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Hennepin's History and Hennepin's Future

Who knew that a district called "Hobohemia" existed in the 1930s and 40s on Hennepin Avenue next to the Mississippi River? That in their heyday, streetcars transported 230 million riders up and down Hennepin (today our entire transit system carries only 80 million per year)? Or that two gentlemen who frequented the Onyx Bar on Hennepin, no doubt wearing dapper green suits and neckties that signaled “gay” back in the day, were forging a sexual politics with which they’d initiate the country’s first homosexual rights group in Los Angeles?
Presenting such revelatory historical anecdotes—and many more—was one of the objectives of Thursday evening’s “Talk-It Hennepin” panel discussion, titled “Honoring History: The Avenue Through the Ages” at the Minneapolis Public Library. The presentation was the first of four “public conversations and workshops exploring Hennepin Avenue's future as a key place of exchange in the city's new economy, ideas for design and how to collaborate to make the street more dynamic and welcoming” according to the program.

Reinventing the Avenue
The presentation picked up where the initiative to revitalize Hennepin Avenue left off last September. After receiving a? $200,000 “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of a one-year planning process to “re-invent Hennepin Avenue as an arts-inspired cultural corridor stretching from the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi Riverfront,” Hennepin Theatre Trust (in collaboration with the Walker Art Center, Artspace, and the City of Minneapolis) hosted a panel discussion at the Library on creative placemaking. (See The Line's coverage of that event here.)

A Plethora of Perspectives
The collaborators now call the initiative “Plan-It Hennepin.” And the “Honoring History” presentation effectively brought together well-researched material from a spectrum of perspectives. Educator, community organizer, and documentary filmmaker Syd Beane, a Dakota descendent, synthesized the historical confluence of Dakota, French, Belgian, and English cultures along Hennepin Avenue and the falls. Historian Penny Petersen’s thumbnail history of the avenue included portraits of red-light districts and the infamous “clear-cutting” of the Gateway District (raze 40 percent of the buildings and you get rid of the undesirables--that was the thinking at the time).

Transit consultant and researcher John Diers discussed the evolution of the avenue from Native American footpath to disaster evacuation route. History professor Kevin Murphy touched on the “conflict and contestation” along the avenue as the site of a “burgeoning gay world.”
Despite discussion of the avenue as an entertainment district, and references to the gay bars that hosted “queer and non-gender-conforming performers” (Murphy), the arts took a back seat. Instead, the audience raised such questions as the ongoing problem that is Block E and getting more people out of the skyways and onto the avenue via retail, coffee shops, and—most importantly—food (sold by street vendors or others). Facilitator Dorothy Bridges, vice president of community development and outreach at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, brought up multi-family housing on the avenue, which in turn generated concerns about balancing gentrification with the housing needs of mixed-income families.

It's About Inclusion
By the end of the evening, it was clear that the overarching concern was how to integrate Hennepin Avenue’s disparate histories into viable future. Moreover, several participants wondered how to create a legitimate, organic, non-authoritarian development plan that would incorporate all of the cultures thriving in Minneapolis--from Native American and African American to Hmong and Somali--into a greater sense of community.

As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak stated at the beginning of the program, the question of the evening was essentially “Who belongs here?” The answer is clearly: We all do.

Camille LeFevre's last article for The Line was a portrait of the Rachel and Ben Awes house, in our February 2, 2012 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Panel at Talk-It Hennepin. From left, Dorothy Bridges, Syd Beane, Penny Petersen, and Kevin Murphy

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak addressing the gathering

Kevin Murphy discusses the avenue's gay heritage.

A drum circle celebrates Hennepin Avenue's Native American ancestry.

A model of a remodeled Hennepin Avenue

All photos by Bill Kelley
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