Last year, I wrote a column about the storefronts of East Lake Street, east of Hiawatha, highlighting in particular some of the vacant buildings in that relatively sleepy part of the city. I wanted to document them quickly because Lake Street commercial real estate can be like watching flight destinations and times turn over on one of those old mechanical airline terminal timetables: It’s quiet, and then it all flips over suddenly and there’s an entirely new set of information in its place.
Already, in the past year, buildings I highlighted have been demolished, renovated, extended, sprouted new businesses — parts of East Lake are virtually unrecognizable. Lake Street is one of our city’s great streets because it’s always in the midst of a massive self-transformation. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes it’s for the worse.
Recently it’s been for the better. The stretch of Lake Street to the west of Hiawatha, running to I-35W, is more fluid and more prone to transformation than the eastern stretch. In the past few weeks, three new pieces of public artwork have turned up on Lake Street between Chicago and Cedar that I’d put in the “better” camp, and that encourage close examination on the part of pedestrians. You can walk between all three of them in 10 minutes.
The first is a long time coming. Back in 2007, the Twin Cities hosted Mayor Marco Castillo of Cuernavaca, Morelos, a famously temperate and chic Minneapolis-sized city in the southern part of Mexico. Cuernavaca, dubbed “the city of eternal spring,” is a sister city to Minneapolis, and the state of Morelos is the home of many of the state’s Mexican immigrants. As a tribute to this connection, Mayor Castillo brought with him a gift: an oversized bronze statue by artist Germán Michel Leal depicting one of Morelo’s most famous sons, Emiliano Zapata, the early 20th-century Mexican revolutionary.
The statue languished in a state of limbo for many years, for a variety of reasons — it was originally intended for Powderhorn Park, but there was some bureaucratic red tape surrounding its placement in a park, as well as some well-intentioned but (I’d say) misguided concern about the fact that Zapata is portrayed carrying a rifle; Powderhorn has had its share of gun violence in the past 10 years and, the thinking went, a statue with an armed man was in bad taste. The statue was stowed away in the lobby of a storefront near Hiawatha until — fortunately — a coalition of community members and elected officials found a place was found for him in a small plaza north of Lake on 12th Avenue, on some land donated by Hennepin County to the city. It was unveiled in a ceremony coinciding with Mexican Independence Day last month, six years after coming to Minneapolis.
There’s no signage or didactics yet in the plaza, but walking around him, the idea that the Zapata statue is in any way belligerent seems absurd. In fact, Zapata looks dashing, steadfast, and even polite, his hat in hand and stepping forward. Sculptor Leal’s other work is primarily monochromatic abstract sculptures, quite unlike this piece. All Leal’s work has a great sense of movement and energy, however, in coiled, twisting, and playful forms that mostly seem to bounce or spin upward. His Zapata has a similarly silent, energetic quality — he seems to lean forward ever so slightly, maybe about to break into a fast walk. There’s a faint suggestion of a nod. The plaza around him is very small but lovely, and a quiet, sylvan setting just off of one the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Zapata stands at the head of the plaza, and a small, winding pathway wends for a bit behind him, under a cluster of trees.
You can follow Zapata’s lead by breaking into a walk yourself and heading a few blocks east to Bloomington Avenue. On the northwest corner of Bloomington and Lake is La Mexicana grocery store, in the building that formerly housed Butler Drug. The ghostly outline of “Butler Drug” has remained on the orange façade for years. It’s a pretty ugly building; any of the modest charm of the two-story brick commercial structure it might have been at one time was slathered out of existence years ago by several coats of the type of cheap stucco that inexplicably covers the southside. The orange is a nice touch, but it hasn’t weathered well, and frequently graffiti would be covered in another not-quite-matching shade of orange. I pass it on my bus ride home every day, and it seemed like one of those buildings that, like it or not, was going to look the way it looked forever.
Which is why it was so surprising to see the side of the building transformed practically overnight. Over the orange stucco an elaborate glass, mirror and tile mosaic went up, mixed in with some painted mural work of a butterfly and eagle. Made up of a number of busy, bustling sections of mosaic, it has an incredibly unified, coherent look from a distance. It achieves that difficult goal of looking both like the work of many, many collaborators of all ages and skill sets, but also looking highly polished and professional. Painted in the upper right-hand corner is a fragment of a poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado that sums up the spirit of the urban pedestrian adventurer: “Caminante, no hay camino, / se hace camino al andar.” In English: “Wanderer, there is no road / the road is made by walking.”
Leading this project is Minneapolis community and public artist Greta McLain. For the past few months, she’s led mosaic and mural-painting sessions at Semilla Community Studio, located in the basement of St. Paul’s Church on 15th Avenue. It’s in that studio the mural, entitled “Juntos Crecemos/Together We Grow,” came together over the summer. Partners from all over the Phillips neighborhood — Waite House, Heart of the Beast Theater, All My Relations Gallery, Mercado Central — pitched in. Small medallions with each of these organizations’ name are located throughout the mural.
The reason the mural appeared to go up so fast is because it was created using the “parachute method,” a way of making mural work more collaborative and less site-specific developed in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Sections of the mural are worked one at a time, offsite, on panels of Polytab “parachute” cloth, and then pieced together up on the exterior wall later. “Most simply, the parachute cloth method expands participation,” writes Steve Weinik of Philadelphia’s pioneering Mural Arts Program. “Murals panels can be flown around the world, brought inside prisons and worked on in any weather. The method is indispensable for an organization looking for ways to increase opportunities for collaboration.” Increasing collaboration and participation, especially with non-artist neighborhood residents, was McLain’s goal: “I wanted to get as many untrained hands involved as possible,” she said.
The importance of Bloomington and Lake as a pedestrian hub was of great importance to the project: “There’s always street traffic on this corner, and I wanted people to have a positive experience walking through this neighborhood.” The medallions with the organizational names act as a sort of loose, wandering map made by walking, in the Machado’s phrase. The mural is the first in a large-scale “Avenue of Arts” project in Phillips that will connect a number of venues, artworks, and cultural resources in and around the neighborhood for pedestrians. McLain leads a community mosaic workshop at Semilla Community Studio every Wednesday night from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
The final new artwork is somewhat more small-scale, but no less pleasing. Panaderia San Miguel is moving a few blocks east down Lake Street. Their old mural depicted a modest painting of a winged San Miguel, holding a loaf of bread and casting his eyes down. In their new building, on the corner of Lake and 17th, San Miguel is reborn in full Technicolor. His eyes are cast downward again, from his place in the clouds, but this time he wields the “great scales” he uses to weigh “the souls of the righteous and the wicked,” to quote a few lines from some of the Catholic prayers about him. He also, most importantly, holds a delicious-looking chocolate cake high above his head. It’s a massive improvement over the charming but somewhat crude painting at the old location.
I’m not sure what the connection between St. Michael and bakers is — the Archangel is the patron saint of grocers, though it is St. Honoratus who is often associated with bakers. But it’s a bold move, and the boldness is welcome. The new location isn’t yet open, but as soon as it is, I will go in and ask as I am buying cuernos.