Poet and top-fiver on any list of noted Minneapolis literary figures John Berryman once referred to Lake Street as the place “where the used cars live.” East Lake Street is second only to University as the car-craziest part of the cities. From the river to the lakes, it’s home to dozens of body shops, garages, used car dealers, car washes, auto painting businesses, parking lots, drive-in restaurants and liquor stores, and an absolutely absurd amount of auto-parts places. It seems like every vacant spot on East Lake for the past two years has been filled in with an AutoZone that seemingly sprang up overnight.
As with any heavy concentration of subcultures, the Lake Street automotive world brings with it a visual language all of its own. Neon liquor signage highlighting drive-through windows is important here — I’ve written elsewhere that Minneapolis’ neon liquor store signage is one of the features of the visual landscape that looks better from a car than on foot. Important too are hand-painted signs and murals. In particular, within a few blocks from each other along Fifth Avenue at Lake, there are a few pieces of transit-themed artwork that show the breadth of Lake Street’s automotive culture — as well as one notable outlier.
FNR Auto Customs is an auto custom garage located at Fifth Avenue in West Phillips. They install audio systems, tinted windows, upholstery, rims, superchargers, whatever else you might need to customize a car. FNR’s logo is reminiscent of the old “No Fear” logo, ubiquitous in the 1990s, and now largely forgotten — FNR outlived its graphic inspiration handily.
Some of the best hand-painted signage is along Lake Street, and FNR, aside from its logo, is a part of that. Most of the small businesses along Lake, whether auto shops, convenient stores, clothing retailers, or anything else, have hand-painted signs in their windows and on the exteriors. If you look at enough of hand-painted signage, you begin to see there are a few different schools: There’s the swooping, italicized, one-stroke fonts you most often see on neon-backed boards, hanging in windows and announcing hours of operation or special sales. There’s the elaborate old-school style, the sort practiced by Forrest Wozniak or Phil Vandervaart. Then there’s a third kind that’s often seen painted in windows of small shops, done with oil-based paints, sometimes with sparkling and iridescent paint mixed in, and usually with sharp serifs on the boldfaced lettering. You’d know it if you saw it.
That’s the kind of hand-painted signage FNR has, and the stand-out piece is a “NO PARKING” mural painted on a garage, and featuring the trunk of an enormous, tank-like Hummer with a custom sound system in the back, daring you to park in front of it. If you do, it looks like the bass alone could blow your crappy little car halfway to Marshall Avenue. FNR is not located in an attractive building — it’s that sort of weird, pebbled semi-stucco you see covering a lot of commercial buildings in the city, the overall effect being a sort of brutalist sand castle. But this sort of signage, with its idiosyncrasies and visible brushwork, lightens the overall effect of the architecture, making it a little more human. The Hummer has been there for years, and it’s easy to see driving west down Lake Street toward Uptown.
Just across the street from FNR is another auto custom shop, with another automotive mural painted on a garage door, but this one quite different. It’s one of those classic brick auto-body shops, with a ziggurat-like top. The remaining exterior signage says “Collision Services, Inc.,” but the phone book also lists an Auto Customs and a Wameng Auto Body Repair at the same address. The “CLOSED” sign taped over the hours seems pretty definitive. Whoever might have been there seem to be gone now — but before they left, they painted a remarkable muscle car mural on the garage door. One of you, my faithful readers, will surely be able to identify the automobile pictured, so I won’t even try to guess. But it’s cherry red, sitting atop a patch of cracked earth in front of three gas pumps, the Minnesota license plate bearing “’69” tags and reading “JESSIE.”
Is Jessie the muralist? The owner of the shop? A patron? Usually a mural of this size and skill is signed somewhere, but I didn’t see anything, so it’s hard to know. It’s a great piece of work, capturing the sort of aggressive, sleek and attractive spirit of automotive culture that Lake Street has been a home to for many decades. This is the sort of car you would want to own, the sort that you’d take to the dozens and dozens of businesses all up and down Lake Street to have washed, customized, detailed, pinstriped, repaired and tuned up, and be proud to show off to the owners and regulars at all of these places. I don’t drive much, but I get it. It’s easy to admire Jessie’s red car there on the door and daydream about cruising from the lakes to the river, windows down. Jessie’s car is the ideal.
Of course, the era of the automobile seems to be ending, however slowly, and Lake Street has also been once and future home to other methods of transit. It was, of course, once one of the major streetcar lines in the city, and be may be again someday — the Midtown Greenway runs along Lake Street the whole way, taking pedestrians and cyclists across town, and with railroad tracks that once served commercial freight trains and may serve a streetcar line again. In fact, Fifth Avenue is the one of the few thoroughfares in the city where vehicular traffic stops for bicycle traffic crossing between 29th and Lake.
Past Lake and near Fifth, there’s a large residential home with an amazing alley mural on the stand-alone garage out back. Credited to “Greg Rick ’08,” it depicts a sort of liberation theology / apocalyptic confrontation between a white-robed, black-haired messianic figure and his followers, and a gaping hellmouth filled with demons, skeletons, gun-toting figures, and other satanic types. On the side of the good is a bearded man on a 10-speed bicycle, barreling toward the flames with peace sign alley cat cards in his spokes.
The rest of the house is a sort of DIY bicycle-based transit museum. Bicycle frames, mounted to the siding, decorate the back of the house. Sitting in the driveway the day I walked by was the famed Pedal Cloud, an extraordinary 10-seat cycle built on an auto chassis created by artists Hans Early-Nelson and Matt Carlyle, with a steering wheel and banana seat for a pilot up front. On the front of the vehicle is the taxidermied head of an eight-point buck, the top of whose head is capped again with an animal skull. With its bones-and-metal décor, the Cloud has a great Mad Max vibe, well suited for post-peak oil apocalyptic fantasies, or maybe just rides around the neighborhood. The Cloud has been seen out at public events, parades and protests around the city since 2008.
My favorite part of the house is a favorite of neighborhood kids, as well — on the fence facing 31st Street, the house’s owners have mounted a steering wheel, or some kind of wheel, as a public service. As you walk by, you can spin it. It doesn’t control anything — or at least I don’t think it does — but it’s fun to give it a spin. People always like spinning a wheel.
Andy Sturdevant will be on vacation next week. The Stroll will return May 8.