Introducing the Minneapolis Numerological Twilight Zone

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
To enjoy a delicious meal from China Wok, head to the intersection of 27th and 28th.

There’s a Twin Cites perception that Minneapolis’ street grid makes perfect sense, while St. Paul’s streets are a confusing mishmash, designed, as Jesse Ventura so famously blustered, “by drunken Irishmen.” With all its methodologically numbered and alphabetized streets extending out from the downtown with certitude, Minneapolis seems to offer a near-perfect legibility, house and numbers carefully correlated and the city sectioned off like rectangular compass. But within the obsessive-compulsive grid lies a zone that can be devilishly misleading, where the aura of legibility belies a trap. I call it the Numerological Twilight Zone (NTZ).

Minding bizarro addresses

According to my rough calculations, the NTZ is loosely defined as the area where the numbers of streets and avenues come close to each other, probably within 10 or 15 ordinal numerals. For example, the corner of 10th Avenue and 53rd Street (Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church) is pretty easy to figure out, but finding 31st Avenue and 43rd Street (Northrop Elementary) can be confusing, especially if you’re bad at math. If you plot the area out, beginning roughly at Elliot Park, where the north-south street grid begins, you get a large swath of south Minneapolis with confusingly tricky numbers, places where it might take you a few tries to find what you’re looking for. 

The approximate Minneapolis Numerological Twilight Zone

The aura of confusion makes living in the NTZ an occasional challenge. When Daniel and Natalie Brauer bought their house in 2012, just off the corner of 35th Street and 33rd Avenue, they were vaguely aware that they were moving to a confusing location. But last year they had a surprising wake-up call, where due to a miscommunication with a delivery company, they spent a day trying to track down a package of important medicine.

“It was medicine that had to be delivered within a certain time frame,” Brauer told me. “When we called Fed-Ex to track it down, they insisted that they had delivered the package. We thought, well that doesn’t make sense. Then it struck us that maybe they had delivered the medicine to the other 35th and 33rd. So we walked the few blocks over to where our address would have been at the other intersection. And there it was, sitting on the back porch of the house.”

Brauer’s story is what David Swan, who also owns a home in the NTZ (46th and 30th), calls the “bizarro address” phenomenon. It’s almost like geographical physics: For every address in the zone, there is an equal and opposite address attracting potential visitors.

Urban legibility

In his famous 1961 book, “The Image of the City,” urban designer Kevin Lynch described the “apparent clarity or ‘legibility’ of the cityscape.” According to Lynch, when people walk or drive through cities, they navigate by “reading” the streets using what he calls landmarks, paths and nodes. In other words, good cities combine some order and organization with visual cues that allow you to explore, without getting completely lost. 

The NTZ likely lost a lot of its legibility when the solid tracks of the streetcar system disappeared. But even then, the area was confusing, with lines zig-zagging southeast from downtown along 34th, 36th, 42nd or 46th Avenues (depending on where you were). And even today, the buses that follow the old lines through the NTZ are difficult to figure out.

“My favorite has always been explaining which bus stop to stand next to at the intersection of 46th Ave S and E 46th St,” Jared Fette, who works at the Metro Transit telephone hotline, explained to me. “To catch the 23H, make sure you’re on 46th Ave, the side street with less traffic. It will pick you up on 46th Ave going south, and then turn left on 46th Street and head into St. Paul.”

Landmarks in a sea of numbers

Within the NTZ, the mass of endless numbers erases easy legibility, and paths within the city can disappear for outsiders who can’t decode them. Finding landmarks like the Birchwood Cafe (25th and 33rd) or the Chatterbox Pub (35th and 22nd) can offer lessons in humility. Many folks end up asking themselves: Which 37th and 38th has the Fire Roast Café again?

For the brave and adventurous, the trick to navigating the NTZ is to rely on landmarks like the Riverview Theater (38th and 42nd). Joshua Post Lee, an urban studies student at the University of Minnesota, fixes on the cluster of businesses at 28th Avenue South. It’s a tactic that Lynch would surely have recommended.

“It took me some time to get used to it,” Lee told me. “Just remember one major one, like 28th Ave, where Baker’s Wife is, and count from there. The numbers are in order just like everywhere else in the city. Use them to figure your way around.”

