Rondo’s Blues: How Golden Thyme Coffee & Café became a destination for discourse in St. Paul’s black community

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Golden Thyme co-owners Stephanie and Mychael Wright // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Where is the heart of the black community, currently, in the Twin Cities? Where do African Americans gather to engage and deliberate, publicly, about issues pressing them today? If you had asked me 10 years ago—before my relocation to Harlem—I would’ve told you El-Amin’s on Broadway Avenue, Big E’s Soul Food on Nicollet Avenue, maybe Arnellia’s on University Avenue, possibly even Golden Thyme on Selby Avenue, and, of course, Lucille’s Kitchen.

Lucille’s on Plymouth Avenue was a glorious lair that was one part Southern soul food heaven (ask a native Twin Citian about their peach cobbler; ask them about that those infamously addicting golden brown wings; watch the ecstasy you’ll illicit from them) and two parts community gathering.

Besides its legendary cuisine, Lucille’s was home to a popular weekly radio forum, hosted by Insight News, KMOJ, and KFAI. National and local leaders descended onto this space, transforming a superb black eatery into a temple of black democratic deliberation and participation where no topic was too strenuous to tackle, no idea too modest to consider. I remember these discussions in my childhood home and the galvanizing effect they had on my impressionable mind.

What a difference a decade makes.

Lucille’s, like El-Amin’s and Big E’s, has closed. Alas, for Lucille’s; alas for that period. Ever since then, a false distinction arose between exquisite soul food and black participatory politics. In the Twin Cities, they had been one in the same.

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Golden Thyme // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Out of all the old black cultural eateries here, it’s Golden Thyme that still stands. And stands fierce. Flexing into its 17th year, I’ve spotted at least a dozen community and para-community organizations and countless more impromptu weekly gatherings that consider Golden Thyme home. From this home has also spawned the popular Selby Ave JazzFest, which is hosted here every September—drawing thousands from the community.

Running into community leaders at Golden Thyme isn’t uncommon: This week alone, I witnessed such luminaries as former St. Paul City Councilman Melvin Carter III and Senator Bobby Joe Champion, community activists Dr. Mahmoud El-Kati and Tish Jones. In short, I was told by at least a handful of friends that if I wanted to know what had filled the void left by Lucille’s, Golden Thyme is that spot.

Well then, here was my first lesson: that at the intersection of Selby and Milton sat a gigantic secret. On this quiet St. Paul corner, a new cultural renaissance is unfolding—one that harkens back to the legendary black middle class neighborhood of Rondo Avenue before its demise in the 1960s. The entry into this nexus is Golden Thyme.

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Golden Thyme // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Selby Avenue was never a part of Old Rondo Avenue, but in many ways it has assumed the mantle of sustaining its legacy—for weal and for woe. Here is the Minnesota History Center on its aftermath:

“In the 1930s, Rondo Avenue was at the heart of St. Paul’s largest African American neighborhood that was displaced in the 1960s by freeway construction. African Americans whose families had lived in Minnesota for decades and others who were just arriving from the South made up a vibrant, vital community that was in many ways independent of the white society around it. The construction of I-94 shattered this tight-knit community, displaced thousands of African Americans into a racially segregated city and a discriminatory housing market, and erased a now-legendary neighborhood.”

When I questioned co-owner Mychael Wright about Golden Thyme’s role, about whether he viewed Golden Thyme as fundamentally a coffee shop or a restaurant or something more, he paused before responding. “It’s more than that,” Wright began, becoming increasingly lyrical in his response. “It has become—because of the people—it has become a lot more than that […] others say it’s an oasis. That’s how we do it: we gather.” Finishing his thought, Wright added, “I think we have the most positive folks here. And those who are on the fringes come in and see folks whose mannerisms are good. We’re not painted by that broad stroke of negativity.”

Though there is true community here, and it is palpable, Golden Thyme is peculiar. It’s not quite a soul food venue in the vein of those that have befallen its predecessors; it’s also not a mere gourmet coffee shop either. Golden Thyme once experimented with traditional soul food staples—cornbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken—but eventually phased it out of its menu. It became unsustainable to serve daily.

Change isn’t bad, however. Breakfast is where Golden Thyme champions its most precious products (after its array of gourmet roasts). You ought to hear Wright brag about their newest addition to the menu—their Dirty Grits—a subtle, yet sophisticated porridge sautéed in olive oil and fresh vegetables, prepped daily. “We do our best to make it with love, with care,” Wright boasts. “Each meal that I cook in the morning, I wanna make sure I’m making it for that individual.”

