12.5.10

Minneapolis Architects' View of Nicollet Mall c. 1978

[A juggler on Nicollet Mall during the 1975 Aquatennial. Img MNHS.]

I just came across this fabulous passage from a short publication called "Streets Alive". It was put together after a study abroad trip led by Ralph Rapson in 1978, where he took Architecture and Landscape Architecture students to Germany and Italy to look at how streets and streetlife came together in Sienna, Lucca, Freiberg, and W├╝rtzberg.

“The Street Not Taken”

Thus, once again, the ultimate question is a social one: what kind of urban society do Americans want?

If I walk down the Nicollet Mall, will I bump into someone I know? Will I stop and chat, or hide my face in a store window? Will I gaze up at the terra-cotta corbels, scrolls, and cornices, the steel-framed department store bays, the molded brick details, the curtain wall glazing, and down at the aggregate walkway and so-called mall furniture (would you put it in YOUR living room?), or will I stare blankly ahead while secretly surveying the number of nose pickers in the passing crowd (would Walt Whitman have approved)? Will I stop in a familiar shop or comfy old bar? Wait a minute! Where do you think I am? What familiar shop or comfy bar? This is Minneapolis, as soon-to-be-transformed by the magic ‘development’ hand of Skidmore, Owings and Merril, the Oxford Corporation, Gerald D. Hines, and a host of other ‘civic improvers’. A soon-to-be city of over-abundant space but hard to find place. My friend Mr. Bus farts his way past me, and I watch through the stench, the ironic imperative “Oughtamobile” – indeed! A pedestrian zone for people and buses. And they wonder why the sleazy drunks linger on Hennepin instead of Nicollet. At least they know what getting polluted is all about. I understand that even the better class of streetwalkers have migrated from downtown to the pedestrian alleyways of hotel corridors along the 494 strip.

What type of urban society do Americans want? Not all the cobblestone, fountains, and sidewalk cafes in Italy could by themselves transform one dead American business district into a streetlive city. Nor, more prosaically, could the careful movement and land use planning evidenced in the German pedestrian zone, by itself, have more than a glancing impact on the visual or social texture of an American shopping mall.

Pedestrian spaces are people spaces, shaped by people in motion, people engaged in purposeful activities of living, working, shopping, or in the aimless joys of strolling, musing, or lazing. The creation of such spaces requires at the most a people, like the Italians, habituated to public living, or at the least, a people like the Germans fully mindful of the public responsibility for accommodating social activities.

Are Americans such people? Immediately we are struck by the gross over-simplification which such a question implies. Americans, good pragmatists to the last, are no more nor less than what they do. And this, perhaps, is the one key to pedestrian system design which we know for certain translates from Europe to America: people are what they do, and their built-environment is the record of their pattern of doing. An American city cannot recreate the history-rich texture of an Italian hill town or a German cathedral town, but it can reflect the activity-determined texture of a lived-in place.

[Mr. Bus farts its way down Nicollet Mall in 1975. Img. fm. MNHS.]

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