Downtown, afternoon. The coffee shop. It’s quiet; it usually is. The one I used to frequent in the burbs was quiet until the small tetched fella who looked like Barney Rubble came by AND TALKED ABOUT EVERYTHING IN A LOUD NASAL INFLECTION-FREE VOICE; you kept looking for the little green light over his left eyebrow to indicate that he had, indeed, hit Capsloc. This coffee shop is downtown, and it’s quiet. Not silent – the sibiliant slickety-clicking of keyboards, the somnambulating sound of the roaster pushing around a wet crowd of beans, a trickle of music (some sort of jazz, featuring a trumpet player who’s been playing random notes for 16 minutes now) and the hiss of the espresso-maker, conjuring froth. Every table is taken. I’ve been here 45 minutes, and haven’t heard a single cellphone ring.
Sundays downtown aren’t like they used to be; once the streets were empty, except for a few mumblers and stumblers on Hennepin Av; now there are dozens of people around. Yes: dozens, plural. I saw at least 25 people in the space of six blocks, and everyone had a cup of coffee in their hands. Actual economic / pedestrian activity downtown on a Sunday: city’s looking up.
It’ll get better once we have streetcars back, of course. And they’re coming! A new plan for downtown will – well, as usual, the new plan attempts to undo the damage of the last plan, thereby giving urban designers something new to fix in 20 years. They’re going to make some streets two-way again, which is bad for traffic but good for The Street, in some nebulous way. If all the cars go one way it tends to enervate the life of the street, we’re told. On one hand I understand; a rushing stream of metal and plastic heading in one direction does seem to pull some strange energy away with it, and cars moving in the opposite direction creates a contrast that’s more interesting. Whether it’s worth the congestion to provide psychic balm for the pedestrians, I don’t know.
I love streetcars. I do. I would love to walk outside, hop on a trolley, roll downtown while reading the paper, doff my boater to the ladies who came on, then hop off six hours later at my destination. I would love to do it once. The rest of the time, I would drive. The streetcar lines will be downtown only, it seems. The stated goal, according to the Mayor, is to “bring back the city in which we grew up.”
I didn’t grow up here, so I have no opinion. But I do know that the tail-end of the streetcar era was not the finest moment in Mpls history. The town had become tired, sooty and tumble-down:
They razed most of it before it fell on its own, and that’s a pity; if they could have propped it up for 15 years and rehabbed it, downtown would be a different place. But wrecking balls and sleek featureless skyscrapers had an erotic appeal to the technocrats, so out with the flophouses and bum-bars, and in with a phlanx of noble, logical, rational towers. Or, in the case of Minneapolis, a handful of smaller buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots.
If we want to go back to the city of 1946, then jackhammer the freeways and chop down every building over 30 stories tall. I will put my sense of soggy, uninformed nostalgia up against anyone’s, incidentally; I would love, in a sense, for downtown to be what it was before the suburbs and the freeways, but only if we could manage that while also having suburbs and freeways. But you can’t. Perhaps when enough people live downtown – which is possible, given all the condos. Like this one:
I’ve been watching it go up for a year and a half. I like it. (The structure in the forefront, incidentally, is a parking ramp: that's how you do it.) I wish we had four more, and they were twice as tall, and had offices, but it seems the big office tower model for downtown is dead around here. People in the exurbs want to work in the suburbs, and who can blame them? I much prefer a penthouse view, I get allergic smelling hay, etc., but I also understand the attraction of living in the woods away from the airplanes and the gunfire.
When there are enough people downtown, it’ll have the vitality it did before. Not until. And when it’s newly revitalized, it’ll be different. It has to be. That’s one of the harder lessons I’ve had to learn over the last ten years, since I began cataloguing the history of downtown Minneapolis. (A project, incidentally, which starts all over again next year.) It will never be what it was. It can’t, but it shouldn’t. Things change, to state the obvious and banal.
I love old neighborhood movie theaters, for example - the buzzing marquees, the creaky metal seats, the aromas of popcorn and musty fabric, the scratched screen and scratchier speakers and the plaster ornamentation sulking in the gloom above. I do. But TV and the multiplex killed ‘em dead. I remember walking back to my apartment in Dinkytown after seeing a spinach-film at the Varsity; it was a simple delight to pass the bakery, the chocolate store, the drug store, the hardware store, the pet store, the spaghetti café, the hash house, and all the other individual merchants who made up the neighborhood. On the other hand, if our house’s resident cineaste had somehow procured a 50” screen in 1979, we would have never left the house. We would have used the phone to threaten a wide spectrum of important scientists so they would invent the internet now, thank you, so we could have everything delivered.
Would I swap Netflix and home theaters for the nabe movie house? No. And the choice has been made for me, actually, since the neighborhood theater was converted to a Hollywood Video many years ago. Gnat loves to go there and look for movies, but that’s a dying model as well; hard to imagine, but in her short lifetime the neighborhood video store has run its course, and when I look around the big room I see lots of heating and airconditioning bills and salaries and shipping costs and material investment, all to support the distribution of ones and zeroes. The entire stock would fit on a server the size of a fridge, probably. Would, could, and will. I’ll miss the serendipitous discoveries you get when you troll the aisles and look at the boxes – Netflix always shunts me down narrow hallways I’ve trod a dozen times already – but when the alternative is incrementally better for enough people, the old way will go, as it always does.
But I was talking about the Plans to revitalize downtown. One of the plans is aimed specifically at rolling the Head-On of Urban Joy on the skulls of the walkers: today’s paper had a story about making the sidewalks more entertaining and welcoming, with the usual greenery and pots and signage. Again, I’m split: great idea, sure, but some urban beautification projects might actually make people more wary. When I see evidence of a big plan in a downtown, I think: it’s in trouble. A healthy downtown gets what it needs. Think Manhattan – where the one-way is frickin’ king, incidentally – and you realize that it’s not the pots or street signs or occasional poor poisoned tree dying in a grate that makes New York such a feast; it’s the stores and the people. WE don’t have stores and people on the ground floor for most of the year, because they’re in the skyway. That was our great contribution to urban design: the vast and ever-fascinating skyway system, a new urban paradigm. But now it’s the enemy, because it killed the Street. Apparently it is more important to see people on the street in January, freezing, than to be among people in the skyway in January, walking or shopping or eating. The latter may be feasible and profitable and convenient, but the latter is preferable in the abstract.
Anyway, I see lots of planters and old-timey signs, I calculate the likelihood of getting sapped from behind just doubled. But here’s what really amused me about the plan: greenery will be installed not just to make things green and lively, but to prevent “climate change.”
You could raze the entire downtown core and plant trees, and it wouldn’t effect climate change. I swear, it’s become the secular equivalent of “peace be upon him.”
And now it’s time to go: there’s a new supermarket open in the old neighborhood, a shiny new Lunds in the ground floor of a new condo. A full report tomorrow! Afterwards I really have to work, since I have an absurd amount of work due Monday morning: five pieces. Five. Enjoy a nudie-cutie matchbook, as they used to call them, and I’ll see you tomorrow. (Diner links should work now, incidentally; the last one I uploaded got corrupted along the way somehow.)