Saturday, June 11, 2011

Taking leave of Seven Corners

Minneapolis, Minnesota

For 18 months, I have been present for at least part of most days in the Seven Corners district of Minneapolis. With the conclusion of my employment by the Southern Theater, a district mainstay since 1910, my future visits will be infrequent.

As an amateur historian with an exaggerated sentimentality, I have allowed the historical Seven Corners to occupy a personal mindshare out of proportion to its present reduced circumstances. The ghosts who inhabit the area insist on being noticed and remembered. 

Seven Corners, 1952.
For sure, the anomalous distinctions that gave rise to its name have been bulldozed and paved-over. To a casual eye, Seven Corners remains nothing more than an innocuous intersection that serves as the illogical meeting point of Washington Avenue, 15th Avenue South, 19th Avenue South, and Cedar Avenue. 

For decades, Seven Corners served as a crossroads for the Swedish and other immigrants who flooded Minneapolis in the late 19th century and the early 20th. It provided single room housing for single men, who worked as laborers in construction and the nearby flour mills, and for single women who worked as domestics. While no original churches remain, many structures that housed saloons in the neighborhood still stand, and many still dispense a variety of spirits to ease the pursuit of social intercourse or of psychological survival.

During Seven Corners' history, it became one of two Minneapolis residential neighborhoods to which Jewish and African-American citizens were restricted through the use of land covenants, and in which the poorest of all citizens could find affordable housing. The other neighborhood was that of the near North Side, along 6th Avenue North, in which my paternal grandparents lived.

When the Southern Theater opened in 1910 at 1420 Washington Avenue South, it had been built primarily by the Swedish immigrant community, and named after its sister venue, the Southern Theater located in Stockholm, Sweden. Next door, at 1430, stood Gluek's saloon. Then, as now, Gluek's incorporated the six-pointed Star of David into its logo. Gluek's remains a mainstay of Minneapolis' Warehouse District on 6th Street, just north of Hennepin Avenue.

Today, the Town Hall Brewery occupies the former Gluek's building. The building is owned by Dudley Riggs, founding impresario of the long-running Brave New Workshop comedy venue in Minneapolis.

If not friends, I have become "business acquaintances" with most of Town Hall's personnel. I will dearly miss Matt, Andy, Mithab, Chris, Steve, Rachel, Marty, and others, along with their customers. The establishment insures that Seven Corners remains a crossroads for those who enjoy original, local brews.

One block away, construction is under way to build a new light rail line between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The train station, a block away, will carry the name "West Bank Station." Matt and I have pursued a campaign – so far fruitless – to convince the powers-that-be to name the station "Seven Corners/West Bank" for the simple reason that "before West Bank, Seven Corners was."

The bureaucrats of the Metropolitan Council, with their soulless, fancy-dancy notions of modern usage and lack of appreciation for historical perspective, have had none of it so far. Nonetheless, we planted the seed, and our hope springs eternal.

I will miss Seven Corners, its buildings, its people, its ghosts, and their stories. They will live in my heart as long as it beats.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Returning to the village

Minneapolis, Minnesota

In the summer of 1954, our family was the second to move into one of the newly-constructed houses on our block on Second Street N.E. in the panhandle of Fridley, Minnesota. The purchase price was $9,900.

I was two years old, my sister, Deb, a few months.

Located in Anoka County, Fridley is a first-tier suburb on the northeast border of Minneapolis. It was incorporated as a village in 1949 and became a city in 1957. In the "Fridley tornados" of May 6, 1965, a quarter of the city's homes were damaged or destroyed.

In short order in 1954 and 1955, other young families took up residence in the remaining abodes, most of them with one or two youngsters in-hand. No one of a certain age required clairvoyance to know what transpired in the bedrooms of young parents throughout the neighborhood. In no time at all, additional younglings arrived to provide playmates for each age cohort.

With no grass at the beginning, nor trees to climb, and no fenced yards, there was no end of open-range play areas. Also, there was "The Field," an expanse of sand and weeds across Main Street that stretched a mile north and south along Main, and a quarter mile west from the street to the massive railroad switching yard.

