Cold. Dead hard bleak cold. Went downtown today to meet one of my editors for lunch – we dined at Murray’s, a swank old throwback steakhouse recently mad eover for the 21st century. The mauve was replaced with beige. The effect was catastrophic; it exsanguinated the place. But the steak was excellent, as was the conversation; the editor is a capital fellow, and we can disagree about current events without cant or ire. We both have kids in the public schools, and that led to the sort of conversation that everyone has but never gets into the paper. Meat was consumed, spouses praised, things lamented, possible futures speculated upon. The same took place at every other table except most of the diners were discussing money or lawsuits.

Afterwards I walked around downtown – haven’t done that in a while. A long while, I realized. City Center has been rehabbed! I know this means squat to any non-Mpls readers. Let me set the stage: in the dark days of downtown decline, the city targeted many core blocks for improvement. Block E, for example. A rundown “colorful” block anchored on either end by a Shinder’s magazine store. (One had magazines, comics, porn, paperbacks, candy bars. The other had more.) In between were various businesses that catered to the bum-and-trenchcoat trade – a grindhouse, a bar invariably described in the papers as “Notorious,” a Best Steak House, and other marginal businesses that served the flophouses on the second floor and the businessmen looking for a noon jolt. Around the corner were old movie theaters and an office building long past its prime. It was knocked down eventually, and the block was empty for years until the city subsidized a big garish prefab “entertainment” complex on the site in the hopes it would draw the suburbanites back to downtown for kicks ‘n’ grins. That hasn’t happened. It’s better than a parking lot, but it’s a perfect example of top-down inorganic urban planning. Downtown malls fail in Minneapolis; this is the latest example. Or will be.
But before Block E there was Gaviidae Commons – a gorgeous mall that also bit the wax tadpole, more or less. (The upper floors were converted to offices.) And before Gaviidae there was City Center, an entire block faced with undulating aggregate concrete, a gigantic charmless piece of Skimore-Owens-Merrill boilerplate that sucked the life out of every block it faced. Originally it housed a department store and a three story mall with a food court; the department store turned out to be a graveyard for a venerable brand, and the mall itself had its fortunes rise and ebb. When the Express chain took a hit from overexpansion and changing tastes and the bad decisions by a handful of buyers (culottes are in! Every woman wants them! Buy ten million pairs in petite sizes!) they pulled out and left three storefronts vacant in a crucial intersection, and thereafter the joint had the stink of death upon it. The only stores that survived were the ones that provided essential services, like Hallmark. The food court died, but not for lack of business – every time I went there at noon it was packed. A case of “no one goes there, it’s too crowded”? Maybe. I avoided it for that reason. The skyway system has so many restaurants that it seemed idiotic to fight the crowds for a greasy gyro.

The stores emptied out one by one; the B. Dalton’s closed; even the convenience store gave up. The food court may have had a good lunch trade, but the owners decided a Broad New Vision was required. They shuttered and gutted and put up posters with people of every possible genetic and ethnic combination to assure us that the place would be a grand new destination that embodied the best traits of the city, which seemed to be restaurants and “convenience” and the fact that everything you want is “right outside your door.” As if this is New York. I toured the site last March, and couldn’t tell what the final result would be like.

Well, I saw it today. Empty storefronts on the ground floor, shops on the second, and the floors above converted to offices. Like Gaviidae. And so the mall, opened with such glory and fanfare, turns into another empty lobby. I set a novel in that space 20 years ago, and had a fellow throw himself through the skylight window to the granite floor. Modern readers might be confused by that scene today, since I seemed to suggest there would be people around who would notice.

Went to Dayton’s / Marshall Fields / Macys, because I’d had a lot of coffee. (The most important thing to know about any downtown is the location of clean safe bathrooms. That, above all.) On my way back to the restrooms I passed a corner of the basement that once led to the Conservatory – it was, as it happens, a downtown mall. Which failed. Not completely; I had my first date with my wife there. Once a tunnel connected the Dayton’s basement to the Conservatory; you emerged into a grand sunny atrium lined with 80s-hued marble. It was an extraordinary project, and like the City Center mall opening, I was there on day one as well. No one would have imagined it would be knocked down in a dozen years, but it was.

There should be a sign. That’s all. Just a little placard on the wall.

In the restroom there was a six-and-a-half foot tall man with a long dirty beard and a long dirty parka standing stock-still between two sinks, staring at himself in the mirror.


Went down the street to the New Shinders. It’s not really new, having occupied the space for 20 years or so, but since I recall having eaten at the Burger King that previously occupied the space, it’s the New Shinders. (The marquee still has the rusticated shingles of a 70s Burger King.) They’d redesigned the store; it’s much sunnier and 16 % less odorous. I did the usual authorial vanity check: nope, they didn’t have the book, but I was in two publications they carried. Checked the copy of the Minnesota Daily to see if they’d run the house ad that had a caricature of me as a gross Jabba-the-Hutt type: no! Well, win-win, all in all.

Back to the car in the City Center ramp, passing empty storefronts of departed restaurants. Shivered. Cold; dead hard bleak cold. It’ll be different in the summer when people are out on the sidewalk cafés and the new residential towers start poking their cranes higher, but on a random February day it all felt as if it was drained of the things I used to enjoy when I first started working downtown. Drained of history, drained of today, tired of tomorrow.

But I’ve no doubt that’s just me.

I picked up Gnat from school and took her to the barber’s. Her hair is impossible. Split ends and rat’s nests I spend ten minutes every morning untangling. I had tormented her by saying we wouldn’t get the ends cut off, just the middle. No! Then my hair will just fall off from the middle part! Daddy! Just kidding, hon. Then we went to Southdale for supper. The mall was empty as well, but it was a cold Wednesday at the dinner-hour; it’s to be expected. Then off to the only part of the city that matters on a cold day: home. Lights in the windows, smoke from the chimney, dog barking at the other end of the tunnel when you pull the car in the garage.

Aaaannnd every possible conclusion I could add to this rambling disquisition would be a trite sugar rosette on top of a three-layer trite cake, so I won’t bother.

The most interesting thing I read on the web today begins here.

Boy, this guy really nails me, doesn’t he? (Via Treach.)

Nothing new today! That’s Thursdays for you. See you tomorrow.


c. 2005 j. lileks. Email, if you wish, may be sent to "first name at last name dot com."