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

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

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.

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 09/12/2013 - 10:40 am.

    Alley use.

    I live on a block with an alley that gets much thru traffic-illegaly. What Andy needs to understand is that alleys are for the residents of that block, and if you do not live on that block, you should not be using the alley. We get traffic thru at speeds that are shocking because our alley affords a straight shot between two busy streets where the surface streets curve around inconveniently for the speed demons. So Andy, let people know to not use the alleys where they do not live. And remember too, only in those nice neighborhoods do the nice things go on in the alley. In the not so nice, large percentage of non resident owner neighborhoods, like northside, not so nice things go on in the alleys. Have a walk here at night Andy, and you might not be such a romantic.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 09/12/2013 - 11:27 am.

      I agree that people…

      …shouldn’t be driving through alleys as shortcuts (which is illegal), or hanging out in alleys in neighborhoods where they don’t live at night (which can be dangerous). But that’s not what I’m talking about. There’s a big difference between those things, and walking on foot during the day through an alley near where you live. There is nothing wrong, illegal, or dangerous about that.

  2. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 09/12/2013 - 01:01 pm.

    Some alleys should be turned into greenways

    I have a loft condominium on the corner of 10 Ave N and 3rd Street N. Behind it is the Salvation Army building and for the next two or three blocks heading towards downtown there are four or five mid-rise buildings on 4th Street N. We were told, at one point, that the alley way between 3rd and 4th Streets N would be turned into greenway with coffee shops and perhaps some cafes or restaurants. It was a Shaffer-Richardson plan since they built many of those mid-rises and operate out of the Bassett Creek Professional Building where my loft is located. I think it is a great idea as a pedestrian and bikeway, access to the new transit hub and Target Field, and downtown beyond.

    Also, I love the alley behind Lurcat at Harmon and Loring Park. That is what an alley way should look like, in my opinion. It is just fantastic.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/15/2013 - 12:16 pm.

    The alley as respectacle icon, yes

    …and wonderful use of free space on private structures be it poetic, political or philosophical; great word play embraced by great art images?

    Does remind me also of what designers, planners created in the 60s…ALLEY 29 in St Paul with St Paul Book etc, Fujia Cafe plus a water fountain courtyard…if it still exists.

    Bob Dylan Way in Duluth is essentially an alley parallel to downtown main street, Superior street; the ‘alley’ being Michigan Street running for some distance where the backsides of adjoining buildings are developing commerce, retail along that corridor.

    Another thought…may publicity of the use of alleys as message and art space not create signage restriction in skeptical city minds. Or hope too, it never becomes a marketplace for renting out message space like another back alley billboard?

    As a well worn, word-wise billboard complained to me once..”I was once a tabula rasa but as you well know, anything can be bought”

    Then again, imagine another fantasy alley between Wall Street and Main Street where street art; the political and the poetical create attitude-alley voicing necessary dissent?

    And last comment…always felt sorry for suburban challenged kids growing up without the alley as playground. Then too, take a check on those ugly, bulimic, overstuffed dumpsters decorating the front lawns once or twice a week because lo, the great rusty garbage can – king of the alley – is now mere relic of a lost era.

    Yes, one can appreciate the alley which has been so neglected too often, too long and downsized in its significance . Think of it as grub street in a positive way or an alternative walkway…space; any open space is a rare commodity in an overdeveloped society?

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