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.


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?

6 thoughts on “Is Downtown for Everyone?

  1. Alex

    As a downtown resident, I often share your frustration with the area's transformation into an adult theme park, sort of a sleazy Disneyland. That said, there are a smattering of places that I'd think would meet your needs, although most of them tend to be chains. For example, both Davanni's and Key's are a short walk from the Orpheum (although that Key's has a large bar). Part of the problem may be that restaurants make a lot more money on booze than on food, so it makes sense that they push the bar atmosphere. Something similar may be going on with retail – the rents are higher so only stores with higher profit margins can make it. I'm just happy there's any retail left downtown, even if all I can buy are Chinese antiques or designer fedoras.

  2. Julie Kosbab

    Having been a resident of the Chicago area as well as the Twin Cities, I think another element of it is the "purpose" of downtowns. A good bit of it is very commerce-based. Downtown is designed around working, not around the rest of life. The dining and hotels are oriented to expense accounts and business meals. A lot of the services are oriented to 7-3PM, because that's when the population explodes.

    Residential in the area is more of a backfill, and isn't typically people-with-kids, because beyond what you cite, there's a lot of other stuff not immediately available in the downtown. A good jungle-gym, for instance. A good place to get baby Tylenol at 3AM. Etc.

    There are plenty of places IN the city that are not downtown but that have the density and urbanism you discuss. Even going as briefly out of "downtown" into Northeast, you start encountering considerably more family-friendly opportunities.

    While there are huge challenges in the area (how to redevelop the Ford Plant), I lived in Highland Village for a long time. That has definite density with mixed housing types, but plenty of greenspace, family-friendly places to eat, grocery stores, and 3AM baby Tylenol availability. It's designed around living, not working.

  3. mulad

    I have to drag skyways into this a bit, since I think a lot of the restaurants and stores that would have more family appeal tend to be located on the second floor and aren't available in the evening. Certainly, many or most of the stores would still be closed in the evening if they were down at ground level, but I think enough of them would stay open to take advantage of a few random passers-by after the work day ends.

    Heck, even in lower Manhattan, tons of stores close up shop around 4 pm as the office workers head out for the day. It felt like a strange echo of downtown Saint Paul when I visited even though the sidewalks were full of people at the time. But in many ways, lower Manhattan has the same problem as every other downtown in the U.S. — an overabundance of workers and not enough permanent residents. The really 24-hour parts of New York City tend to have a better balance.

    Minneapolis and many other downtowns across the country need to continue working on attracting residents in order to even out the population swings between daytime and nighttime. Back before we went and demolished half of downtown (and probably kicked many others out of remaining structures), a lot of people used to live there. It's a long journey back.

    I do share your frustration with the whole bar scene. I'm not really a teetotaler, but I never got into drinking very much either — and I hated the cigarette smoke in bars before that got banned. I've ended up taking the tack of just going out and getting a drink now and again because that's where the social scene is. (I also don't drink coffee, so the alternate scene of coffee shops has been off my radar as well…)

  4. Walter

    One of my worries, and this is true for my town San Diego, is that cities are making their downtowns "destinations" instead of places to live. They have focused on bringing people into downtown with restaurants, bars, nighlife, sports stadiums, convention centers, and places that cater to "a night on the town". San Diego, in particular, tries to draw tourists. One is hard pressed to find a grocery store, hardware store, or greasy spoon. I hope civic leaders will focus on making cities places to live, and not places to visit. Look to creating the mundane, the small businesses, the everday life things. Think small.

  5. Stephen Gross

    Hmmm… Well, I think the short answer to your question is: "No, downtown is not for everyone." It's a high-rent district, so businesses there are absolutely going to be expensive. No way around that.

    There are a few cheaper joints if you know where to look: Eli's (Hennepin & 12th), Bar La Grassa (believe it or not, you can order half-portions of incredible pasta!), and even 112 Eatery (the burger is the best in the city and at $12 a steal).

    As for alcohol… My recommendation, which you're unlikely to follow, is to drink some. Well, heck, if you don't drink, you don't drink, and you're not going to change your mind. But we alcohol enthusiasts are on to something, and the vast range of local brews are awesome. Actually, there's an interesting halfway point: try Crispin Cider. It's local, ever so vaguely alcoholic (very low percentage), and delicious. Plus you can get it a lot of places now.

    As for family-friendliness: You're right, it's hard to find such a place. Certainly, in downtown you're out of luck. But with Loring Park, Uptown, and Nordeast so close by you can definitely find some good options.

    As for dance clubs: Yeah, I stay away from those too. Not my scene!

    1. Nathaniel

      Stephen –

      We at Streets.MN need to commission you to do a "downtown on a budget for urbanists" piece … I'm going to try to get to 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa this week or next.

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