Still Lots to Learn from Minneapolis’ Great Gateway Mistake

An old man pondering Gateway Park.

I’m as obsessed with Minneapolis’ lost Gateway District as anyone who hasn’t written a book on the topic, so I read with some relish the peerless local historian Larry Millett’s recent Star Tribune opinion piece: Minneapolis’ notorious Gateway District was razed almost 60 years ago. It’s time to stop mourning its loss.

I came away disappointed. I think the piece missed what is, to me, the moral of the Gateway story.

Was the Gateway Doomed?

A sign of inevitable progress.

The crux of Millett’s column is the demolition of the Gateway was an uncontroversial fait accompli. He writes that, in his research, “it became clear that it would have been very difficult, within the context of the times, to have saved the Gateway.”

That’s a fair enough conclusion, and given the remorseless development trajectory of downtown Minneapolis, one that rings true to me. Millett includes some context about 50s-era Minneapolis leadership, pointing out that the vote to use urban renewal money to demolish the area was unanimous, and that it would have been difficult to save many or most of the buildings that were eventually destroyed.

But it’s the larger implication of the article that I find troubling. The way Millett’s column is framed, both by him and by (presumably) his editors, suggests that the urban public should stop eulogizing, studying, or mourning the Gateway. The subtext of Millett’s piece: enough already!

On that, I disagree, because there are still a lot of lessons that Minneapolis should learn from our great post-war mistake.

The tragedies of the Gateway extend beyond the displacement of its boozy skid row population. Displacement is bad, sure, but far more impactful in the long run was the whole-scale erasure of place. The Gateway renewal project didn’t just knock down acres of old buildings, it literally erased the center of Minneapolis from the map. That’s an almost unforgivable error, and a deep disservice to history.

I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand the urban mistakes of the past, most especially the eviscerations of the 50s and 60s, but other moments too. In pondering the skyway system, for example, I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of a 1950 Minneapolis businessman or official, to see the post-war world as they did. I imagine the incredible downtown gridlock, the money and cultural capital exploding in the suburbs, shrinking profits, and stubborn urban poverty  that must have combined into a desperate sense that something dramatic must be done.

[Of course, Millett’s work is one of my #1 sources for Minneapolis history…]

Minneapolis wasn’t unique in this moment of urban panic. Midwestern cities all over the country made similar destructive decisions, abandoning their historic downtowns in favor of modernist, boring, and fundamentally anti-urban visions. Today, the country is littered with these landscapes.

Minneapolis’ example was so extreme, however, that it stands out even in a world of anti-historical modernist revolutions.  The Gateway project was not a surgery to heal the core of the old city, but an amputation. Bridge Square/Gateway Park was the historic center of the city. Along with the (similarly demolished) bottleneck, the intersection of Hennepin and Nicollet by the Hennepin Bridge and the train stations were synonymous with the birth of Minneapolis, the site of the first city hall, the first bridge, the first everything… It was completely erased.

The Missing Middle

The empty privatized plaza at the center of it all.

Here’s the crucial experiment that reveals how much was lost.

Stand at the “corner” of Nicollet and Hennepin today, and look around you. You will find nothing there.

There’s not even a street named Nicollet Avenue. There’s not even an intersection. There’s merely a collection of crappy plazas, empty benches, decrepit fountains, blank office buildings. There’s no there there. You might as well be standing in a Plymouth office park.

Meanwhile, downtown Minneapolis lacks a sense of place. Peavy Plaza is the closest thing that the city has to a center, I suppose, and it’s dilapidated vacuum most of the time. Bridge Square / Gateway Park was the urban focal point for the city, and you can still feel its absence today. I pity people who stay in downtown Minneapolis for a weekend, attending a conference or a meeting. What kind of urban landscape awaits them? Where is the history, the sense of place, the feeling of being somewhere important?

Instead, imagine if Nicollet Mall terminated, not at an utterly meaningless empty parking lot and dead-end sidewalk on Washington Avenue, but at a central civic space defined on all sides by street fronts, buildings, and facades? What if Bridge Square remained today, a central focal point for the city’s shopping streets, where Washington Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Avenue, and the bridge over the Mississippi River all converged?

