First dates are exciting. At their worst they’re fodder for gossip with friends, and at best they’re intoxicating drafts of wonder and potential. Especially if the date is on a café patio across a quiet cobblestone street from the Mississippi River, and involves watching the sun set over the downtown skyline between sips of beer. St. Anthony Main seems the most Parisian of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods, probably because it’s largest remaining cluster of buildings in the city built around the same time as the Haussmannization. An event planner at the Aster Café once bragged to me that the building was pre-Civil War, so there’s that.
St. Anthony was established by settlers 175 years ago, and for a time the city was more populous and prosperous than Minneapolis. According to the National Register of Historic Places in Minnesota, the Pillsbury A Mill was the “largest and most advanced mill in the world when completed in 1881,” an honor it wrested from the recently-rebuilt Washburn A Mill and held for nearly 40 years. The mill fell into disuse in 2003.
This fall, a Plymouth-based developer announced plans to renovate the old mill and turn it into affordable housing for artists. What a prime location! It’s nestled between downtown, northeast, and the university, just stumbling distance from the Soap Factory. In consideration of the property’s history, the developer is working with preservation groups to “incorporate interpretive elements and make the most of the water infrastructure.” I’m neither an artist nor a real-estate developer, so I don’t know what that means. All I know is that it will be nice to have even more foot traffic along Main Street.
My head tells me that St. Anthony Main is great because it’s great land use, not because of the age or history of the buildings. It’s a human-scaled space! The Stone Arch Bridge brings cyclists, joggers, and the recently-engaged from downtown Minneapolis to a nice park. There are no freeways or parking lots impeding folks’ walking around and having a good time. The river’s right there. The cobblestone and the chunky bricks help, sure, but I think I’d still be there every chance I got even if the buildings were pastel stucco, as long as the weather was warm, the street was quiet, and the beer was cold.
But my heart says that what’s so romantic about St. Anthony Main is that it reminds us of a time when Minneapolis was brand new, an energetic city full of possibility. A time before urban renewal, before freeways, and before oceanic parking lots. A time before bickering, before cold silences, and before prickly trips to Ikea. First dates are exciting, but old, mature relationships are sustaining, even if they take more effort. It’s easy to take a partner for granted, and to forget to improve yourself. Minneapolis, I promise to remember our anniversary, and I hope you’ll adopt a progressive bike plan and get better bus signs. We can work it out.