4 Things Everyone Should Know About Block E

[Downtown's premiere Hooters.]
In case you missed it, I was on MPR today talking about the latest proposal to "remake" Block E, Minneapolis's notoroius failed attempt to improve Minneapolis' notorious dive block.

At this point, it's easy to throw eggs at Block E. Walking past a failed 90's concept mall, with (in the words of Larry Millet) a "cartoon of a development that presents architecture as entertainment" tends not to make one charitable. Today most of that "entertainment" sits vacant and abandoned.

I was lucky enough to get to wander inside Block E thanks to the Made Here project, and it's fascinating. You find a time capsule of stores from the 2000s: most notably Borders and Gameworks, but also a pharmacy, movie theater, and a few restaurant spaces. The empty shops feel like an urban ruin, similar to a factory in Detroit, with paperwork from 2004 still sitting on an office desk, a straw hat left behind, instructions for employees still on the wall, random detritus strewn about like confetti. 

[Office in the Block E Borders, abandoned for over 5 years.]

[Chalkboard at the Block E Borders.]

[Borders sign: "Ashley & Megan, go to your happy place now."]
I moved back to Minneapolis from the East Coast about the same time that Block E opened up, and I remember the excitement with which downtown civic boosters unveiled the project. At the time, I didn't know many of the details of the project. I remember going with friends to see its debut and snickering like proper hipsters, but few people thought that the "critical link between the city's Hennepin Avenue theater district and the Warehouse District" would tank and sink so quickly.

Since then, watching the place casually implode has been a mix of schadenfreude and gloom. Back at the end of 2011, I had this metaphor:

The Block E Applebee's was the exact opposite of Nye's Polonaise Room. Now there's nothing alive in Block E save for The Shout House (shudder) and (somehow) the Mrs Fields' cookies-bigger-than-your-head establishment. Someday downtown folks will figure out that cities can't compete with the suburbs by replicating them, but need to create unique, locally-owned, walkable places. Keiran's Pub is a good start.

Meanwhile, Block E sits on Hennepin Avenue like a hippopotamus at a dog show.

(I'm rather proud of that one.)

Now I'm working on a radio documentary about the history of Block E for KFAI Radio (community voices), and it's been titillating to pore through old documents about the space.

Here's a rough primer for those of you too young to remember when R.T. Rybak was just the downtown reporter for the Star Tribune. (PS, that includes me. I'm not that old!)

Fact #1 - The Block's Previous Diversity

[Hennepin Avenue in the 40s, Block E on right.]
The next time you find yourself watching Purple Rain, pay attention to the background of the film. A lot of the downtown Minneapolis scenes are set against the backdrop of Block E in L.A., which at the time was a large mix of two- to five-story old brick buildings. (Actually, I just checked again and many of those scenes are Los Angeles, but my point is the same.)

Downtown Minneapolis used to be full of buildings like that, places with many storefronts, mixed-use everything, alleyways, and lots of street-front signage. And Hennepin Avenue between 6th and 7th was its epicenter.

According to my inadequate research, this one block was home to:

Restaurants: the Best Steak House, the Venice Café, the Casa Corando, McDonalds, and probably others.

[Block E signs.]
Bars: Moby Dick's, the 620 Club (previous to Moby's), Brady's Bar, Mousey's Bar, the Swallow Bar, and a music club named Goofy's Upper Deck (which was very hot in the summer).

Retail: Musicland, Harpo's Hot Licks (a record shop), Northern Lights (another record shop), Ryan Camera, two different Shinder's locations (newspapers and magazines), and much more.

Art galleries: most notable was the Rifle Sport Gallery (a converted game arcade), though I've heard there was a continually changing cast of others.

Many other things: two theaters (the World and the Schubert), a jewelry store, a barber shop, a bowling alley, a post office, Fantasy House (what you imagine), the Rand Hotel (rooms available by the hour), the Adonis (a place for gay hookups), and a secret tunnel under Hennepin Avenue that led to bathhouses across the street.

