“It’s a weird area, but when people come to it, it gets you. It gets in your blood.”
That’s Palmer’s Bar co-owner Lisa Hammer, seated on the back patio of her 107-year-old bar sipping white wine and contemplating the character of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that surrounds her. Since purchasing the tiny, lovable dive with her husband, Keith Berg, back in 2001, Hammer has served as director of the West Bank Business Association and become a key player in the planning of the neighborhood’s West Bank Music Festival, which returns to the area this Saturday afternoon and evening for its third annual installment.
Hammer is joined on the patio by Jamie Schumacher, the current executive director of the West Bank Business Association, as well as the Cedar Cultural Center’s longtime events planner Mark Johnson. During the first half of our interview, a blaring car alarm sounds from the parking ramps of the towering Riverside Plaza as Somali immigrants file in and out of a neighboring mosque.
Johnson raises his voice to talk over the alarm, shrugs his shoulders, and laughs. “That’s the West Bank!”
“It’s always changing, yet it stays the same,” Hammer reflects. “It’s always been an immigrant neighborhood.” She points out that the West Bank neighborhood started out as a gathering place for Scandinavian immigrants, and at one time had such a heavy Swedish population that an event called that Snoose Boulevard Festival was held there every year. That tradition eventually transitioned to Cedarfest, which began as a community event and later boomed into a 100,000-attendee festival that booked headlining performers like Soul Coughing, Frank Black, Johnny Lang, and Babes in Toyland.
“Our goal is to bring back Cedarfest,” Hammer says. “The volume, the culture, the feel. Because it was community-based. Yeah, you had 100,000 people coming from outside the neighborhood, but it was the neighborhood that brought that party.”
But Johnson says they plan to make a few changes to the festival to keep it from spiraling out of control the way Cedarfest did. “By the end of Cedarfest, it got to be just this huge thing where it wasn’t so much about the community anymore. It was a festival that was held in the neighborhood,” he says. “So we’re trying to make it something that reflects more of what the neighborhood is. Music is part of the neighborhood, so we definitely want to do that, but we don’t want it to be this thing where people come here once and they don’t get any sense of what the neighborhood really is, and they don’t come back until the next year.”
For the first time this year, the event will have a community stage in addition to the main stage at the intersection of Cedar and Riverside, and Schumacher says they plan to use that space to try to engage the large East African population that lives in the Riverside Plaza and surrounding areas. “We’re doing some things around that stage to try to welcome the community in and make it as accessible as possible,” she says.
The huge growth of the East African population has made the West Bank one of, if not the most integrated neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, a trait that Hammer, Johnson, and Schumacher agree is one of the defining characteristics of the area.
“You have low-income housing, you have immigrants, you have these housing co-ops, you have the University of Minnesota over there, so you’ve got dorms, student housing. It’s just an incredible mix of people,” says Johnson. “The diversity is not just the people, but it’s the types of music too. You have the Triple Rock, the music there is different than what we have at the Cedar, which is different than they have at the Acadia, all of us do different types of music. And that’s where that idea of having a night where you come down, you buy one wristband, you park once, and you can go and see the different places and see what’s going on.”
Part of the challenge for the West Bank businesses, Hammer says, has been disproving some of the common misconceptions outsiders have about the area being unsafe or crime-ridden. She says the statistics actually paint quite the opposite story about the neighborhood.
“It’s all perception, it’s not based in reality,” she says. “You know what it’s based on? I think it’s fear of people who are different. Crime over the last five years has been going down considerably.”
“If you look at the density levels, and look at other metro areas that have the same density, the West Bank is a really safe place,” adds Schumacher.
Hammer credits Nomad Pub owner Todd Smith, who operates directly across the street from her bar, for instigating many of the connections between businesses that led to the launch of the West Bank Festival and the re-invigoration of the West Bank Business Association, while Schumacher says the relationships that have blossomed between business owners is what makes something as ambitious as the West Bank fest possible.
“Even in Northeast, which is really, really close-knit, I don’t see the level of organization coming from the bar owners and restaurant owners that I do here,” she says. “Here, the bars are directly helping with the planning and booking, it’s way more collaborative.”
The West Bank Music Festival got off to a slow start in 2010, with most of the outdoor action caged into the Nomad Pub’s parking lot, but last year it expanded out onto Cedar Avenue, with organizers blocking off traffic from the Red Sea down to the Triple Rock to facilitate mingling and exploration. And after dark, attendees are invited to bar-hop between venues and check out the wide variety of music on display.
“We have bands that play at the bars on the West Bank that don’t play a lot of other places around town,” Johnson says. “It’s like an incubator for music.”
Below, find a map (illustrated by cartoonist Kevin Cannon) and an overview of what to expect at this year’s West Bank Music Festival. Wristbands are $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 after 10 p.m.; those attending the Cabooze’s all-local Backyard Bonfire with Pert Near Sandstone can also get $5 off admission to the West Bank fest.
Outdoor: South Stage
3:00 Eclectic Ensemble
3:30 Brass Messengers
5:15 The Painted Saints
6:30 Batucada do Norte
Outdoor: Main Stage
4:30 Wiping Out Thousands
5:45 Blood ‘N Stuff
10:00 Infiammati Fire Dances
10 p.m. Juvie
11 p.m. L’Assassins
12 a.m. The Sex Rays
10:30 p.m. Mr. Hyde
11:30 p.m. Union Suits
12:30 a.m. Poverty Hash
10:15 p.m. Seawhores
11:15 p.m. Skoal Kodiak
12:15 a.m. Birthday Suits
Cedar Cultural Center
10:00 p.m. Malamanya
The Red Sea
7-8:30 p.m. Curbside Bandit, Stereo Pirates
9:45-10:25 p.m. Hastings 3000
10:45-11:25 p.m. Phantom Tails
11:45-12:25 a.m. Hollow Boys
12:45-1:45 a.m. Food Pyramid
9:30 p.m. Belfast Cowboys
Triple Rock Social Club
10 p.m. music starts
Me and My Arrow
An Aesthetic Anaesthetic
Red Fox Grey Fox
Dg3xTC (zombie dub step)