If You Go: Minneapolis

Since late July, we’ve been on the road – Florida, Minneapolis, Denver, Scotland, New Mexico, and now after a brief respite we’re off to Milwaukee and New York. Lots of travel, but it always feels so good to come home to our beautiful house – Montgomery really feels like home to us. Sometimes we wonder if we still feel like we are “Lost in Montgomery,” since we know more than our share of shortcuts, local weirdos, restaurants and contractors. We don’t want to be those people who live in Montgomery and are always putting it down. You know who we’re talking about – they’re always comparing Montgomery to some other place they used to live where lattes grew on trees and people actually had a choice of what live music to see after eating in some vegetarian Ethiopian fusion restaurant. We’re not saying we don’t like lattes or live music, but it’s pretty tiresome to hear people moan about your home city all the time.

There’s nothing like leaving the country to get some perspective on America and Americans, but you don’t need to pay the increasingly steep passport fees to get some perspective on Montgomery. Time may or may not do the trick, but you may be so old when you finally get perspective that you can’t do anything except complain to your nurse about the kids these days. Perspective doesn’t necessarily require distance, though some intervening miles can often help you catch your breath. Perspective comes when you can look at something differently than you did before. When the familiar looks strange, you’ve got perspective by incongruity. Creativity is a good way to make the familiar look strange, but so is exposure to other ways of doing things. A recent trip that took me to Minneapolis  did the trick nicely.

I’d never been to Minneapolis (but for a brief speaking engagement once at the downtown Convention Center). That place is a Habitrail for the nametag-and-totebag crowd, complete with tunnels and basements and endless steamy vats of industrial eggs. It could be anyplace in the world, and you’d never know the difference. And we’ve flown through the airport a few times, and always make a point of (after a visit to the Larry Craig Memorial bathroom) stopping to play one of the dozens of pinball machines throughout the terminals. They may not be super well kept up, but they are pinball machines, and since we live in a city that has exactly one such device (Bad Cats! at Chris’ Hot Dogs), every chance to play is worth it.

On this trip, I had basically a whole day to play around in the city after my work outside of town was done. I got on the light rail at the airport. The Hiawatha Line ran everywhere I’d need to go during my stay, including the Government station just a block and a half from my hotel. The train area at the airport was surprisingly clean – not the freaky/arty European action film clean of the fascist-scale Dulles tram system, but exceptional and comfortable. It was a short train ride downtown, and it seemed like everyone getting on the train after the airport terminal had a bike, a library book, or both.

The hotel, the desk workers told me, had been recently remodeled by “people from New York.” The lobby was full of drapes and lounging chairs and a wine-dispensing machine I’d never seen before, but which evidently relieves business hotels of the burden of selling wine while relieving patrons of substantial per-glass fees, all with a card linked to your room number. My room was deliciously cold and extra feathery. A nap and a shower later and I was ready for action.

At Government Station, near my hotel.

My first stop was the Walker Art Center. I walked a few blocks, easily found the right bus and went right to the museum. Just this little trip reminded me of what it’s like to live in a place with functioning sidewalks, buses that stop frequently (rather than every hour), and shelters at bus stops. Sure, the weather gets pretty inclement in the Twin Cities, but it’s not as if Montgomery’s without its own share of weather extremes. Let’s face it – our bus system is famous for other reasons besides accessibility and usefulness. There is free wireless throughout downtown, something that Montgomery is working on but is still limited. On my walk I noticed that downtown Minneapolis is really clean. The library was massive, beautiful, and bustling on a workday lunch hour.

The downtown public library branch.

The 6 bus goes to the Walker. I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd on the bus, including a colorfully dressed hippie girl in striped tights who was museum-bound like me. I love to ride the bus. I love the feeling of asking for transfer even though you are pretty sure you won’t make it since you will stay too long at your destination.

At the Walker, full of galleries that are densely built up on each other in aphasic array of stimuli, I saw an exhibit curated by notorious weirdo John Waters. There was an exhibit that tried to mimic cabinets of curiosities, a la the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I enjoyed an amazing meal at the museum restaurant (a cocktail called the Minnesota Mule, a watermelon/feta/arugula salad, a goat cheese pannacotta). The museum’s got a cool outdoor area where they sponsor all kinds of community programs and encourage children (and adults) to play with a variety of art supplies and toys. You can also order beer!

Outside the Walker Art Center

Across the street from the museum is a the massive Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with, well, some pretty massive sculptures. The most famous is Spoonbridge and Cherry, seen below to give a sense of scale.

Evidently the spoon weighs 5,800 pounds and the cherry a whopping 1,200.

There’s also a beautiful glass conservatory that contains a massive fish designed by Frank Gehry and a whole host of beautiful art everywhere you look (Henry Moore! Noguchi!). I left the garden by crossing a huge bridge that connects to a large park.

