Tangletown: a neighborhood that feels like its name

Map of tangletownMinnPost illustration by Andy SturdevantTangletown is one of the few neighborhoods that completely steps off the grid and throws off the alphabetical-numerical nomenclature of the rest of Minneapolis.

I’m hoping I won’t receive a bunch of nasty emails for making such a heartless observation, but I generally find the vast majority of Minneapolis neighborhoods to be largely indistinguishable from one another.

This isn’t to say that they don’t have their individual charms and identities, because obviously they do — no one would mistake Kingfield for Whittier, because everyone knows Kingfield is full of bungalows and precocious children and wine bars, and Whittier is full of old mansions and storefront restaurants and art students. But the majority of Minneapolis is so flat and so mercilessly gridded, and the style of the architecture changes so gradually from block to block, that for large swaths of the city, there isn’t much in the way of physical cues to indicate that you’ve passed from one neighborhood into another.

Unless you knew the area extremely well, it would be difficult to tell, from the architecture or topography or nomenclature, that you’d passed from Bancroft into Northrop. Or from Kenny into Windom. Or Cleveland into Folwell. Generally, they’re all flat, with one- or two-family houses on narrow lots, with small commercial clusters on numbered streets.

Is that unfair? Maybe a little, but it throws into relief the handful of neighborhoods that are radically unlike their adjacent communities, such Loring Park or Linden Hills or Bryn Mawr. It makes those neighborhoods separated by way of landscape, geographic boundaries and naming conventions all the more intriguing.

Tangletown is such a neighborhood, and one that feels very different from any other in the city. It’s one of the few neighborhoods that completely steps off the grid and throws off the alphabetical-numerical nomenclature of the rest of Minneapolis. Here we find streets named Belmont, Longview, Prospect, Luverne, Gladstone, and maybe the best street name in the city, Rustic Lodge Avenue. These names are outliers, not turning up anywhere else in the city’s roadside vocabulary. Once the grid crosses 50th Street, it evaporates into a jumble of winding streets for a few blocks, slipping into Minnehaha Creek and then righting itself on the south bank, back into the sober, orderly grids that continue uninterrupted all the way to the southern terminus of Hennepin County.

Hence “Tangletown,” for that tangled topography. It’s the one neighborhood that feels like its name.

The pristine houses of Tangletown still impart a somewhat exclusive quality.
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The pristine houses of Tangletown still impart a somewhat exclusive quality.

The neighborhood beat the grid south in the 19th century, which is why it’s laid out the way it is; it was established as a rustic getaway for well-to-do types in the hills around the creek, in the middle of what was then largely countryside. The pristine houses still impart that somewhat exclusive quality characteristic of historically wealthier enclaves, a quality that can seem both chilly or charming. The grid surpassed and absorbed this enclave later, which is why if you’re driving or biking south between Lyndale and Nicollet and you’re not expecting it, you can get impossibly lost.

Washburn water tower
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Washburn Park Water Tower

Fortunately, there is a landmark you can use to orient yourself, high atop a hill at the end of Harriet Avenue. It’s the Washburn Park Water Tower, one of the architectural highlights of south Minneapolis, and for me, the whole city. Built in 1932, it’s a really idiosyncratic blend of streamlined deco and high symbolism, quite unlike anything else around. Mostly it’s a good-government monument to the civic virtues of clean water; those knights circling the building are meant to be guardians of health. In this sense, it’s also a tribute to the neighborhood it sits in.

The accompanying plaque points out that the three men responsible for its construction – architect Harry Wild Jones, sculptor John Karl Daniels, and engineer William S. Hewett – all lived in the neighborhood, even listing their specific addresses. You could walk to any one of their houses from the hill in a few minutes. There is a touching accountability there, this idea that the most notable building in the neighborhood, a symbol of progress and modernity that is almost literally shining from atop of a hill, was built by people who lived a few blocks away. It’d be hard to think of another works project carried out entirely by a few neighborhood residents.

Sculpture on water tower
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Bob Newhart: Do you see it?

The spiritedness of the civic and architectural gestures aside, it’s a just a great place to spend an hour. For one, it’s one of the few places in Minneapolis where you can be high enough up on a hill to get any kind of a panoramic view. The view to the west is particularly striking, and you can see why that cliché about Minneapolis being the first western city is true; the sky stretches out dramatically over the hills and endlessly into the western horizon. Besides the view, Daniels’ angular, earnest sculptures are strange and wonderful. Daniels was a Norwegian-born sculptor who created many of the sculptures in the rotunda at the State Capitol, so he had a flair for large-scale heroic gestures in stone and concrete. That said, I’ve always thought the straight-man faces of the guardians of health bore a striking resemblance to Bob Newhart.

