They actually sold out of cheese curds at Tower Avenue’s grand opening festival! Credit: Photo by Linda Koutsky

They actually sold out of cheese curds at Tower Avenue’s grand opening festival! Credit: Photo by Linda Koutsky

A Superior Avenue

Tower Avenue, Superior, Wisc.

We were talking with a neighbor about summer travel plans. My sister was in Italy and my best friend in Greece but we were heading to Superior, Wisc. for a long weekend. Immediately our neighbor said: “Stay off Tower Avenue.” Poor Superior. It’s always had a reputation as the sorry second city to Duluth. But my sidekick, “the Percolator,” and I have always loved the gritty port city filled with longshoremen, dive bars, and a scenic backdrop of historic grain elevators. When we told him that’s exactly where we were staying, he simply shook his head.

Tower Avenue is the main drag running through the heart of Superior. It’s always had an odd collection of old bars, random stores, car dealerships, a hotel where John F. Kennedy gave a speech, and old buildings needing new uses. The buildings never seemed to get remodeled and that’s what I like about it. The storefronts weren’t ruined with midcentury facelifts — they were just the same as when they were built. Walking on Tower Avenue is like going through a time machine.

But when we turned off the bridge from Minnesota onto Tower Avenue we couldn’t believe our eyes — what happened!? Tower Avenue had a complete redesign. A center boulevard with trees; wide, striped pedestrian intersections; benches with plantings; ceramic history plaques; decorative light fixtures; and even bike lanes! In the two years since we were there last, Superior dug up Tower Avenue from building to building and started over. When we checked into our hotel we saw the poster: Tower Avenue Party. The next day was the official grand opening festival.

We woke up early to clanging tent poles and food truck generators. The street was closed to traffic all day. Artists, community organizations, and businesses set up booths. Three stages had live music, theater, and dance performances. There were architectural walking tours, an antique car show, and displays of city utility vehicles including a brand new sci-fi-looking sewer-cleaning tanker. Activities for kids included small carnival games and the never-heard-of-before-in-my-life, but highly promoted, Touch-a-Truck — an opportunity to climb inside a real semitruck cab. We had a ball. The ribbon-cutting followed speeches by many including Mayor Hagen.  

The redesign was beautiful. We’d be lucky to have it on Hennepin Avenue. Or anywhere in Minneapolis. I was envious. I hope we can be as proud of our new Hennepin/Lyndale intersection as the people of Superior were of this transformation. It had been in the planning stage for seven years by an all-volunteer design team then it took one year to implement. Since the street was under construction, a new clothing boutique opened, a Scandinavian gift shop opened, a candy store opened, there’s a brand new donut shop, and a new bar/restaurant serving Canadian smoked meat specialties recently opened and has already been taped for an episode Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. There were a couple casualties, but an event volunteer we talked to said they were due to close anyway.

You’re probably thinking: “but she said they liked it the way it was.” Well, we did. The old Tower Avenue was terrific. And most of the best is still there: Globe News — the best newsstand around, the nautical bric a brac at Anchor Bar, Who’s Bar’s pool table, but now it’s more inviting. Even the retired dock workers out early on benches the next morning seemed proud of the civic improvement. After so many years of going to Superior for weekend getaways, it was great to happen upon Tower Avenue’s rebirth. I’m anxious to go there again. Greece and Italy can wait.

LUNCH BREAK: Best reuben sandwich ever at Shorty’s Pizza and Smoked Meat (1015 Tower Ave.) 

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