CoffeeShop Chronicles: “The quirky neighborhood’

Everyone has a story that should be told about themselves, their neighborhood, or someone they know. Occasionally, I set up at a table in a coffee shop and interview people who stop in. Today, I set up at the SugaRush Coffee Shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Here’s another story:


Atom Robinson could easily be the ambassador of St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. Or he could be a rock star. He could probably do all that and still have time to fight for social, economic, and racial justice, which is what he actually does.

“Quirky people live in our neighborhood and do quirky things and because our houses are all close together we get to see it all playing out,” he told me today when I asked him about his home neighborhood. “Directly across the street are three duplexes. On the corner are some Hmong families who have kids who play together on the front porch, playing the way I imagine our parents played. They just have old-timey fun and they’re just adorable.We’ve gotten to know them over the years and they’re fascinating kids who are nice and sweet. It’s better than watching TV.”

“In another neighborhood they’d be in the backyard with a big fence around them. You’d never see them.”

“I like the guy who walks around the block 25 times a day and feeds every dog. I see him and that’s soothing to me.”

Robinson works for the Office of Social Justice at Catholic Charities. He teaches people how to be comfortable when talking to lawmakers and others.

“I always say I come by it naturally,” he said. “When I was growing up, my family defined itself in clear ways: progressives, Catholics, and union people.”

Somewhere between then and now, he was professional musician in Iowa. “I loved playing music,” he said. “But it stopped being drinking beer and playing in dirty bars with your friends and ended up being a job.” The band wanted him to move to Nashville. His wife, Annie, wanted to go to grad school in the Twin Cities.

The Twin Cities, and in particular his St. Paul neighborhood, won.

“I believe in everyone’s human potential. My faith compels me to,” he said. “People will surprise you. More communication is better than no communication. If you can do community building or advocacy conversations, that’s positive, too.”

And the future?

“I’ve got nothing else to believe in,” he said. “I wouldn’t have brought a daughter into the world if I didn’t think we could make things better. I believe we have a responsibility to fix things; it’s why I get out of bed in the morning.”

  • Cate

    Thanks for doing this series. This one is very inspirational.