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 // 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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