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.”

Next page: Thursday night discourse

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