Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Walking the streets of downtown Minneapolis, 1

Minneapolis, Minnesota

For 37 years, I have worked in or very near downtown Minneapolis. For 29 of those years, I have lived close enough to walk to work. That has been time enough to absorb, process, and take for granted the countless changes that have infiltrated the cityscape.

Ours is a city that tears things down and builds newer things back up with no regard for any value that might attach to historical or architectural significance. After 20-30 years, we start over again. Witness our unending dialogue about the need for a domed or open-air stadium. If I am still on the planet in 25 years, whatever I then use for newspapers will report on the latest debates to place a retractable roof on the new Target Field that opens for professional baseball next month.

I am not sure that we enjoy this repeating cycle; it just seems embedded in our civic DNA. Perhaps it reflects a collective, obsessive-compulsive personality of the people who built Minneapolis and were never satisfied that they got right anything they were building. In other words, we can't help ourselves.

My new place of employment for the past two months is situated near downtown, near the Mississippi River, and near the University of Minnesota, but at a somewhat further remove from my house than previous workday destinations. As temperatures and pavement conditions have improved with the waning winter, I have begun walking the nearly three miles at least once per day, usually at night.

Such is good for reducing my personal carbon footprint, containing the anxieties of modern life, and for retaining a figure of relative fighting trim.

Treading through downtown this evening, I passed the Accenture Tower on the city block bounded by 3rd and 4th avenues south, and 7th and 8th streets. When constructed in 1987, the 31-story office project was called Lincoln Centre. The "re" spelling of Centre aways struck me as an affectation. Many people have thought it a cold and uninviting structure and have had no hesitation about saying so. I always have regarded it as one of the more classy buildings that have gone up in the last four decades. The tower situates toward 4th Avenue, and has left room for development of a corporate looking park along 3rd Avenue. At the time of construction, there was an expressed intent to build an identical tower along 3rd to mirror that along 4th. Never happened. Now, if another structure rises on that block, it will, no doubt, serve the ego and vision of its designer. A pity.

Nonetheless, I enjoy the park's presence even if it does not invite pedestrians to approach and enter in. In this it is different from the nearly full-block park across 7th Street – also bounded by 3rd and 4th avenues – that serves as a pedestal for the Hennepin County Government Center. The grounds there boast berms and a variety of forestation among pink brick paths. Originally, the bricks were red, imported from someplace in Italy. However, they provided such slick surfaces during our Minnesota winters that, after any number of lawsuit settlements with people who slipped and fell, the bricks got sandblasted down to a dull shadow of their former selves, or were replaced outright.

Construction of the 24-story Government Center, completed in 1977, caused a bit of a scandal because of its cost. Although Hennepin County has been, far and away, the largest of Minnesota's 87 counties in population, prior to the new building few people were aware that county government existed. Previously, it shared space in Minneapolis City Hall.

Hennepin County Commissioner Richard O. Hanson's person and personality drove construction of the Government Center, just as they had earlier won civil service protections for county employees, built county highways, and built the welfare and library programs. First appointed to the county commission by Mayor Hubert Humphrey in 1948, Hanson became the longest-serving commissioner in county history, until his defeat at the hands of fellow Democrat Jeff Spartz in 1976. Construction of the government center was a key issue in that year's campaign.

Hanson was a true Renaissance man. In his 20s, he taught political science at the University of Minnesota. Later, he co-founded a Minneapolis investment firm, Craig Hallum, Inc., helped found the Citizens League, and served on the boards of the United Hospital Fund, Family & Children's Services, the Legal Aid Society, and others. He died at 79 in April 2000.

I first met Hanson in a professional capacity during his 50s, and my 20s, in the 1970s. Later, we came to know each other as closeted gay men who operated largely under the radar of the larger society. His was the first example to me, in those late-Carter and early-Reagan years, of a man who could accomplish worthwhile things in life and still be gay. I am grateful for his unconditional support during a crucial crucible of my life's journey. I think of him often as I pass by the building, plazas, and park that earned him such opprobrium at their creation.


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