On Thursday evenings they serve a mean dish of handmade, non-pork gumbo and cayenne-teased jambalaya, that would’ve made my Tennessee-born grandmother proud. But it’s the sense of genuine community here that engenders Golden Thyme’s true power—one which is attracting new clientele daily and sustaining a loyal community despite the mantle of tradition it has carried within the neighborhood.

That last point is important. Stepping into Golden Thyme is like stepping into a living cathedral—all are welcome, but there are real traditions here; a liturgy of decorum. On the back wall proudly announces a large map of Old Rondo—its exact roads, avenues, establishments, homes; replete with dates of a period long gone. Meditating on this information, I queried out loud—to anyone within earshot—“But where would we be if we were on this map? Where’s Milton Avenue?” I asked too excitedly, too ignorantly, unaware of my tone in this establishment.

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Rondo map at Golden Thyme // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Perhaps it was my youth or newness there (I did just relocate from New York; I did grow up across the Mississippi) that my historical blasphemy was atoned for and quickly alchemized into incredulous laughter; loving disdain from the room. New Rondo is right here.

And this community has begun attracting outsiders—young white families are moving into the area. This is striking given the area’s reputation as being, in Wright’s own words, “an epicenter of decadence” only 17 years ago when it was established. (Milton Avenue use to be the center of an organized drug trade operation.) Elaborating, cafe employee, Dallyn Davison, commented “the community has become way more diverse over the past three years. Where I’ve just noticed more white people venturing over the Selby side as opposed to staying on Summit and Grand.”

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Golden Thyme // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

One of those attractions for the local community are the weekly Thursday evening literary performances, where a consistently youth-driven open mic is held. It often turns into a site of multicultural-fueled activism, passionate spoken word and community engagement. “Thursday nights have brought a lot of the younger white kids over this way,” added Davison. “College—mainly kids from Central [High School]—that just write and just kind of wanna see what’s going on.”

The readings from my Thursday night’s visitation was a community intensely aware of their moment in time: vigilant, spry, sensitive; fiercely intelligent and immensely articulate. But on Friday evening, this same room was transformed from a literary den of millennials to a congregation of engaged middle-aged intellectuals and committed citizens. I sat by instructors and professors. I brushed shoulders with doctors, therapists, poets, blue-collar workers, and distant travelers.

Every fourth Friday here Solidarity-Twin Cities organizes an open lecture hosted by different guest speakers. The speaker speaks; the room most assuredly listens, responding back in strides. This night Professor Daniel Williams from St. Catherine University (a Rondo native, himself) titled his talk: “Who Belongs to the Nation? Race, Nationality, and Citizenship in Europe and the Consequences of Categories.” I assure you, the comparisons between disenfranchised European Muslims and American-born blacks were quite relevant as they were illuminating. And the room took note. And responded.

Not all change is bad.

I had been lamenting the loss of Lucille’s and their public policy format. I spoke with the original founder of that format, Al McFarlane, who quickly challenged (and complicated) this narrative.

“There’s not a deficit situation, in my point of view. Then, as now, we have had always had a wide variety of public access radio and television programs that continue to focus on and create conversations around economic, cultural, social, and religious issues,” McFarlane argued, citing among other venues the Sabathani Community Center, the Penumbra Theater, the National Urban League, and the various places of black worship so central to the community: churches, temples, mosques. “It would be improper to characterize [Lucille’s] as the singular opportunity for black engagement.”

McFarlane was quick to point out the larger context of the “loss” of Lucille’s—the general impermanence of practices, traditions, and institutions even within a community. The concerns of one generation are not necessarily those of a succeeding one. Buildings erode. Organizations fold. Communities are torn asunder. But people’s memory may yet endure. The plurality of voices, of venues, of concerns, of ways of being are as liberating as they are as vital to the demos as possible.

Indeed, even without Lucille’s venue, the Insight/KMOJ news format still continues. There’s the radio show (every Tuesday morning), live streaming, and even a live television program on SPNN, in front of a studio audience boasting visitors, participants, and speakers, as it did back then, from all over the world.

Change and continuity. Hope and resilience. With so much at stake in the health and vitality of the Twin Cities African American community, it is perhaps fitting that both McFarlane and Wright have both championed black wealth creation, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy in their visions—harkening back to Old Rondo.

Leaving that final evening, I was hailed by a fellow participant from that Friday evening’s conversation. I didn’t know him, but he offered me a ride home—an invitation I graciously accepted. It too was his first night at the Golden Thyme. But unlike me, he was a St. Paul native (and resident), and a white high school instructor of a predominately black classroom. I asked him what he thought about tonight’s conversation—the spectacle of it all. I was relieved to hear him share many of my innermost concerns and cares and hopes for the area; for the shop, for the community at large. After pausing for a moment and reconsidering, he added: “But I don’t know that I know these things as much as I feel them.”

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