That Feeling when Big 10 Closes, but Washington Avenue is Thriving

[The Big 10 building.]
The Big 10 Bar and Sandwich Shop in Stadium Village closed for good last week, and I consider it a personal loss because I loved their pastrami sub. Not just the sandwich, of course, but the whole experience of the sandwich. The the way that the old wooden walls held traces of generations of Gophers, the laid-back attentive staff, the clean unfancy atmosphere.

The pastrami itself was a living sandwich tradition, an old-school creation: toasted bun with a huge heap of lettuce atop the cheese on the quality pastrami, all doused in a light oil. Nobody makes them like that any more, and it had a unique flavor and texture that I can taste with the slightest mention.

Yet right now, the entire two-story building is covered in “auction" signs, as one of the last historic brick buildings on Washington Avenue, is coming down for a new 26-story mixed-use apartment tower.

[The pastrami.]
[The bar.]

It’s tempting to be sad about the loss of a building like the one at Washington and Harvard, especially when it houses tenants that have been around for decades, especially when its the last in a long line of buildings that have bitten the dust on an old commercial street. But in this case, I’m not that upset. There should be word for this feeling, loss combined with the knowledge of a bright future. Let’s call it “buildingsroman freudenschade": the bittersweet taste of the loss of innocence that accompanies the coming-of-age of a neighborhood.

Outside of a few truly irreplaceable historic sites, when faced with a preservation decision, the key question that I ask myself: What is the proposed alternative? The context is critical, and the question “should we save this building” has to be accompanied with the answer to the other question: “what are we replacing it with?”

Back in the post-war building boom, the majority of redevelopment and preservation debates involved tearing down buildings for roads, parking lots, and less-dense auto-centric development like strip malls or industrial parks. But in today’s development context, the question of preservation is completely different because it often sits in a context of transit-oriented mixed-use density. Now the Nye’s Polonaise block, mostly surface parking, becomes a 22-story apartment tower, the shoddy Totino's building becomes seven-story apartments, or the old three-story high school building in Dinkytown becomes a six-story apartment building with a Target store. Or here, where a two-story mixed-use building increases in density by over an order of magnitude. The question of preservation looks a lot different in that light, and as CM Cam Gorden explained in the Star Tribune piece on the building’s history, you feel sad but you move on because these are the kinds of changes you need to make to create a sustainable city.

[All the old wooden booth joints are disappearing.]
Commercial and retail environments are constantly changing, and neither sub sandwiches nor Chinese food carry the same meaning today as they did a generation or two ago. I’m not sure how many sandwich shops thrived in Stadium Village the 70s, but I’d bet that there were fewer than today, when a half-dozen places will make or deliver affordable sandwiches for the campus hungry. Admittedly, they're all chains these days — Erbert and Gerbert, Subway (of course), Jimmy Johns, Potbelly, Davanni’s — and to me, they all seem kinda the same next to the Big 10 sub. But regardless of taste, the world of quickly made sandwiches is still thriving, even without Banh Mi and Big 10.

And despite the new buildings with less affordable rents, the same goes for the diversity of Washingtion Avenue in general. Stadium Village has dozens of independent, unique restaurants, many of which are in buildings that have been built in the last ten years. Beginning at University Avenue, you have Blaze Pizza (don’t know, don’t care), Hong Kong Noodle (last of the old school), Kowloon (generic chinese), Burger King (been there for a long time now)…  But then there are a whole bunch of small and/or local places including Haiku Japanese, Little Szechuan (amazing place!), the Kitty Corner CafĂ© (don't want to know), Punch, a newer Vietnamese restaurant, Tea Garden, SenCha, Bar Luchador, and more, along with the usual suspect chain restaurants like Noodles, Bruegger's, Dairy Queen, or Dino’s Gyros. Even with the loss of the old building, Stadium Village has more restaurants in fewer blocks than just about any street in Minneapolis, up to and including Nicollet!

More than most places, a large college campus reflects rapidly changing tastes. (Heck, even the "Big 10" itself has like 12 or 13 teams now...) Stadium Village, named after a stadium that existed, then didn't exist, and now sort of exists again, has always been a place where the bulk of the population changes completely over all the time. Few people have institutional memories past a five-year horizon, so it’s no surprise when older places succumb to the new — for example, on today’s campus there are thousands of young Chinese students, actually from China, who have little interest in eating bastardized 80s-era “American Chinese” food.

One one hand, it's sad that the loss of an old building means the loss of the cheap rents that allowed a place like the Big 10 to hang on for so long. If they had wanted to stay in business, they’d likely have had to invested quite a bit of money and take a substantial risk, like Sally’s Bar did down the street when their building was knocked down, and given the volatile unromantic nature of the student body, it’s likely the owners decided to take the money and retire.

So much worse for the nostalgic, but the loss of Big 10 and the building that housed it comes at the gain of a new homes for a thousand young people who will start their own traditions at the heart of campus. If any place should reflect the optimism of Minneapolis's urban future, it is here at the heart of campus, next to a light rail line, in a place where (finally!) walking has become the default way of getting around. I guess I’ll have to bike to Hopkins for my pastrami sub now, but in the meantime, we’re one step closer to creating a dense, walkable, urban city. Buildingsroman freudenschade indeed.
[See also, the last days at Serlin’s, Bonnie’s, Stasny’s, and Nye’s.]

1 comment:

Elliot Novak said...

It takes a city to destroy a village.

Actually, I agree with the heart of your post but I just wanted to turn a phrase :)