We learned to ride bicycles on the dirt alleys – which caused fewer injuries than did falls on paved roads, few as those were. (It was a big deal when curbs, gutters, and asphalt eventually replaced tar and crushed rock for street surfaces.)

As grass and a few trees were planted, fences were installed that restricted our range of free movement. Play then came to center on a few front and back yards, including ours. We knew everyone, and everyone knew us.

The Hansens, next door, were Methodists. The Willmans, across the alley, were the token Catholics. Next to them, the Sepples attended First Lutheran Church, which was somehow more conservative than our church, St. Timothy's English Evangelical Lutheran, affiliated with the United Lutheran Church in America. Mainly – owing something to my parents' evangelism – if you were Lutheran in our neighborhood, you joined or attended St. Tim's.

My family were charter members of St. Tim's, organized on Palm Sunday, 1959. My brother, born in April that year, was named after the church. At its peak, 10 years later, the church counted a membership of 1,200, operating on 10 acres of land on the shores of Sullivan Lake.

In those days, most of our mothers did not work outside the home. Also in those days, no 24/7 news cycles convinced our parents that we needed to be kept under lock-and-key or chaperoned. We could roam all day and most of the evening, and got in trouble only if we failed to show up for supper.

Friendships formed, all of them meaningful and some of them lasting.

One of the lasting ties was that between my brother and David William Wicklund. Dave was born in November 1958 and lived across Second street.

Dave died of natural causes on June 2, last week.

Over the years, many of the Second Street parent neighbors have died – Don and Elaine Archer, Harold and Audrey Sepple, Arvid and Fern Hansen, Tom and Tess Thompson, Gene Wicklund – while others have moved away.

Yesterday afternoon, I picked up my mother at her home in Monticello and drove to Dave's visitation and memorial service at St. Tim's. We were way early, so we spent time driving around the old 'hood.

The landscape had an alien feel, what with trees 50+ years old. Our old house has a basketball hoop on the garage. (We never had a garage.) Many of the houses sport bay windows, brickwork, decks, and other affectations.

It was mid-afternoon and no one was extant in yards or on the street.

We arrived at St. Tim's at the stroke of 3pm. Dave had been confirmed in his Christian faith there on May 5, 1974. The photo of his confirmation class is displayed permanently in the lobby, as are those of all of us who passed through from 1959 to the present.

Dave's mother greeted us at the entry and welcomed a long and silent embrace. There are no words that can comfort a grieving mother. Dave was the second son she had lost to natural causes.

It was a blessing to see Harvey and Sylvia at the church, along with their children, Neil, Donna, and Debra. I babysat those children after their parents moved from South Dakota.

Daniel Lloyd held court at the organ and piano keyboards, as he has done since he was a teenager in the 1960s.

Dave's younger sister, Susan, recalled her brother as a man who viewed life as a glass half-full, one who cultivated an encyclopedic and rabid knowledge of the Minnesota Twins baseball team (and, to a lesser extent, of the Minnesota Vikings and the old North Stars).

Friend Randy, who met Dave at Columbia Heights High School in 1975, recalled an intelligent and loyal friend who lived each moment in color.

Randy's sister and Dave's love, Renae, described a man who provided the color to her life and knew how to work an entire room at every high school reunion.

We listened to readings from the Book of Revelation ("the old world has passed away"), Psalm 91 (expressing confidence in God), and the Gospel of John (Jesus taking leave "to prepare a place").

We sang "On Eagle's Wings" and "Amazing Grace."

We adjourned to the church basement for fellowship and a light meal that, in Lutheran fashion, was anything but light.

As she has for more than 50 years, Eva, 88, continued her ministry and constant presence at the food table, assisting in the provision of nourishment to the nuanced ties that bind.

In the fullness of time, all boundaries of time and space pass away and collapse upon themselves. This was expressed best in the handwritten message that accompanied the bouquet placed in the worship chancel by Dave's mother:

"I will love you forever."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Southern Theater moves forward with sustainable plan

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Southern Theater will move into the 2011/12 performance season with a renewed board of directors and reaffirmation of its mission, a sustainable business plan that reduces costs and increases access to performers, and a full-time staff of one.