To find this kind of diversity on one block is impossible these days. In one of my interviews for the doc, Dennis Pearson described the block thus, from his early years growing up downtown:
I remember Block E used to be a lot of fun. That’s the place where you meet your friends before you go out to a concert, or to get a bite to eat, or sometimes you just stay at Moby’s. It was great for people watching, and they did a lot of things that you probably couldn’t do today. I remember if you turned in your AA medallion to the bar, they’d hang it up on the wall and you could drink free for the rest of the night. That used to happen every night. And one time...

[Me: That's terrible!]

It was so funny. It is terrible, but it's so funny too.

I’ve never seen a bar before or after with such a mixed group of people. Business men, pimps, prostitutes, neighborhood people, and people from all walks of life and they all got along. And you really didn’t have to worry too much. If someone was giving you a hard time, you just told the bartender or the bouncer. The bouncers would be over right away and take care of the problem and throw the person out...

Minneapolis had a million stories, and the shops at block E were at the heart of many of them.

[Block E in the 20s?]

Fact #2 - The Premature Tear Down Party

[Block E signs.]
From what I've heard (and it must be mentioned that many of the narrators' memories aren't necessarily reliable), the old block E was a somewhat respectable place until the 70s. Around that time, like much of the old urban United States, it started going downhill and became known as a center for various vices.

Reading through the news accounts of the time is confusing. You get a real sense of the conflict between the "old" diverse, dirty city and the "new" skyway-centered business-led city. Block E lay right at the crossroads of these two visions for Minneapolis.

What to do with the block came to a head when the Butler Square building was remodeled, and property owners began realizing the potential of the land that today we know as the Warehouse District. From that point on, various mega-projects were continually popping up in the area: City Center, a convention center proposal (where Target Center is today), the Target Center, the 394 parking ramps, Laurel Village (housing), etc.

Block E was in the way of a lot of this development, and so the city passed a plan in the late 80s to get rid of it. The city and the Downtown Council wanted to build something that would mimic the successful Calhoun Square development in Uptown, and had arranged with the developer of that project to construct an urban mall on the space of Block E. On October 18th, 1988 (or so), the city held a party to celebrate the impending razing of the buildings on the block. Later that winter, they all came down.

[The downtown entertainment map, c. 1984. The 9 buildings of Block E at bottom left.]

Much like George Bush's aircraft carrier party, the Block E celebration turned out to be premature. The planned development fell through, and for over a decade, the Block E area remained a surface parking lot.

If you're going to identify one common thread for downtown Minneapolis planning, one thing that our city is really good at, it's tearing down historic buildings and replacing them with surface parking. That's exactly what happened here.

Fact #3 - The Rejected Park Proposal

[R.T. Rybak, staff writer.]
Fast forward to the 1990s, and all sorts of Block E schemes keep popping up. By the late 90s, the were three main ideas. The first was to build a urban mall-type development. There were two proposals, but they each seemed similar: skyways, restaurants, a hotel, retail.

The second idea was to turn the now-empty block into a park, called "the garden of courage" and dedicated to cancer patients (or something like that). The rationale was the downtown needed more parks and green space, and this would serve as a "plaza" for the now-existing Target Center area.

A competing park proposal, by Forecast Public Art, was to use the existing theater and parking spaces as an open art space, similar to what today we'd call "pop up" programming. (This option would certainly have been the cheapest.)

In a way, the debates are eerily reminiscent of the current development proposals. You have a park, a stadium, a mixed-use development, a city-subsidized parking lot... La plus ça change.

Fact #4 - The Amount of City Money Involved Through the Years

[Moving the Schubert Theater.]
The final detail that can't be missed is how much money the city has spent on this block. It cost something like $9 million to buy it up in the 80s, something like $2 million to tear it down in 1988.

(Who knows how much money the city made while it was a parking lot, versus how much tax revenue they would have made if they'd left it as it was.)

Moving the six-million pound Schubert theater from Block E to Block D cost $4 million in 1999.

Subsidizing the Block E development cost the city $34 million in 2001.

And in 2010, the whole near-failure of a development sold to its current owner for the grand total of $14 million dollars.

