9th December 11
Over lunch yesterday, I rented a car in order to drive an Irish artist I know — formerly living in New York and now temporarily residing in Minneapolis — around town to scout for a location for a public art piece he was working on. Specifically, he was looking for abandoned billboard support structures, and a mutual friend had told him that of all the people in town, I’d be best able to help him navigate the landscape. I said of course, I thought I knew of lots of stretches of city road that were home to clusters of billboards. Surely a few must be abandoned.
I picked him up at the U, and we drove down Cedar and Minnehaha to East Lake Street, where I thought we’d find forests of billboards. I take the bus down East Lake into St. Paul every day, and I seemed to recall seeing a lot of billboards from my seat.
Actually, it turns out there’s not so many. There’s a few, on top of commercial buildings, but all appear to be in use. Most depict local network weather people, sleazy bilingual attorneys, or gurgling babies mouthing platitudes about their fingers and dreams. There is one billboard near Cedar of a corpulent local conservative talk radio host, wearing a billowing white shirt so massive it looks like it was draped over him by Christo.
The artist tells me in New York, billboards are a bigger part of the visual landscape. He thinks it’s because of the aboveground trains. Most Minneapolitans see the city from a car. A billboard is really too high up and too fleeting to be effectively seen from that space. On city streets, anyway.
I’d forgotten how unattractive Minneapolis is, as seen from car. Unattractive, and even ugly. At 40 miles per hour, behind glass, most of the city is a bland, indistinguishable blur of one- and two-story buildings, on a flat, unending grid that stretches off to the horizon in all four directions, broken up only by massive parking lots. There are no curves, and there are no diagonals. There is little variety in the elevation. Just a grid; just a blurry one- and two-story x axis blowing past you, and an infinite y axis around you. And half the year, it’s all covered in snow.
Minneapolis wasn’t built for the automobile, which is something I didn’t understand at all until I started seeing the city from mass transit and bike and foot. The city was laid out for streetcars, starting mostly in the 1890s, with most of the layout done by the 1920s.On public transit, you see that Minneapolis is really a thousand classic small-town Main Streets, low-rise strips of brick buildings, sewn together in a tiled pattern stretching over sixty square miles centered around the St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi.
The start-and-stop rhythms of mass transit mirror the way the city blocks are organized: each suite of blocks begins with a cluster of brick commercial buildings and storefronts, where the streetcar or bus stops to collect passengers. Here, during this pause, the eye rests on the commercial signage and the window displays and the people entering and exiting the shops. Then, as you begin to move again, a short collection of quiet, tiny brick and stucco houses on small lots, of all colors, passing by with increasing speed, then decreasing speed, and then drawing to a close at the next intersection, another cluster of brick buildings and storefronts, back to the activity and color and visuals of the street corner.
I think of it almost in musical terms: the four or five blocks between stops a bar of music, each little structure you pass — a house, a church, perhaps a storefront — comprising a note, all working as a melody, and then at the end of the bar, a rest.
Really, the only things that look truly great from a car are the neon liquor store signs — Franklin Nicollet, Minnehaha, Skol, Zipps. I had a visitor from New York in town this weekend, the mutual friend that introduced me to the artist. The one feature of the landscape she was consistently bowled over by was the liquor stores’ neon signage. “There’s that one liquor store sign I liked again,” she’d say when we passed one on the street. “No, that’s a different one — the one you liked before was Hum’s. That’s Lowry Hill.” I’d say. “Another one!” she’d exclaim. The liquor store neons were meant to be seen from a car, which is why half of those stores have drive-in windows. They’re absurdly garish, and they’re one of my favorite things about the city.
This gridcentricity is one of the reasons, I think, why so many people bike around the city, and why even committed automobile users will usually snowshoe or cross-country ski in the city parks as a winter hobby — they just need to be able to move diagonally. When you see the city from bicycle or foot (or snowshoe), it’s a richer, more self-directed experience. You are freed from the grids, and you may move through parks and past rivers and lake shores and through alleys and side streets and plazas and parking lots in more rambling, discursive sorts of ways.
