Lets talk about Hennepin

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March 23, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

Building the future of Hennepin Avenue through public conversation

Over the next few months, a group of local decision-makers will meet to discuss the future of Hennepin Avenue: what it should look like, what amenities it should have and how it should be used.

This effort, called Plan-It Hennepin, seeks to rework one of our most iconic streets in a completely new way: by letting arts and community organizations lead the charge. But what’s most striking about these meetings, known as the Talk-It Hennepin series, is that the aforementioned decision-makers aren’t a bunch of rich business owners or well-connected politicians. They are average Minneapolis residents.

The origins of Plan-It Hennepin and the Talk-It Hennepin series can be traced back to August of last year, when the Hennepin Theatre Trust announced it had been awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and $50,000 matching grant from the City of Minneapolis to transform Hennepin Avenue into a “cultural corridor” stretching from the Walker Art Center to the riverfront.

The goal, said Hennepin Theatre Trust president and CEO Tom Hoch, is to leverage Hennepin Avenue’s existing cultural assets and find ways to knit them all together in an artist-led process.

In December, the Downtown Council released its 2025 Plan for downtown, and the Hennepin Avenue cultural corridor plan was incorporated into the council’s vision. The 2025 Plan calls for a “consistently compelling” downtown experience, perfectly echoing the desire to link Hennepin Avenue assets like the Walker, Theatre District and Library in a deeper way than street address. It’s no surprise that the cultural corridor plan found its way into the 2025 Plan. Not only do both plans seek to improve the downtown experience, but Hoch and the Walker’s director Olga Viso are involved in the planning of both projects.

Hoch and Viso are joined by Artspace Projects president Kelly Lindquist and Creative Community Builders’ Tom Borrup as the core team behind the year-long cultural corridor development effort Plan-It Hennepin and the associated Talk-It Hennepin program, a four-part series of discussions and workshops designed to engage the public on various aspects of Hennepin Avenue’s past and future.

Held at rotating locations along Hennepin Avenue, the series began in March at the Minneapolis Central Library with a discussion of the history of Hennepin Avenue. A panel discussed many aspects of Hennepin’s history, from its humble beginnings as a Native American footpath to the demolition of the blighted Gateway district in 1959.

Of course, the history of Hennepin isn’t just about its physical changes, it’s also about the personal associations people have with the street.

“I remember skipping out of school and going to Shinder’s and going bowling,” said Mayor R.T. Rybak as he introduced the first Talk-It Hennepin event. “It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it’s part of my history on Hennepin.”

The mayor went on to say that Hennepin Avenue should be a symbol of the spirit of Minneapolis; that it should be something that stands as a microcosm of the city. “Hennepin, more than any other street, should be of this place,” he said.

Going forward, the Talk-It Hennepin series will tackle different aspects of Hennepin Avenue, each designed to get the public thinking about the street in a different way. Next up, artist and urban planner Candy Chang will headline a talk called “Creative Urban Interventions.” Chang is known for mixing street art with urban planning and social activism and is well-known for her post-Hurricane Katrina work in New Orleans. One of her New Orleans projects involved distributing fill-in-the-blank “I Wish This Was” stickers for residents to apply to vacant storefronts. Chang’s talk will be held at the Walker Art Center on April 26.

In May, the Talk-It Hennepin series will host Charles Landry, urban planner and author of books like “The Creative City: A toolkit for Urban Innovators” and “The Art of City Making.” Considered one of the most influential names in urban planning, Landry’s “creative city” concept changed the way many urban planners view cities from a collection of infrastructure elements to a dynamic system made up as much by ideas and culture as by roads and buildings. Landry’s lecture is tentatively scheduled for May 11, with a workshop to follow on May 12 at the FAIR school on 10th and Hennepin.

The speaker for the June event have not yet been announced, but it will be held at the New Century Theatre on June 7 and focus on the power of place identity. The associated workshop will take place on June 9. Later that night, another cultural event will take place on Hennepin as the Northern Spark dawn-to-dusk art festival returns for its second year.

Just what ideas will the Talk-It Hennepin series generate for Plan-It Hennepin? It’s very tough to say.

“I have no idea where this is going and that’s what I love about it,” said Hoch. The group behind Plan-It Hennepin admits the goal of an arts-focused redevelopment of a major street shaped by the public is an unorthodox one, but they believe the nature of the process is key for Hennepin Avenue’s long-term health.

“We don’t want to just come up with a plan that is adopted by the city,” said Viso. “We want to create a network that continues to bring life to Hennepin long after this planning process is over.”

There’s no question why improving the quality of the Hennepin Avenue experience matters. In additional to its many cultural attractions, the street has always been a major transit corridor, and its importance will only grow as the expanded light rail system brings more and more people to downtown. “Hennepin is almost being put together to what it was before the 1950s as a transit hub,” said Tom Borrup of the planned light rail expansions.

Future commuters and visitors can either be greeted upon their arrival by a blighted Hennepin Avenue or a bustling one, one where the experience between landmarks is every bit as compelling as visits to the Cowles Center, riverfront or State Theatre. It could be a place filled with street art, galleries and performance venues. It could be home to pocket parks, urban markets and pop-up shops. It’s up to the community to decide.

If you go

Want to check out some of the Plan-It Hennepin events? Here are the next events in the series. Additional events and details will be revealed as the series continues on the official website, HennepinTheatreTrust.org/plan-it-hennepin. An RSVP is requested for all events.

April 21, 3 p.m. & 7 p.m.
New Century Theatre

The MN Spoken Word Association and Plan-It Hennepin present the 2nd Annual Say Word Youth Poetry Festival

April 26, 7 p.m.
Walker Art Center

Talk-It Hennepin: Creative Urban Interventions – A Dialogue with Candy Chang

April 28, 10 a.m.
Walker Art Center

Talk-It Hennepin Creative Urban Interventions Workshop