The Minneapolitan Urban Studies Nerd, Now In New York City
No doubt you’ve seen them jutting out from the Cedar/Riverside neighborhood - Riverside Plaza, the little cluster of high rises with those infamous colored exterior panels. When I first moved to Minneapolis people called them the “Crack Stacks” and the “Ghetto in the Sky”. Those nicknames may have been somewhat applicable years ago, but having visited them several times, I would say they are currently anything but.
After years of “urban renewal” in the 1960’s Minneapolis was left with blocks and blocks of vacant land, especially downtown. During those years Minneapolis lost many beautiful buildings that historic preservationists like Larry Millett have lamented, first through his books and later television series called Lost Twin Cities.
I cannot really wrap my mind around demolishing the heart of an entire city, but I think that the idea was that if the buildings filled with trouble were gone, the urban poverty, people and behaviors would also disappear. Sadly for those displaced people, we now know this theory to be untrue. This series of events gives way to the discussion of public housing policy which is seems to be in a perpetual process of trial and error. But that is a whole new post altogether.
The dilapidated housing that was home to a large immigrant population in the Cedar/Riverside area would not be salvaged by the City of Minneapolis and much of it was torn down to make way for the ever expanding University of Minnesota and other institutions. (A great detailed history of this can be found here if you’d like to know more.)
Some saw blocks of vacant space as an opportunity to start over just as t hey had downtown. New buildings, new neighborhoods, vitality, people co-existing in diverse socioeconomic harmony in the sky. The HUD pilot project, “New Towns-In-Town” was supposed to create 100 acres of futuristic high rises that would become home to a wide variety of people including everyone from Cedar/Riverside’s low income residents to more wealthy 9 to 5 office types. Modern and chic, it was to embody a new way of life where once stood poverty.
Designed by Ralph Rapson, a Bauhaus schooled architect, he desired to emulate the work of Le Corbusier , specifically his Unité d’Habitation (translates in French as “habitation unit”) in Berlin.
In a marketing brochure called Cedar Riverside: Alive and Aware, life in the new development was described as such: “Cedar-Riverside has awakened to a new day. A new dream. A new meaning. In its midst a new kind of urban life is emerging. A life filled with involvement. Filled with a vitality that can only be measured by the breadth and depth of experience. Cedar-Riverside is Colleges and the University. It’s shops and theaters and cafes. And downtown just twelve blocks away. Cedar-Riverside is lofty, new apartments. And a marvelous potpourri of people. In a casual, unpretentious neighborhood. Cedar-Riverside is a delightful blend of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Come, let it touch you. It’s alive and aware. So you can be, too.”
Sadly, the modernist utopia lost funding for the last few phases of construction and building management gave up on the market-rate and subsidized mixture of tenants in favor of acquiring more funding for low income housing from the government. Years later in the Murderapolis days crime went through the neighborhood as it did many others. The building deteriorated inside and most famously on the outside as the once bright facade panels faded to a strange pastel. But in 2010, Riverside Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places and began to receive major renovations . In addition to improving its structure and facade, the renovations seemed to bring attention and curiosity to the quality of life and current residents of Riverside Plaza.
This area of Minneapolis has historically been an ethnic enclave, beginning with Scandinavians in the 1800’s, Vietnamese in the 1960’s and most recently many immigrants and refugees from East Africa and Somalia. On one of my many visits to Riverside Plaza in college I was able to see the thriving Riverside Community School and meet people who lived in the building. Some of my classmates lived there, taught English there and made many valuable connections there. From what I could see, there was a close knit community.
Ironically, Riverside Plaza seems to have reverted into a modern version of its previous identity, leaving behind the dreams of a working class utopia as it’s engineers had hoped.The story of this building and neighborhood raises innumerable questions and conversations. How do we build healthy communities? How do we use architecture in a way that benefits everyone? How do we undo the damage done to communities in the past? How do we constructively learn from mistakes? Better understanding our urban history sheds more light on the feeling of a neighborhood. I know that as I learned more and more about the Cedar/Riverside, I saw it less as ‘the neighborhood with those ugly buildings’ and more as ‘the really interesting neighborhood where exists some strange examples of vintage utopia’.
