Nature break on the way to Best Buy

A very busy muskrat greeted me at Wood Lake. (all photos by Steve Date)

So I’m on my way to Best Buy this afternoon and decide to stop in at Wood Lake Nature Center because I hadn’t shot a photo yet for my Photo of the Day project. It turned out to be a good idea. I spent about an hour walking around in “nature” and enjoyed all 60 minutes. I saw two other humans, a lot of birds and one very busy muskrat.

Wood Lake is a 150 acre wetland/woodland/prairie ecosystem wisely set aside as a natural preserve by the city of Richfield, Minnesota in 1969. What was once a recreational lake with homes along its shore began to lose water and become a marsh in the 1950s.

I’ve taken school groups on field trips there over the years, but haven’t visited for a while, probably never by myself. Even though the sounds of nearby Highway 62 are a little irritating when the wind is from that direction, it’s also a good reminder of what a treasure this place is, completely surrounded by suburban development.

I had the place pretty much to myself.

I hope this egret doesn't fly down to the gulf and get full of oil this winter.

This counts as nature, right?

I never made it to Best Buy, which is probably a good thing. I don’t know the names of most of the things I saw, but I’m going to work on that. I did see the nature, though, which was nice. It was an hour well-spent and it reminds me to do this kind of thing more often. I don’t think I ever would have stopped here if I hadn’t set a goal 3 months ago to take a picture every day.

One of the other two homo sapiens I saw

Minnesota’s Newest Immigrants

The stoic Datermark family begins a new life on the frontier.

Emily, Kyle and Peet (the Datermarks) arrived in Rochester, Minnesota on Wednesday last. Much like the Joad family of “The Grapes of Wrath”, they came with only what they could fit into and onto their car. The newlyweds from New Jersey have bravely embarked on a new life on the Minnesota prairie. After a long day on the road traversing the Appalachians and the eastern midwest, they spent two nights in Chicago, thankful for the shelter and sustenance provide by the Dervos family and glad to spend time with sister Lauren.

Emily gets rid of the old to make way for the new.

But seriously, they’ve bought a great house. Mrs. D and I spent Thursday and Friday down there, helping a bit with the beginning of the transformation process. It mostly just needs cosmetic work on the walls and floors, though, so it’s going to look great soon.

First coat of the new colors in the dining room

We’ve seen them four days in a row now, which feels kind of strange. It’s great to have them only 84 miles away, after so many years of Emily living in the east. I know it’s hard for Kyle’s family to have him so far away, but I hope they can visit often.

First lunch at the homestead, using pretty much all the furniture they have right now. The rest of their stuff is in a moving van somewhere. Nobody knows yet when it will arrive.

Kyle begins his residency at the Mayo Clinic tomorrow morning. This is very exciting, not only for the two of them, but for all of us in both families as well. Good luck to Minnesota’s newest residents! We’re so proud of you.

To see more photos of the new house, go to my Flickr page here.

Peet and the goose welcome visitors to the House of Datermark.

30-minute personal Magical History Tour

When I was a kid, every once in a while on a Sunday morning my Mom would take my sisters and me downtown (Minneapolis) to mass at “The French Church” — she never called it by its name, Our Lady of Lourdes. She usually chose a rainy, dreary day. I remember her saying that those were the kind of days she liked to go there, because they reminded her of her years as a kid when she lived on nearby Nicollet Island.

Our Lady of Lourdes Church and Rectory (all photos by Steve Date)

Our Lady of Lourdes Church, the first section of which was constructed by the first Universalist Society between 1854 and 1857, is the oldest church in Minneapolis. The French-Canadian Catholic community in Minneapolis bought the church building in 1877 and added on to the original stucture. My Mom called it “The French Church” because they still had French-language masses when she was young. Even though she didn’t speak French, her last name was Rondeau, and word has it that her mother was fluent in both French and Ojibwe when she was a young girl in northern Minnesota.

Downtown Minneapolis Skyline is visible just across the Mississippi River

My parents were married in this church and I was baptized there. Some of my very earliest memories are of this church and the surrounding neighborhood. In those days, it was kind of a run-down part of town.

Nearby Chute Square park features the Ard Godfrey House (1848), the oldest frame house still standing in Minneapolis. It was moved (many years ago) a few blocks to its present location and is operated as a musem now. In my childhood days, the park was a hangout for homeless people and alcoholics such as my grandfather, who lived about a block away. Even though he was not homeless, he was definitely a drunk, and I think he hung out there quite a bit.

Originally, this area was part of the town of St. Anthony, across the river from the upstart community of Minneapolis. Some of the oldest buildings in Minneapolis such as these and the St. Anthony Main area, became part of Minneapolis when “Old St. Anthony” was annexed by the faster-growing city across the Mississippi in 1872. According to the plaque in front, the church is very near the spot where Father Louis Hennepin, an early French missionary, first saw and named the falls for St. Anthony in 1680.

Ard Godfrey House is the oldest frame house in Minneapolis

The area has changed a lot since my early memories in the ’50s and ’60s. The buildings on 3 of the 4 sides of the church are all relatively new. Townhouses now stand where the big Coca Cola bottling plant was. Across the street from the Godfrey house is a shiny new blue-tinted condo building with an upscale grocery story at street level. Urban professionals have replaced the raggedy old men of my youth in Chute Square Park. But Nye’s Polonaise Room, an iconic neighborhood antique gem, (and oddly named best bar in the U.S. by Esquire magazine last year) still stands on the next corner to the west.

