Iric Nathanson’s latest book is a pictorial history of downtown Minneapolis
Local author Iric Nathanson writes and lectures about Minnesota history, and his latest book — his third to focus on Minneapolis — tells the story of downtown.
Spanning 167 years, “Downtown Minneapolis” is a pictorial history illuminated by drawings and photos Nathanson dug up from the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society, Hennepin History Museum and, most importantly, the Hennepin County Library Special Collections. It’s a visual tour through time, from an early downtown plat map drawn in the 1850s to a photo of U.S. Bank Stadium taken after the gigantic new home of the Minnesota Vikings football team opened in the summer of 2016.
Nathanson shared his perspective on the evolution of downtown Minneapolis during a recent conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Journal: What does your book tell us about the earliest days of downtown and how it evolved over the decades?
Nathanson: It started out as such a small collection of ramshackle buildings. It was not a very pleasant place — muddy streets, animals wandering around the yard. Not very pleasant at all.
It’s interesting that in just a few decades it really grew up from this shabby collection of shacks to a real city. I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the early leaders who put the city together. I really am just amazed, in the first couple of decades, how the city grew.
But it was not at all a nice place to be (in the beginning).
When does downtown really become a downtown?
By the 1870s, that was the commercial hub of the city. Of course, a lot of people were living downtown. But imagine a small town of maybe a couple thousand people; everybody lived within a few blocks of the commercial center. So, by the 1870s, things were beginning to emerge.
Then, starting in the 1880s, there was just an explosive growth of the city. The population between 1880 and 1900 quadrupled. In the decades of the 1880s, we really become a big league city. We go from being a little frontier settlement to, really, a significant Midwestern city, and that happens in the 1880s.
There’s still a sense of loss in Minneapolis for people who remember what downtown was like before the urban renewal drive of the 1960s. How was downtown reshaped at that time?
Well, a huge swath — 80 blocks of downtown — was demolished. It was a huge shock, I think.
I feel that, while we lost a substantial part of our commercial history, the Gateway (Urban Renewal Project), in spite of the problems with it and the loss of the Metropolitan Building, really did lay the groundwork for the emergence of downtown, which will happen starting in the 1970s.
We shouldn’t have torn down all those buildings. But, at the same time, the city did eliminate a substantial amount of blight that was really creeping up and could have engulfed the rest of downtown if it wasn’t halted.
When do you think downtown Minneapolis really begins to resemble the downtown we know today?
We have some buildings that are left from the 1880s. Obviously, we have the municipal building — City Hall — we have the Lumber Exchange, we have the Hennepin Center for the Arts. So, we have some vestiges of those early developments
But, really, there was so much change in the last half of the 20th century that the downtown we know today, I think you can probably start that with the completion of the IDS building in the early 1970s. IDS really gives us this huge landmark, an elegant skyscraper, and really puts Minneapolis on the architectural map. And, of course, we’ve got other buildings: the Wells Fargo building, the Pelli building, that goes up.
I think by the 1970s, we really begin to see a downtown that we know today.
That same period is when we get the first skyways. They’re one of the hallmarks of downtown Minneapolis. How do you think they shaped the way downtown would grow over time?
I think the key contribution of the skyways — and I know there are a number of critics these days — I think the key issue with the skyways is they really, substantially helped create a strong economic base for downtown. And I think without the skyways, downtown could really be in trouble.
Maybe just to fast-forward to a current issue: If we didn’t have the skyways and that Macy’s closed, I think that huge building on the Nicollet Mall would be this empty bulk spreading a shadow of blight over downtown. If we didn’t have the skyways it certainly wouldn’t be a good investment.
I think downtown would not have the strong economic base that it has today. It would not become a downtown neighborhood with close to 40,000 people living there. We wouldn’t have 160,000 people working downtown.
Clearly, the skyways helped downtown withstand the economic pressures of the suburban boom and, in spite of their deficiencies, I think they’ve made a huge contribution to downtown and the city as a whole.
You just mentioned how many people are living downtown today. Can you talk about what you see happening in the coming decades for downtown?
Things are changing so much these days — so much is happening that we didn’t expect — that it’s really difficult to predict. I don’t know that downtown will continue to grow at the same pace that it has. There’s been substantial growth. My sense — and I’m nowhere near an expert on residential development — but I have a sense that maybe this huge apartment boom is going to cool a little bit.
So, we may not be having a huge growth. I think there will be a steady growth downtown. There really are not a lot of sites left for increased residential development in the core downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.
(The population) may begin to creep up from 40,000 to 50,000, but I think that’s a substantial community, and I think downtown is going to be their front yard and it’s going to be their main street. Downtown, I think from a retail standpoint, is not going to be the metropolitan magnet that it has been, but it’s going to continue to be an office site. I think it’s going to continue to be an entertainment venue.
I was just doing a tour of the State Theater yesterday. I think the historic theaters are a great asset. It’s something that suburbia doesn’t have. I think the entertainment venues — the Guthrie on the edge of downtown, the riverfront — all of that is going to bring people down for recreation, and then we’re going to have a strong residential base, as well.
Tell me about how you assembled the hundreds of images that illustrate this book.
I’ve been writing about Minneapolis, oh, I think for at least 20 years. And I think I’ve got under my belt 20 to 25 articles I’ve written about various aspects of local history. So, I’ve gotten familiar with the historic photo collections, and luckily we’ve got some terrific photo archives.
I want to call out in particular the Special Collections at the downtown library. The Special Collections is this sort of hidden historical gem, and the people at Special Collections have done this valiant job of maintaining our written history and our archival history. And I think that’s as important, as a historic preservation effort, as the buildings we’re preserving.
The Special Collections (staff) has done this terrific job. They’ve got a great collection of historic photos they’ve assembled over the last 50–60 years. Minnesota Historical Society has a terrific collection. Hennepin History Museum has photos.
So, I knew that the photos were there, and it just took some hunting to find the ones that told the story of downtown development.
Do you have a favorite era of downtown Minneapolis? If you could just hop in a time machine, what date would you set on the dial?
It’s hard to say. I think what I find particularly interesting is the decade of the 1880s — obviously, a long time ago. But in the decade of the 1880s, we really undergo this tremendous transformation. The major civic institutions we have today were created then: the library system was created then, Park Board, the city hospital, which did not have an auspicious beginning. The early city hospital was really quite a sad affair, almost Dickensian. But that was the recognition, that the city had a responsibility to provide hospital care.
So, we have these institutions being created (in the 1880s) and controversy with them, but we really are lucky that they are there, and I think particularly (with) the Park Board. We get what’s now Loring Park.
I think the 1880s is a period that is really important. And then in the next century, I think the 1970s (are important). That’s really when the riverfront revitalization begins, and I think that’s had a huge, lasting impact.
So, if I was living in two different eras, it would be in the 1880s and the 1970s. And in fact I was around in the 1970s.