I first went downtown sometime early in junior high school. For years I'd peered out the car window as my mom drove down Hennepin Avenue on the way to my grandmother's, fascinated and frightened by the assortment of misfits shuffling down the sidewalk. I was especially struck by Block E, on Hennepin between 6th and 7th, which, for some reason, I took to be the center of downtown. I wasn't entirely wrong. Anchored by Moby Dick's bar, Shinder's bookstore, and the Rifle Sport Art Gallery, with the 1st Avenue nightclub (riding high on the fame brought by Purple Rain) and Northern Lights record store across the street, I sensed an importance to this area that I couldn't yet understand. When I finally did get out on the streets to see things for myself, within 5 minutes of walking down 7th St. I was asked if I wanted to buy some weed ("Uh, no thanks.") and if I could spare some change. I told the guy I only had a nickel (minus the dime for bus fare back to the suburbs). He laughed and said, "Aw, man, I'm not gonna take your last nickel!" It felt like I'd found a home.
That's the way things stayed until a few years ago, when the much-ballyhooed Block E Development Project finally got underway. Now, instead of a parking lot, there's blight of another sort. Featuring a Border's bookstore, an umpteen-screen megaplex, and a video arcade for adults (?!), this new monstrosity is a sight to behold. Oh yeah, did I mention the 21-story Le Meridien Hotel? The complex is bright and loud and makes the surrounding streets feel small and claustrophobic. When I first saw it, during a visit back from Georgia, I actually became disoriented and found myself walking away from where I wanted to go. And, of course, new bars have opened to serve the crowds that had previously viewed Hennepin Ave. as "too dangerous." Interestingly, police have said that downtown has become HARDER to patrol, as drunken suburbanites beat the crap out of each other every weekend. Girls in cocktail dresses now line the sidewalks at bar close, crying, "Oh my God, I'm so drunk!" before falling to the curb and throwing up. This is probably not the legacy of Moby Dick's, which offered its down-at-the-heel customers only a "whale of a drink", not a popularity contest.
One frigid night this winter I decided to brave the crowds and check out a gig. Only, because it was so cold, there was hardly anyone out. Late that night, after the show, a guy stopped me to tell an old story: His car had broken down and was now at the gas station. Could I give him a ride over there? For old time's sake, I agreed, telling him that with my car's badly leaking radiator we'd be lucky to make it. On the drive over, he proceeded to tell me how I should fix the radiator leak. The advice wasn't going to help me, but I appreciated the effort. As we neared the station he pulled another familiar trick: Could I go just one more block down? It was then that I realized he really wanted to go to Palmer's, a tough bar infamous for an incident years ago during which a patron killed the bouncer. (Further confirmation of the previous paragraph: This just happened again, but at Nye's Polonaise Room, a formerly quiet place that was famous for the elderly woman that played the piano.) After the guy thanked me and got out of the car, he walked over and started shaking hands with his friends out front, a fascinating and frightening assortment of misfits. As I turned around and drove away, I was glad that some things, at least, never change. By the way, these photos were taken in the Warehouse District, soon to be the Lofts-and-Sushi-Bars District. I don't take many photographs in Minneapolis, so this has been a rare post. Whoa.