Downtown was alive. I could walk to almost anything within a few blocks — restaurants, shopping, theater or the mighty Mississippi. Public spaces such as Peavey Plaza offered a welcoming respite from hectic city life. With its iconic modernist fountains flowing into a large pond, Peavey provided a calm spot to have lunch and enjoy the scenery of Orchestra Hall and Nicollet Mall.
In winter, the pond became an ice-skating rink, looking like a modernist take on a scene from a Hans Christian Andersen story.
It was idyllic. Mary Tyler Moore was right; here, you could make it after all.
While downtown back then lacked certain basics, such as a real grocery store, that was a minor inconvenience to city dwellers like me who survived on pizza delivery and Chinese takeout.
Sure, there was noise. After all, I lived in the Warehouse District, vibrant with nightclubs and bars along First Avenue. Sometimes I would open the window just to take in the sounds of the city and watch people saunter by.
Weekends, especially, were enlivened by partyers and revelers out for fun. It felt safe. Anyone could see there was a police presence, proactively keeping the peace. Apart from an occasional siren — or bars dumping bottles into the recycling at 2 a.m. outside my bedroom window, with the sanitation department arriving at 5:30 a.m. to pick it all up — the city noise didn’t bother me. As a matter of fact, downtown Minneapolis has been historically as quiet as any suburb during the wee hours of the morning.
Besides, I am not one of those nettlesome types who move into downtown expecting silence. The clamor soon ceased to register as anything unusual.
But in recent years, all that had been idyllic has changed.
In the span of 17 years, I’ve watched the city go from vibrant, to shaky, to frightful.
No longer do I enjoy watching revelers along First Avenue, nor entertain the notion of going out for dinner downtown if I would have to walk home after nightfall. What I now see is a volatile mix of angst and boredom, victim and predator, roaming the streets. Downtown has changed into something disturbing and despondent.
The once-energetic Nicollet Mall, which needed no makeover to succeed, has succumbed to the terrible fate of becoming a vanity project of reconstruction dreamed up by the City Council and mayor to keep up the appearance of a first-rate modern city. Three years in the making, the torn-up mall has managed to kill off tourism and revenue and take what retailers and small businesses we had (already just hanging on) and push them off a cliff.
When giant retailers such as Macy’s or Neiman Marcus close up shop, it isn’t because they missed the mark on fashion; it’s that downtown now eschews people more than it embraces them. Yes, brick-and-mortar retail is dying as we know it, but a bulldozed mall doesn’t help. It is an epic fail before it is even “substantially” complete (as the banners around the area woefully assure us).
Peavey Plaza is but a shell of its former glory. The iconic fountains haven’t operated for years; they stand dry as bone, aging away in disgrace. No one really sits there to relax anymore. It is essentially a relic, a ruin, an abandonment that needn’t have happened if the powers that be had cared about it and what it provided for the community.
No more does Holidazzle parade down Nicollet Mall with families cheering it on. No more do downtown block parties celebrate summer or the Aquatennial in any form resembling what we enjoyed when I moved in. Though I’m not one for nostalgia, the charm of our downtown community has faded away.
Hard to say if it’s the shortsightedness of the City Council, the mayor or the building owners driving the downfall. I’m willing to bet it’s a combination of all that and more — of favoring finances over community. Egotism over generosity.
What has replaced the former spirit is a mixture of gangs, troubled young people and panhandlers moving along the corridors, day or night.
I have now become accustomed to fights breaking out during the day along Hennepin Avenue, where young people challenge each other regularly.
A particular hot spot seems to be the sidewalk in front of the public library. I can only make street-smart, educated guesses as to why that is.
Gunshots ring out two to three times a week at 2 or 3 a.m., from rival gangs intent on offing each other. Years ago, I would have jumped out of bed at such sudden mayhem. Now it’s routine, as is my call to 911.
With my cellphone, I have filmed dead gang members being rolled into ambulances after a barrage of 15 gunshots went off on my block. That was in 2016. The metal door in the lobby of my building still displays the bullet marks.
I’ve watched fights and knifings in the middle of Hennepin Avenue at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, stopping traffic. With no police in sight, cars just drove around the melee to get by.
One would think I live in a war zone, and one wouldn’t be wrong. The police have now become reactive instead of proactive. Political restrictions placed on them by a higher level of city government render their efforts to combat crime almost futile. A crime has to happen before they can act.
And the City Council? When I send my footage, I am lucky if I even get a response. When I do, it’s usually some slick rhetoric that offers nothing to resolve the issue. Crime continues to escalate. Much of it goes unreported downtown.
The irony is that, despite the climbing crime rates, the area I live in has catapulted into one of the most expensive places in downtown Minneapolis.
I refer to it as “The Gilded Cage.” The North Loop, as it is now called, has revived itself as a haven of exclusive shops and restaurants during the day. New, bona fide grocery stores dot the tiny parcel of downtown, and expensive new apartment complexes have surged to an all-time high.
In some ways, downtown has become more livable. But that doesn’t prevent the invasive growth of crime moving into the area like buckthorn. Gangs feast on such growth — on privileged downtowners walking around unaware of their surroundings.
It will be hard to rid ourselves of this without vision and strength in our leaders. I don’t believe our leaders have the fortitude to be as tough as their rhetoric.
Even Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium, arenas built to attract crowds, can’t retain visitors after an event. Downtown is just too scary after dark; people leave.
It’s sad to see a city go to waste when its potential is so high. It makes me want to move somewhere safe, somewhere where I don’t have to listen to sirens all night, or to meth heads hacking up old memories in the back alley. Or to gunshots.
It’s as if city government has turned a blind eye to the real-life problems of downtown, determined to put a glossy cover on a badly written book. And for what? Vanity? Arrogance? I cannot tell.
You can’t Photoshop reality. It brutally is what it is, and if city leaders don’t buck up and get tough with action, our downtown is doomed as an oasis of exciting, vibrant life offering a plethora of options for all.
“All that glitters is not gold,” my grandfather used to say. The gold I found when I moved into my home 17 years ago in the heart of downtown Minneapolis is gone. Our town may be a glittering sight in photographs, all shiny and new, but don’t let the cover fool you. Downtown needs help before it’s too late.
I fell in love with a beautiful city. I want it back.
Carter Averbeck lives in Minneapolis.