Walking Up Payne Avenue

Tour curated by: Special thanks to author Steve Trimble

“Growing up on Payne Avenue was like living in a small town,” former resident DeAnne Cherry once wrote. “My family knew all the merchants and Payne Avenue was where we spent our money.” While this remembrance dealt with the area's life in the 1950’s, the story goes back to a time before Minnesota became a state. Like many other streets, it is named after an early resident, but in this case there is a somewhat unusual story.

In 1856, thirty-eight year old Rice W. Payne of Virgina set out on a trip to see the western frontier and ended up in Saint Paul. He liked the bustling city enough to purchase twenty acres of land on the East Side. He never really settled in the city and after a short time returned home. When the Civil War began, he became a major in the Army of Northern Virginia. Local lore says that this led to the confiscation of his land in Minnesota, but the street was never renamed.

Payne Avenue slowly became a major commercial location that housed a variety of stores serving the immigrant families of the area including Scandinavians, Italians and Germans and others. By the early 1900’s the street was filled with Italian restaurants and stores, including Morelli’s Market, which still operates on Lower Payne Avenue.

At first the street only ran north from Minnehaha and did not directly connect to East Seventh. In the early 1930’s Payne Avenue was extended into its current configuration by taking the place of a street named Decatur. It was around this time that Yarusso’s, another local landmark, was established.

One of the oldest and most well-known St. Paul street fairs is the Harvest Festival. The East Side Commercial Club, a local group inaugurated the Payne Avenue Street Fair and Carnival in 1906 as a way to attract business. They published a souvenir booklet highlighting the contributions of community leaders who they called the “brains and sinew of this district.” A few years ago the event was cancelled because of financial difficulties, but recently the East Side tradition came to life again.

Payne Avenue has gone through many transitions since its initial settlement. At first, people walked its streets or travelled by horse and buggy. By the 1880‘s streetcars zoomed along and the avenue on both sides was filled with storefronts that catered to people’s every need. Today automobiles and busses are the main form of transportation and businesses that serve old and new groups that shop along the old streetcar route. As is the case in cities, things are always changing, but the new Payne Avenue still fulfills its historic role.

Locations for Tour

Set on the hills overlooking downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River, the East Side has always been separated from the rest of the city, first by the marshy ground of the Trout Brook and Phalen Creek beds on the east side of Downtown, and then by…

Morelli’s, located at 535 Tedesco Street on the northwest corner of Payne Avenue, has been in the Italian food business since 1915. James Morelli and his young wife recognized that the growing number of immigrants who lived in the area were eager…

Francesco and Dora Yarusso were the founders of today’s Yarusso Brothers Restaurant at 635 Payne avenue. They arrived in St. Paul in 1904 and headed for Swede Hollow, where they started to raise their fourteen children. They soon moved up the hill…

Casa Bella Plaza Latina — whose building was once slated to become a pawn shop--is a colorful mercado with a wide variety of locally owned businesses. Its 35,000-square-foot commercial space is located at 925 Payne Avenue. The project was driven…

The Payne Avenue State Bank, a two-story brick building at 961-63 Payne Avenue, was constructed in 1923. With its four large classical columns it is probably the most impressive building on the commercial corridor of this part of the East Side. The…

Phalen Creek was a spring fed-stream flowing from Lake Phalen through a deep ravine that ancient waters had gouged from the land. It ended up forming a small delta on the Mississippi River floodplain. Surrounded by trees and wetlands, it served as a…

Benjamin Brunson, a surveyor of Saint Paul in 1847, planned Brunson’s Addition in what is now lower Payne Avenue. The neighborhood had pleasing views of Trout Brook, Phalen Creek and downtown, because no railroads had yet cut through the area. The…

The Brunson House, located at 485 Kenney Street and built around 1856, is thought to be the oldest brick residence in St. Paul. Its original owner was Benjamin W. Brunson who was born in Michigan and went with his parents to Wisconsin in 1835. He…

Swede Hollow. Even though it has been gone for half a century, there are people who still remember it fondly. A number of articles have been written about its history, often in a nostalgic manner. Some say it was a slum, while others think it was a…

While the house at 470 Hopkins Street is not on the National Register, it has a rich history that can help explain the changes over time in the Railroad Island neighborhood. The stories of the people who lived here were discovered by a researcher for…