Happy Birthday, Minneapolis: City Hall event brings out familiar (if forgotten) faces

Truth be told, the present was kind of a dud, at least from a flash-and-wow perspective. Oh, the spirit was there—if indeed it’s the thought that counts, then this counted for a lot.

But not quite an hour into a council meeting at Minneapolis City Hall Friday morning—two days shy of the 150th anniversary since the citizens of something called Minneapolis voted to make their place a “town”—the unveiling of the city’s birthday gift to itself was a little anti-climactic. When council President Barb Johnson and Mayor R.T. Rybak counted to three and pulled a blue sheet off the wall from behind the council president’s chair, there was a little head-scratching.

There, though it was hard to tell, was a long-lost plaster version of the official seal of the city of Minneapolis, cast in bronze God only knows when, and long gone to green, like an old penny. Council member Robert Lilligren (Sixth Ward), who had spearheaded the project, could be heard muttering, “It looks good on TV,” as he checked out one of the screens in the council chambers.

Which was true. But from a distance, in person, well … No matter really, since the symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone: The old thing was donated, Lilligren noted, from Alice Rainville, who served as the council’s first woman president (and happens to be Barb Johnson’s mother). The totem “had been hanging in her garage,” Lilligren noted, to much laughter.

And that was the kind of birthday party—as Lilligren and Rybak kept calling it—the City of Lakes received for 150 years of service: Official, yet humble; reverential without being overly serious; reflective without being ponderous.

City leaders past and present

The council chambers boasted about 100 people in the audience, mostly current city staffers and some notable elected officials from bygone eras.

Former Mayor Don Fraser was in attendance. Likewise Sharon Sayles Belton and Jackie Cherryhomes, the mayor and council president for most of the 1990s, who sat next to each other in the front row. Natalie Johnson Lee, who stunned Cherryhomes with a campaign victory in 2001, sat in the row behind them. And former council member Brian Herron, who served time on felony extortion charges, completed his transformation by attending the day’s event.

All received a standing ovation from the sitting council.

During President Johnson’s introductory remarks, she looked up and said, “Oh my goodness, we’ve been joined by Barbara Carlson,” and the former council diva and talk-radio host took a seat to her own round of applause.

(Current council diva Lisa Goodman was the only one absent, due to a “long-planned family vacation,” Johnson said, adding that Goodman “regrets not being here. In fact, she used the word ‘distraught.'”)

Laura Waterman Wittstock, a notable writer on American Indian issues and current Minneapolis Library Board member, took to the podium to note the Indian history of the area that became Minneapolis, adding that it was typical of native peoples “to be welcoming of the European people.”

She also noted that the anniversary of Minneapolis coincides with the anniversary of the Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species,” which she called “turgid,” but she read aloud the last paragraph of it anyway. Finally, Waterman Wittstock pointed out that Friday was also Nelson Mandela’s birthday, not quite putting together what that has to do with Minneapolis.

The city a generation ago

Don Samuels, who currently holds the Fifth Ward seat that once belonged to Cherryhomes and Johnson Lee, acknowledged “the shoulders we all stand on” in introducing his “predecessor,” Lou DeMars, who represented the North Side on the council from 1971-80 and served as president beginning in 1974.

Samuels jokingly referred to him by the nickname “King Louie,” which DeMars noted quickly from behind the podium that the name was a knock from labor unions unhappy with him at the time.

In sussing out the Minneapolis of his day versus today, DeMars noted that the riverfront “was really a dump,” full of beer cans and other detritus. “There was no Nicollet Island Inn, there was no Riverplace,” DeMars said. “It was just wasteland.”

Other icons not around less than 40 years ago: the Metrodome, the Hennepin County Government Center, the IDS (just being built when DeMars took office), City Center.

And there was no Orchestra Hall. “Ken Dayton came to us and said he’d like to build Orchestra Hall,” Demars reminisced about the old department store scion. “If we would issue general obligation bonds, Dayton said he would back them with the value of his shares of stock. That would not happen today.”

