Editor’s Note: Max Hailperin is walking each of Minneapolis’ 87 neighborhoods, in alphabetical order. He chronicles his adventures at allofminneapolis.com and we’re sharing them here at streets.mn, at a pace of one or two walks per week.
The Central neighborhood of Minneapolis is not centrally located within the city, nor does it function as the city’s central business district or downtown. For these reasons, it is not a constituent of the Central community, which is centrally located and does encompasses the downtown. Rather, the Central neighborhood is a residential neighborhood in south Minneapolis, part of the Powderhorn community. This nomenclatural anomaly has a historical explanation. Like many neighborhoods, Central was named for a school located within it, Central High School, which has meanwhile been razed. That school, in turn, followed the pattern of dozens of other schools in being named after an earlier, differently located school it replaced. For a school named after a famous individual, this retention of the name is straightforward enough. For a school named after its location, the result is more peculiar, doubly so when extended to the neighborhood.
The Central neighborhood extends south from East Lake Street as far as East 38th Street, and it extends east from Interstate 35W as far as Chicago Avenue. However, on my first day I confined myself to the portion west of 4th Avenue South, hence the title “Western Central.” Subsequent days will cover “Central Central” and “Eastern Central.” As usual, my route map shows a main loop in blue supplemented by forward-and-back spurs in red:
As I headed north on 4th Avenue from 38th Street, the very first building I encountered testified to one component of the neighborhood’s multi-ethnic mix. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder is a Black-owned, community-focused, weekly newspaper that has remained in the same family since its founding in 1934. A mural on the side of the building celebrates the accomplishments of particular African American individuals as well as larger themes such as freedom of the press, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the MSR newspaper itself.
At the end of that same block, another component of the ethnic mix was in evidence. A sign on the corner building indicated that it serves as a church for the Iglesia del Dios Vivo Columna y Apoyo de la Verdad El Buen Pastor, a Mexican denomination.
This early part of my walk also brought me past the rear and flank of one of the neighborhood’s largest institutions, the Sabathani Community Center, though through a fluke of my route planning, I wouldn’t see the front until the very end of my walk. Particularly on a grey day, the view from the rear is less uplifting than the main facade, but I took a picture anyway so as not to lose a couple important pieces of the overall package. On the left, a colorful playground adjoins the parking lot, and on the right, a very large community garden shows signs of intensive use. (As a geek, I also noticed the chimney functioning as a cell phone tower. It’s nice to think of leasing fees contributing to a non-profit organization’s budget.)
I hoped to get a better picture of the community garden by holding my cell phone over the fence. As a result of my limited height, I didn’t entirely clear the fence and the focus wound up on the fence and its vines. I decided to keep the photo anyhow for its seasonal atmosphere.
On Clinton Avenue, I began to get a sense for the neighborhood’s housing stock, most of which dates from the first few decades of the 20th century.
On the east side of the 3500 block, I encountered an atypically recent assemblage of townhouses, which I was later to learn is the Markley Square condominium community. I wondered how an entire block had been available for redevelopment. That too would later become clear; indeed, it is closely connected with the Markley name.
At the end of this block, Clinton Avenue has a T intersection with 35th Street. That’s because the space between 34th and 35th Streets is occupied by an assemblage of parkland, a large gymnasium, and (attached to the gymnasium) a newer school, the Richard R. Green Central Park School, named for the late Superintendent Richard R. Green, which also shares its building with Southside Community Health Services.
As the school’s name implies, the park is Central Park — or at least, so says a sign. However, the Park Board’s web site indicates that the full name is Central Gym Park, naming the park for the gym within it. That makes sense historically, and also explains how it is that the gym is older than the attached school. Namely, the gym was a 1976 addition to the 1913 Central High School. When the high school was demolished in 1989, the gym was retained and affixed to the newly constructed Green school. In short, the school is named for the park, the park is named for the gym, the gym — like the neighborhood — is named for the former school, and the former school is named for a yet earlier school, which was named for its location.
As one might expect from its size and longevity, Central High School graduated quite a few students, including those who went on to careers of distinction. The musician Prince is often mentioned in this context, although my own attention is drawn to the sculptor Paul Granlund, who I was fortunate enough to count as an acquaintance.