If you’ve ever taken a sociology class you probably read about Max Weber and Georg Simmel; two of the first urban sociologists to study urban social life and how factors such as race, class, gender and economics change the ways people interact with the urban environment and public spaces.
Think of a public space you know. What do people do there? Do they eat lunch? Read? Talk on the phone? What kinds of people use the space and for how long? Do people sit in chairs or on ledges? Do you feel comfortable there or like you’re being watched?
Well if it was 1980, William Whyte may have been watching you. He wrote one of the most important books on this topic called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces about the goings on in New York’s plazas. Whyte also produced a film illustrating his findings that is usually shown in urban sociology classes around the globe. In the film, Whyte narrates the activity of people in the plaza as if it were a nature special. Some say its dry, but those of us with nerdier dispositions or people watchers may find it quite humorous. Whyte found that successful public spaces fostered more positive social interactions, and in order to increase positive sociability careful design of our parks and plazas was needed.
What makes a good public space? The Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit devoted to creating and sustaining healthy public spaces, heavily influenced by Whyte, says there are 4 elements that make a successful public space:
1. The space is easily accessible. Walking, biking and public transportation should be readily available in close proximity. The space should function equally for people with special needs.
2. People can engage in activities there. This could be anything from watching a band play music to participating in a chess game. People of all ages should be involved in activities, as well as people in groups and people who are alone.
3. The space is comfortable, clean and friendly. Are there enough places to sit? Is the space used equally throughout the day?
4. The space is sociable - a place you meet people for lunch or somewhere you want to show to your out of town guests. Do people know each other there? Are they smiling? Do people take care of the space by picking up litter?
I’m sure you can think of spaces you’ve been to that have many of these qualities or have none at all. One such plaza recently caught in a battle between the City of Minneapolis and Historic Preservationists is Peavey Plaza. Built by modernist designer M. Paul Friedberg in 1973, Peavey Plaza was meant to be an “urban oasis” where people could escape the noise of the city and relax next to the sound of the plaza’s waterfalls and fountains. Friedberg’s aspirations were high; a skating rink in the winter and a calm gathering place in the summer, but for years the fountains have been out of commission due to pipe problems and multiple soapings. The concrete has crumbled and the general atmosphere of the plaza has dwindled.
In spring of 2012 the City of Minneapolis sent out a redevelopment plan of the plaza and the debate began. Preservationists did not want the plaza demolished, but restored to its original design - waterfalls and all as a well-preserved example of the designer’s work. But the City of Minneapolis felt the plaza had devolved into a crumbling eye sore that was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
City of Minneapolis Redesign Rendering (above)
This debate went on until a few days ago when the City Council voted to demolish the plaza; even skipping over M. Paul Friedberg’s own plan (shown above) for revision in favor of their own.
I’ve been asked frequently about my stance in this debate and though I often drift to the side of historic preservation I just don’t this time. While it is pretty accessible by bus, bike, car and by foot, there is not much to speak of as far as a range of activities go and I personally don’t feel especially comfortable there with all the concrete and exposed rebar. I also don’t feel very sociable there since not many people are around and the majority of the plaza is recessed far below street level, hidden to passers by. But is it unique? Yes. Did it at one point in time live up to it’s aspirations? I think it did.
Obviously, designing a successful public space is difficult. It may work for a while, but people’s needs could change with time. Just like art, fashion and food, architecture like that of Peavey Plaza looks different to us all. Will the new Peavey be accessible and busy with activity? Will it be comfortable and sociable? Hopefully, Minneapolis has made the right choice in deciding to update the plaza, but I guess we won’t know until it’s done.