And DeMars noted that I-35W and I-94 did not extend north of downtown Minneapolis at the time. In pointing out old restaurants and bars that were important to City Hall insiders of the day, DeMars said, laughing, “Sheik’s was at the time a very nice restaurant.”

DeMars got the biggest laugh when he recalled that Hennepin County, and its then-five commissioners, shared office space on the first floor of City Hall. “No one was sure what they did,” he said.

He also noted a different media climate, recalling that council members had to deal with a Minneapolis Star and a Minneapolis Tribune, and that a young reporter named Don Shelby, working for something called the I-Team, was constantly roaming the halls for stories.

“But there were no cameras in here, and no radio,” DeMars said to the current council members. “You have a tougher job than we did. You don’t have money, and you don’t have the support of the community like we did.”

Best place to live in the world?

The show was nearly stolen by Tony Williams, a student from Southwest High School, who council member Scott Benson (11th Ward) said already had an accomplished resume as a singer, dancer, actor and rapper, among many other things, at a young age.

Williams talked about his generation, the Millennials, and what they might bring to the city in the next 50 years. “Minneapolis might be the best place to live in the world,” Williams said at the end of his preternatural speech, prompting council member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) to crack, “I think I see another Senator Obama in training.”

After the pomp and circumstance, everyone retreated to a surprisingly full and noisy reception in the Rotunda, where vanilla bean cake with butter cream frosting from the Franklin Street Bakery was served.

In all, a day to set aside the politics of City Hall and take some pride in Minneapolis didn’t feel forced or corny. The place ain’t that bad, after all.

Afterward, DeMars, now 72 and a resident of Edina, still had good things to say. “Minneapolis is still a triple-A city,” he said, referring to the city’s bond rating. “I think there’s only but five left in the United States.”

When asked about the differences between Minneapolis then and now, DeMars had one answer: Money. “The biggest problem is state aid has been taken away, and you can’t keep raising property taxes,” he said.

“And there were seven Republicans on the council when I came in,” the DFLer said. “There was a better balance between Democrats and Republicans, and they were helpful to us.” He pondered the notion that there might not ever be a Republican on the Minneapolis City Council again: “I don’t know where they’d find one,” he said, chuckling.

Marvin Taylor, a Gopher basketball player in the early 1970s—when he was known as “Corky”—has worked for the city for 30 years and in the Department of Civil Rights for the last 10. He started out as a loan officer, giving low-interest loans to poor families to fix up their homes. Is that program still around? “Not even sure,” he said.

What’s the biggest change he’s seen since his tenure? “It’s the most exciting time now.” How so? “It seemed we were once a closed community, and now we’re a part of the global community,” Taylor offered. “Everything is relative to finance now, and that’s what makes it challenging. But that’s the exciting part.”

What about the bronze seal?

Back in the council chambers on the third floor, Lilligren was still pondering the Rainville bronze seal. (A plaque commemorating the seal was also unveiled, on the left side of the council chambers.)

For years, Lilligren said, he had wanted to put something of the sort up behind where council members sit, but commissioning a new one would be “cost prohibitive.” Barb Johnson mentioned something about her mother having a seal that came from a city building that had long been knocked down.

“No one knows where it came from,” Lilligren said. Next to him, Dennis Schulstad, the last Republican to be elected to the council, marveled at the fact that each council member had his or her own computer terminal, guessing correctly that it’s much easier to keep the speaking queue in check. “We thought it might have been the Minneapolis Auditorium,” Lilligren continued.

He acknowledged that the image on the thing—the river, the falls, some kind of plow and a barrel—was hard to discern. But he hopes to get some special lighting on it.

“So far no one has said it’s theirs,” he said. “I keep expecting someone to come up and say, ‘That’s my plaque!'”

And in a way, that person would be right.

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