The winding, rustic lodge-worthy avenues of Tangletown are home to some beautiful houses, but there are plenty of writers in the Twin Cities who can cover historic residential architecture with far more aplomb than I. So I wander back onto Nicollet and cross the Tangletown Bridge that lifts the road over Minnehaha Creek to look at the commercial architecture clustered around Diamond Lake Road. My heart is really in not-quite-historic commercial architecture, and Tangletown is one of those great little pockets of Minneapolis that has plenty of that sort of thing to offer.

Awning of aqua city plumbing
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“Aqua City” is a vastly underutilized Minneapolis nickname.

If Tangletown’s residential district is quiet and prosperous and vaguely rustic, its commercial strip is a classic cluster of utilitarian, blue-collar small businesses. Tangletown Gardens and Wise Acre restaurant are both destinations for lots of Twin Citians, but most of the businesses seem meant solely for neighborhood residents. Nearby is Aqua City Plumbing, represented by a blue awning with a nifty graphic of a hammer and wrench raised in solidarity. (“If your plumbing’s a pity / Call Aqua City” reads a notice on the window, in that sort of corny, charming commercial language of the pre-Madison Avenue era that I love.)

“Aqua City” is one of my favorite Minneapolis nicknames, and one you don’t see around that often. It’s one of a few like-named businesses in the city: there’s also one more Aqua City Plumbing, an Aqua City Irrigation, and of course the Aqua City Motel on Lyndale Avenue. Of all the Minneapolis-specific nicknames of the 20th century – Aqua City, Flour City, City of Lakes – it’s “Mill City” that has proven to have the most staying power. It’s easy to find Mill City-named businesses around town: Mill City Electric, Dental, Marketing, Concrete, Mortgage, and a dozen more. 

Cathay Chow Mein
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“Chow mein” is one of those phrases, like “chop suey,” that at one time was used as shorthand to describe the entirety of Chinese-American cuisine.

Also nearby is Cathay Chow Mein, with a well-preserved neon sign that must be at least 50 years old. It’s a little odd to see the word “chow mein” in this context – actually, “Cathay” too, for that matter. “Chow mein” is one of those phrases, like “chop suey,” that at one time was used as shorthand to describe the entirety of Chinese-American cuisine; it’s almost never used in this way anymore, and only by the very oldest Chinese restaurants.

At this point on Nicollet, looking back to see if the Washburn Park Water Tower is still visible, you see how odd the topography of Tangletown really is. You can’t really see the Tower, despite the fact that it’s on a hill; you’d expect it to loom over the neighborhood, but it really doesn’t. It’s hidden away in those tangled hills and roads, only visible from the most interior part of the neighborhood.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/26/2012 - 09:13 am.

    Thanks for the Trip Down Nostalgia Lane, Andy

    In my own personal good old days, twenty-some years ago, I lived in one of the brick side-by-side double bungalows on the west side of Nicollet Ave, at the very peak of the hill just across the Alley from where the originally rural neighborhood of Washburn Park begins.

    –and just across Nicollet from an intriguing set of metal Lustron houses–

    Our own double bungalow (1939 construction, as I remember it) was built like the proverbial tank with such a thick wall between the two sides that we never heard a peep from the folks next door, even though they loved to play their very substantial living room stereo at rock concert volume.

    I felt more at home there in South Minneapolis than I ever had in our previous few years in apartments in the ‘burbs. With the variety of local stores up and down Nicollet Ave., all within walking distance from our home, it felt very much like the small towns I grew up in.

    It was a peaceful time, too. I never worried about walking our dog in the back alley, shared with some of those beautiful, old, tudor-style brick and stucco Tangletown houses, even at 1 a.m.

    We often walked or biked the streets around the Washburn Park water tower. Those Nordic guardians built into its sides seemed stoically protective of their domain and determined to stare down anyone inclined to cause trouble (although they hadn’t prevented a certain amount of graffiti in the access alcove hidden at the base of the west side).

    I was intrigued, as well, by the tremendous variety of housing styles and floor plans in Tangletown, many of which seemed to have new owners at that time and were in the process of being rehabbed/refurbed.

    I especially liked a house whose garage and main entry (which seemed to be on the top floor) opened onto Elmwood facing the water tower, but whose construction seemed to be built at least two stories downward from there into the side of a steep slope. It looked vaguely castle-like when seen from the lower street behind it.

    Of course the Minnehaha Parkway and Lake Harriet were close, as well, which made for excellent biking and walking as our kids grew older and more capable (but having the creek so close sometimes made it tricky to keep the raccoons out of our garbage receptacles behind the garage).

    I took my kids trick-or-treating in Tangletown each year we lived there (they were elementary-school aged). As I remember it, the folks in those beautiful houses were quite generous. Of course we trudged home through several inches of heavy wet snow in 1991.

    At the time I lived there, it seemed as if few people were aware of this treasure of a neighborhood tucked away right in the middle of South Minneapolis. Most people my age seemed to believe the boring burb’s were where everything important was happening.

    Thanks again, Andy for reminding us that it’s there.

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