub for the artists and culture bearers here. We hope to build out and renovate to have an indoor/outdoor market space. We can partner and bring some attention to the corridor, elevate the artists’ work and make this a place where arts and community come together in a seamless and integrated way.
What is the vibe of Saint Paul?
It's an exciting time for Saint Paul and the vibe is one of growth and of opportunity. People are looking forward and the city is becoming better about embracing all of its different aspects—its immigrant populations, diverse corridors and neighborhoods. Really celebrating the things that made Saint Paul really lovely to begin with—our parks, access to nature and then really embracing what's possible and what's next.
How can visitors experience that “what’s next” vibe?
The best way for people to embrace what's new and next is to take advantage of the new transit corridors. Take time to go down the Green Line on University Avenue and see what's happening in the Creative Enterprise Zone. See what's happening at Snelling and Midway, what's happening in Frogtown and Rondo—really embrace those mom and pop stores, new developments, new artistic spaces. Then head down to West 7th, Downtown and Lowertown to see what’s happening with arts and culture and restaurants and all sorts of things there.
What is your favorite place in Saint Paul?
My favorite place is really any place I can I feel like I'm seeing something, tasting something or being part of an experience. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Saint Anthony Park Library because I spent so much time there growing up, but I also love things that happen in the summertime like the Little Mekong pop-up Night Market where you can wander around with thousands of other people late at night and enjoy what's going on along University Avenue. That's one of my favorite current experiences.
If you're looking for an offbeat side of Saint Paul, you cannot go wrong with Axman Surplus. It’s this enormous space filled with the weirdest possible things you can imagine. You can find tiny baby heads, discarded telescopes, a giant submarine, ancient scuba gear—anything your brain could imagine, they have it in bulk and you can buy it at Axman. It’s the perfect place to go and hang out—whether you're a teenager looking to kill time, a family with kids who want to be overwhelmed by things or a curious adult wanting to see a weird space.
Science MuseumWhat are your must-sees or must-dos?
The newly reopened Minnesota Museum of American Art is just architecturally beautiful. They've renovated this indoor space so you can come at it from a couple of different angles—from the sky bridge looking down into the galleries and from street level. It’s really enticing in that way. And the programming there is really exciting—focusing on contemporary and historic Minnesota artists. The curators and gallerists are really doing an amazing job pulling together what's happening now in Minnesota, what’s happening now in Saint Paul and making that really open and accessible. The new Bell Museum is also really amazing—they did a wonderful job.
Ride the Metro Transit Green Line. One of the things that's really great about Saint Paul is that it really is a city of neighborhoods, hubs and corners. The Green Line is a great opportunity to experience those. If you hop off at the Raymond Avenue stop, you get things like Workhorse Coffee, Foxy Falafel and Barely Brothers Records. There are great things happening in the Creative Enterprise Zone. You ride a couple of stops further and you’re at Snelling and Midway—you can go to Turf Club, Black Hart of Saint Paul, see the new Allianz soccer stadium. Ride a little bit farther down and you’re at the Western Avenue stop in the heart of Frogtown. And then you can ride it straight into Downtown-Lowertown to visit places like the Science Museum, Children's Museum or Union Depot. See the artist spaces in Lowertown. Through that one corridor, you can get a great variety of experiences and opportunities to do all sorts of things.
Any favorite family spots?
One of the things about having a family is you want to find things that are distracting and really engrossing for kids to burn off energy. Can Can Wonderland is an amazing place to do that because not only is it this artist-designed mini golf course, but it's a walking arcade with all sorts of games and two different stages. They’re always programming things on the stages, so you can go with a goal in mind of “I'm going to see a performance there” or you can just show up and be overwhelmed by this explosion of color and creativity and spend anywhere from an hour to a full day just hanging out, eating and playing. It's really wonderful and it's created by artists, so it really is engaging in all sorts of different ways.
Choo Choo Bob's is on the list. If you have a child who is in love with trains, which I don't know a child yet who hasn't been at some point, Choo Choo Bob's is an amazing little store with a play area for trains. They film a TV show there. It's just a great experience to go, let your imagination run for a while and let kids play. You can hold birthday parties there. It’s a unique Saint Paul store and landmark.