Crooked streets like Minnehaha Avenue exacerbate the NTZ effect. As Brie Monahan, who lives within the NTZ, described to me this week, giving directions can quickly turn into a geographic tongue twister:

“Coming up Minnehaha, we can pass 26th Street followed by 23rd Ave.,” Monahan told me. “That’s followed by 25th Street and 24th Street, then veer right onto 21st Ave., turn right onto 22nd Street, and another right onto 22nd Ave., and we’re at my house. I don’t send people this way though.”

Some people I talk to insist that navigating the NTZ is easy, that all you have to do is maintain the Street-then-Avenue naming convention, and anyone can figure it out. As in many cities, once you develop the memory map that provides you with Lynchian “imageability,” knowing your way around becomes intuitive. But I cling to my belief that the NTZ remains a navigational challenge, even in an era of ubiquitous smartphone directions. 

Theoretically, there are ways that Minneapolis might make navigating this part of the city a bit easier. The city might give non-numeric names to a few of the key commercial streets (like Lake Street and Franklin Avenue, which are where 30th and 20th Streets ought to be). This would have the added benefit of providing ways for political and neighborhood leaders to honor famous notables. If 28th Avenue South were re-named John Berryman Avenue, wouldn’t it be easier to find Chris and Rob’s hot dogs (42nd and 31st)?

But next time you hear a smug Minneapolitan brag about their orderly streets, remind them about the Numerological Twilight Zone. For insiders, they can rest easy knowing that they are safe from unwanted outsiders. For the rest of us, a vague cloud of certainty hangs over this part of the city. And if your package doesn’t get delivered on the first try, you can always go check out your “bizzaro address.” There’s a good chance that the box will be waiting for you on the porch.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Presley Martin on 02/19/2015 - 10:14 am.

    NTZ and postal no go zone

    I guess we’ve got the worst of both worlds over here on 31st Av south of Lake. We’re in the NTZ and our Av is not included on a regular postal route. Which means you never know when the mail will arrive, if at all, or who will come knocking looking for an address on 31st St.

  2. Submitted by John Connelly on 02/19/2015 - 10:21 am.

    naming rights

    John Berryman Avenue is nice. But more realistic would be a plan to raise a few million dollars selling naming rights — priced reasonably enough to be within reach of a group collecting a couple hundred donations

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/19/2015 - 11:09 am.

    Hooray!!

    Someone else who thinks the street-naming convention in parts of Minneapolis is just stupid. For those of us (i.e., me) who don’t live downtown the NTZ is a nightmare. “Avenue/Street” alternation might make sense to some, but it doesn’t fly in this household, and I regard it as one among several basic and egregious errors made by the city’s founders a century and a half ago.

    Another is orienting the majority of residential blocks north-south (that is, the long side of the block faces east or west) instead of east-west, so that thousands of homes receive minimal sunlight and solar gain in a climate where winter sunlight is a precious commodity. It also makes the installation of solar panels on roofs that much more difficult and expensive in the case of the thousands of gable-roofed residences with large flat areas that, instead of facing directly south, which would be easy and efficient, are facing east or west.

    Street names and numbers can be changed – and should be in the NTZ – but it’s far too late to change the layout of the city.

  4. Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 02/19/2015 - 12:23 pm.

    Date night

    Very early in my time in Minneapolis, I once missed out on a really high-stakes date because I thought the Hexagon, where we were meeting, was at 36th and 36th and not 26th and 26th. By the time I’d run there, she was gone. And of course she didn’t believe me when I apologized afterwards, because it sounded like such a stupid excuse.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/19/2015 - 12:40 pm.

    “the NTZ remains a navigational challenge, even in an era of ubiquitous smartphone directions”

    Perhaps the ubiquitous smartphones are actually contributing to the problem as more people cease thinking for themselves.

    Personally, I live on the border of the NTZ & don’t find it too confusing. We have more issues with people getting confused by the intersection of Minnehaha creek & Hiawatha ave. There are a lot of roads that don’t go through. For example, if you’re southbound on 42nd Avenue & get to 46th street, good luck figuring out howhat to pick it up again at 49th or 50th.

  6. Submitted by Derek Reise on 02/19/2015 - 02:08 pm.

    A little quirk, but not as bad as St. Paul

    So, there’s a little confusion about location in some parts of Minneapolis. In St. Paul, you might know where something is, but still find it immensely confusing on how to get there or how many blocks it really is between you and the address.

