Sidewalk of the Week: Hennepin Avenue S

[A stretch of Hennepin Avenue, with sidewalk sign cautiously perched.]

This week's sidewalk of the week is Hennepin Avenue South. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's like Minneapolis's Broadway, a long, crooked, really old street that used to be a Native path and now serves as the heart and focal point of a booming US city.

But this is no paean! The problem with streets like Hennepin (or B'way, for that matter*) is that they are stuck serving a dual function.

On the one hand, they're the absolute centers of commercial activity. Everywhere that Hennepin Avenue goes, it provides excitement, a dash of zest, two scoops of pizazz. Hennepin Avenue is like having an Bush twin show up at your house party ... even if you didn't t like it, at least you'd have something to talk about. The street is home to a disproportionate share of awesome restaurants and cafes, bars, shops, and boutiques of all shapes and sizes. It's where people stroll to stroll, and where people stroll to watch other people strolling. It's one of the most exciting places to hang out in the Twin Cities, and in South Minneapolis it boasts some of the finest sidewalks around.

But on the other hand, Hennepin is still a major throroughfare. Streams of traffic go along the street at most times of the day and night. It's the quickest way of getting from downtown or the Interstate to Lake Calhoun and the beginning of the SW suburban strip. As a result, it's kind of difficult to really enjoy the sidewalks along the street. The endless four lanes river of cars makes a sidewalk cafe life a mite unpleasant.

[Cars galore.]

Like many such streets, Hennepin displays a delicate balance between cars and people, street as conduit and street as public space. It can be a challenge, and any given time, you can bet that somewhere a pedestrian is getting pissed off at a driver, or vice versa. It's like the immovable unstoppable force-object paradox conundrum, only with feet, tires, A/C, strollers, turn signals, and patio furniture.

So, when a friend of mine got me interested in "juicing" and I wound up at the Tao Natural Foods on Hennepin enjoying a miracle concoction, I realized how nicely the sidewalk accommodates all sides of this heinous debate. I was sitting there waiting for the juicy mix, and ended up watching the behind-the-counter dudes as they brought food out to a couple sitting on a sidewalk table. He had a tray of food, and just bumped the door upon without looking and gracefully deposited it outside, in the shade of a green tree in the summer sunshine. Even though hundreds of autos were streaming past just a few feet away, we were in a world without cars.

[The view from the juicebar: large windows looking out onto an old, wide, tree-strewn avenue.]

The Tao Foods sidewalk dining experience is made possible by an awesome piece of materiality. Like a great many of the intersections along Hennepin, there's a giant flower-filled concert berm separating the triangular space between the street and the shops. And this piece of poured cement, filled with dirt and plants, does wonders for the streetlife.

Most importantly, it separates the speeding cars from the possibly seated customers, who may worry about the near-certainty of death by grille.

Secondly, it's pretty emphasizes Hennepin Avenue's odd angle, and creates nice pockets of space. But at the same time, it doesn't completely shut out your line of vision. People sitting near these concrete flowerbeds can still look around, people watch, and enjoy the fact that they're sitting in a semi-plausible approximation of a city square.

[Worlds collide where Hennepin meets the neighborhood.]

There's such a contrast between busy car-bustle of Hennepin Avenue and quiet side streets, these spaces seem to draw that line nicely. Like the streets, the sidewalk separates into two spaces... one for people parking or getting on and off of buses. The other is quiet, and meant primarily for wandering windowshoppers and cafe diners.

[The tranquil streets of Kenwood.]

Later on down the street, Hennepin Avenue narrows down quite significantly, so that by the time you're at the Calhoun / Lake area of the road, the effect of the cars is rather minimized. It might seem like a small thing, but the rather complex sidewalks of Hennepin Avenue are pulling a lot of weight every day to make the street a better place.

So, here's to you forgotten concrete berms! Thanks for making Hennepin Avenue South this week's Sidewalk of the Week.

[Another concrete berm silently performing its duty.]

* It should be mentioned that NYC's Broadway is undergoing some major (yet limited) streetscape modification designed to make it even more walkable.


Reuben said...

Many of the interesting landscaped corners along Hennepin exist on the awkward triangles of land created because Hennepin is not parallel to the surrounding streets. I think it's important to note that these interesting sidewalks were created only after space formerly used for roadways was re-claimed for use as pedestrian space.

Bill Lindeke said...

I didn't know that history. Thanks!

Reuben said...

Well, I don't know that either. I'm just assuming that's what happened.

I'm assuming those spaces along Hennepin were created by the same process that very recently created new pedestrian space at the intersection of 27th Ave S & Minnehaha Ave. I also assume that the motivation behind the project is unfortunately not to provide additional pedestrian space, but rather to better define the roadway space to improve automobility and auto safety. Additional ped space is a welcome by-product.

Kevin from Minneapolis said...

I love Hennepin South, used to live on it. I think the car traffic adds to the excitement.

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Janne said...

If I squint, I can see my house in one of those pictures.

Reuben is right -- and it's even more interesting than that. First, Tao is at the corner where Dupont used to make a straight-line cross of Hennepin. There were lots of those, and it made for awkward intersections, lots of pavement, and general unfriendliness to all street users (on foot or wheel).

The neighborhood associations thought it could be better, and so they used some NRP money to fund a study showing how it could be better, and that included getting rid of lots of those awkward triangly intersections, making the angle-intersections more perpendicular, and using the formerly-street-space as space for gardens and benches. They used this to make the case to the City, and somewhere around 6-12 years ago, the City built it. (I've lived in the neighborhood too long when I can't come any closer to the date than that!)

P.S. That's not Kenwood, it's Lowry Hill and East Isles.