The neighborhood has changed a lot.

Nice Ride, a new public bike rental program in Minneapolis now has bikes parked in the old skid-row Chute Square.

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church front (all photos by Steve Date)

I doubt my Grandpa would feel very comfortable there these days. While it’s safer and cleaner now, these blocks are also more sterile and less interesting — except for the few old buildings that go all the way back to the very beginnings of the city of Minneapolis, and are also ground zero for my own memories.

I didn’t have a lot of time when I stopped there on a whim yesterday afternoon, so I just put a couple of quarters in the meter and walked around for 30 minutes and snapped a few photos. Next time I go, it’s going to be on a rainy Sunday morning. I’ll spend more time walking around, remembering . . .

and maybe I’ll even go to mass for old time’s sake.

Cosmoline regains their pride the Acadia

Twin Cities group Cosmoline released their first album, “Give Me Back My Pride”, at the Acadia Cafe on the West Bank in Minneapolis on Friday night. I stayed out WAY past my bedtime because my friend John Kurtis Dehn plays guitar and sings in the group.

It was a fun night for me. The place was packed, the band sounded great and everyone loved the music.

As much as I liked the live set, I have to say that I LOVE the CD. I listened to it twice the next morning and I was singing along by the second time. It’s a solid record with some great songs that cross boundaries — country-style tunes with ringin’ guitar riffs and some sweet vocal harmonies. The title song has been in my head for 3 days.

John Kurtis is joined by Scott Malm, Steve Clay, David Hepenstal and on this night, Grant Dawson on piano.

Cosmoline at the Acadia Cafe in Minneapolis, June 5, 2010 (photo by Steve Date)

Here’s a YouTube clip of two songs, “Jean” and “Lay Me Down Gently”, recorded at Stasiu’s in Northeast Minneapolis about a year ago.

John joined the group about 3 years ago, but tells me the nucleus of the band has been around since 2001. Scott and John do most of the songwriting, but everyone has input. They’ve amassed enough new material for another CD and they hope to get started on that soon. In the meantime, John says, “We’re always looking for the new gig experiences and other bands to share the stage with. Otherwise, just the usual requests: Fan us. Friend us. Take us home and feed us. If you like the tunes, harass The Current to play us.”

You can catch them next on June 26th at The New Palace Stage at The Wild Tymes Bar in St. Paul.

L-R John Kurtis Dehn, Steve Clay, David Hepenstal, Scott Malm (photo by Steve Date)

You don’t find many bands who give out free lip balm.

Dragon City – The Fong’s American dream lives on Lake Street

Every few months my co-worker Catherine Lee invites a group of us to gather at Dragon City, her family’s restaurant at 4301 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. We went last Wednesday and had a great time, as usual.

Dragon City, USA

Dragon City is a classic old-school Chinese-American restaurant — the kind my parents took me to in the ’50s and ’60s. The setting is unpretentious, the food is good, the portions are big, and “Chow Mein” dominates the sign out front. My Mom and Dad never ventured outside of the chow mein and egg foo young page of a menu, unfortunately, so I didn’t learn about how vegetables can be deliciously crunchy or how sauces could be spicy until later in life. This place has both kinds of food, so my parents and I could have dined here together and all liked it.

Catherine with her Mom, Donna and sister, Emily

Catherine’s parents, Daniel and Donna Fong, opened the restaurant 33 years ago in what was the office of a lumber yard. They had immigrated, along with 7 of their 8 children (Catherine is the youngest and the only one born in the U.S.) from Hong Kong, where they had lived for several years after escaping from Communist China. Mom and Dad (and the older children) worked and the Nankin Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, a famous and highly regarded Twin Cities landmark, before taking the risk of opening a place of their own.

Donna Fong with 7 of her children in the 1960s hangs with many other photos on a wall of the restaurant

Catherine's sister Bonnie tells me about photos on the wall. When their father was alive, he covered the entire wall with pictures of family, friends and customers. Since he died about 5 years ago, they've scaled it back. Other sisters are Emily (tie dyed shirt) and Bonnie (at the cash register)

It’s always been a purely family business. They’ve hired very few people over the years. Dad used to do most of the cooking, but now that he’s gone, they’ve hired someone to cook. Catherine says that it’s not always easy for her sisters and her to keep it going. They put in a lot of hours just to keep the restaurant afloat, but they couldn’t make it if they had to pay salaries for all the help.

My Andersen teacher friends enjoyed our recent visit.

Nobody really wants to let go of the place yet, though. Donna still lives upstairs, where she raised the family. The income from the restaurant provided a good life for her children. She and Daniel were able to support their family in a way that we all hope to. This place means everything to her. Catherine tells me the kids will keep it going as long as Mom wants. There are too many memories here for everyone, but especially for Donna Fong. This building is her version of the American dream and represents everything she’s done as a parent. We all should have such a place to call home.

Don't know if this thing still works, but I love it.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop in, take a look at the photos, have some Kung Pao or some chow mein — or maybe “Cathy’s Special” — and remember how much this place means to this family and to our community. And maybe start noticing these kinds of family restaurants, run by immigrants, that we drive by in every city of our country without giving them a thought. Let’s hope they all hang on for a while longer.

Here’s to you, Donna and Daniel Fong.