Back to my friend the artist. I felt as if I’d let him down; I’d disappointed him and made a poor case for the city. I’d wanted to help him find what he was looking for, though what he was looking for possibly doesn’t exist in the same way. Minneapolis isn’t a city that gives up what you’re looking for easily. It’s not always eager to help you. As I have written here before, it’s not a city that wears its eccentricities on its sleeve. You really have to get out and look around.
As it happens, we did find a potential site for him — not a billboard support, but a railroad bridge. A beautiful, iron-wrought industrial design that lifts a segment of a major road up over a series of rail lines that meander through the grid below grade. Minneapolis can often seem stubborn, and unwilling to help. But if you’re willing to look on its terms, you can usually find what you’re looking for.
All photos by Eric Neely.
11th October 11
As mentioned yesterday: recovered from the personal archives, it’s my make-out guide to the Twin Cities, originally published in The Rake magazine in the September 2006 issue. I think you can peg the beginning of my personal cultural production in Minneapolis right about here.
Some latter-day descendants: “Ghost Crawl: A walk through the Warehouse District gallery scene 20 years later” (which appeared last month in Rain Taxi), and “38th Street: A Culinary Travelogue” (from the Heavy Table, earlier this year).
2nd August 11
August is here, which means it is time once again for Common Room at The Soap Factory, now in its third blockbuster year! Sergio and I have changed the format slightly since last time, so click through to read more. We have an actual website now!
Or there’s also some information on The Soap Factory’s website.
You can see what sort of things went on during Common Room 2009 and 2010, as well.
1st August 11
My family update from several days ago failed to include any word on Nate. I spoke to him this weekend, and he recently told me about a high point he’d just achieved in his career as a cook. The restaurant where he works, in the half-gentrified, half-geriatrified Germantown neighborhood of Louisville, recently introduced a dish he developed, Georgia Brown pork trotters stuffed with bacon sausage and served with peach coulis.
The local fish-wrapper ran a brief profile on the restaurant recently, which elicited the following comment on their Facebook page from some person who’d never eaten there:
why offer “foods” that I wouldn’t even offer to a starving Porch Kitty?? This stuff sounds like “mountain food from the Depression.” Maybe a little Road Kill as an appetizer??????
But also this one from some other person who’d never eaten there:
We are in Germantown, not France or anywhere else. Sounds like they are trying to be a little to fancy for my liking, and prices sound a little steep also. yuk, no longer interested, maybe they need to move around St Matthews [semi-posh nearby neighborhood] or something
Nate was pretty pleased. “If I’m simultaneously making food that half the people think is fancy French snob food, and the other half think is ‘mountain from from the Depression,’” he said, “I am clearly doing something right.”
5th May 11
Here’s a photo my friend Andrew took last year, when I was in Louisville. That is me and Nate, standing inside a Buffalo Wild Wings on Bardstown Road.
The Buffalo Wild Wings is located inside the shell of an old theater that once housed the Bardstown Road Youth Community Center, known as the BRYCC House. The BRYCC House was an all-ages venue in which me and Nate and our noisy post-adolescent rock band played about two dozen shows between 2000 and 2002, alongside many other soon-to-be-forgotten noisy post-adolescent rock bands with names like Lowercase O, Ayin, the Blue Goat War, Grand Prix, the Pointy Kitties (the early ’00s were a golden age for bands named for obscure Simpsons references), Monorail (see?) and Totally Ointment.
The BRYCC House closed sometime in 2004. Maybe earlier. After that, it became a carpet warehouse. Then, it became a Buffalo Wild Wings.
Nate and I are pictured here gazing wistfully at the shattered remains of our youth. The shattered remains of our youth have been slathered with Spicy Garlic, Asian Zing, Caribbean Jerk, and Mango Habanero-flavored barbecue sauce and served in a fast casual dining atmosphere.
They did have a jukebox, so we thought we ought to punch in a few appropriate numbers as a sad elegy while we creepily hung around and refused to be seated for beers and wings (it was a weekday afternoon and totally empty, so no one on the waitstaff seemed to care). There were no selections on the jukebox by Sleater-Kinney, the Raincoats, Gene Defcon or Richard Hell & the Voidoids, for some reason. So instead we played a few songs from the first Strokes record, which seemed to be the closest in spirit. The interior of the building looked very much the same as it did then, except with flat-screen televisions and neon signs for popular American and Dutch beers on the walls.
