A is for Armatage with Adventure Afoot

Editor’s Note: Max Hailperin is walking each of Minneapolis’ 87 neighborhoods, in alphabetical order. He began chronicling his adventures last year at  allofminneapolis.com and we will now share them here at streets.mn, at a pace of one or two walks per week.

All of MinneapolisOK, so the Armatage neighborhood isn’t actually a very adventurous place for me to begin my walking tour of Minneapolis. It’s only a couple miles from my apartment and I’ve walked at least parts of it many times. But this time I’m not just walking to my favorite pizzeria. I’m beginning a multi-year project that will take me beyond my comfort zone, walking every block of every street in every neighborhood. Armatage just happens to be be the first neighborhood in alphabetical order, which is as good an order as any. Better than some, in fact. A geographical order would introduce less variety.

The Armatage neighborhood lies within Minneapolis’s Southwest “community” in the official scheme of things, which divides the city at a coarse level into 11 communities and then subdivides those more finely into the 87 neighborhoods (including three industrial areas). The official designations don’t always correspond to residents’ informal sense of neighborhood identity, but for my project they have some unbeatable properties. There is a complete list of the official neighborhoods and every spot in the city is in exactly one of them: no gaps and no overlaps.

Indeed Armatage is not merely in the Southwest community, it is arguably the most southwesterly neighborhood. At any rate, if you are as far south as you can be in Minneapolis, and subject to that constraint, you are as far west as you can be, then you are in Armatage. (On the other hand, if you are as far west as you can be in the city, and subject to that constraint, as far south as possible, then you are in Fulton. Somehow Edina intruded into Minneapolis’s rectangular outline, forcing Armatage and Fulton into an eternal ambiguity as to which is the most southwesterly.)

More concretely, the Armatage neighborhood extends from 54th Street West to 62nd Street West and from Logan Avenue South to Xerxes Avenue South. Given that these avenues are a subset of the alphabetic grouping that runs from Aldrich through Zenith, it’s almost as easy to calculate that the neighborhood is 12 blocks east-to-west as it is to calculate that it is 8 blocks north-to-south. (Actually, I lied. The southern border isn’t 62nd Street West but rather Minnesota Highway 62, the Crosstown Highway. But I’m not going to walk on a freeway, so the furthest south I’ll get is 62nd Street, which is the northern frontage road.)

And then of course there are the places where reality deviates from the tidy grid of alphabetized avenues and numbered streets. For example, there’s an idiosyncratic part near the northern border that includes Robbins Street (which logically would be 54 1/2 Street), Cumberland Road (a curved road that extends Sheridan Avenue), and Richmond Curve (a curved road that would similarly extend Russell Avenue if a school didn’t get in the way).

I’ll get to all of those eventually. But for my first day walking, I decided to stick to the basics, covering the numbered streets as thoroughly as I could without retracing my steps and with the starting and ending points being on Xerxes Avenue so that I could use the number 6 bus:

Or at least, that’s the route I planned to walk, and very nearly what I did walk. There was one add-on of a few hundred feet that I couldn’t resist. But I’ll get to that in due course.

My walk got off to an auspicious start at the corner of 61st Street and Xerxes Avenue. No sooner had I crossed Xerxes from the bus stop, thereby crossing from Edina into the Armatage neighborhood, than I saw an attractive peony bush that someone had planted in the boulevard. I subsequently saw plenty of other well-tended gardens in Armatage, but generally only inward from the sidewalks. Boulevard plantings (aside from trees) are quite rare.

Boulevard Peony at 61st Street West and Xerxes Avenue South

Walking east on 61st Street, I was struck by how hard it was to notice the presence of a busy freeway just a block away. If I listened carefully, particularly when crossing an avenue, I could just hear the muffled swish of cars. Later, I noticed that the portion of 61st Street that lies between Logan and Morgan Avenues had noticeably more road noise; perhaps even the small difference in separation makes a difference. At any rate, this part of southern Armatage already would qualify as a quiet residential neighborhood, notwithstanding the occasional jet aircraft passing overhead. The well-kept houses of modest size and style looked mid-20th-century to my untrained eye. Actually, I didn’t see the fronts of very many houses, since they typically face the avenues. On a numbered street such as 61st, a typical block offered a side view of one corner house, two garages straddling an alley, and then the side view of the next corner house.