The Central High School site also has important connections to post-secondary education. When the Dunwoody Institute (now Dunwoody College of Technology) was founded in 1914, it was temporarily housed on one floor of the Central High building. Likewise in 1965, Metropolitan State Junior College was initially on one floor of Central High. (It was one of the forerunners of today’s Minneapolis Community and Technical College.)
Today, the most visually striking element of the Central Gym is a large mural produced by The Central Identity Project. The primary inscription within the mural reads “My roots grow deeper every step I take. I am Central.”
Across 35th Street from the gym and school, at the southwest corner of the intersection with 4th Avenue, a stately gateway spans a walkway that leads diagonally from the intersection into the townhouse development. This gateway is puzzling for at least three reasons: (1) Though it looks like an entryway through a fence, there is no fence. (2) The gateway looks older than the development. (3) A plaque on the righthand pillar reads “Markley Field.”
At this point, pieces started clicking into place, including also the location across the street from where Central High School stood. Markley Field was the football field associated with Central High. It was named for Joe Markley at his retirement in 1954; he had coached Central’s football team since 1924, chalking up 8 city championships over those 30 years. After the school was closed in 1982, the football field became available for development.
My route took me back southward on 4th Avenue to 36th Street, where I encountered another landmark that, unlike the contemporaneous Central High, remains standing. Hosmer Library, today one of the branches of the Hennepin County Library, was built in 1916 as the last of Minneapolis’s four Carnegie-funded libraries.
Just before 36th Street crosses the freeway, I turned north on 2nd Avenue. Unlike the three other border streets of the neighborhood, this avenue doesn’t have commercial establishments, but rather is entirely residential like the bulk of the neighborhood. That presumably reflects its rather isolated location along the freeway sound-wall, where it serves a mixture of local use and freeway access. As elsewhere, the housing is mostly from the first three decades of the 20th century and is a mix of detached houses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings. As an example of the latter, 3515 2nd Avenue South is a 1923 building housing 12 two-bedroom units.
I also paused to photograph one of the posters which dotted the entire neighborhood. In the course of my walks, I’ve grown rather blasé about lost dogs and cats, as I’ve seen so many of them advertised. However, this was my first exposure to a lost or stolen bird (missing from a car in the area). The $500 reward also caught my attention. So, dear readers, if you’d like to pocket that sum, keep your eyes and ears peeled for Dundee. I know Jamie or Laa would be relieved to hear from you.
I remarked earlier that retail establishments exist on the neighborhood’s borders — Lake Street, Chicago Avenue, and 38th Street. There are also a few within the interior of the neighborhood, principally on 4th Avenue, together with indications that there once were more. One of the survivors on 4th Avenue is Sunshine Foods, specializing in Latino foods.
Heading back westward on 34th Street, I passed along the northern edge of Central (Gym) Park, allowing me to see the outdoor portion without occlusion by the buildings.
I then took Clinton Avenue north to Lake Street. My first sign that I was emerging from the comparatively sedate residential area into the vibrant commerce of Lake Street was the bright painting on the side of one of the buildings housing Dulce Mex, which as City Pages reports, “is a dreamy Mexican candy emporium.”
Within the space of a few blocks on Lake Street, I saw restaurants, groceries, herbalists, formal wear (for quinceañeras and whatnot), an insurance agent, and of course the candy and piñatas. Many of the shops were Latino, but not all. And even within the Latino subset, not all were Mexican. For example, the bakery, Panaderia El Sabor Ecuatoriano, proudly announces its Ecuadorian heritage.
The landlord for many of the buildings is Sabri Properties, and this developer seems eager to project a multi-ethnic image. For example, 211 East Lake Street, where I would shortly lunch at Gorditas El Gordo, and which is located on the ground floor of Sabri Properties’s office building, has a mural on one side depicting a scene from Mexico, but rounding the corner to the other side, one is suddenly transported to somewhere in the Middle East.
The adjoining parking lot, facing 2nd Avenue, has a much edgier mural. I can see that it might not be as commercially successful, but as artwork I appreciated it more and wished I could get a better view without the obstructions.