The Southern’s 15-member board has taken urgent steps to stabilize the organization amidst its immediate financial crisis and adopted a “Plan for a Sustainable Southern” that projects 40-weeks of performance activity, a first-year budget of $165,600, and a revenue ratio of 2-to-1 earned-to-contributed income.

Since 2008, the theater had presented 28 to 47 annual engagements, with an annual budget of approximately $1.1 million.

“The plan will preserve the historic, 101-year-old theater as a unique venue for artists and the community while laying the groundwork for a viable business model,” said Anne Baker, chair of the board of directors.

“For at least seven years, the theater has shouldered too much of the financial risk of presenting and producing performances of dance, music, theater, and film, and has not effectively made the case to enough individuals, foundations, and corporations that donations, sponsorships, and underwriting will produce sufficient added value to merit full support,” said Baker.

“This plan allows us to stabilize and to focus on the chronic issue of negative cash flows caused by organizational, strategic, managerial, and operational problems,” she added.

Key elements of the plan may be summarized as (a) reducing annual expenses to a minimum in order to make the space accessible to more artists at a cost that is as low as possible, (b) “keeping it simple” by establishing a reliable platform of earned income on which to strategically build future programs, (c) adding fully underwritten programming when feasible, and (d) staffing by a knowledgeable professional who is accountable to an engaged and energized board.

The board of directors has named Damon Runnals to the new position of general manager. Runnals, 32, has served as the theater’s production and operations manager since September 2008. He received a BA degree in Theater Arts from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.

Runnals will assume his duties on June 10, when the position of executive director, held by Gary Peterson since January 2010, will be eliminated. Peterson has been elected to the Southern’s board of directors. Over the past six weeks, the theater has eliminated eight other positions due to adverse financial circumstances.

“On behalf of our board,” Baker added, “I want to offer our sincere gratitude to all of the Southern staff members whose commitment to the performing arts attracted critical acclaim to the theater and inspired us all.”

On April 21, the Southern announced that it needed to raise $400,000 by April 30 in order to provide one year’s working capital, pay vendors, and present a full season of curated work in 2011/12. That plan would have preserved the employed expertise of several people and a range of marketing, front of house, and back of house services for artists and audiences.

On May 3, the theater reported that it had raised $50,000 from its annual gala, held April 30, and an additional $45,000 from online gifts by nearly 300 donors.

Members of the board returned to the drawing board and considered various, alternative business scenarios before settling on the new “Plan for a Sustainable Southern” and its provision for a single employee.

The primary goals of the plan are to keep the theater open and available to artists and audiences, and to protect the basic presentation model supported by rental agreements. However, the Southern and the community will have the capacity to supplement the model further through underwriting opportunities for mission-aligned program activity. The Southern also will have office space available for rent to nonprofit organizations.

Since April 9, in response to its crisis of operational and financial distress, the Southern’s board of directors has taken ownership of past mistakes with an eagerness to restore institutional integrity; examined the financial behavior that led to the crisis and established the policies and procedures necessary to match the theater’s cash position and down-sized requirements; set in motion a process of forensic financial review by an outside party; and renewed efforts to enhance the composition of its membership.

With the Southern’s immediate crisis now under control, the board will re-double its efforts to turn its attention to pay creditors, raise operating and underwriting capital, and find additional ways to take advantage of the many offers of assistance that the theater has received from artists and others.

“As the arts ecosystem and climate continue to change, this plan gives us hope and vision for what the Southern can yet become for artists and audiences, and that it is worthy of support,” said Baker. “We hope to schedule one or more benefit concerts. We also will move forward with our online auction during August and, of course, we will continue to accept donations online” [].

As a 501(c)(3) organization, all financial gifts to the Southern are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law. Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave., S., Minneapolis, MN 55454.

Southern Theater mission

The Southern Theater, a 210-seat theater in Minneapolis, cultivates artistic exploration by providing a vibrant home for performance, fostering a multiplicity of voices, and catalyzing connections among artists and audiences.