If we could go back in time and change the way Minneapolis grew, what might we do differently?
Some answers are obvious. We should have preserved the Gateway, rather than leveling it. We should have preserved our downtown without running freeways right through the heart of it.
But let’s consider something that seems counterintuitive, even slightly odd: We had a chance to disrupt the grid system of streets in 1917. We should have taken that chance.
If you’re inclined to want things tidy, the map of Minneapolis might annoy you, but only slightly. The streets of downtown are angled, and seem to go against the grain of the relentless grid of the rest of the city. Of course, that’s a relic of the way the city grew up, tending to the business of the river. Washington Avenue paralleled the river, and the rest of the streets connected at right angles.
Hennepin and Nicollet avenues met at the river, then wandered off on their own, but the rest of the downtown followed the usual design of uniform blocks and regularly spaced streets.
In the 1870s, the city adopted a north-south/east-west grid. It wasn’t a revolutionary idea. Manhattan planners had opted for the grid in their master plan in 1811. It was logical, predictable and made travel easy.
European cities, which had grown slowly over long periods, tended to be warrens of twisting streets. Older American cities that were shaped by natural formations — a river, a lake, a mountain — grew up deferring to the land. But American cities in the Great Plains had no obstacles, and stretched out in all directions in a sane, sensible grid aligned with the poles.
It makes for easy navigation. It’s also a bit dull.
The most interesting streets often are the diagonal thoroughfares, which slash through the grid like someone dragging a knife across a page of dull prose. Diagonals create odd-shaped lots with oddly shaped buildings — triangular structures shaped like pinball flippers and pocket parks that give the eye a green place to rest.
Hiawatha Avenue is one of the city’s heavily traveled diagonals, but its industrial heritage makes it a bit barren. We have streets that started out as diagonals (Hennepin and Lyndale avenues), but they snap to the grid south of Franklin Avenue, as if they’d been warned to get with the program.
Broadway wanders a bit from its east-west orientation near downtown, creating some interesting shapes before it evaporates in a four-lane high-speed road.
Good roads. But not exactly monumental boulevards. We could have had some of those, if we’d just followed the plan.
Which plan? Why, the fanciful one drafted in 1917 by the Minneapolis Civic Commission.
It came on the heels of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which introduced classical styles of architecture to millions of Americans. Here were the forms of Rome for the new Republic. Why not make every city look like a classical composition? Even better, why not make every city look like Paris?
The plan for Minneapolis proposed block after block of buildings with uniform height and style, just like the style Napoleon III commissioned when he leveled and remade Paris in the mid-1800s.
The plan proposed broad diagonal boulevards cutting through the city. Traffic circles would be placed at major intersections, with statues or fountains. It was beautiful and European, a sign of a still-young country looking across the pond to borrow an outfit to look grown-up and accomplished.
It might have been lovely. But Minneapolis wasn’t — and isn’t — Europe.
If all the Parisian-style buildings had been built, the city would have had a reputation as the Paris of the Plains — until a group of well-meaning civic leaders would have knocked them all down and replaced them with buildings derived from European styles of the 1930s.
Still, it would have been nice to drive a grand diagonal boulevard through the great roundabouts and see the statues and fountains, remnants of the past, and think: We’ll always have Paris. Sort of.