Last Friday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minneapolis Downtown Council CEO Steve Cramer penned an op-ed about Nicollet Mall for the Star Tribune. They stated that “the renovation of Nicollet Mall has the potential to transform the 12-block pedestrian and transit thoroughfare into a prominent symbol that will make Minnesotans proud.” They drew parallels between Nicollet Mall and New York’s High Line, and they set a goal to turn Nicollet Mall into “the” city’s public square.
Hodges’ and Cramer’s goals for the Mall are philosophically laudable but incomplete. There has already been some well-deserved criticism on streets.mn about whether reconstructing the Mall, while ignoring the surrounding urban fabric, will make a walkable physical environment. The Star Tribune op-ed also failed to talk about turning Nicollet Mall into a place that actually welcomes activity, outside of any physical changes.
A Brief Personal Anecdote
I graduated from law school last spring and got around to taking the bar exam in the last week of February 2014. I took the week before the bar off from work and spent my days studying in the atrium at the Minneapolis Central Library. On February 19, the City of Minneapolis, the Downtown Council, and James Corner Field Operations hosted an event titled Nicollet Mall Redesign Ideas and Update at the Central Library.
I wanted to go to the event and knew I would be distracted by seeing people I know enter the library, so I left. I meandered down Nicollet Mall as I flipped through flashcards and found myself at the Bankcorp building between 8th and 9th Streets. There are a series of boulders set into the sidewalk in front of the building, and I hopped up on one of them to get a different perspective on the street while I studied. I stood on the rock for a minute or two, and then had the following exchange (edited version):
[Guard walks out of Bancorp building toward me]
Guard: Excuse me, what are you doing?
Me: I am going through flashcards.
Guard: Could you please get down off the rock.
Me: Why do I need to get off the rock?
Guard: People inside are asking what you are doing.
Me: Why can’t this city act like a city!
Guard: This is a bank. You are making people uncomfortable. Get off the rock or I am going to call the police.
Me: Go for it. Call the police.
[The guard shakes his head and starts to walk away. I decide that the week before the bar exam is not the right time to force a confrontation with the police.]
Me: Never mind. You don’t need to call the police. I’ll get off the rock.
I then did exactly what everyone down the street at the library presentation were trying to get people to stop doing: I left downtown because I did not feel welcome.
I am a member of one of the least discriminated-against populations in history (white male, advanced degree, work for a nationally-known company). I want to live in a city. If someone in my shoes does not feel welcome in the corporate center of downtown, I hate to think of how others might feel.
A Welcoming City Needs More Than Infrastructure
Downtown Minneapolis leaders continually talk about how Minneapolis needs to attract talent from other major cities. The Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan states that “Downtown Minneapolis will benefit greatly by fostering an attitude of openness to all people.” (p. 31.) This is spot on but is not happening. Downtown Minneapolis can’t even deal with someone standing on a large rock!
Ask yourself which, if any, of the following activities would be deemed acceptable in downtown Minneapolis: (1) riding a tall unicycle as a street performer; (2) setting up and using a 3 foot high mobile PA speaker; (3) skateboarding and doing tricks in a crowded place; (4) climbing over a fence to sit in a grassy spot; (5) climbing over a fence to climb on the base of a tall statue; (6) sitting on a fence; (7) sitting on the ground slouching against a fence.
All of these activities and more are in the plaza photo above (I did not search hard for this picture – it was the first one to pop up on a Google Image search). Where is this plaza where scoundrels congregate? It is Union Square in New York. Facing this plaza of debauchery are establishments like the Union Square Café, one of the best restaurants in the world, and one of the highest grossing Whole Foods in the country. So it appears as though some street activity, even unpredictable street activity, might not be such a bad thing for business after all.
I know, I know. We are not New York. We don’t want to be like New York or San Francisco. I hear this all the time. The thing is, we will never attract talent from New York or San Francisco (which we purportedly do want to do) if we do not create a vibrant city. A vibrant city needs more than strategically placed concrete and doorways. It needs a culture of acceptance, of city life. This means allowing people to engage with the city in creative ways, so long as they are not harming others.
People do not have to live in Minneapolis instead of other cities. I want to be an ambassador for Minneapolis, to convince friends to move here from Silicon Valley, Chicago, Pittsburgh, L.A., Brooklyn, D.C., and Boston to move here. But I cannot honestly say that they will love it here. They are city people, and Minneapolis has not figured out how to act like a city.
Getting Minneapolis to act like a city will not happen overnight, but our city leaders can start to change the downtown community’s attitude. Mayor Hodges can communicate why we need a lively city and can instruct police to allow people to congregate and play in the city core (I could find no ordinance banning rock climbing in downtown, so those rocks appear to be fair game). Steve Cramer can send a memo to businesses who are members of the Downtown Council requesting that building security not shoo people away for “loitering” or enjoying the cityscape. Maybe this could be the subject of their next Star Tribune op-ed. . . .