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Washed-up cowboys, lady mechanics, homeless philosophers--photographer Wing Young Huie has seen it all. Now, by hanging 600 of his Lake Street portraits in public, he's ready to show the city to itself.

On the first legitimately warm day of spring, I went for a long walk down Lake Street and tried to keep my eyes open. Here's what I saw: a woman of indeterminate age, wild-eyed, toothless, head shaved bald, standing in the middle of traffic; a young man curled around a pay-phone receiver trying to make out the sound of his lover's voice; two white-haired ladies steering electric wheelchairs intently against each other like jockeys fighting for inside position; a mother balancing an infant and a Kmart bag on her hips; a giant man shuddering through a back alley; a pair of women wrapped in maroon saris, dreaming of someplace far away from here; people smiling when they didn't think anyone was looking; a Labrador who'd slipped his leash to sniff and paw in a bed of flowers; the sun-splashed calm of a graveyard; the fissures in the sidewalk through which weeds grow; a mission church; a father leading his baby across the street by the hand; gulls diving around an vacant lot, picking at plastic bags and old newspapers swirling in the breeze.

Geographically speaking, Lake Street proper is the six-mile artery between the Mississippi River to the east and Lake Calhoun to the west. It's not a neighborhood in any accurate sense--mostly a tangle of low-slung churches and liquor stores, seedy bars and bodegas wedged shoulder to shoulder. There's something peculiarly American about this present-tense jumble: If you don't like where you're standing, walk 50 yards in any direction and you'll be someplace new. A long swath of the street, between Minnehaha and 27th avenues, is run-down, and after 8:00 p.m., when the lights of the used-car lots go out and traffic thins to a slow ebb, it's one of the darkest places in the city. There is a billboard at the east end of the street that reads "Prepare to Meet Thy God." At night, it feels less like an invitation than a warning.

The photographer Wing Young Huie has been mapping the topography of Lake Street for the past four years. He has learned its terrain inch by inch and recorded its manic rhythms by night and by day. He has made thousands of exposures of those who live and work and wander on the street. He has spent hundreds of hours talking to them and listening to them talk about themselves. And it's all been mere preparation for his cartographic masterwork, perhaps the strangest, most ambitious public art exhibit ever to grace an American city. At six miles, it's certainly the longest.

Teddy Maki

Over the next few months, Huie's photographs, the Lake Street USA project, will begin to appear in the front windows of stores along the thoroughfare. There will be only a few at first, and no one will pay much attention. But they will multiply, and by midsummer there will be 600 images installed on the street, most 11 inches by 17 inches, with some measuring 12 feet by 8 feet. They will be portraits--of poets, and homeless kids, and congregations praying, and old folks puttering around their homes, and Somali immigrants, and salesmen, and pierced, painted anarchists, and aging cowboys. Some people will look carefully and read the captions beneath the photos, which describe the lives of Huie's subjects. Some will see themselves reflected, and some will see a reflection of themselves they don't recognize. Some will contribute mustaches and horns with black marker. There will be too many faces to ignore and, slowly, people on the street will begin to take notice.

 

"It's endless," Huie is saying. "Every business is a subculture, everything's in flux. Lake Street is what America is becoming. But there are people who don't want to face the reality."

We're threading the byways of downtown Minneapolis in the photographer's battered Saab, the first surge of the afternoon commute pushing us forward. "The New York Times Magazine called me looking for photos of immigrants. Someone who looks like an immigrant doing something really American--like, I don't know, eating a hot dog in front of the flag. I started thinking, What is American? Is there such a thing? There's a popular media perception of what America is. But is that it?"

Huie is in an uncharacteristically reflective mood. Through the hours we've spent talking over the last few weeks, he has rarely suggested that his work represents anything more sociologically significant than an honest photo album of life on Lake Street. I've come to recognize that he isn't just being coy or self-consciously enigmatic in the way that artists sometimes are. He doesn't explain his work, because, on some level, he can't. The Lake Street USA project is too expansive, its significance too elusive. To couch this grand enterprise in the terms of a sociopolitical agenda, Huie believes, would be to constrict it, to cheapen its possibility. And he holds great faith in possibility.

At the moment, however, he is groggy from a late-night birthday party the evening before (his 45th). He hasn't been sleeping well, he admits, and when he does he is troubled by dreams of failure. "I feel like I'm having a meltdown," he says. "There's so much more I wanted to photograph. I have to back off a little. Can't worry so much about the details."

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