Sidewalk of the Week: University Avenue

For some reason I wanted to go over some conclusions and feedback from the Lake Street in a Day project... The two things that I came away from my walk thinking were (#1) that cities are constantly changing, that streets are kind of like a mosaic of historical change and chance. In other words, because infrastructural transformation takes such a long time (many, many decades), you can easily see the past in the present, and streets reflect more than a lifetime of historical land uses. Not only are buildings from a hundred years ago still around, sometimes standing right next to a brand new piece of architecture, but sometimes their tenants are still hanging on too. So you'll get a place like Ingebretsen's nextdoor to a Latino bakery (or something), and the immigrant history of Minneapolis appears right there in front of you.

Extending from that, (#2) Lake Street today is, primarily, a kind of schizophrenically transitional space stuck between a car-centered strip of parking lots and dealerships and a pedestrian-oriented mixed-use neighborhood (with big box stores). And most of the feedback and comments that I got on this blog (thanks, btw) seemed to confirm what I’d been struck by, namely that these two worlds don’t coexist very peacefully. There’s a great distance between a vision of a street with walkable sidewalks and neighborhood shops and a vision that foregrounds ample parking lots and drive-through convenience.

That said, I was driving down University Avenue on Saturday and came across one way in which parking lots can benefit the pedestrian experience. There were three different outdoor food establishments peddling wares at the corner of Dale and University – it seemed like kind of an impromptu street fair. There was a Hmong farmer’s market set up in the parking lot of the (entirely terrible) Unidale Mall, the Caribeean restaurant had a tent where they were selling things like Jerk Chicken, and a catering business had opened up an outdoor BBQ stand appropriately named Big Daddy’s Saturday Barbeque (they’d moved down the street from their old location). All of this was on a corner that most of the time seems very liminal and anti-sidewalk, with a drive-through Wendy’s, the aforementioned Unidale, and a windowless police station on two of its corners. (Though the new Rondo Library seems to be partly responsible for adding some foot traffic, and symbolic resonance, to the intersection.)

In each of these cases, though, the parking lots have been transformed into sidewalks, thanks to the magic of tents. And while there’s certainly something unavoidably soul-sucking about spending much time in an asphalt desert meant for cars, I guess this is one way to bridge the gap between car culture and sidewalk streets. University Avenue and Lake Street actually have a lot in common: both serve as main commercial corridors for huge, diverse swaths of their respective cities, both were walklable streets that became appropriated by car dealerships and repair shops during the 50’s and 60’s, and both are prime territory for redevelopment.


jhop said...

Go to Columbia Heights from the south via Central Avenue. Look around that avenue and tell me University in the Midway and Columbia Heights look very similar.

I agree though, Lake Street and University Ave have many things in common. The only difference is Lake Street is getting reconstructed and University MAY or MAY NOT depending on the Central Corridor LRT deal. They may trim costs and cut back on street improvements or put them off.

Ed Kohler said...

Great insights. Lake St seems to be moving toward becoming a Grand Ave of Minneapolis, with similar background as a car dealer street (still is, but not new cars). The big boxes, including Kmart and Target, do make for less than walkable areas along the route since passing HUGE parking lots feels like crossing a barren wasteland.

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