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Off-street activity: Twin Cities alleys offer a glimpse of a shadow city

Best of all is the surprises you’ll find along the way, testaments to the ingenuity of the city’s residents.

The real action is out back in the alleys, which collectively constitute a sort of shadow city superimposed over the grid.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

With the exception of those that carried old streetcar lines, walking around the residential streets of Minneapolis can be a tad monotonous. Sure, there are some nice houses here and there — a Hollywood bungalow here, a Victorian mansion there — but for the most part, people keep their lawns tidy, their trim painted, and their facades stuccoed. The real action is out back in the alleys, which collectively constitute a sort of shadow city superimposed over the grid.

The alleys of the Twin Cities are maybe its most unappreciated feature. Next time you have to get from Point A to Point B through a neighborhood on foot, cut through the alleys and you’ll learn a couple of things about your city. For one, it’s the surest way to see what the topography was like before the land was developed and flattened. You can be on a surface street that’s so flat you can see traffic lights ten blocks away, but duck back in the alley, and suddenly the landscape rolls and dips and rises and falls in ways you never anticipated. There are invisible hills behind the houses on the block.

Secondly, it’s a remarkable glimpse back in time to the city’s pre-automotive streetscape. In parts of the city built prior to 1930 (that is to say, most of it), the alleys are lined with what are now garages, but were once stables and carriage houses. Many are remarkably well-preserved, with their original barn-style doors still in place. The streets are narrows; they’re built to be navigated by horses and Model T’s. The city feels denser with all those rustic carriage houses and wood-framed shacks leaning over you.

Best of all, though, is the surprises you’ll find along the way, testaments to the ingenuity of the city’s residents. Unbelievably elaborate children’s tree houses, chicken coops, lush vegetable and flower gardens, muscle cars up on blocks, or decks with professional kitchen-level grills. And all kinds of artwork: painted murals on garages, graffiti, sculptures made with found objects, almost anything you can think of, created by professional artists, amateur artists, artists that don’t know they’re artists, and every other kind in-between.

posters in alley
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
There’s a surprise awaiting you on an orange stucco garage in a north-to-south-running alley right off of 36th Street south of Powderhorn Park.

One such surprise awaiting you from one of these ingenious residents is on an orange and mustard-colored stucco garage in a north-to-south-running alley right off of 36th Street south of Powderhorn Park, visible from the sidewalk. It’s a wall-mounted wooden frame supporting three 24×36 posters, sitting side by side and wheat-pasted over a dozen other posters. It’s Erik Brandt’s Ficciones Typografika.

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Brandt is the chair of the design department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Ficciones is an idea he began while on sabbatical, a way to play around with some empty space on his garage, but also to engage the international design community, his friends, colleagues and peers from all over the world. The result is a piece of artwork that’s at once effortlessly cosmopolitan and perfectly at home in a South Minneapolis alleyway. Described as “typographical fictions,” short narratives made entirely of design elements, it’s the work of a few dozen global designers, playing with typography and design in a charmingly offhand, considered and pleasurable way.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The current batch up are works by a Frenchman, an Iranian and an American. By, from left to right, Jean-Michel Géridan (2013), Ryan Gerald Nelson (2013), and Mehdi Saeedi (2013).

The work changes twice a week — Brandt’s been on this schedule for the entire summer. Like an old-time bill sticker, he brushes the old posters onto their surface with wheat paste, wrinkled and imperfect overtop the layers of their predecessors peeking through. When there’s rain, the posters peel and warp and reveal layers beneath. The current batch up are works by a Frenchman, an Iranian and an American, but it’ll change in a week, or maybe sooner if there’s a storm. (It’s been a pretty dry summer, Brandt notes, and the roof overhang is surprisingly good shelter.)

The global scope of the show has been impressive and wide-ranging, a little bit of global design culture back in a Powderhorn alley. Not only are there Americans, but Dutch, Turkish, German, Chinese, Swiss and British designers have also been represented.

Over the summer, a week’s worth of posters were created by Minneapolis high school students under the direction of Lauren Thorson. The work ranges from stridently political (Brandt has featured his own work on several occasions, which makes references to the NSA, drones and immigration) to poetic to abstract to stubbornly inscrutable.

carcetti poster
Courtesy of Erik Brandt
The work ranges from stridently political to poetic to abstract to stubbornly inscrutable. Artwork by Daniel Kent (left and right) and Abake (center). 

Neighbors walking through the alleys or down the sidewalk on 36th Street love it. Brandt has said people in the neighborhood approach him almost anytime he’s out of the house, asking questions about the new batch, commenting pro or con on them, and generally inquiring about his well-being. They posters have become a focal point in the neighborhood.

MCAD alum Ryan Gerald Nelson has my favorite of the current batch: his poster has the phrase LACONIC MEN IN DESOLATE LANDSCAPES imposed on a yellow background hinting at desert topographical maps. It’s a wry six-word summation of one particularly deathless theme in American popular culture that can be read as a critique of American foreign policy, or an atmospheric short story, or a wry celebration of the cinematic work of John Ford. Or possibly all three.

A neighbor walked by while I was standing out in the alley looking at it, and said, “Oh, man, I know that phrase. What’s that from?” I’m pretty sure it’s not from anywhere except Nelson’s imagination, but it’s a testament to the strikingness of the image that the text conveys that Brandt’s neighbor was sure he’d heard it somewhere.

These posters would be striking anywhere, but they’re especially effective in an alley. An alley is a space between spaces: public but also private. When I spoke to him, Brandt made reference to the jazz musicians of the bebop era, like Miles Davis, who often played with their backs to the audience. Not because they wanted to exclude the audience from what they were making, but because there was an intensely private quality to the way it was made. Placing the Ficciones in an alley is a way of turning your back on the audience while you perform. Again, not out of malice, arrogance, or spite — people used to accuse Davis himself of those things when he did it.

In 1986, Miles Davis explained it like this: “I turn my back because I play better. Some notes you get better in a specific spot on the stage.” By placing the designers in an alley, Brandt is letting them get notes better from a different part of the public stage. The alleys, not quite public but not quite private, are where the real action is.