This account of small businesses trying to survive anticipated construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail route reminded me of a story I wrote 35 years ago — and what has happened since.
I was freelancing for the Minneapolis Star and for Preview magazine, the Minnesota Public Radio program guide that has long since morphed into "region's most widely circulated lifestyle magazine, catering to a well-educated, affluent audience."
Preview then was edited by writers like Patricia Hampl and covered Minnesota through a very different lens. It published arts and literary reporting, but also my account of the New Ulm anti-draft march and another cover story about urban renewal on the fringes of downtown Minneapolis.
[Photo: Washington Avenue between Marquette and Second Avenues. These buildings were replaced by the unremarkable 100 Washington Square, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Center. From John McNab's photostream]
By this time, the early 1970s, most of the city's Washington Avenue skid row had been eradicated, though not much of the promised new development had yet materialized.
The Minneapolis Tribune editorialized at the time: "The ugliness of blight is ... disappearing and a new beauty and orderliness replace it." But a local architect said that it was "the most inexcusable act of civic vandalism in the history of Minneapolis."
In fact, some of the land that went from flophouse to parking lot is still used for parking cars. A few of the remaining flop houses found new, trendy life, while others are in different states of productive use.
The north end of town was being remade for insurance companies and other corporate titans. A beautiful new Federal Reserve Bank building went up, only to be replaced by a more workable building on the site of the former train station.
Southwest near Loring Park, where my domestic partner and I lived in those days, the affordable apartments and small businesses were just starting to be exposed to gentrification. New landlords were buying the four-story apartment buildings, buffing them up, and charging much higher rents than we were used to paying. Those higher rents pushed us into home ownership, which turned out to be a good deal.
The city's lead development person at the time told us, when we asked him about what would happen to the area's poor people, "they just go somewhere else." And indeed they did.
For small businesses, though, relocation is another matter.
I interviewed some business owners whose buildings in the neighborhood were going under the wrecking ball. A used bookstore owner had been moved to his current location after the city demolished his previous building, to which he'd moved after losing his original storefront. It turns out used book businesses were a reliable barometer of real estate that was underutilized, since they had very low sales per square foot.
His reactions to moving a fourth time were mixed. He thought the city would help him find a new location again and provide assistance to pack and move two floors of books. But the stock of suitable space in the city was going away. He was tired of moving, and each new location had added to his costs and reduced his foot traffic.
He moved to a much smaller location and, before too many years passed, closed down his shop.
Another retailer who sold unpainted furniture was suspicious of the city and opposed to the redevelopment, but eventually found a new storefront in the neighborhood. After operating there for two decades or more, it eventually moved to St. Louis Park and closed in 2004.
The University Avenue businesses face different development pressures from the light rail, since the surrounding real estate is not nearly as valuable as land next to the core downtowns. But small service businesses that rely on repeat customers are rightly concerned about how changes may affect them, and they are righteously angry that the needs of larger, non-taxpaying institutions are getting more attention.
Some of their businesses will die — either killed outright by construction, or more likely, by the combination of change and the owner's lack of skills or capital to adapt.
As I look back at the redevelopment that came into my old neighborhood, I see some fears were unrealized, while others were legitimate. Al Franken and other millionaires live where the bookstore once stood, but a fair amount of what we fought to save is still there. I can still see all three of the buildings where we once lived. One of the teachers at the shelter lives in a building next door, so I suspect the rents are still relatively affordable.
Though I miss parts of the old city and am repulsed by some of its replacement, I can't definitely say the old stuff was better than what we have now. Today is different, and that's the way life is.
The old days just go somewhere else.