VOICES // Before the falls

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August 1, 2011
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
Thinking about urban renewal on a particularly stinky stretch of the Mississippi.

There is a new vision for the stretch of river north of the Plymouth Avenue bridge, one that replaces the cold, dirty industries of grain barging and metal scrapping with clean green spaces and warm swimming holes and “artist parks,” whatever those are. In so doing it seeks to close a long chapter in the history of Minneapolis’ river as the commercial corridor that made Minneapolis “the Budapest America,” as early milling proponents were fond of calling it, and opens a new one that reimagines the northern riverfront as a tourist destination while attempting to return our greatest natural resource to its former pre-dredged glory.

It’s doubtful that anyone has informed the homeless camp beneath the 16th Avenue railroad bridge of the impending improvements to their neighborhood. Which is fine — if that camp’s residents are students of the colorful history of riverfront redevelopment in Minneapolis, they probably know they won’t be relocating any time soon.

“RiverFIRST,” the winning entrant in the Park and Recreation Board’s recent Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, is just one of many such initiatives to transform the city’s most derelict stretch of river, dating back to a 1972 city plan called “Mississippi/Minneapolis” and leading up to the city’s current decade-old plan, titled “Above the Falls,” which will evidently intermingle with the Park Board’s “RiverFIRST” blueprints in untold and presumably imaginary ways. Those 40 years of river renewal have resulted in such joys as the Pinnacle and the Falls condo towers; St. Anthony Main, which suffered decades of neglect before recently becoming the urban center it was meant to be; and half a city block on Marshall Street that was seized by the city, leveled and promptly abandoned. The lesson: It’s fun to dream up ways to beautify the river, but making those dreams a reality can be ugly work.

Then again, those dreamy river aspirations are necessary, because the river, too, is ugly. Any attempt to appreciate the fullness of the Mississippi’s character needs to include this fact. The river made the city, and the city repaid it in putrefaction. Engineers tamed it, deepened it, widened it. Industry crapped pollutants into it. Agriculture drained fertilizer into it. Over time the heart of the city became untouchable. Like an electrical wire, the river powered Minneapolis but warned its citizens about getting too close. That particular stretch of river is now the margin of our little society itself, inhabited by drunks, criminals, mischievous teenagers and a colorful fraternity of recreational boaters who assemble at Boom Island and motor about the river’s upstream islands. There are docks at Boom Island too, but they are rarely used; leave your boat in the water too long and its hull will turn green.

In a way, the riverfront project echoes the urban renewal of Downtown in the 1960s, when the flophouses of Skid Row were replaced with shiny new office buildings and, later, parking lots.

Those flophouses weren’t missed, at least not right away, and most kayakers at the new Scherer Park probably won’t miss the squatter camp beneath the railroad bridge either. Which isn’t to say the camp should be left alone, or the river’s continuing evolution should be halted. Let’s just hope any dispersal happens with more social grace than Skid Row endured.

All this talk of riverfront renewal brings to mind another blighted corner of Northeast that’s been in the news lately: the old Hollywood Theater on Johnson Street, whose dilapidated interior was used last month for a staging of “Waiting for Godot.” Empty since 1987, the old movie theater is owned by the city and continues to stagnate on the real estate market, kept alive — but just barely — by a 1993 designation as a historic landmark.

An abandoned theater is a pockmark on the face of its neighborhood, as heartsickening a sight as a ruined church. Most folks’ days are divided between work and play, labor and love, business and pleasure, and the death of a theater is the victory of the worst part of the day over the best. A ruined theater is a monument to cruel reality, a constant reminder that dreams may be dreamt but bills must be paid. One is a luxury; the other a necessity. Our refusal to tear down our out-of-business theaters is proof that we don’t want to face up to that reality, and thank goodness for that. We should never tear down our theaters, and we should never have let the Hollywood rot.

But even as it stands today, a wrecked hull of a building, the Hollywood continues to inspire its community. Every neighbor in that neck of Northeast has walked past the old theater and paused to dream up some cock-eyed scheme to reopen it. A movie theater may not be feasible, but what if the building housed a new restaurant? Or an all-season home to the farmers market? Or a school? Or a playhouse? As with the neglected river two miles to its west, the abandoned theater is wretched and stinking and screaming of opportunity.

Northeasters eager for river renewal and Hollywood Theater dreamers alike may need to take a page from “Waiting for Godot,” though. As that play’s ever-hopeful protagonists Vladimir and Estragon found out the hard way, it may be a while.

Chuck Terhark writes a monthly column about life in Northeast.