Do Nate and I look out of place? We totally look out of place.
Oh, youth. I believe it was Glenn Danzig that was once described by Henry Rollins as being “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax.” I rarely feel that way myself, but if I ever begin to, I am reminded of the fact that anywhere important to you at the age of 21 will eventually be turned into a Buffalo Wild Wings.
4th May 11
After months of rumor, developers’ plans to
transform revert Block E into a massive casino collection of adult bookstores, seedy lumberjack bars and illegal art studios were finally officially unveiled today.
Alatus Partner Bob Lux A person that would actually go downtown on a regular basis says Block E’s fatal problem to date has been its reputation as a rough-and-tumble spot super-lame failed northern outpost of the Mall of America where teenagers and tourists hang out.
“Safety was the main concern,”
Lux someone else said. “ It’s what is keeping We need to keep people from the suburbs from coming to downtown Minneapolis.”
“Block E casino plans unveiled,” via City Pages. Corrections by S. 12th. Above: Block E in the 1970s, courtesy Stephen Cysewski.
20th April 11
1992: Mike Mosely came into school one morning bragging that he’d been on a date the other night, with a girl, and they had gone to Tumbleweed Restaurant. Tumbleweed was a popular regional chain of restaurants owned and operated by Chi Chi’s, with a very similar Tex-Mex-ish menu and design aesthetic to its parent company. In fact, Tumbleweed outlived Chi’s Chi’s, which you may recall closed permanently after a 2004 Hepatitis A outbreak was traced back to its lettuce; Tumbleweed still operates a number of locations in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Anyway, Jonathan Katz and I found this incredibly hilarious, and we belittled Mike’s choice of venue mercilessly. Tumbleweed was where your parents took you for medium-fancy birthday celebrations. We were sure it was a completely tasteless destination for a date. We laughed and laughed, tears streaming down our face, howling the popular Tumbleweed television commercial tagline over and over, which was: “TUUUUUMBBBBBLLLLEWEEEEEEEEED.”
1995: No dates for the 1995 calendar year, so this would be strictly hypothetical. But you know, as far as suburban chains go, you could do worse. They’re dimly lit. There’s table service. That makes it nice, right? Sort of? Plus, it’s not very expensive. Sure. That would be OK.
1997: Look. Andrew Sturdevant is not into fancy girls. Tumbleweed is a perfectly OK place to get nice Mexican food. If my date wants to go to some, I don’t know, expensive restaurant, it’s just not going to work out between us, because Andrew Sturdevant cares about things other than money and fancy food.
1998: Oh, I don’t know. Tumbleweed? That’s kind of, I don’t know, suburban-y, isn’t it? I think we can do better. I am not sure where. Maybe that…well, maybe we’ll just drive around and find something in, er, the Highlands? I don’t know the Highlands very well. I get lost. Maybe, uh, let’s just get something from the cafeteria and eat it in the quad.
2001: Oh my god. I have a crazy idea. Let’s go to Tumbleweed. I know, right? That would be so awesomely trashy! And then maybe afterwards, we should go see, like, Rock Star with Marky Mark at the Village 8. Oh my god. That is hilarious. Yes. Totally. We should dress up, too. Like, I’ll wear khakis. With pleats on the front! Ha ha ha ha ha! Oh my god! We have to do this! We have to do this!
2002: That’s ridiculous. Plus, it’s not open late enough. Look, I know this place in North Oakland off of Forbes that’s open until 3 a.m. And it’s real Mexican food. Let’s go there.
2004: Naw, we can do better. (Editor’s note: Can we? I would like to say that, by this time, any possibility of going on a date to Tumbleweed would have passed. But thinking about it: I did not spend over $25 on a meal until I was 27 years old. At least 27. I did not know the difference between butter and margarine for much longer than is reasonable. As much as I’d like to rule it out by 2004, we simply can’t rule it out.)
2006: I don’t think so. I mean…yeah, it’s where I would have gone in 1995, but…well, yeah, for family events. Stuff like that. You want to see what that was like? Well, OK, I guess. If you really want to see what the suburbs were like. I mean, you grew up in the suburbs, too, right? It’s not like…
2008: Come on. No. I’ll take you somewhere nice.
2011: I guess if that’s where your parents want to go, that’s fine.