Conclusion: Be Skeptical of Downtown Deals

[The latest rendering.]
For me, this whole sorry saga points to the fickle nature of downtown development deals. Studying urban geography, you see countless examples of revitalization and economic redevelopment approaches that might work in one place but completely fail when translated to another spot. The aforementioned list of failed urban redevelopment schemes is but the tip of the iceberg. (In fact, all things considered, maybe Minneapolis and Saint Paul don't have it that bad when compared to some other cities... at least it's not Autoworld.)

The ironic thing about Block E's failure is that the redevelopment, after over a decade of sitting as an empty parking lot, installed a lot of the same things that had been there before. In both incarnations of the block, you had a bookstore, a record store, an arcade, a restaurant (complete with rock musicians), night clubs, a movie theater, and even (eventually) a mammary-themed entertainment venue. The problem was that all the replacements were chain versions of the unique and local places that had been there before -- AMC Theater for the World Theater, Borders for the Shinders, Gameworks for the Rifle Sport, Escape Ultra Lounge for Moby Dicks, Hooters for Fantasy House, etc. That's precisely the opposite direction that cities should be going in. You'll never recreate suburbia downtown. You have to offer something far more unique, something that the ring road shopping malls can never have... density and diversity.

This doesn't  mean we shouldn't do anything. There are downtown development projects that worked out pretty well: the Target HQ building, the Loring Greenway area, and much of the infill development in the North Loop are particular favorites.

But if Block E teaches us anything, it should teach us to be skeptical anytime a developer comes to the city with a plan to "save downtown." And this is doubly true if the plan involves tearing down existing shops or businesses, no matter how seedy or disreputable you might find them.

The saving grace is that we're not compounding our mistakes by jumping on the latest urban redevelopment bandwagon, downtown casinos. The excellent "Made Here" project (curated by my friend Joan) is a great start at injecting some much needed street smarts into Hennepin Avenue again. And while this most recent proposal looks to me like an attempt to come up with something a bit generic ("Minnesota Modern"?), maybe that's a good thing. We don't need to re-create the wheel, we merely need to provide a space for the city that's already all around us to come to life.

[The French Connection, playing at Block E!]

As you can see in the 1984 "map", by the 80s a lot of it Block E was surface parking already. A friend of mine passed along this story:
From '80 to '84, I worked and managed the parking lots behind Moby's. People would park and pay, put their guns in their trunks and go have fun! I'd get calls at home at closing time from the attendant at the lot directly behind the bar asking what to do about the person demanding money from the till to replace the tire that had just flatted from running over a beer bottle. Or the people demanding compensation who had tried to sneak out the entrance to the lot on 6th St (the attendant couldn't see that entrance from the exit booth on 1st Ave) and had their windshield broken/roof damaged by the steel gate. The bouncers at Moby's were the toughest, most lawless in town, and one of them was actually charged with murder(?) for gunning down a patron on 1st Ave.

Bonus Too:

Almost everything I'm trying to say is said much better in this utterly amazing 14-minute film, Shinders To Shinders (1982), which features all kinds of Block E scenes, including the stairs of Rifle Sport, the entrance of Moby's, the Block E alleys, The Rand Hotel, and the doorway of Shinder's:

[Drug dealing dance performance. Click for whole video.]

The film ends with the funk/jazz beat refrain:
Clean it up,
Tear it down,
Ain't no funky town.

There are all kinds of racial dynamics to this story too that I haven't even begun to talk about, and frankly, don't feel qualified to discuss. But they're very surely there.


jeff said...

Awsome writing -- what I wouldn't give to have the old block back.

Hogan said...

Chicago has a parallel-universe problem with their own Block 37. It's another example of knocking something down just to bring it back again with diminishing returns.


Charlie Quimby said...

"At this point, it's easy to throw eggs at Block E. "

It was easy to throw eggs before it was built, and especially when the city had the atrocity of City Center as a lesson. But Minneapolis has a history of this.

Bill Lindeke said...

the most prescient politician in any of the newspaper accounts was CM Lisa MacDonald, who correctly said that tearing it down would be stupid and they should keep the things that were working there instead. she almost blocked the deal... but as you said...

Unknown said...

I'll bet those little 'blighted' properties brought in more property tax revenue then anything built there since.

Charlie Quimby said...

When I was in college in Northfield, the bus that brought students up for the weekend dropped us off across from the Radisson, and we filtered immediately to that block (this was 67-71).

