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A confab on Hennepin's future wraps up with a question: Who owns public space?

Who "belongs" in public spaces like streets, skyways, and sidewalks? What's the purpose of public space anyway? And how do such issues affect the redevelopment of one of Minneapolis' most famous streets, Hennepin Avenue?

These and many other questions were posed, if not definitively answered, during the last edition of “Talk-It Hennepin” last Thursday. Titled “Owning Public Space—The Power of Place Identity,” the public conversation, held at the New Century Theater in downtown Minneapolis, was the last in a series of five that began in September after Hennepin Theatre Trust received a $200,000 “Our Town” planning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

(A “Talk-It Hennepin Workshop: Putting It All Together—Naming and Claiming,” followed on Saturday, with local artists Ta-coumba Aiken, Mankwe Ndosi, Leah Nelson, and Harry Waters Jr. guiding participants “in building on the values, vision and design ideas for Hennepin Avenue that were generated at the previous three workshops.”)

The purpose of the “Our Town” grant was to engage in a variety of discussions and workshops with multiple collaborators to set the stage for re-inventing “Hennepin Avenue as an arts-inspired cultural corridor stretching from the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi Riverfront.” The overall project is called “Plan-It Hennepin.”

“Hennepin Theatre Trust,” says the “Plan-It” website, “is working with its partners Walker Art Center, Artspace and the City of Minneapolis to gather input and ideas to plan the re-invention of Minneapolis' oldest street. We want to string together the existing pearls and add more cultural activity to make the Avenue a more inviting place.” As Tom Borrup, the grant’s project director, reminded listeners before the final “Talk-It,” the intent of the project is to use “arts and culture as the connective tissue” in the re-visioning of Hennepin Avenue.

A Look Back

The first “Talk-It,” at the Minneapolis Public Library, was a standing-room-only affair that inspired a lively flow of ideas from the audience (including the role of food carts and the need to keep the avenue gritty) after insights from Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota; NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman; Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak; Sarah Harris, the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s chief operating officer; and Borrup.

The second “Talk-It,” also at the library, included speakers who revealed the diverse social and cultural history of the avenue, including the role of Native Americans, African-Americans, and gay men and women in its history. Talks three and four featured out-of-towners: public artist Candy Chang at the Walker Art Center and urban theorist Charles Landry at The Cowles Center, sharing insights derived from their own projects.

In between these presentations, the “Plan-It” collaborators held walking tours and workshops with a variety of stakeholders, from local performing and visual artists to school groups. The local branch of construction and architectural firm AECon created a 42-foot-long model of Hennepin Avenue that was pored over for re-visioning ideas. 

Sparse Attendance, Strong Insights  

So how might one explain the scant attendance for the “Talk-It” finale, with Chanchanit Martorell, founder of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles; Don Mitchell, cultural geographer; and the Twin Cities’ own Seitu Jones, public artist? Was it the beautiful evening (which locals were loathe to give up for indoor activities)? The location (the New Century Theatre, buried inside City Center)? Project fatigue?

Mitchell, a 1998 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, posed the evening’s most essential and galvanizing questions: “What is public space for?” “Who is public space for?” He discussed how public spaces, such as streets, plazas, parks, churches, and skyways, are rife with various legal and popularly held expectations about assembly--who has the right to gather in public space, and under what conditions-- and use. He pointed out that a number of positive and not-so-positive urban phenomena, from food carts to bus stops to the homeless, are seen by traffic engineers as “obstructions” impeding the flow of traffic on foot and in cars and bicycles. In short, he encouraged the “Plan-It” participants to consider the bases on which inclusions and exclusions from public space are decided and enacted.

Jones used his time to reflect on his memories of Hennepin Avenue and downtown Minneapolis. He talked about traveling to the Great Northern Market (on the site that's now Block E) with his mother and sister for fresh produce; his grandfather’s tardiness disembarking from the train on which he was a porter (poker games); and how Shinder’s magazine shop and the fondly remembered Rifle Sport art gallery (upstairs above Shinder's) added arts and culture to downtown.

He then talked about how he’s incorporated the stories of former Native American and African American residents into his public artworks, “recording these stories in stone, steel and wood.” By researching such stories, then engaging communities in the creation of the artwork, community members "become less likely to tag” or otherwise disparage the fountains, placards, ironwork or sculpture, which are, after all, reflecting their stories. He also reminded design teams to include artists from the start of the planning process in order to ensure that art and culture are appropriately represented in the creation of public space.

Jones concluded by invoking Martin Luther King’s call for “beloved community” in the creation of new public space. Those involved in new designs for Hennepin Avenue need to “dig into our moral courage” and create work that “reflects love of self, family and community.” Referencing Mitchell’s call for inclusion, Jones also asked that planners recognize “those who’ve been ignored.”

No to Disney, Yes to History

During her presentation, a film and powerpoint about the initiatives and successes of her organization, Thai Community Development Center, Martorell did little to relate her topic to the Hennepin Avenue planning process. During the question-and-answer session, however, she invoked French theorist Jean Baudrillard in describing how her organization fought to “not create a hyperreality of commercialism” or “a Disney-fication of Thai culture” in the development of Thai Town. Hennepin Avenue planning initiatives, she added, “should try to grow community as organically as possible.”

Mitchell advised planners to “think about history as the foundation for the future” and reflect on “how the present has been formed.” He added that “how power is arrayed in democracy diffuses power, which opens up a place for struggle,” which is beneficial and productive in fostering inclusionary planning processes.  

Several off the attendees had been to most if not all of the project’s talks and many of its activities. A newcomer, however, asked how the “Plan-It” processes were working, how people who provided a point of view were being included, and how a diversity of thought would be reflected in the planning process. Borrup fielded her questions. Conclusions derived from the yearlong planning process, he explained, will be condensed and sent to the Minneapolis City Council. Hopefully, the findings will encourage a diverse array of already-invested and new participants to follow and take part in the project’s next stages.

Camille LeFevre's last article for The Line reported on urbanist Charles Landry's Talk-It Hennepin presentation, in our May 16, 2012 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Don Mitchell speaks as Seitu Jones and Chanchanit Martorell look on.

Speakers and audience at Talk-It Hennepin

Seitu Jones

Chanchanit Martorell

Attendees look over a presentation about the Talk-It Hennepin series.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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