    I formerly lived in the NTZ, near the pictured China Wok. It wasn’t too bad. In the ten years we had a couple of misdelivered packages (thankfully, nothing as important as medicine). Then there was that Easter I found a sex worker on my porch. She asserted that I had called her while I assured I had not. Eventually, we figured out she had made an street versus avenue mistake.

  7. Submitted by Jim Young on 02/19/2015 - 04:35 pm.

    After nearly four decades in the NTZ

    All I can say is “Yup! You got it right.” And I don’t consider myself to be geographically challenged either.

    I still couldn’t tell you where exactly the Riverview Theater is even though I’ve been there dozens of times. I know street (as in east/west St.) to turn off of Minnehaha onto to get there but god help me if the owners of that corner house ever paint it a different color.

    The article didn’t broach the subject of the East/West Twilight Zone (EWTZ) where you have to explain to someone there’s no such address on East 22nd St. and maybe what they’re looking for is on West 22nd St.

    Maybe a cosmic black hole could explain the eleven blocks between Franklin (a.k.a. 20th) and 9th St.that have disappeared. Don’t know where they’ve gone but they’re certainly not in the NTZ!

    🙂

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/20/2015 - 12:23 pm.

      east v. west

      i made that mistake once, on my way to a fundraiser in waaaaay southwest mpls past linden hills. as i had not even known that part of minneapolis existed, i was looking for the house in East 45th street (or whatever it was). not only was i 5 miles off, once i figured out my mistake, it took me 2-3 tries to find a through street in the SW mpls tangeletown on the far side of the kenilworth trail.

      what a nightmare!

  8. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 02/20/2015 - 08:26 am.

    No NTZ in Seattle

    … where the grid marches out from the center relentlessly, 20 blocks to the mile, and the compass label (e.g. NE) distinguishes Streets (E-W) from Avenues (N-S).
    My first address there was 19924 – 19th NE, an Avenue address 10 miles N of downtown and 1 mile east. Better not go looking for me at 19924 NE 19th, though. That would be in the middle of Lake Sammamish.
    Totally clear, though it helps if you are just a little OCD.

  9. Submitted by Dana DeMaster on 02/20/2015 - 08:30 am.

    St. Paul’s Magic Number

    In St. Paul the magic number is 480. There are 480 house numbers in a mile (mostly). So, if I’m on the 1400 block of Van Buren is nearly 2 miles from 500 Minnehaha Ave. The zero line is Summit and Wabasha, roughly.

  10. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 02/20/2015 - 12:24 pm.

    And heaven help you

    If you need to find 21st or 23rd street anywhere in Mpls (they do exist!)

  11. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 02/20/2015 - 01:22 pm.

    Know the Rules

    It’s been hinted at above, but navigating most of south Minneapolis requires the simple knowledge that:

    – STREETS run EAST/WEST, while
    – AVENUES run NORTH/SOUTH.

    Well, those two rules plus the knowledge that all of the signage clearly indicates one or the other.

    Of course, there are weird exceptions which follow no rules, but they are really pretty rare (the east/west Franklin AVENUE being the only one that pops to mind).

    That said, the diagonals do create a bit of confusion, but only if you don’t realize you’re not traveling square with the compass.

    When I saw the headline, I assumed that this post would be about the weird insertion of street and avenue names which follow neither the alphabet nor a numbering scheme. For example, the avenues between Lyndale and Nicollet — which I swear reorder themselves regularly because even after 35 years I can’t remember them.

    Or it might have been about the random insertion of named avenues amid the numbered grid (I’m looking at you: Clinton, Portland, Oakland, Park, Columbus, Chicago, Elliot, Bloomington, Cedar, Clinton, Nokomis, etc.). Or it could have been a lament about Tangletown!

    Or how about that wedge formed by Riverside and Franklin where South 9th Street runs in a straight line with South 19th Street? Or how about just south of Franklin where 21st and 23rd Streets get mysteriously skipped?

    In all, I think Minneapolis is still easier to navigate than St. Paul because at least there are clear patterns for large portions of it. I have a friend who was born and raised in St. Paul and used to play the “name the streets in order” game. Amazingly, he could actually do it! It’s a little bit like a junior version of London’s The Knowledge.

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