Sidewalk of the Week: Johnson Street Northeast

A funny thing happened on the way to the Calhoun Square. I'm driving through Minneapolis and I don't know what happened but I accidentally got turned around trying to find Uptown. Somehow I ended up in this strange part of Minneapolis I'd never known existed. Did you know Minneapolis had hills? It's true. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

As you climb the majestic mountain of far Northeast, almost rising up into the clouds, as the US presidents march ever forward in time, you come across Johnson Street, an old streetcar route. Northeast Johnson Street, running up the far East edge of Minneapolis, is a street that will take you through time. As you go North it seems to teeter on the very edge of suburbia, like Wile E. Coyote running off a Shel Silverstien poem without looking down.

It seems like this part of town unfolded in the brief postwar window of opportunity, a tiny moment when Americans were building cities again, but before Levittown and ranch homes and front-facing garages. This was the moment before we started robotically copying houses without streets, before  endless lawns raced to the horizon with barely a sidewalk to string them together. Once you get far enough North, it seems you've gotten closer to Lyndon Johnson than Andrew Johnson, and you dead end at 60s sprawl and Columbia Heights, a jaywalker's torment of parking lots, four-lane roads, and drive-thrus.

But take solace, good stroller, there is an oasis on the edge of town waiting for you, the last refuge of the pedestrian at the corner of Johnson and 29th Avenue. Here two key sidewalks come together, and for a brief three or four blocks, colorful low slung shops emerge from the woodwork to greet you with awnings and windows and promise. This is the last street corner in Minneapolis, and its a good one. It's literally off the charts measuring benches per square foot.

[A Sphynx-like funeral home welcomes you to a sidewalk oasis.]

[The last streetcorner in Minneapolis.]

[The window of the coffee shop called The Coffee Shop.]

[Specials displayed at the neighborhood café.]

 [Hazels and haybales and Minnesotans walking in January.]

 [The benchladen streetcorner.]

 [More lovely Johnson Street benches.]

It's a commonly held belief that nobody walks in Minneapolis in January, that Minnesotans fear the cold and will do just about anything to keep from the out-of-doors. But on Johnson Street, even on the coldest days you'll find folks walking up and down the blocks, heading to and from the various eateries.

And if there's one thing that Johnson seems to have plenty of, its charming cafés. The most famous of these is Hazel's, a well-windowed upscale downscale joint on the corner. But next door you'll find one of the city's few remaining old-school bakeries, a less formal quality café, and across the street a coffee shop with excellent sandwiches and plenty of room to work. The low one- and two-story buildings on this corner include all these eateries, an acupuncture place, a furniture store, a laundry, a plumbing shop, something having to do with bags, and two of the most walkable health care clinics in the city.

These low innocuous buildings prove how little it takes to make a good neighborhood. Provided you have a walkable street grid and a minimum of density, all you need is a cluster of mixed-use buildings and your corner can become a living breathing place to call home. You can see that these buildings have evolved over time. Certain entrance nooks have been mothballed as shops expanded or went out of business, and today the Johnson Street sidewalks are creatively lined with benches and hay bales in case anyone wants to sit down and drink a coffee and watch the sun sink into the Western sky.

As you head South, the shops spread out, but you'll still find Crafty Planet (the city's home for DIY), a hair salon, a vintage store, a corner store with the world's largest setback, and a house converted into a barber shop. There's also one of those truly old-school Chinese restaurants, one of the first wave back when "chow mein" was a foreign tongue. The store is painted in two of my favorite colors - dark red and off-mint green - and it fits in amongst the homes like a well-played Tetris block.

 [Plumber located around back.]

 [Crafty walkability continues South.]

 [Old school chow mein joint with a sidemounted sidewalk staircase.]

 [The world's most set back corner store.]

Despite the walkable sights, there's still a lot of empty space to be found. The most intriguing building on Johnson is an old art deco theater, the "Hollywood," which somehow escaped the wrecking and sits like dusty bowling trophy, waiting for an era that may never come. Across the street is a huge vacant lot on a corner, a place that would be perfect for infill apartments. In the meantime, might be a good spot for picnic performance art or a snowman army.

The street seems to be working on branding, and has affixed colorful banners to all its lampposts. It sits, clinging to the mountainside, on the edge of the city. I imagine its sidewalks shining out over the rest of the Minneapolis like an airport beacon. I imagine these sidewalks stretching out their arms, offering a big hug that says, "Yes. Set your streets free. Come and walk with me to dinner and sit and relax and make your own cake donut."

How can anyone resist?

[The empty Hollywood.]

[Courtesy of Thomas Edison High, May '08.]

[The sidewalk staircase of Nick's Barber Shop, an unfortunate name if you want a shave.]

[The "back in 5 mins" sign hangs on the doorway of the donut place.]


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you missed one of the neighborhoods greatest treasures- the wild turkeys that live in the park and clog up traffic on Johnson st :) they have a facebook fan page if you're interested... nordeast turkey fan club

Unknown said...

I'm so glad I followed the link to your article. This is a favorite corner in Mpls for me. I live in St Paul but visit these shops fairly often. Love Crafty Planet. Love the coffee shop.

Anonymous said...

I love living in this neighborhood! Johnson Street is the best and is a destination spot for us all year long. And just around the corner is Audubon Park. A great place to let the kids play. My only request is that one of the shops bring in ice cream again so we have a destination for cones in the summer after spending time at the park.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for "finding" our neighborhood! We do love to have a thriving, locally based business community in our back yard. To be able to walk for a dinner date or a coffee is one of the perks of city living. But you missed on of our greatest local businesses - Foiled Again Salon! (The pink stucco building as backdrop to Nick's Barber Shop.) They are an anchor on the block having taken over a roller set salon to create a space for art and beauty! Look them up to get a fabulous cut or color and stop by for an art opening next month!