If the 50s-era city leaders hadn’t obliterated every facet of Gateway Park/Bridge Square, downtown Minneapolis might today have an amazing central location that could help define the city. Even leaving the angular street grid intact would have done wonders for today’s aimless downtown.

Instead, there’s nothing.

Also, Teardown Was Not Inevitable

Seattle’s Pioneer Square today.

For some reason, Millett doesn’t mention Minneapolis’ most likely comparable city. In Seattle, the skid row not only survived, but thrives today.

There are certainly a lot of differences between Seattle and Minneapolis, but there are just as many similarities, like age of development, building stock, economies, and culture. Most notably, in this case, the two cities’ skid rows had many of the same dynamics, and often some of the same people. (Seattle’s was so famous, that the term “skid row” comes from there.) In his recent Gateway history book, King of Skid Row, James Eli Shiffer points out that the Gateway was full of men who migrated seasonally from Chicago to Minneapolis to Seattle, working in industries like lumber, grain harvest, railroad work, iron ore work, power and pipeline work, or constructing river levees or dams.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square and Minneapolis’ Bridge Square had a lot in common, but very different fates. Somehow, Seattle’s skid row/Pioneer Square survived, through a coincidence of neglect, marginalization, and maybe also a dash of beneficence. Today it’s a central tourist attraction of the skyway-free, walkable, and thriving downtown. Meanwhile, Minneapolis’ Bridge Square/Gateway Park was wiped away. Today it’s a non-place best seen through the window of a fast-moving car, avoided by tourists and locals alike.

Sexworld/Bonobos, the bleeding edge of the Gateway.

Another fun thought experiment is to imagine if, say, half of Minneapolis’ Gateway district building stock had somehow remained in place. It would be an amazing asset.

For example, you can literally see the edge of the “renewal area” if you stand just north of the Central Library. The historic brick buildings of the North Loop and Warehouse District stop abruptly a half-block west of Hennepin Avenue. The vacant lot on the corner of Hennepin and Washington still sits there, sixty years after the Gateway demolition.

The corner of Washington and Hennepin as it sits today.

The blocks bordering the Gateway demolition district has some of my favorite places occupying those old Gateway-era buildings, like Runyon’s, One on One Bike Studio, Kado no Mise, the former Haute Dish, and more places too pricey for my wallet. Imagine if the historic fabric of the North Loop was twice as big, and extended all the way to the Stone Arch Bridge. How many art galleries, cool cafés, or independent businesses would line those walkable streets? How valuable would those historic buildings have become?

Millett’s point that the Gateway had no champions or defenders during the 1950s is more a damnation of Minneapolis’ Babbitt-esque boosterism than anything else. One of the reasons  I so greatly admire Jane Jacobs is that, even in the 1950s when the status quo strains of car-soaked urbanism were so hegemonic and universal, even then she was a champion of the “blighted” streets of the old cities.

It’s true that Minneapolis had no Jane Jacobs, at least nobody with any influence downtown or at the Minneapolis Club. There was no midwestern Cassandra, saying “stop” before the wrecking ball. The city lacked an urban imagination.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep studying this reckless era to glean what was lost or misunderstood. There are still lessons to learn from the casual erasure of our city’s historic landscape. Just because there was consensus does not make it any less of a guidepost. If we study our past mistakes, maybe someday we can re-create the complex urban fabric and sense of place that our grandparents obliterated.

[Pics of Bridge Square/Gateway Park in the early 20th c. follow.]

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22 thoughts on “Still Lots to Learn from Minneapolis’ Great Gateway Mistake

    1. D. Lange

      This is a great article! As an amateur observer of community dynamics, I sense that Minneapolis has for some inexplicable reason been more concerned with Scandanavian cosmetics, conformity, and social engineering than the heavily Irish Catholic influenced ethos of St. Paul.

      Having lived in both cities, the ugly head of xenophobia and racism raises it’ head more frequently in Mineapolis, and with the previous City Council citizen safety was a back burner issue. Instead construction fiasco, developers benefited from hastily high density construction. Bike-lanes, plastic bags, and a business killing construction fiasco, occupied judicious and prudent governance.

