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In the shadow of elevators, streets spawn artists, broken hearts

That’s the way most people think of Hiawatha: a place where you sit at a red traffic light that seems to be measured in geologic time.

As my MinnPost colleague Marlys Harris wrote in her Cityscape column a couple of weeks ago, Hiawatha Avenue is sort of a bummer. There’s not much hope for it, at least not as a thoroughfare you might actually walk down and enjoy — I recall a drawing by the Minneapolis artist Andy DuCett from a few years ago depicting the crossing at 38th Street, with the following legend scrawled in lowercase letters over it: “if the traffic lights on hiawatha were employees, they would be fired. check: yes _______ no ______.” That’s the way most people think of Hiawatha: a place where you sit at a red traffic light that seems to be measured in geologic time.

Andy Ducett IllustrationDetail from “CSA. #1-60” by Andy Ducett, 2010.

And they’re right to think that, of course. Hiawatha is unquestionably the worst place in town to get caught at a red light. The corridor wasn’t built to be much other than a place for trains to load and unload their shipments under the enormous grain elevators that line the avenue. So unless you’re the engineer of a Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad locomotive carrying 25 railcars of hard red spring wheat from the west, you’re probably not getting the most out of your experience of using Hiawatha Avenue. The light rail that runs up and down it roughly mimics the old “8” streetcar line that ran from Fort Snelling out to Plymouth, but it’s never been a particularly dense, pedestrian-friendly area. Hiawatha, as Harris points out, will never be Minneapolis’ Champs Elysée or Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires.

However, it’s not just Hiawatha running along that corridor. Cutting diagonally through south Minneapolis alongside it are Minnehaha, Snelling and Dight Avenues. These are three streets that are as walkable as Hiawatha is not. They’re perhaps the most perfectly Minneapolitan streets, from a visual perspective – it’s those grain elevators that tower over the neighborhood. In no other part of the country are grain elevators such an integrated part of the urban fabric. You can look up at those elevators and know you couldn’t be in any other city in America. 

The neighborhood, too, is a mix of residential, industrial and commercial. Snelling and Dight in particular are lined with businesses with almost comedically old-school names: Woznak Stampings, the Crosstown Sweeping Corporation, Industrial Plastics of Minneapolis, Inc. They sit side-by-side modest prewar cottages, once owned and rented by the workers that staffed the nearby railyards and industrial plants.

Nearby on Minnehaha is all sorts of evidence of artists afoot: the great Trylon microcinema, the XYandZ Gallery, and Peace Coffee, whose store is named Wonderland Park for the early 20th century amusement park located nearby, and whose back wall features a hilariously gory stencil painting by noted muralists Broken Crow. Further down, there’s the Minnehaha Free Space, a community resource center where I wander in, browse their extensive zine library, and buy a copy of Cometbus for the price of a $1 donation. These are all worth writing about later on in depth. 

John's Welding Service, Inc.MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant John’s Welding Service, Inc.

But there’s one site I come across, right in the middle of this corridor, that seems more interesting than anything else in the neighborhood. At 3528 Snelling Avenue sits a yellow two-story cinderblock building housing John’s Welding Service, Inc. The building looks like it was built in the 1950s or ‘60s; the same lot contained residential housing on it in the half-century before John moved in.

Henry W. BannarnPhoto by the Works Progress AdministrationHenry W. “Mike” Bannarn

It turns out there’s a brief but interesting back story here. Prior to its redevelopment as a commercial building, one of the renters at 3528 Snelling in this historically black neighborhood was a Texan named Dee Bannarn. In 1910, Dee had a son named Henry Wilmer Bannarn. “Mike,” as he was known, grew up to be a gifted sculptor and painter who was among the first African-Americans to study at the Minneapolis School of Arts (now MCAD). In 1931, he won a prize for his painting at the Minnesota State Fair, at a time when a State Fair honor was truly one of the highest one could achieve in the state (it sounds so unlikely now, but really, read the bio of any Minneapolis artist born before 1940, and you’ll find listings of State Fair awards very close to the top of his or her lists of professional accomplishments). Bannarn lived and worked in town for a bit before moving to New York City in the early 1930s, where he became a noted figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Among his students was the famed Jacob Lawrence, in whose work you can spot Bannarn’s influence. 

Bannarn never lived at this address as a boy, but his father did later in life, and he spent some time at the address visiting in his adulthood. Mike and his wife Mayola lived a few doors down at 3555 Snelling, according to his niece, Henriette Fleming.

Whatever atmospheric factors animated young Bannarn’s burgeoning sense of aesthetics on that parcel of land must still be hanging around. John’s Welding Service is home to one of the best, strangest pieces of commercial iconography in the city. If it were located anywhere else in Minneapolis other than Snelling Avenue, hidden away between Hiawatha and Minnehaha, I guarantee you’d see the JWS, Inc. logo screen-printed on T-shirts worn by particularly chic 23-year-old liberal-arts graduates at bars.

