Macalester professors reflect on the evolution of Mac-Groveland


Photo of Widmer’s Super Market in 2019. Widmer’s is an iconic feature of Mac Groveland. Photo by Celia Johnson ’22.

Eva Stromgren, Staff Writer

As familiar as the iconic storefronts and well-known landmarks are to its inhabitants, Mac-Groveland was not always as we know it now. With an evolving relationship between the surrounding colleges and the broader neighborhood, as well as a transitioning housing market, Mac-Groveland has changed over the years to become the neighborhood that residents and Macalester community members alike call home.

When Professor Emeritus of Geography David Lanegran came to Macalester in 1969, the college was focused on expansion of both the student body and of the campus.

“There were large numbers of college-owned properties that were rented to students,” Lanegran said. “There [was] some turnover in the neighborhood, kind of generational turnover. […] People who had started their families in their 40s were retiring so larger houses were coming on the market.”

According to Lanegran the Mac Groveland neighborhood was a mix of “empty nesters” and young families with children that centered around the Groveland School.

“Students were expected to walk to school if they lived within a mile,” Lanegran said. “So there were people who moved into the district to be in that school.”

He described the neighborhood as being focused around two overlapping Catholic parishes, Nativity of Our Lord and St. Marks.

“These two parishes were highly sought after by Catholic families,” Lanegran explained. “They had K-8 schools and the culture of the parish. [This]was attractive to [the] middle class.”

Arnold H. Lowe Professor of Religious Studies Jim Laine has lived in Mac-Groveland for over 20 years. For Laine, certain neighborhood establishments, such as the Hungry Mind bookstore, Nativity Parish and Widmer’s Super Market have played into a sense of historic nostalgia in the neighborhood.

“It was like this time warp you could step into at Widmer’s and its 1957,” Laine explained. “For a lot of people there’s a real kind of nostalgic throwback to a simpler innocent time and that says something about the provincialism of a sort of white and Catholic neighborhood, I’m sure that’s changing.”

The neighborhood’s housing market did well in the 60’s and 70’s as elderly residents migrated out and middle-class families  migrated in. This contributed to  historic preservation efforts in the neighborhood during those years. However, there was also tension between the residential neighborhood and the college at this time.

“They were afraid of Macalester because we had a huge chunk of property and in 1969, there was a plan for [a campus addition] which was going to expand out to Cambridge and close Grand Avenue,” Lanegran said.  “People were also not happy with the Macalester students of the 1960’s and early 70’s [and] the drug culture that was apparent. Of course the neighborhood was politically not as liberal as the college, and the college was turning quite quickly to a very liberal student population, so there was some disconnect.”

Lanegran suggested that we are seeing a similar kind of shift and tension around the University of St. Thomas now, as it attempts to expand.

Macalester did not end up moving forward with its planned expansion, and, with the creation of the High Winds Fund, the college has significantly changed its role in the neighborhood to focus more on being a better, more involved neighbor.

The High Winds Fund was established for the sole purpose of “maintain[ing] the beauty serenity and security of the neighborhood, so Macalester kind of changed its position and role in the neighborhood for the good,” Lanegran said. “The plan was to maintain a neighborhood that people wanted to be in […] and to try to keep the college activity from devaluing the neighborhood.”

In order to keep students on campus and keep the college from decreasing the value of property in the neighborhood, Macalester bought significant amounts of land around the college and imposed restrictions to ensure that the properties were owned by residents as opposed to rented by students. This move was designed partially to ensure that what happened around many east coast colleges,  students expanding off campus and devaluing the property in the surrounding neighborhoods, did not happen in Mac Groveland.

Thus, in recent years, the neighborhood’s economic value has increased. Lanegran noted that “the emergence of Grand Avenue as a specialty shopping [and] eating street” and “it [being] more environmentally friendly to live in an older neighborhood than the suburbs” have played a role in how the neighborhood has increased in price and popularity.

When Laine came to Macalester in 1985, “there were only a couple of places right there on Grand Avenue near the college, maybe two places to get a bite, and that was it,” Laine remembered.  He also noted that real estate close to the college is becoming more expensive.

Beyond changes in property prices and dining options, the neighborhood has seen an increase in private school attendance and busing, as well as a lot of private investment, which Lanegran said is “the sign of a healthy neighborhood: that people are willing to invest into it. They have confidence in the future.” 

However, the neighborhood has not witnessed much demographic change over time, and even in the future, Lanegran does not think it will see significant change. He does, however, think the popularity and density of urban living are increasing.

“As we get more and more concerned about fossil fuel, the attraction of the inner neighborhood is [going to] increase,” he said. “The overall density is increasing now with the apartments being built on the streetcar lines.”

Like Lanegran, Laine and other residents have also noticed the increasing density.

“A big change going on right now is the population density. [It is going to] get a lot more with these five story apartment buildings going up all over the place…” Laine said. “A lot of folks are a little nervous about that.”

Looking at Macalester’s  future, Lanegran believes that while the college might continue to buy housing along Grand Avenue, it won’t move over Summit or Snelling anytime soon. The time of expansion, both of the campus and the student body, appears to be over.

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