My Morning Commute through 150 years of Minneapolis History

Sorry for the cynicism, and the whiny postings this week. The Black Dog has been lurking around 20 Prospect. Not sure why. Any week that begins and ends with biking to work can’t be all bad. Sometimes I need a reminder of that. It doesn’t hurt when Mrs. 20 Prospect leaves a note on the kitchen counter telling me she loves me, either.

But it’s Friday now, and I have a date with Mrs. 20P tonight, so things are looking up. Shoo you black dog!

It is an absolutely glorious morning here on the front porch. 60 degrees, cerulean blue sky, just a hint of a breeze. The perfect morning to ride a bike to work. My ride is about 25 miles long, right through the heart of Minneapolis and out the other side. I start in the Northern suburbs, just over the Interstate highway that circles the waist of the Twin Cities like a belt. And like a middle age man, the city has bulged over the highway. It can’t be comfortable. At some point I’m sure they will get over the denial, and buy a bigger size.

Riding through the city like I do, is like taking a core sample from a tree. You can count the rings and analyze the history of its growth. By biking it you come to experience it in a way that you just can’t from inside of a car. Some of it is the speed. But mostly I think it’s the vulnerability of it. On a bike there is nothing to separate you from your surroundings besides some stinky lycra.

The neighborhood I live in was built in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It’s a old suburb that is in the process of turning over, as most of the original home owners have raised their kids, retired, and either died or moved away. Most of the houses are Ramblers, or Split Levels. As I head south I pass through older post war burbs of little 1½ story homes, and into NorthEast Minneapolis. It’s hard to tell where the suburbs end and the city begins at first. The clue is that once you hit the city limits the driveways disappear, and the garages retreat to the alley behind the house. The outer reaches of NorthEast Minneapolis were built just after the war, and as I head down Johnson Street the housing stock changes from 1 ½ stories, to pre-war bungalows & 2 stories. NorthEast was traditionally the home of German-Polish-Ukrainian-refuse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. So it holds a special place in my heart, as well as an abundance of corner bars and cheap eats, and reminds me of the Riverside & Black Rock neighborhoods of Buffalo where my parents grew up. (More on that place in a future post)

The early 20th century homes eventually give way to the industrial / warehouse belt, that was once the outer limits of the city. Crossing Broadway, I enter into the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, which is a 50/50 split between lovely 19th century Queen Anne, Four Square, and Georgian Revival homes, and firetrap off campus college apartments for Students from the U. Marcy-Holmes has seen a resurgence in the last 15 years, as the empty industrial space first gave rise to cheap artist space for the bomhemians displaced by the gentrification of the warehouse district. Said boho’s are now being displaced by condo developments, and loft apartments as Minneapolis tries to remake itself into the Luxury City.

This is the birthplace of Minneapolis. St. Anthony Falls and this is the view that greets me as I pedal out over the Mississippi on James J. Hill’s Stone Arch Bridge.

Stone Arch Bridge

Stone Arch Bridge

I think this is the place where I fell in love with the Twin Cities. I was in town for a weekend, visiting Mrs. 20 Prospect, back when she was just Miss Wisconsin, and brought along my MTB. She was working a shift at the hospital during the day, so I spent some time exploring on my bike. It was different back then. The mill ruins on the Minneapolis side of the river were still the home to vagrants, and homeless men, who had tunneled back into the basements of the abandoned Flour Mills.

This is the highlight of the bike ride. Soon followed by the lowlight, as I pick up the Hiawatha bike trail, and pass Riverside Plaza, a place we used to affectionately call the Ghetto’s in the Sky.

Ghetto's in the Sky

Ghetto's in the Sky
A more appropriate name these days would be Mogadishu Station, as it has become home for the recent emigrants from Somalia. Architecture like this is what made Karl Marx Stad such a wonderful place to live. It’s hard to conceive of a more brutal, ugly assault on the eyes than this monstrosity. The area was developed with support from the U.S. Federal Government’s “New Town in Town” program, and was originally planned to be part of a utopian design that would have seen 12,500 units spread across four “neighborhoods” housing a total of 30,000 people. It was designed and conceived by the noted architect Ralph Rapson. As if this design is not horrifying enough, consider that Rapson was head of the architecture school at the U of M from 1954-84, where “generations of Minnesota architects came up through [his] tutelage.” shudder I hope these generations of architects either quit the practice or moved to the coast.

