|[Downtown's premiere Hooters.]|
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."]|
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.
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.]|
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.]|
Retail: Musicland, Harpo's Hot Licks (a record shop),
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.]|
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.]|
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.]|
(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.]|
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.
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:
The film ends with the funk/jazz beat refrain:
Clean it up,
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.