Voices: From footpath to the future

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April 9, 2012
By: Tom Hoch
Tom Hoch
Hennepin Avenue is a place of many stories — stories about the history of a people and a city. It is this collection of individual memories, journeys and experiences that define a place and its spirit. And as part of Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Talk-It Hennepin, new series of public conversations and workshops about city planning and design, a coalition of arts organizations is gathering those stories to get a clearer understanding of what we value as we plan a future Hennepin Avenue cultural corridor.

As Mayor Rybak said in the March 8 Talk-It kick-off, called Honoring History: The Avenue Through the Ages, “Hennepin, more than any street, should be of this place, of these people, what we are today and where we are going. Everyone should be welcome. … At its root, it’s about who we are. … Plan-It Hennepin is about bringing something much deeper, much richer.”

The Plan-It Hennepin planning process (of which the Talk-It series is a part) models values that we see as important to the future functioning of Hennepin Avenue — openness, transparency, collaboration,  inclusivity, and most of all, creativity.

So it was especially fitting that the first Talk-It evening opened at the Minneapolis Central Library with the Miziway Desjarlait drum circle setting the stage to honor and learn from our history. Many people did not know that Hennepin Avenue began as a 17th century Dakota footpath and trade route from the Mississippi River to Lake Calhoun. From that beginning, it has become the modern thoroughfare we see today, encompassing commerce, culture and educational and religious institutions.  

The panelists at our Talk-It kick-off  addressed a fascinating and diverse slice of Hennepin past and present, guided by moderator Dorothy Bridges from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. John Diers, a long-time transit expert, shared fond memories of Hennepin Avenue as a major streetcar center. Penny Petersen, historian, offered a fascinating overview of the impact of the destruction of Gateway Park, the Metropolitan Building and a wide swath of other downtown buildings. This was part of a slum clearance effort intended to make way for better development that didn’t fully materialize. Syd Beane, an activist and expert in Minnesota’s tribal roots, spoke about shared symbolism and how his ancestors interacted with early French and British traders, some gaining influence by marrying chiefs’ daughters. Kevin Murphy, University of Minnesota history professor, reminded us that the Avenue was early on a place where LGBT populations came to live, work and play, just one of the many diverse groups that lays claim to Hennepin Avenue.

Our Thursday evening Talk-It conversations are paired with hands-on workshops the following Saturday. On March 10, respected Twin Cities’ artists Ta-coumba Aiken, Mankwe Ndosi, Leah Nelson and Harry Waters Jr. helped activate the conversations of workshop participants. Attendees were asked to recall, for example, their “best experience” on Hennepin Avenue. By drawing on spoken word, theatre, music, visual arts and movement to relate personal stories, the workshops offered a fun way to define and reinforce our values, vision and goals. As planning consultant Tom Borrup commented, “Planning should be fun, so people will want to do it.”

We are really pleased by the growing excitement, energy and momentum witnessed during this part of the Plan-It project; there is a palpable sense of optimism that we can really create the city we want.

Our Talk-It series continues on Thursday, April 26 at Walker Art Center with speaker Candy Chang, known for combining street art and social activism with projects like her fill-in-the-blank “I Wish This Was” stickers. The hands-on Saturday, April 28 workshop will be led by the same local artists. Details will also be announced soon on the final two Talk-It Hennepin discussion/workshops in May and June. Talk is cheap but Talk-It is free; we just ask you to RSVP as space is limited. The Walker is now taking RSVPs directly. Just call their box office at 375-7600.

If you can’t attend Talk-It in person, we ask you to visit the Hennepintheatretrust.org website to share your thoughts, view historical photos, read feature articles about the project and “Like” the Plan-It Hennepin Facebook page. We welcome your input and we want it now!

Feedback already coming in points to a strong desire to make the Avenue greener and more walkable. Perhaps the spirit of Hennepin’s origins as a footpath will indeed help define the future.

Tom Hoch is President and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, the non-profit owner of the historic Orpheum, State, Pantages and newly developed New Century Theatres, devoted to enriching the vibrant cultural atmosphere of the Twin Cities.

Talk-It Hennepin

Talk-It Hennepin is part of the broader Plan-It Hennepin initiative led by partners Hennepin Theatre Trust, Walker Art Center, Artspace and the City of Minneapolis to creatively re-imagine Hennepin Avenue as a revitalized cultural corridor running from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi River. It is funded through a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant.