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.]

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.

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