My progress on 61st was interrupted at Russell Avenue as I encountered the back side of the Wagners greenhouses. As I wound my way northward, I started to see some larger houses that looked like recent replacements for torn-down structures, using a tall, boxy form and more shallowly pitched roof to maximize the floorspace within the footprint and not grow too tall. The majority of the houses still were the smaller, older ones, but my sense is that the proportion of tear-downs generally increased as I got further away from the freeway. Someone with an inclination for database searches and statistics could put this hypothesis to the test. (I have the relevant skills but am deliberately pushing myself to experience the city more through direct encounter and less through a computer.)

Having walked the portions of 59th and 60th Streets that lie between Russell and Xerxes Avenues, I was able to continue further east on 60th (now that I was to the north of Wagners), all the way to the eastern border of Armatage at Logan Avenue. At that point, another anomaly in the street grid prevented me from turning north. For no particularly obvious reason, Logan Avenue is missing between 58th and 59th Streets. Unlike other interruptions to the grid caused by obstructions, it seems that the houses on that block simply sit on unusually large lots. In any case, I turned from 60th to Logan in the only way possible, south, and took the opportunity to catch another block of 61st Street before heading north on Morgan Avenue to 59th Street, which finally took me to northbound Logan Avenue.

On 58th Street, I was rather unusually able to traverse the entire width of Armatage from Logan to Xerxes. However, that doesn’t mean this street was without interest. To the contrary, I encountered two interesting intersections along the way.

Oliver Avenue meets 58th street from the south in a normal right-angled intersection, but one can’t cross straight over onto the northern portion of Oliver, because that portion of Oliver is splayed into two curves with an intervening triangle, a sixth of an acre of park land:

Penn Model Village Triangle, Looking Northwest from 58th Street

Penn Model Village Triangle, Looking Northwest from 58th Street

Some other triangles are formed naturally by streets that are skew to the grid. For example, Andy Sturdevant (whose excellent “The Stroll” column on MinnPost was one of my most explicit inspirations to walk all of Minneapolis) recently wrote about Rollins Triangle, which results from Minnehaha Avenue’s slanted orientation. The triangle I encountered in Armatage, Penn Model Village Triangle, on the other hand, is apparently a deliberate design feature. A city planning document provides some background on the history of Penn Model Village in the context of recommending approval of a demolition permit for a nearby historic residence.

Continuing further west on 58th Street, my next interesting intersection was at Thomas Circle (not Thomas Avenue). Again, this resulted from some neighborhood planning, which broke up the avenue between 57th and 58th streets and again between 58th and 59th streets so as to form four dead ends, each terminating in a circular paved area rimmed with houses:

Thomas Circle Extends North and South from W 58th St

Thomas Circle Extends North and South from W 58th St

Note that all four of the dead ends are identical in form, but the northernmost and southernmost are apparently “Thomas Avenue” rather than “Thomas Circle” because of their contiguity with other portions of the avenue. Whereas the middle two circles, which barely have any straight roadway to connect them to 58th Street, are collectively “Thomas Circle,” though that isn’t shown in this Google Maps view. (A more logical name would have been “Thomas Circles.”)

In any case, I tossed aside my carefully formulated plan to stick to the numbered streets today, with only enough northward/southward motion to get from one street to the next. Instead, I boldly extemporized, sallying first north into the northern part of Thomas Circle, then, after wrapping around it, continuing south into the southern portion, until I had come back around to my starting point and could continue on westward on 58th Street, having added a few hundred feet to my total for the day and seen all that Thomas Circle had to offer.

Once I completed 58th Street and used Xerxes Avenue to connect to 57th Street, I was again on a street that didn’t go the full width of the neighborhood. It is interrupted between Russell and Penn Avenues by Armatage Park. However, the park includes a pedestrian path aligned with 57th Street, so for those of us lucky enough to be on foot, it’s as though the street goes through.

Like many Minneapolis parks, this one has a recreation center and is located adjacent to an elementary school. Most of the park itself seems to be given over to athletic fields, which renders it uninteresting to an athletics conscientious objector such as myself. However, there are some nice playground structures closer to the school. I suppose it doesn’t much matter whether they are the Board of Education’s responsibility of the Park Board’s, given that they aren’t fenced in and so are available to non-school users. The park also includes one piece of public art, a sculptural gateway near the corner of 57th and Russell:

Sculptural Gateway at Armatage Park

Sculptural Gateway at Armatage Park

I was somewhat surprised at this gateway’s orientation. It seems to “read” better when one is exiting from the park onto the public streets, rather than entering. As on many other occasions, I came away thinking that there was a story for someone to tell, if only I met the right person. Perhaps I’ll be fortunate enough to hear some of those stories through responses to my writing.

