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New animated film tells the heartbreaking story of Minneapolis’ lost Gateway

John Akre’s new film is set to debut at this weekend’s Square Lake Music and Film Festival near Stillwater.

The Metropolitan Building in “Demolition Dreaming”

John Akre’s new film, Demolition Dreaming, is dedicated to his mother, Katherine, who, as he puts it, “took me on a tour of the Metropolitan Building before I was born.” For those unfamiliar with it, the Metropolitan Building is largely recognized as the biggest loss for Minneapolis preservationists, a gorgeous 1890s Richardsonian Romanesque office tower torn down in the early 1960s as part of the city’s massive “Gateway” urban renewal project.

Akre’s new film, set to debut at this weekend’s Square Lake Music and Film Festival, tells a story of the lost Gateway neighborhood, a personal narrative that imagines the old city in a way that deeply humanizes the lost city. Of the many stories and remembrances of the old Gateway, Akre’s rough film stands out for its poignant beauty.

The Gateway brought to life

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The start of the Gateway renewal project in 1962.

For the first century of Minneapolis’ history, “the Gateway” was shorthand for the area just west of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, where train stations sat like pillars at the entrance of downtown. The most historic part of (non-northeast) Minneapolis, the Gateway area was a palimpsest of the city’s past with buildings from just about every decade impossibly mashed together.

But the Gateway was also the site of Minneapolis’ largest post-war transformation, a massive urban renewal project that leveled a dozen square blocks of the old urban fabric, and rendered Minneapolis unrecognizable.

“I was born in Minneapolis but moved away when I was really little,” John Akre told me. “I’d heard stories from my mother about Minneapolis. I noticed  there was no historic core of the city, and I was curious about that. As someone who’s loved cities and how they evolved, it led me to doing research about the Gateway district.”

The plot of Akre’s film traces the story of a nameless Minneapolis sign painter who watched the Gateway’s massive stone buildings being constructed as a child, spent most of his life raising a family in the middle of the neighborhood, and ends his days living in a forgotten house on the edge of a northeast strip mall, dreaming of his lost past. The bulk of the film recounts the decade surrounding the Gateway’s demolition, telling tales of imaginary neighborhood characters like Stomps McGee, the Gateway barber, or Heavy Steve, a popular drifter with a regular room at a skid row flophouse. It’s framed as a flashback, narrated by the maybe-magical daughter of the old sign painter, a young girl who had disappeared into the walls of a condemned building to re-emerge as a modern-day librarian.

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As Akre explains it, his story is intended to complicate the typical skid row image of the old Gateway.

“I’m not a historian, and my story isn’t based on historic research,” Akre said. “But all the stories of that area are the stories of the down and out men. That’s part of the story, but there were whole communities there too, in the rooming houses and the other people who lived there, people who supported that. There were many small businesses there. So I have a down and out itinerant worker who goes out on the rails and comes back, but I also have a barber and a whole family that runs one of those Gateway hotels.”

The result is a haunting tale of loss, reminiscent of Hiyao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” or Sylvain Chomet’s “Triplets of Belleville.” 

Behind the scenes of the film’s production

To an eye used to Disney-era animation, at first glance Akre’s film seems choppy. But that’s by design. Akre intends the visualization to look like an early 20th-century animation, made all the more period by the live-music accompaniment and spoken narration.

As he explains on his website, “I made the movie to look as if it came from 1916. It is a silent film with spoken narration and music accompaniment and it breaks with the Disney-influenced tradition of animation defined by motion that is based on some level of reality. The animation here is jerky and simple in its style, as if it were made 100 years ago.”

The genesis of the film dates back to Akre’s early curiosity about the lost historic Minneapolis, and the animation even includes some 8 and 16-millimeter films that he shot of ’80s and ’90s-era demolition, for example, of the old Sheraton Ritz Hotel. From there, Akre spent years researching the history of Minneapolis’ urban renewal period, often holing up in the Minneapolis’ special collection room at the top of the Central Library. (The room even makes a cameo in the film itself, when the old sign painter wanders there after being released from the hospital.)

And for the last five years, Akre has been working away at the tedious art of stop motion animation, using a mix of clay sculpture and computer animation of his drawings.

“It was several years making it,” Akre told me. “I used a combination of stop motion and computer animation. The main characters have clay faces, which I animate because I like the feel with the individual clay pieces. I photograph and composite everything together in the computer, the characters’ bodies and other things made out of drawn ink on paper. And I cut out and photographed the backgrounds as well, from ink and wash handmade elements. Then I put them together in the computer inspired a lot by the photographs.”

One of my favorite scenes is when the father and daughter enter the old Metropolitan building, taking the elevator to the rooftop to look down on the living Gateway district below them. 

A scene from “Demolition Dreaming”

The film will make its official debut this weekend at the Square Lake Music and Film festival, just outside Stillwater, where the silent movie will feature an original musical score, composed and performed by the long-time silent film accompaniment duo, The Dreamland Faces.

According to Karen Majewicz, accordionist for the band, the film “is such a lovely and sad expression on urban renewal [that] really mourns the actual buildings in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

Having watched the film, albeit without the live music, I have to agree. Many stories have been told about the Gateway, everything from a detailed autopsy of the architectural losses (some of the stones from the old Metropolitan Building can now be found in the plaza outside Whitter neighborhood’s Icehouse Bar on Nicollet Avenue) to a host of takes on the city’s lost skid row culture. But Akre’s film is the first one that I’ve seen that contemplates the personal relationship that these neighborhoods had for the people living there.

Walking the Gateway today, the old urban fabric seems so completely erased. Yet it comes to life, if for a moment, in Akre’s film. As one of the more poignant lines from the film’s narration states, “It’s a strange feeling to look at pictures of a place that is so completely nowhere, but is also exactly where you are at this moment.”

You can watch a preview of the film on Vimeo. The film’s debut, with the live musical score, is set on the Square Lake calendar for 9pm. I’ll be there, dreaming of the past.