It was the center of the city's night life, culture and daily bread. The Great Northern Market on that block still set out produce displays and iced boxes of fish on the sidewalk. Shinders was a source for newspapers all over the country. The ticket taker at the Mann Theater let my girlfriend and me into "Alice's Restaurant" for free. Around '76 I picked up cab fares at the bars. It was seedy, sure, but less dangerous than First Avenue now when the bars let out.

Tiny details: La Casa Coronado was a great spot with an upstairs dance floor where I had my wedding party in '75. Northern Lights, I believe, was across 8th Street from Block E.

The homogenization was a mistake, but a lot of that happens when you build more expensive real estate with higher rents that drive out the small, homegrown businesses with character. Rent, more than insipid architecture, is what ruined the street.

PhilmerPhil said...

Ah good ol' Block E. I worked at the Mrs. Fields for a bit in the mid 2000s. Good times. Whenever I hear the song "Time of the Season" by the Zombies, I go back to the days of rolling up pretzels for the skyway folk. (The background music at Block E was painfully faint--loud enough to get their selected songs stuck in your head, soft enough that you couldn't quite make out all the sounds.)

patrickinmpls said...

Stupid city, we don't need parks where commerce is disallowed, and we don't need malls that are enclosed. We need open commercial spaces, like a plaza or a square as they call them in Europe. A big open pedestrian square with commercial activity on each side. Maybe even put a fountain in the middle.

DanaD said...

I remember going to First Ave in the early 1990s as a young teenager. Block E was this crazy dead zone of trash and neer-do-wells with no where else to go. My 13-year old suburban eyes thought it made the entire place feel like the edge of something rather than being part of something.

North Lights was where Seven is now, not on Block E.

Although I have lots of memories of that area before the current configuration, I have only one memory of the Block E as it is now (or was before everything closed). The city or maybe Block E managers played opera and classical music onto the street to discourage urban youth from loitering. As I was leaving a movie one summer night, a flash of lightening zig zagged through the sky right as Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" started playing. Lovely.

Unknown said...

very nice writing with very nice picture.i like this.thanks for share with us.

Stephen Gross said...

Thanks for the writeup. It's really interesting to see how a single site can go through so much evolution. I think every city has a few sites like this: prime location, great historical uses, but no one quite realizes how to keep the mojo.

Anonymous said...

Northern Lights was on Block E and later moved to where Seven is today. Pretty sure pic in this article is of the Block E location.


When Northern Lights moved, Sun's headshop moved in. Sun's was formerly on 7th off of Hennepin near the empty Chevy's. Later Sun's moved down Hennepin toward MCC.

Professor Batty said...

Please credit "French Connection" image of block E to:

Flippism is the Key


Thank you.

McDave said...

worked at the Mann theater as an usher 1971-73 and remember helping put up the letters on the marquee for French Connection.Thanks for the pic it brings back fond memories of a different era.Downtown was still rough in those days but it was as if we were blissfully unaware.

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Anonymous said...

The French Connection is showing at the Mann Theater, today (again) the Pantages, which is at 708 Hennepin, the block immediately SW of Block E.

And in 1971, the year of The French Connection, both sites occupied in subsequent years by Northern Lights Music are visible in this image. 604 Hennepin on Block E, and later 700 Hennepin, on the corner of 7th & Hennepin.

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Anonymous said...

Omg! Thank you for this article! I was lucky enough to go to these places in the early 1980s. I remember being in Moby Dicks and thinking, I’m going to remember this forever. We all knew back then these places were special, and to be 57 now remembering the very moment I stepped foot in there, I’m
so grateful I can say I experienced it. It was another world then. I wasn’t even of age yet the first time. When I actually moved to Minneapolis 3 years ago, I lived within walking distance of my old Stomping grounds. It’s painfully surreal now. I do love Minneapolis though and those memories along with many others that I had coming here are what made me want to live here. I’ve never regretted one moment, and I hope to live in my beloved city until death do is part. Yes there is a lot going on that people like to draw attention to in a negative light now, but they don’t live here. Those of us that do know the tide will change.
Thanks again! I hope you write more!!!