Having scouted the vicinity, I returned to Gorditas El Gordo for lunch. And I’m very glad I did. For me it was all about the food, but those concerned with atmosphere are also likely to be pleased. Yes, it’s essentially a hole-in-the-wall taqueria (or antojitos vendor), but it is a comparatively roomy hole in the wall and filled with a truly remarkable amount of natural light.
Although they offer a range of menu items, ordering a gordita seemed like a no-brainer, given that (a) the restaurant is named for them, and (b) I like them. (On a weekend, the choice would be harder; I might be tempted by the posole.) That left the choice of meat; I went with my old favorite, lengua (tongue), perhaps a reflection of my deeply repressed Jewish roots.
Listening in the somewhat noisy environment for my number to be called in Spanish was a bit nerve-wracking, but I was able to jump up promptly at the sound of “nueve.” True, it helped that everyone else in the shop had been served by then. True also that I had jumped half-way up at the sound of “ocho,” which is of course nothing at all like “nueve.” But I wasn’t a totally hopeless gringo.
When I fetched my plate, one more question remained: red salsa or green? I hesitated long enough that the server rescued me by offering both. I’m glad she did, as each was enjoyable to try on part of the gordita. The mild green salsa is creamy and vegetal, whereas the hot red salsa is smokey and rich.
Enough delay, on to the heart of the matter. The essential component of a gordita is the masa cake, and it was everything I hoped for: crisply fried on the outside, smoothly yielding on the inside, and with the taste similarly transitioning from toasty browned flavors to pure corn masa-ness.
Resuming my walk, I once again enjoyed looking at the architectural details of older houses, such as these two in the 3100 block of 2nd Avneue:
Beyond the houses, some of the sites also showed interesting details. In one case, a curved masonry bench was set into a corner of the lot facing the intersection, while in another case (at the intersection of 31st Street and 4th Avenue), the curved cutouts in the lots were large enough to accommodate sidewalks and grassy plots:
Some homeowners had also posted interesting, artistic signs, such as “Welcome to the Darlings.”
In front of 3332 3rd Avenue South, I was struck by a truly intriguing sign with artwork on each of its two faces and no explanation. Starting from the ownership record for the property, I was able to track down the artist as Farhia Omar, who explained that she had produced it as part of the public art project “This House is Not for Sale.” She writes that “My piece is about the energy and synergy of community. On one side of the image there is a black and white digital image, created using illustrator, of an acacia tree. Historically, community meetings and gatherings happened under trees in the Nomadic cultures of east Africa. On the opposite side I wanted to create a visual amalgam of colors to represent the beauty and diversity in community.” I’m happy to include below photos she provided of the sign, taken by Bruce Silcox.
Finally I returned to 38th Street, and at long last passed in front of the Sabathani Community Center. In addition to housing the services of the Sabathani organization itself, the large building allows space to be rented to tenants of both non-profit and for-profit character. Even the latter provide valuable services to the neighborhood. For example, I spotted a driving school, which could allow area residents to access a broader range of employment opportunities.
So what, exactly, is this large building the Sabathani Community Center occupies? My photo provides the answer. In addition to the prominent, modern sign for the community center, if one zooms in on the upper-right corner of the image, another sign is visible within the building facade:
Bryant Junior High School was built in 1922 as the first school in Minneapolis specifically designed for junior high (grades 7–9). Constructed during the same boom as Central High, it closed during the same period of contraction. In particular, it closed a few years earlier, in 1978. However, unlike Central, it was not torn down but rather reused forthe community center.
Mentioning Central High brings us back to the naming relationship between neighborhoods and the schools they contain. In the case of Bryant Junior High, which is on the north side of 38th Street, why does the Bryant neighborhood only start on the south side of that street? What is the Bryant school doing in the Central neighborhood? Looking at the overall map of the Minneapolis neighborhoods, it seems reasonable to suppose that the boundary between Central and Bryant originally was at 36th Street and only later was adjusted to 38th Street. This of course would have made the Central neighborhood larger — which explains why I look forward to two more days of exploring it on foot.