Talk a little bit about the food scene here.
One of the things about Saint Paul, and the Twin Cities in general, is the really great food scene. Whether that's Keg & Case and some of those big hubs or established landmarks like Saint Dinette and Mucci’s—those are places you should definitely get a burger, have some pizza, enjoy that really quality food there. New places are consistently opening up, like OCTO fishbar and the new Salty Tart in Lowertown. We’re an agricultural state, so we have such great access to quality ingredients. There are really innovative and smart people making really delicious food here—you always have new options as well as great standbys.
What is your favorite neighborhood?
Lowertown. It feels physically different from the rest of the city—it is so full of these old warehouses and narrow alleyways. It has the close vibe of other large cities, but it's super accessible. There are things happening down there—we have artists lofts and the Art Crawl in the spring and the fall, which is a really wonderful way to experience all the creativity that's happening. There's also food happening down there, the newly renovated Union Depot and CHS Field for the St. Paul Saints—if you're here in summer catch a Saints game, because fun is good and they bring the fun. You can walk up the hill and see a show at the Palace or Park Square Theatre. And just to have that walking proximity to all sorts of things—whether it's museums, little clubs, sports or food—that's really exciting.
What is your favorite place to see a show?
Turf Club. It's the best remnant of the forties. It's owned by First Avenue now and they book it really well. There are residencies there on a regular basis and national acts you can see in a really small intimate space. The sound is great. It’s a really terrific place to see a show.
Do you have any favorite outdoor spots?
Hidden Falls is an exciting place to be because it's one of those parks that has something a little bit magical about it. You can wander around and stumble upon all sorts of things—it’s right there in the name, that there are hidden falls. It’s great to be next to the river and to have the experience of being by nature.
What are don’t miss seasonal experiences?
Saint Paul has a really thriving visual and performing arts scene, and the Fall Art Crawl is a really great way to experience some of those things. Studio artists who are sort of hidden away during the rest of the year have open studios so you can see what's happening with painting and contemporary craft work and performances.
I didn't grow up in winter and my natural instinct is not to go outside. We're blessed with a number of museums—the Science Museum, Children's Museum, Bell Museum, plus libraries. If you want to be outside, there are really wonderful things like the Winter Carnival. You can go play in Hidden Falls if there's snow. Winter definitely transforms the city and transforms those experiences, so you can keep coming back to them.
We take advantage of summertime in Minnesota, so there's a really great festival season with opportunities to be outside. There’s free music in the parks, which is a wonderful experience. The Saturday-Sunday Farmers' Market that you can go to, and then the St. Paul Saints are playing. It’s my favorite season. I love being able to be outdoors and see all sorts of things. The city really does come alive when there's the opportunity to be outside and have things happen. It’s great for taking walks in neighborhoods, it's great for seeing different parts of the city, it’s just great to be outside.
Why should someone visit Saint Paul?
There’s a lot happening, there's a lot of opportunities. It’s a neighborhoody town that's growing and seeing that future. You should come to enjoy the food and engage with the immigrant communities that are here making Saint Paul what's next. You should come because of the great institutions like museums and the bookstores—you should see and enjoy those things.
What is your insider tip?
Up and down University Avenue, there are an infinite number of mom and pop restaurants—little holes in the wall where you can get a really, really delicious meal and I highly recommend stopping into places. Thai Cafe has really amazing soups, Thai Garden has terrific Pad See-iew, iPho by Saigon has amazing bahn mi. You can stop in anywhere, ask what's good on the menu and you won't be disappointed.
What does Saint Paul mean to you?
Saint Paul means a lot to me. I spent years here in high school and came back to be part of a growing community—people who are engaged in creative community development and artists, and people concerned for the future of the city who want to see it be open and expansive. It’s a really exciting time to be here and I feel like there's so much potential. There a lot of great institutions and a lot of those institutions are opening up to the future and what's coming next. That’s what's really exciting about being in Saint Paul.
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