      It was a classic scandanavian “makeover.” Make everything LOOK nice. I thought about this when scumbag Trump wanted more citizens from Norway!!! I say, deport them, and welcome less emotionally constricted and more welcoming human beings.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        Not sure what to make of this, but the details like bike lanes and plastic bags are exactly what the City Council should focus on, in my opinion. The former because it is efficient and equitable and a boost to street level urbanism, the latter because it is environmental common sense.

        Saint Paul tore down a lot of stuff too, by the way. Stay tuned for more on that topic this year.

        1. Monte Castleman

          There’s room for disagreement about whether mandating things that are “environmental common sense” is a proper function of government at any level. Plastic bags at least were somewhat sensible because of the litter problem, but mandating a charge for paper bags, in my opinion, crossed a line. What’s next? A 10 cent surcharge for shopping at night when the store has to turn on their parking lot lights? A 5 cent charge for opening the ice cream freezer door. At least a charge for flushing a toilet is banned by state law.

        2. Teardownapolis

          The Ryan Hotel and several others were tremendous losses. But the teardown in Saint Paul were not as notoriously tragic as the ones in Minneapolis.

          It is observable that Saint Paul cares more about its history than Minneapolis.

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

            People underestimate the amount of the city that was torn down in Saint Paul. The Central Park and Seven Corners areas spring to mind, as well as the “Centre City” blocks.

            1. Bob Roscoe

              Yes – the heart of downtown Saint Paul was ripped out for Dayton’s, the mis-named Town Square, New York Life Insurance Buildings, Galtier Plaza and many others.

              At the western fringe of downtown, many substantial buildings southwest of Rice Park were obliterated for events structures such as Excel and concrete sinews of freeway extensions. Many mechanics and repair shops and their attendant beer joints and noon lunch spots that made an unofficial working class historic district are all gone – as is a very colorful part of Saint Paul.

  1. Monte Castleman

    If there’s a lesson here, it’s to be careful about tearing down stuff just because it doesn’t fit our current aesthetic tastes because future generations may beg to differ. The old Gateway buildings were thought of as ugly so best tear them down and put up new shiny mid-century modern stuff. Now we think mid-century modern is ugly so we’re tearing it down. We already lost the original Nicollet Mall, and Peavy plaza was a close call.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      One lesson is there’s a big difference between tearing down to get rid of and tearing down to replace. We should never do the former and need to be thoughtful about the latter, for the reason you state.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Agreed, although it can be hard to distinguish wanting to replace mediocre development with better development, versus wanting to remove something historic for something fashionable.

      There is a Richfielder who started a Facebook page highlighting demolitions (current and previous) in the City. Although there is certainly some loss of older architecture, one example he bemoans is losing a couple of 1-2 story dilapidated buildings to be replaced by a 15-story, mixed-use condo tower that houses 150 homes, plus 8 or so business spaces. I can’t possibly believe that that teardown was a mistake.

      On the other hand, there is also a pending demolition of the CarHop at 66th & Penn, which is an old 1960s Arby’s and sort of an interesting road-side style, to be replaced by a similarly sized Dunkin Donuts, that meets 2010s aesthetics. That’s a little harder to get behind.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          That was pretty ridiculous. Also didn’t care for them adding a “frontage road” loop between sidewalk and front of building. Theoretically, the addition was to allow motorists entering from 65th to drive around the entirety of the building and queue more cleanly in the drive-thru line. In practice, I don’t think it’s really ever used.

          Replacing an old Kmart nearby with a new medium-box gym and strip mall was also sort of a lateral move, although the new structures do have better appearance from the street.

          But most of the time, it is a clearer improvement. Lyndale Plaza apartments sites on the site of an old strip mall, and is now an attractive 4-story structure with less surface parking.

      1. Monte Castleman

        What about removing something that simply doesn’t fit our current thinking about how buildings should relate to the street. Remember the people that built the St. Paul Macy’s thought they were doing the city a favor since shoppers didn’t have to find parking on the street or go out in the cold and rain to go from shop to shop. Whether or not it fits our current thinking about relating to the state, it was a marquee example of mid-century architecture that’s been remodeled into unrecognizability because it was too expensive to tear down.