There’s an older sign out front advertising John’s services – truck and casting repair, custom fabrication, construction equipment repair and the like – but there’s also a more idiosyncratic logo a few places on the front of the building. It’s “J.W.S. Inc.” written out in a playful blue cursive, with a broken heart underneath it – a metal heart, painted red and cracking in two. The broken heart also appears in a metal sculpture on the front of the building, hanging beneath two windows.

Around the back of the shop, on Dight Avenue, the heart appears again, even more dramatically. The “J.W.S. Inc.” script sits atop the building, but the broken heart sits higher up, atop a rusted piece of metal scaffolding.

John's Welding Service heartMinnPost photo by Andy SturdevantWhy the broken hearts?

Why the broken hearts? I called the number posted outside, half-hoping no one would pick up so it wouldn’t spoil the mystique. My half-hopes were realized — no one answered. Divorce settlement? Distinctive tattoo? A representation of the sadness at the heart of knowing that nothing lasts forever, even two materials joined by flux cored arc welding? I can’t say for sure. For now, the broken heart that beats from within John’s Welding Service remains a mystery. But go around Dight Avenue, which runs for only a few blocks, and there it is, raised high in the air and dominating the block between grain towers. 

This article contained a few errors about the Bannarn family’s residences along Snelling that have since been corrected. Thanks to Henriette Flemming for the clarifications.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Karen Cole on 05/16/2012 - 11:58 am.

    Mysterious crow stencils on the street in St. Paul

    I loved this look at Hiawatha.

    And it raised a question for me. I’ve seen a couple stencilled crows on walls in my neighborhood in St. Paul. They are about a foot high and very nicely done. They just kind of mysteriously appeared on surfaces that are kind of abandoned near Grand Ave. They are on our usual evening walk so we wonder about them every day. Could Broken Crow have anything to do with them? I’m dying of curiousity. Does anyone know?

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/16/2012 - 01:31 pm.

      Bird stencils

      Thanks, Karen! Funny you should mention those stencils, because I was walking down Grand the other weekend and saw some bird stencils, too — they weren’t crows, but sparrows (I think). I wonder if it’s someone in that neighborhood. I don’t think it’s Broken Crow, who tend to stick to big cat imagery.

      But how about this: I’ll find out and write a piece about it (as well as the celebrity portrait wall at the Lexington, which is another highlight in the area).

      • Submitted by Karen Cole on 05/16/2012 - 02:38 pm.

        Hmmm. Maybe they are sparrows.

        But they look like crows to me.

        One of them now has a stencil of a gnome with some mushrooms next to it. But I think it’s probably by a different artist. Just a hunch.

        Let me know if you want to know where the ones I’ve seen are.

        And I hope you are able to get to the bottom of this!

  2. Submitted by Melanee Meegan on 05/16/2012 - 01:16 pm.

    Thanks for this treasure.

    Having lived on the “other side of Hiawatha” the past ten years I love learning this history.
    That broken heart sculpture has been a beacon, obsession, representation of so many heartbreaks in my life. p.s. Love your illustration! It would be great on a t-shirt. 😉

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 05/16/2012 - 01:34 pm.

      “We can fix everything but broken hearts.”

      That heart is a neighborhood icon, for sure. Someone emailed me, actually, and told me there used to be a sign underneath it that said “We can fix everything but broken hearts.” So that makes sense. Where did that part of the sign go? My correspondent has a theory: “Maybe it broke.”

  3. Submitted by Matt Pogatshnik on 05/16/2012 - 09:34 pm.

    Henry Simmons

    I think my favorite building on Minnehaha is the Simmons Manor Apartments. Originally an elementary school, it then housed a school for radio and TV repair before becoming an apartment building. If those squeaky wood floors could talk, no?

  4. Submitted by Carol Logie on 05/17/2012 - 09:46 am.

    Been There

    I’ve lived almost all my 14 years in Minneapolis within a few blocks of the corridor, first near Lake Street, and now in Standish Ericsson. There’s alot of life on both sides of the Highway: I love driving up Snelling and seeing the fleets of ice cream trucks arming themselves for our local parks.

    What I wonder though, is what happened to the landscaping that the city first installed when the Lightrail went in? The boulevards were originally planted with MN natives, crab trees and lilacs. The native grasses and wildflowers were quickly let go, and the city went through and butchered the lilacs a couple years ago, cutting them to the nubs.They are only now bouncing back. The barrenness of the remaining boulevards adds to the feeling of disconnection from the neighborhoods.

    It’s weird to see nice plantings of dogwoods, sumac and shrub roses next to the on/off ramps to Highway 62— where no pedestrian will ever wander— and nothing next to the sidewalk used by walking traffic heading toward the neighborhoods along Hiawatha. Especially along the berms, there’s nothing but grass (weeds) to attract pedestrians or offer shade from the scorching heat the pavement gives off.

    That being said, our bigger problem is not so much the structure of the corridor, but the traffic it carries. I am shocked, even after all this time, by the load during rush hours.

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 07/11/2012 - 01:23 pm.

    Off-Kilter

    Another small pleasure of Minnehaha in places is how the houses on opposite sides are oriented differently — to the diagonal Minnehaha and the dominant street grid.

    http://greatdivide.typepad.com/across_the_great_divide/2008/08/keeping-things.html

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