Is Downtown for Everyone?

Downtown Minneapolis - Mill City Museum

Downtown Minneapolis - Mill City Museum by Jeremiah Peterson, on Flickr

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were able to steal a rare night away from our 9-month-old for a date night. A relative had gifted us some tickets to a musical at the Orpheum Theater, so we were excited for a chance to spend an evening in downtown Minneapolis. We don’t get downtown very often, but we both feel like we should visit downtown a lot more than we do.

Because I’m an urbanist, right? I’m in favor of increasing residential densities and mixed use buildings. I promote things like transit riding and bike riding, and I think surface parking lots are a waste of space. I abhor urban sprawl because I worry that the ultimate impact will be the emptying out of the downtown core. I’m supposed to like cities.

But then I visit downtown, and I remember why I don’t go there very often. I feel out-of-place.  As much as I like the lights, the buildings, the activity, the people-watching, and the window-shopping, I feel like downtown doesn’t offer much for people like me. I feel like it caters to, well…, someone else. The restaurants never seem to be budget-friendly, and while we didn’t have our daughter with us this evening, most of them didn’t look like they would be an appropriate place for a kid if we had brought her along. The bars don’t appear to offer much to folks like myself who don’t drink alcohol. The stores and shops seem to be catering to niche markets, and the fancy clothing stores just don’t seem to be able to predict my preference for logo-free hoodies the same way Mervyns does. The dance clubs sort of look like fun, but they’ve just never really been my sort of venue, and let’s face it – not even my wife is particularly interested in watching me try to shake my hips like Shakira (I have verified this fact on several occasions).

On this particular Friday evening, my wife and I left the theater around 9:00 PM. We were hungry, and hoped to grab a bite to eat. We walked for a half-dozen blocks, passing by many restaurants that looked great but beyond our admittedly meager budget. We also passed by a few bars that probably would have been happy to serve us, but as teetotalers, they just didn’t seem to be our style of place. There very well may have been the perfect venue for us right around the corner, but if so, we never found it. Since it was cold out, and we felt like we were walking around aimlessly searching for the family and budget-friendly restaurant that may not even exist, we gave up, and just grabbed some pizza-by-the-slice at the Franklin Ave Pizza Luce on our way home.

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So what can we learn about the role downtown plays from my sad tale of date-night-gone-boring? Is this just a simple case of needing more wayfinding signs to point us towards the nearest Perkins (and to point out that I can also buy hoodies at the downtown Target)? Or is this just part of the natural result of high land values downtown crowding out the more family- and budget- friendly venues? Does a vibrant (active, economically sustainable) downtown necessarily have to somewhat ignore the family-friendly market? Or is it simply “nightlife” in general that doesn’t cater well to families (or people who prefer sweatpants) regardless of whether it’s downtown or in suburbia? What do you think?

Reuben Collins

About Reuben Collins

Reuben lives in South Minneapolis with his wife and kids. He authors the cycling blog VeloTraffic.com and tweets at @reubencollins. In his spare time, he enjoys renovating his 1939 tudor home and riding bicycles.