  2. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

    I’m always saddened by the loss of so much of our city’s fabric. My grandfather told great stories about this time in Minneapolis. In fact, he talked a lot about the bootlegging that went on. I also know a guy who’s father “ran things” in Minneapolis during those times. A lot of great stories of the transient workers coming in on trains for seasonal work.

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    I agree with you, Bil. It does seem that the driving force behind that extreme Urban Renewal project was the compulsion to get rid of a seamy segment of Minneapolis life, without regard to history or architectural implications and consequences. Surely many of the buildings–not just the Metropolitan–were architecturally atmospheric or worthwhile.

    It’s interesting to compare projects in Boston, where the architectural loss was less serious but the results uninspired economically and architecturally, or the wiping-out of many blocks of the central downtown area of St. Louis, MO.

  4. Andy Gifford

    Thanks for writing about this, Bill. It’s one of my favorite subjects.

    At the time Bridge Square was fully imagined, it boasted two train stations, a City Hall, and a public market. It was also a victim of the city’s success, and eventually outgrew most of those things. (save JJ Hill’s Great Northern Depot) So by the time Gateway Park was envisioned, the area was already home to a transient workforce, purveyors of cheap alcohol and sundries, and most of the other things that we’d imagine a Skid Row to have.

    The park itself was a revitalization effort; a goodbye to the city’s past and a (hopeful) nod towards its future.

    Around the time the Minneapolis Auditorium was proposed (where the Convention Center currently stands), labor unions pushed for it to be built in the Gateway because of its central location. The city didn’t like the idea, presumably because they were afraid of labor movement agitation.

    Mayor Humphrey envisioned a “one stop shop” district of social services for the neighborhood’s residents.

    I imagine a lot of the property owners in the Gateway had no problem selling out to the city. They were longtime landlords and probably couldn’t resist profiting off of something they had little or no interest in maintaining much longer.

    Burlington Northern floated plans for a headquarters at the foot of the Hennepin Ave Bridge in the 70s.

    Long story short: yes, the city clearly failed to learn from the wholesale demolition of the Gateway. Not only from a preservationist perspective, but from a decent city planning one. But, as evidenced, it’s always been an area in flux. I’m as guilty as the next person for glamorizing it and its seedy past. So I can kind of see Millet’s point, however ineloquent. But there is still a lot of room in the area to make it a much friendlier streetscape for walking and living.

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I won’t argue that it was a loss, but I don’t share your disdain for the current setup. Northwestern National Life Building is one of the most beautiful buildings of its era, and I think it is pretty thoughtfully designed with the portico framing the historic sightline of Nicollet Ave to the bridge — and still allowing pedestrian movement on the old alignment of Nicollet.

    The reflecting pools really emphasize the beauty of the NW Life building, and the Towers-owned walkway on the 2nd St plane is also a nice example of “quasi-public done right”, providing an intimate walking experience that’s pretty rare downtown. When I worked at coworking space at 2nd N and 2nd N, I used to walk through there daily.

    I agree that the 1.4 acres owned by MPRB is pretty dilapidated and sad, but I don’t think the mid-century stuff that surrounds it precludes them from doing something better.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        Since we’re doing hypotheticals, can we agree to move the NW Life building to another spot downtown? Despite its obvious shortcomings, it would probably be fine on a less prominent block.

        At a minimum, I think the building’s colonnade should be torn off and rebuilt on the opposite end of the building, with the freed up space purchased by the city to re-envision a functional and better-used version of Gateway Park.

  6. David MarkleDavid Markle

    John Pillsbury was rightly proud of his Yamasaki-designed NW National Building. He was a good man and a dedicated civic leader, but I suspect he also had every intention to help get rid of the old Gateway District and what he thought it represented.

    On a similar note, the recently deceased Larry O’Shaughnessy (son of I.A. O’Shaughnessy) visited my humble home on the West Bank in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. When I told him it was in a renewal area, he remarked, “They should get on with it as soon as possible!” Likewise Elinor Watson Bell (Mrs. James Ford Bell, Jr.), who told a mutual friend on the U of MN music faculty, “I’ve never heard such sound in my life, but that man lives in an absolute shanty town!”

  7. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Thanks a lot Bill! I was just transitioning from depression to acceptance, but now I’m back to denial and anger over what downtown Minneapolis could have been.

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