St. Paul’s just/us, an American restaurant located in the Viking Apartments, has closed its doors. The closure on April 20, 2019, came less than a year and a half after owner Nathan Docken—who, full disclosure, is a D&D buddy of mine—had opened the doors in December 2017.
Besides great food, just/us was also a home to the local arts community. The restaurant hosted an open-mic night every Tuesday. Nathan says, “Because we allow everybody to do whatever, we’ve become increasingly more engaged with the community, and kind of turned into a hub where artists can hone their skills of performing in front of a crowd in a safe, encouraging environment.”
So why would a restaurant that has so much going on close after only one year? The short answer is money—but unlike for many restaurants, it wasn’t a lack of business. The new owner of the building housing the restaurant, developer CCI Properties, announced it would be renovating the entire building and gave the order for all residential tenants to vacate by May 5, 2019. Most of these tenants are low-income individuals, and many are on disability—meaning they must live on a fixed, strictly limited amount—or have mental health or addiction issues. They were told they could reapply when the renovations are finished, but there is no guarantee that the residents will be able to afford the new units.
Although just/us is not being forced out, Nathan chose to leave the building in solidarity with the tenants. A statement on the restaurant’s website reads:
These are our neighbors, we’ve grown to love & respect these people. Our hearts break for them during this time. Many of them will end up without housing or in shelters. The development company plans to raise our rent nearly five times the current rate & that is something we cannot do. And in good consciousness, we stand in solidarity with our neighbors. If they go, we go too. Gentrification rears its ugly head again in Downtown St. Paul. We believe in developing our neighborhoods & communities, we do not believe in the continued displacement of disadvantaged members of our community in the name of inflating riches.
CCI spokesperson Chuck Repke told the Pioneer Press, “You want to improve properties. You want to do a historic renovation of the building. [. . .] The only way you can save this building is to do a complete renovation. You can’t do one floor at a time.” In that interview, Repke also described just/us’s explanation of its closure as “nonsense,” claiming the restaurant was behind on rent and had been asked to come current.
I asked Nathan about this statement. “We’ve never been late on rent or have been asked to come current except for in December 2018, when they bought the building. We had no idea what was going on and didn’t find out about the rent situation until later that month,” he told me. “Outside of that misunderstanding, we’ve always been current. I have check receipts to prove it.”
He added, “We’re also not just solely closing out of solidarity, though that is a large part of it, and we’ve never claimed otherwise. But since our rent is going to increase so drastically, we were more than happy to leave with the tenants and try to give them a voice about their situation.” I’ve known Nathan for many years, and he’s always been social-justice conscious. But this is the first time I’ve personally been able to see these principles in action.
The good news is that it may not be the end for just/us: a GoFundMe campaign dedicated to raising money to relocate the restaurant is more than halfway to its $10,000 goal. So if you like great food and supporting local artists, or if you’re are as excited as I am that some people still have integrity in this world, please consider donating.