As bad as it is, we are lucky that the Rapson did not accomplish the fulfillment of his vision. There were nine more towers planned before someone had the good sense to create the 1970’s economic recession that put an end to atrocities like this. And to think Bill Kaufmann complains about the Genesee Country Mall. I can tell him after seeing this, I long for the quaintness and small town community of this.

Thankfully, not all MN public works are as hideous as this. At the other end of the spectrum is the next highlight on my ride. The $5 Million Martin Olav Sabo bridge. I am not sure if the bridge is named after Rep. Sabo because of his love of biking, or because of his skills at appropriating government largesse. Perhaps both.

Nice bridge. But kind pricy for a pedestrian / bike bridge. I’d have done the job for half that.

My path parallels the Hiawatha light rail line for the next 5 miles, and avoids the worst parts of crime ridden South Minneapolis. The Light Rail line is a fancy way of saying Streetcar, and is also one of those oxymoronic contemporary terms that we love to give things, like Soft Rock. I much prefer “Diet Train” to Light Rail, but that’s just me. The reason I think we don’t call it a streetcar in the Twin Cities, is that we were once home to one of the most extensive networks of streetcars in the country. The Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company. Warning: Reading the history of the TCRTC is enough to make a grown man weep. If we called the Light Rail trains “streetcars” it would remind us too much of the conspiracy greed stupidity best of intentions that went in to ripping them out and replacing them with buses, and the pain would be unbearable.

But the next phase of the ride does much to sooth the painful memories of government & human ineptitude. Reaching Minnehaha Falls Park, I turn onto the Grand Rounds Parkway system, and follow idyllic Minnehaha creek, down to Lake Nokomis. To quote the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway website.

Nearly 120 years have passed, yet Horace W. S. Cleveland’s perspective of the challenges our society now faces in conserving its natural and cultural heritage could not have been more in focus.

Led by Cleveland’s vision and that of many others who followed, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s early ‘down payment’ to protect many of the intrinsic resources of Minneapolis by creating The Grand Rounds has returned immeasurable benefits to generations of city residents and millions of city visitors.

I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. No market principle led to the creation of this masterpiece. Just good foresighted, local government leadership. Sure could use some more of that these days.

Beyond Nokomis is a non-descript, dicey, 5 mile ride through a collection of side streets in Richfield and Bloomington, as I try to avoid the traffic, and feeder roads to the freeways before arriving at my destination. Our World Headquarters, built in 1962 on the wide expanse of Bloomington Prairie, but now nestled in a 1960’s East Bloomington neighborhood of ramblers and split levels little different from the one I left at the start of my ride. So why not just move closer to work?

What, and give up a ride like this?

2 thoughts on “My Morning Commute through 150 years of Minneapolis History

  1. As much as I hate how it looks, I’d defend Cedar-Riverside as a place. Yes, the towers are hideous monuments to Raphson’s hubris, yes thank god the project got shut down before they swallowed the west bank, but the neighborhood itself is a seriously interesting blend of immigrants, anarchists, students and old timers that has somehow managed to absorb the stacks and make something livable out of the parts not designed by overweening bureaucratic architects.

  2. Wow. That was wierd. I was just in the process of reading your post on Craigslist as the Anti-Village when your comment popped up in my inbox. So much for anonymity.

    You raise a good point. However, I think your comment highlights that whatever merits Cedar-Riverside has as a place is a result of the inhabitants and not Rapson’s utopian vision. Compare and contrast what Cedar Riverside would be today if Riverside Plaza hadn’t tried to squash it, versus what it would be today if Rapson’s plans had been fully realized.

    I think what saves the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is that there is still some human scale to the area around the towers. If that had been knocked flat for more towers it would have been Blade-Runner-esque.

    PS – Thanks for reading.

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