She's an ambassador for all things downtown

  • Updated: July 23, 2011 - 4:32 PM

Sarah Harris.

Everyone goes downtown eventually. Oh, you'll find people who insist they never go downtown, because you might get murdered, and it's hard to park. But mostly the murder. Even these folks find their way to the Aquatennial fireworks or a Twins game, though, and when they look up at the skyline glowing in the sunset, they might think: This could be the prettiest city in the world. And so clean! Someone drops a wad of gum, an alarm goes off somewhere and janitors with jetpacks swoop down to pick it up?

Not exactly. But we do have something close: the DID, or Downtown Improvement District. It started in 2009 as a nonprofit, business-funded group devoted to keeping downtown delightful. Sarah Harris is the organization's CEO, and Her Minnesota might be defined as the 120 blocks of downtown Minneapolis.

"I'm a native Minneapolitan. When I was 4 years old I would come downtown on the weekends to my dad's office to 'help' him, then we went for lunch -- I felt very grown-up and cool. My family moved downtown when I was 11 years old. I've worked downtown for more than half of my life. This has been my neighborhood forever."

Going downtown with your parents does make you feel grown-up. No kid ever feels grown-up going to the mall. Downtowns are busy hives full of adults doing important, mysterious Adult Things. You'd stand outside a tall building and wonder what are they doing in there? Too bad we didn't have DID agents back then. Is there anything they don't do?

"They help people with directions, find cool things to do, recommend downtown businesses, and assist in any way needed. We clean, we plant, and we make sure downtown is cared for and watched over. We also focus on the future of downtown. For example, right now we're collaborating on what our region's main street, Nicollet Mall, wants to be for the next 25 years."

It's tough to predict those things. In the postwar era, the city fathers thought it would be dandy to level the Gateway for parking lots and a few modern buildings, but now we wish we had those old structures to give downtown more ties to its history. Did we tear down too much?

"Hindsight is always 20/20," Sarah says. "I'd have kept it. We lost not only our architectural history, but we disconnected ourselves from a large swath of downtown by creating a very un-walkable, unattractive area. In spite of that, I'm pleased with how all of the development/renovation along the river and North Loop has created a really wonderful and active 24/7 vibe. But there are still a lot of underutilized blocks in the Gateway area, primed for something new -- it's just a matter of time."

At least we have people living in new buildings instead of six-to-a-room in flophouses with chicken-wire partitions. But even downtown boosters must tire of asphalt and brick, right?

"Our family has a yearround cabin two hours north. It's lovely to be quiet and detached, but after a very short while I love returning to the energy and aesthetic of the city. Being outdoors is in Minneapolitan's DNA."

If you'd like to know the exact location in the human genome of this particular trait, look for the DID people in the green shirt, and tell them Sarah sent you.

JAMES LILEKS

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