I have never read Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Tale of Two Cities,” although its title certainly became the central theme of a recent weekend in Minneapolis.
On a Saturday, I drove to my friend’s house for a cookout. He was doing multiple projects to prepare his house for sale. The idea that he might move was not particularly surprising. My friend is a free spirit and has talked occasionally about buying a hobby farm to commune with nature. He travels frequently, and his job would probably allow him to work almost anywhere. So it wouldn’t have been a shock if he told me he was making a big shift in his life.
When I asked where he was moving to, he told me he was looking at a small house in St. Paul (Highland Park). Or maybe Golden Valley or Richfield. He described looking at houses that sounded identical to his own Corcoran neighborhood bungalow.
“But why is that better than here?” I asked.
He told me the anxiety of the neighborhood was too much. The sirens are constant. People are racing their cars up and down the street at all hours of the night. He doesn’t feel safe. He said the last time he took the light rail downtown for work, more passengers were fiddling with their fentanyl than commuting to their jobs. He was angry the city was talking about rebuilding the Third Precinct police station and worried violence could easily erupt if that moved forward.
All of this was shocking to me. My friend is a hardcore, super-liberal urbanite. He likes the people with purple hair and unicycles. His job and, more importantly, his core values are focused on diversity and inclusion. His neighborhood has always been eclectic and moderately spicy, characteristics he sought out and embraced. But things, of course, have changed in the last three years. His neighbors are still wonderful, while the neighborhood no longer feels safe.
As I drove home, I took Lake Street rather than the freeway. It was pretty rough. Still lots of empty storefronts. The Hiawatha station had hordes of people hanging out. I don’t think many of them were headed to trains. The liquor store felt like the center of the neighborhood. I drove by the open sore that is the abandoned Kmart. The ugly chain link fences did nothing to prevent several dozen people from milling about in small groups. Drugs? Living on the streets? Bored? Does it matter?
I thought about my own downtown neighborhood and how empty most days look and feel. I remembered Billy Porter’s recent performance at the State Theater when he talked on stage about going for a walk in the city and his shock at how barren it felt. “Where the *&^X are you people?”
The following day, I was scheduled to meet another friend of mine. The weather was delightful, so I hopped on my bike and headed out. I rode through Loring Park and saw the beautiful water features and gardens. Lots of folks were out and about, walking their dogs and jogging. I biked by the Walker and cut through Lowry Hill. The streets were terrible, but of course this lovely enclave looked beautiful and serene.
I arrived at Lake of the Isles and strolled alongside the water. Soon, I was riding alongside Bde Maka Ska which had sailboats on the water and little kids playing on the beach. Up a small hill and I had arrived at Lake Harriet to meet my friend Patty. We walked around the lake, catching up, joined by people of all ages, races and activity levels. At one point, a huge turtle was crossing the ring road around the lake. A man got out of his car, covered the turtle with a blanket and eventually was able to scoop him up safely and deposit him at the water’s edge. Our small crowd of onlookers cheered.
I rode home and marveled at the beauty of this place and how easy it was for me to gain access to all these treasures – the park, the museum, three lakes! The vast majority of my trip was on safe, dedicated bike lanes where I didn’t have to worry about traffic. What a gift.
So that’s my Minneapolis. Reeling and gorgeous. Adrift and blessed. Two realities, both true.
I am so desperate to have a positive vision for the future. I want some hope for our next chapter, which no one can seem to articulate. Our leaders mumble about 92-point plans and empty cop cars on Nicollet Mall, hoping this will somehow demonstrate strength. In fairness, I’m not sure what they could say or do to reassure me. But I am constantly feeling like our city is wandering aimlessly at a time when we need common purpose and direction. We love celebrating our parks and bike lanes but appear clueless about public safety and thriving neighborhoods.
I look into the future, unsure if we are entering a long trough of decline, or if we are poised for robust recovery. If only I was more confident about the answer.
Eric Molho lives in downtown Minneapolis.