|My wife proposed heading downtown to see the Aquatennial fireworks display, and I winced: A) I more or less build my life around the avoidance of such events, for reasons we will discuss later, and 2. I knew there was not only no way out, there was no reason not to go. I would have a great time. It would be something different, and given how I’ve been feeling as though I’ve been chewing the same damn bone for the last two years, that would be good. I don’t subscribe to the “change is good!” mantra that began in 92 – change is just that, change, and has no moral component. Say, I’m going to hack your leg off, so you can walk around clutching a pole, wincing at the twinges of phantom nerve endings. Howzabout it? Be a change, eh?
So off we went. This required a plan. You can’t just go and watch. It is not enough to simply show up; you have to figure out how you’re going to escape, and by “you” I of course mean “me,” who detests, above all, sitting entombed in a car stuck on the ninth level of a parking ramp, or becalmed on a street while one car manages to lurch through the rivers of plodding pedestrians and make it through the light. I figured we’d head to the West Bank, park on the street in a direction facing my getaway route, and voila. To get a spot, however, you have to leave early. Like six hours early. But my wife suggested we go ahead of time and get something to eat, and I smiled: this was working out well.
Traffic to the event: light: Accidents suffered: almost one, when an idiot in a cab decided to disembark on the street side. FIRST TIME IN THE BIG TOWN? I wanted to yell. It took a while to get across the Hennepin bridge, but that’s okay; it’s a magnificent structure, and it always makes my heart sing when I’m on it. Really. It think it’s a bigger bridge than it is – does it really need all those cables? – but it’s still a fine modern landmark. Turned at Nye’s, started looking for parking spaces . . . nothing. Hmm. Well. It’s the ramp, then. It was built back in the days when St. Anthony Main was a popular shopping destination, and –
Well, some background.
First things first: this is where we were. Zoom out if you want some perspective. (Handy advice in any situation, come to think of it.)
Originally this was St. Anthony, a little town across the Mississippi from Minneapolis. The milling industry grew up right here; American bellies were fed by bread from the stone structures that still line both sides of the river. The St. Anthony side has the famous Pillsbury “A” Mill, gigantic silos, and light industry that followed the decline of the mills. Beneath the giant 3rd avenue bridge were a collection of old stores and bars unchanged since the days when Minneapolis absorbed St. Anthony. If you want an interesting urban experience where you start in the 20s and watch things get better in the 30s and 70s, go here, here, and here. This is the street I'm talking about.
In the late 70s, I believe, one of the old buildings was converted into a yuppie fern bar, Pracna’s. Its success, and the nascent trend towards reclaiming Minneapolis history instead of dynamiting it for parking lots, led to St. Anthony Main, a rehabbed warehouse turned into bars and shops. It was Yuppie Paradise in the 70s and 80s – outdoor bars, furniture shops selling stylish particle-board-with-white-laminate-surface shelves, “gourmet” ice cream stores, and all the other standbys of upscale culture. But upscale as it was, anyone could go there, and they did. If you didn’t buy the fancy sheep-skin blankets you could have a burrito at the Mexican joint or a drink at the Prince St. Bar, and in the summer you could sit outside and look at the skyline across the river. Every year it grew. Every year something new. You felt like you had reserved your box seat for the 1980s.
So successful was the development that a gigantic complex was built next door: Riverplace, with two tall housing towers and another multi-level retail mall. (Unlike St. Anthony, which had the exposed-brick-and-timbers rehab-chic look, Riverplace was done in a green-and-black Victorian style.) And St. Anthony built an new addition, adding shops and a movie theater and a tall parking ramp to accommodate all the shoppers. It all happened around 1983, 1984. And its failure was spectacular. Some blame the mismatch of retail with the neighborhood – it was still basically middle-class with lots of students, and perhaps the market for Rizzoli bookstore wasn’t there. But it was almost as if the place was such a destination that no one felt the need to buy anything. It was enough to look. One by one the stores died until the place lost critical mass. And then it was over. No one went; no one thought of going.
Hadn’t been there in years, myself. So I was surprised to see how busy it was. The bars and restaurants that face the river are still open, since you have to be stupid and serve nothing but ptomaine burgers to lose money at that location. I walked down a corridor I hadn’t trod for 20 years, noting the changes: the old bookstore is now a Segway shop, which I think speaks volumes. But the movie theater remains. As does Pracna.
I parked in the ramp, but as a veteran of the quick getaway, I doubled back and headed down to park closest to the exit. Thus secure, we headed into the crowd. Got some sandwiches, the price of which told me there were no other sandwich stores in the development, and tried to find a good spot. They were all taken, of course; people had been camped out for days to get the right view. The fireworks shoot off a barge and the 3rd avenue bridge, I believe, and if you position yourself correctly you can watch them from the bar. Which would be nice. You could watch them from your balcony on the many buildings that look down on the great river, which would be perfect. Or you can schlep yourself down to Nicollet Island across the old Merriam St. Bridge and sit on a ledge, slap skeeters and pant in the suffocating humidity. Which is what we did. Remember that Google map? See a spot at the tip of the island that looks like a baseball diamond? It's a grassed terrace, seating for outdoor concerns. We sat at the top. (My wife and I were married on the other side of the tip, incidentally. Facing the city. With the paper's religion newswriter officiating, but that's another story.)
I got Gnat a glowstick, and she ran around in the twilight. Someone had a bubble-gun, and she chased the bubbles. I smoked a cigar and thought about nothing in particular. Oh, I tried, but nothing came. It’s almost a relief to know you can come up with nothing, if that’s what the situation requires.
After half an hour, BOOM. Our position was perfect. Our view, unobstructed. Our delight, uncontained. Our child, bored. Not at first – she thought they were spectacular, if loud – but after five minutes she said “this is kinda the same thing,” and she has a point. She was also exhausted – it was past ten, and she’d had a long day. “Should we head back and beat the crowd?” my wife asked.
Why – why yes, we could!
We weren’t that far, so we could pause at the plaza and watch the final detonations. When it was done I told them I’d meet them out front. Go! Go! GO! Up the stairs across the street up the stairs in the car around the corner down the ramp, out, stop, left – there they were, right at the corner, and behind them I could see this vast horde surging up the hill. They got in the car, and even though I was probably car number three attempting to make a getaway, I still got stuck at every corner for six blocks. They came and came and came, with baby carts and coolers and chairs and grandma in a walker and grandpa in a wheelchair and aunts and uncles and friends, exhausted and sweaty and half drunk and deaf, trudging up from the banks of the Mississippi like ghosts from the old mill explosion, looking for the soft cool bed of the grave. Once I was past I took the route I’d planned - River Road to Franklin, which completely bypasses the downtown congestion. Geeeenius, I thought to myself. Made it home in 15 minutes.
A wonderful family outing, and a welcome change from sitting home on Saturday night reading in the gazebo. But more important: I escaped.
This time, that is. My wife is making noises about going to some other festival this weekend. I am considering extraction by helicopter.
St. Anthony Main is still around, just not as fun as it used to be. Oh, and is there anything more boring than movies of fireworks? Depends if you slo-mo & edit and set them to music. But you be the judge. Let it load for the full effect, lest the Poetry and Beauty be interrupted by Constant Buffering. (Who was a heroine in a 18th century novel by Pope.) The music is "My Ideal" by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, if you're curious. Actual amount of Gleason involved: 1 part per billion. Anyway: here it is. And wait for the trumpet.
Screedblog up. Match #150! Perm link here.)