Is Riverside Plaza a "landmark"? According to Steve Brandt's piece here in the Strib, Cedar Square West -- as some of us stubbornly call it, or "Enormous Humanoid Storage Boxes" as others like to call it -- may get "landmark" status to assist its renovation efforts. I spat out a mouthful of Cheerios upon reading that, so the rest of the article was difficult to read, but you get the idea. Oh, it's historic, all right. Most really bad ideas are, and some things need to be preserved so future generations can know what not to do. We should build a time capsule with "WHAT NOT TO DO" engraved on the side in every possible language, and put a picture of the complex inside with the word "THIS" written with very thick black ink.

To be fair: From a distance, it's handsome. Really. The size is impressive, and the colored panels -- derided by some -- give it a lively appearance, like the world's largest Mondrian painting. The arrangement of the buildings is exquisitely managed. From a distance, I said. Close up, it's ugly gray concrete in amounts usually used to describe Hoover Dam. When it rains it stains, and it resembles an underpass in which enormous hooligans have relieved themselves.

When you get really close up: bugs.

At least back in the day. I fought the Battle of the Roaches back in the '80s when I lived there. My neighbor was either a recluse or dead. Or a zombie. They'd loosened up the rules in the early '80s, and you didn't have to be alive to qualify for assistance, so zombie is possible. No sound emerged from the adjacent apartment, but occasionally cooking odors that suggested someone was trying to make the most of a dead goat would waft from the unit. Whatever he or she or it was doing, it attracted roaches, and they branched out into my apartment. At first when I got up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, I'd think: I don't recall making popcorn last night. Hence this crunching sound is a mystery.

At the time I was dating someone who lived in another building -- one of the good ones. If they had bugs, they were lovely butterflies. That was what made the complex interesting: It had neighborhoods, each with their own socioeconomic flavor. But even in the good building, people looked up at the toppermost apartment on McKnight Tower, and wondered what sort of glittering life they led -- people in tuxes and strapless gowns, peering at downtown through monocles and opera glasses, toasting the sunset with Champagne before sitting down at a white piano to play Cole Porter. It really was a city unto itself.

But that's the problem: unto itself. Cedar Square West was an enormous machine for living dropped into a fragile neighborhood cut off from the city by the troughs of two freeways. Many locals opposed its construction, and they were correct: The scale of the thing was inhuman, and it could have been worse. Cedar Square was originally planned to march on for blocks and blocks, a lifeless expanse of concrete monoliths devoted to one single idea: Cities will thrive when people are stacked up 40 stories high, arranged around empty plazas studded with thin, sad trees living in tiny circles of dirt.

Last time I was over there, I noticed a house that had survived in the complex's shadow for all these decades -- it was empty, abandoned, no doubt stripped and spattered with squatter graffiti. It was someone's home, once, but the street on which it sat had been severed from the city when the freeways went through. Now the road stopped, headed left, wandered into dead ends. The same could be said for the ideas that gave us the complex in the first place.

It has its purpose. It's a place for people to start. And like the tenements and projects of yore, it's a place they want to leave when they can. I still remember the day I moved out, packed the car, turned in the keys and headed off to a crummy ramshackle house in Dinkytown. When the elevator finally arrived -- in those days, it usually arrived within the hour -- and I headed down 20 floors, I felt like a free man. I had never lived with so many people; I had never felt so alone.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/blogs/lileks