Upon crossing busy Penn Avenue and walking the few remaining blocks to the eastern edge of Armatage, I turned north into the 5600 block of Logan Avenue and encountered a recently rebuilt house that broke out of the usual mold:

Not the Typical Teardown

Not the Typical Teardown

Crossing the neighborhood once more in the westerly direction on 56th Street I didn’t take note of anything in particular, but that may be because I was so eager to get back to Xerxes Avenue, where I knew I would find Pizzeria Lola waiting. I’m enough of a skeptic about the conventional wisdom of herds and hype that the national attention this restaurant has received wouldn’t move me. But having gone there hundreds of times from the day they opened in November of 2010 up through today, I can say they consistently make really, really, good pizza. (The few non-pizza items they make are also good. More on that topic in a bit.)

I settled down at the bar to wait for my Less Pedestrian Half to join me. We always sit at the bar unless we’re part of a larger group, because the bar is where you get to see the kitchen in action, including watching the wood fire dance inside the oven.

Unfortunately a traffic tie-up was causing the bus to run late, so I had a half hour to pass on my own. After downing a couple very welcome glasses of water, I decided to order the seasonal starter, a trio of pea-and-burrata toasts. Logistically, it worked well: I could consume one of the three myself and save the other two to share. And wow, is that ever a tasty starter. Starting with the foundation, the toast itself was done perfectly. (That’s only to be expected at a restaurant that focuses so heavily on getting each pizza done just right by manipulating their time and position in the oven.) On that foundation lies an amazingly tasty layering of smashed peas, basil-mint pesto, fresh burrata, and pea tendrils. The whole thing was finished off with good-quality olive oil and black pepper.

Subsequently we ordered one of our two standard go-to pizzas, the Lady ZaZa. (The other is the Sunnyside.) The Lady ZaZa starts in Italy with the crust and a red sauce but then veers off into owner Ann Kim’s homeland of Korea with kimchi, Korean sausage, serrano peppers, scallions, sesame seeds, and what they describe as a soy chili glaze (perhaps based on gochujang?). Provided you’ve got a taste for this kind of spicy food, this is a really mind-blowing pizza.

If there’s any down-side to the Lady ZaZa, it is that the intense toppings render less apparent the incredible flavor of Pizzeria Lola’s crusts. They start with a dough that has undergone a long, slow fermentation and then they expertly bake it in the super-hot oven. The combination develops remarkable flavor, utterly belying the humble starting point of flour and water. If you only order the ZaZa, be sure to savor some of the edge of the crust. If you also order a milder pizza, then do what we do when we order both the Sunnyside and the ZaZa: order the mild one first. (The one-at-a-time approach also lets us eat the Sunnyside while it’s fresh. The eggs on it quickly become not as good.)

After lunch, I finished off the northernmost part of Armatage by walking 55th Street to Logan (with a necessary detour onto Richmond Curve and Queen Avenue) and then back along 54th. This area is still recognizably the same neighborhood as where I started, seven blocks further south. The houses are still mostly of the modest scale a GI returning from World War II would have been able to afford. However, the feel is subtly different in northern Armatage than in southern, partially influenced by the layout, such as those curves that interrupted my progress along 55th, and partially influenced by the proximity to the Minnehaha Creek rather than the Crosstown Highway. It’s a bit more sylvan and the houses, even if of similar size, are more apt to have slightly upscale styling, such as a bay window or the occasional simulated half-timbering. I saw more signs of small-scale renovations and additions, less recent-looking than the full-scale tear-downs.

Day one was a good day for me. I covered nearly the entire area of Armatage, though I’ve still got quite a few blocks left to walk, particularly on the north/south avenues. It’s a bit ridiculous for me to take stock after a single day — a fraction of a percent of the total — but I’m feeling optimistic about the project. I’m looking forward to going back to Armatage for those missed blocks, which I know will have their own points of interest when looked at closely. And I’m definitely looking forward to other neighborhoods, each of which will have its own character.

All of Minneapolis

This article was published June 5, 2016, on the author’s All of Minneapolis blog. The original version is available there. 

Minneapolis has 87 neighborhoods, including the three industrial areas. Some I know well, others I have not yet entered. However, I’ve committed to explore all of them on foot: every block of every street in every neighborhood. I’m going to work through the neighborhoods alphabetically, from Armatage to Windom Park, so that I focus in one area, then hop to somewhere else. I don’t know what I’ll experience, though surely architecture, businesses, parks, people, and public art will be among the categories. (Knowing me, food and drink will be over-represented. We all have our priorities.) I hope others will follow along on this site and be inspired to start their own explorations. I welcome email at max.hailperin@gmail.com

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