On the bridge is, evidently, the world's longest poem.

I took the bus back downtown. While I walked back to the hotel I noticed the city’s ample biking facilities, including a very cool bike rental system that seemed very affordable and accessible. Nice Ride MN seems pretty amazing. You pay to rent and then pay for your time. You can rent a bike for a day for $5 plus a trip fee. Half hour trips are free. It’s designed for short-term trips, and I saw a lot of racks in my short time in the city. The Twin Cities also offer free cycling lessons through a cool program called the Bike Walk Ambassador Program. Needless to say, there are bike lanes. I wish we had bike lanes. Then maybe we can make with the bike rentals.

Bikes for rent

Minneapolis loves it some baseball, just like our fair city, so I spent my evening at a Twins game. I took the train, which was a dollar for the whole evening (I think they do this for games and other special events). I could have walked, but it’s fun to take the train. The Twins were playing the Red Sox, and Jim Thome was on the brink of 600 home runs, so there was a full house. My section was full of little league all-stars overflowing with sugar and peanuts and meat products. They had many theories about the game, some of which were corrected by the garrulous adults sitting in my row.

Note the awesome moon in the background.

Target Field sure is nice. We went to a game at the new Nationals stadium on a D.C. trip earlier this summer, and that stadium feels hastily constructed. It lacks soul and context. It’s cool that D.C. is trying to use its stadium to revitalize the Anacostia area, but still you can’t help but feeling that they could have tried harder. Target Field is new – the Twins have only been there since 2010 – but it feels homey and embedded in the city, like it’s always been there. There’s a giant Harmon Killebrew autograph on the right field wall (the little leaguers behind me were obsessed with it and insisted that Twins outfielders had to PROTECT THE AUTOGRAPH from marauding balls). There’s all the sausages you might expect from a Minnesota ball game, but there’s also whole stands that only sell beer made in Minnesota. Which is pretty amazing. And the beer’s good too. And they sell fried cheese curds. The Twins pulled off a surprise win against the playoff-bound Red Sox, to the loud delight of the crowd.

Art at the Walker

After the game, I walked back to the hotel with the rest of the crowd, peeling off euphorically one by one into bars, strip clubs, trains until I was the only one left to walk into the chi-chi lobby and take the old-timey elevator up to my ridiculously comfortable bed.

As I wandered off to sleep I thought about what Montgomery could be like. Beyond Helicity, beyond the endless charrettes and multi-use zoning planning and green space Facebook groups, can we not get together on some basics? We applaud the Dexter rehab. We are waiting to see the West Fairview “demonstration block.” We think the new hybrid eco-buses are probably great, but have yet to ride one. Seeing Minneapolis gives you perspective. What if Montgomery had rental bikes and bike lanes and classes for riders and bikers alike? What if we had a working bus system with sidewalks and shelters and libraries throughout the city? What if we had more than a handful of bookstores and a central art museum? What if we had public art in weird places that caused us to rethink our relationship to the usual?

Update

The Red Sox did not, in fact, make the playoffs.

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3 responses to “If You Go: Minneapolis

  1. very nice report on your twin cities visit…..well, half a twin cities visit. but what you say could be accomplished right here in good ole fungomery that would be similar to what they’ve done up there is spot on. on a smaller scale of course; but still very doable don’t ya think? i really love the bike rental idea. not just downtown though, but old cloverdale and even out east in the helicity or whatever ya call it. i’d love to pedal around blount cultural park on a mild fall day.

  2. Thanks, Joe! I think it IS doable for Montgomery to adopt some of these ideas. And yes, not just bikes downtown but also out in Blount at least – we DO need bike lanes to make it work properly, though…

  3. I’ve often thought about the same sort of things, in terms of city rejuvenation for Montgomery. It always reminds me of a city in disarray because it needs something to stitch it together. I always thought that making a real effort with buses (increasing frequency, shelters, different lines, etc.) would have an impact. Especially if you combine that with a biking system for the more urban areas.

    It’s one of my absolute favorite things to do in larger cities: Grab a bike and explore the town. Montgomery has enough of a downtown area, even without branching into Old Cloverdale, to make a fixed-gear bike fleet totally worthwhile. Bike lanes would be great, too! I wish that would be done everywhere and that the media would hype “cycling” to get people out there on the road a bit more.

    I don’t think bookstores are the way to go. In thirty years, that’ll be over. Probably sooner. Digital is the way to go. Kindles are awesome — I didn’t believe it until I got one; now I’m hooked — and eventually, we’ll achieve a device that combines all the functions we use all this separate stuff for into one thing. (THE SINGULARITY! OH NO!) When we can do that, bookstores will be out of business, as they have very little to adapt with.

    I’m not a baseball fan, or I’d comment more on that. Something about a ball and a yard and some diamond shapes. Or something. 😛

    Enjoyed your post. 🙂

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