On the Block

On Block E, the Schubert is served at 9 p.m.--sharp. Classical music drips from speakers strategically placed all over the lot, clueing would-be loafers that they better beware. Ezzdean, in the parking lot attendant's booth, has the process pretty much nailed. "It's there to, you know, make kids nervous, make 'em move along, and to ease people's minds."

It's a neat little slice of irony that soon, those stuffy strings might be the only thing left to remind Block E of its former lot in downtown life. If Brookfield Development has its way, within a few years a family from Edina or Nebraska or Tokyo will be able to sit high atop the new Block E malloplex, tapping toe to that same Hooked On Classics CD Ezz suffers through nightly.

But Ezzdean and the other guys laugh when I suggest that in a couple of years his booth might be buried under 500 tons of concrete. "They've been talking about that kinda thing down here for years, and it's never gonna happen," he says. And what if it does? "Well," he shrugs, "no one ever asked me. Know what I mean?"

Like a lot of people who grew up in the '80s and early '90s, Ezz and Co. have lived through more than one downtown incarnation. "I remember when it went from parks to malls," says Ezz's co-worker, Lee. Brookfield was around then, too, building City Center (and, later, Gaviidae Common) across from Block E. And it's no coincidence that City Center has no benches or chairs outside the food court, or that a gaggle of security guards strictly--and, some patrons say, selectively--enforce antiloitering policies. One black City Center patron who wouldn't give his name boiled down the pervasive impression: "If you're wearin' baggy pants and you're black, you get fucked with. If a cop sees you, and you look like his nephew Joey, you're all good."

While that may not make room for many variables--such as black cops--it does suggest the by-now-familiar tension of building a public space with only a portion of the public in mind. At the Mall of America, the "retail-based entertainment" precedent for whatever is built on Block E, the tension was resolved with the headline-making curfew for under-16 visitors. Brookfield Vice President of Development Jeff Essen won't say whether something similar is in store for the Block E mall; that depends on layout, "tenant mix," and target demographic.

So where will the untargeted go? Across 7th Street from Block E at Uptown Pizza, Lorenzo, 16, Loshanda, 15, and Phoebe, 17, are having slices. "If I can't go to the one down here I'll go to the Mall," says Lorenzo. And if that isn't an option? "I'll come back down here." And if that isn't an option? "Look, it doesn't matter what you build, or who you let in, or where kids are told to go. People are still gonna come downtown."

And so they do. Even though it's well past 10 on the first legitimately cold night of the year, people are out and around Block E. Down 7th Street at First Avenue--which may or may not remain standing if Brookfield also develops the block on which it sits--a show is getting out. Dozens of kids mill around, the requisite couple of MPD squads pull up for routine surveillance, and a bunch of white teenagers cross Ezz's parking lot. They pass a group of black kids taking a shortcut to Hennepin; people stop and talk, and buses are intentionally missed. It isn't the Rue St. Germain, but it isn't the ghost town--or the gangsta's paradise--its potential caretakers would like us to suppose it is. It's a city street, and people want to use it.

 
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