So, were these lessons learned this time around? Well, another Minnesota trait that needs to be mentioned is our very deliberate, attentive approach to the political process when it comes to building anything downtown. There may have been lofty aspirations as far as an "upscale" tenant list at one point, but by the time the developers and the City Council were through debating whether or not the place should have a public bathroom, there was a full-on recession happening. The upscale business model went out the window, leaving the Meridien and Applebee's as strange bedfellows. Who knows, maybe the process finally worked.

So rather than thinking about what the Block was once intended to be and for whom it was once intended, it's easy to suss out how Block E is actually used by just standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette, and watching people try to get into the place. Like a frosted mini-wheat, Block E has two sides: the plain-looking Hennepin Avenue side and the gilded, sometimes-Spree's-Maybach-is-parked-in-front Meridien side. An example: from the north side, I would watch families from Lakeville (how did I know they were from Lakeville? Because people from Lakeville wear "Lakeville Girls Basketball" windbreakers) cross the street from the girls' basketball tournament at Target Center to get a bite to eat at Applebee's. With lab rat instinct, they would hesitantly run the "upscale" gauntlet before them--first blanching at the luxury cars and the Jesuit-looking doormen of the Meridien, then darting away from the imposing Bellanotte restaurant entrance, which is dominated by a corporate logo that looks like a New Age Emmy statuette, before finally finding the north side entrance, just to the right of Starbucks. Once inside, the Lakeville family narrowly avoids the clutches of the gay aesthetician at The Jewel Salon Spa before finally finding the elevator that safely delivers them to Applebee's.

The easiest way to enter Block E is through the Seventh Street hangar doors by car; from there the parking ramp elevator whisks would-be patrons up to the skyway level, where the movie theater, the restaurants, and the clubs are located. If you've been bar-hopping in the Warehouse District, full of Apple Pucker and bespangled with strings of beads from the endless Mardi Gras going on there, and you're making your way by foot to Block E for some dancing at Escape, well, you're fucked. An architectural wrinkle--only one elevator connects the Meridien to Block E--was devised at the last minute at the behest of the hotel group in order to keep unsavory characters from passing through, while still allowing hotel patrons access to the skyway system during winter. It worked--it's very difficult to get from the north side to the inside of the mall.

At 9:30 on a Saturday night, the north side elevator from the first floor to the skyway level is backed up. This is where the line to Escape Ultra Lounge begins. Escape is modeled after the "Ultra Lounges" in Vegas, and it attracts the most attractive multicultural crowds Minneapolis has ever seen. Tiny women of all races, in halter tops, heels, and designer jeans, escorted by men in their best Kenny Cole regalia, look out of place in the mall entryway, trapped in an airless, emotionless chamber, lit by Kubrick, waiting for an elevator that stops every few minutes, opening to display a full chamber of car ramp people, who despite having come here manifestly to grind, sure don't look like they want to start early. When the door shuts, conversation peters out, expressions sour, a drunk guy in a shiny shirt leans against the wall. Standing there, I talk to Julliane, a 25-year-old from Roseville huddled with four friends. She says it's like this every Saturday night, but she doesn't mind waiting in line. "I don't know," she says, "I guess I'm used to it."

This is one way in which Block E isn't like many other malls. There aren't themed entertainment or shopping areas--in fact, most of the businesses are physically disconnected from one another. A few loose affiliations exist: an executive staying at the Meridien might grab a latte at Starbucks, a couple from Maple Grove waiting to see a movie at the Crown cinema might browse the magazine rack at Borders. While the family-themed places on the other side, GameWorks and the Hard Rock Café, have staircases that connect to the skyway level, Bellanotte, on the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue, is disconnected from the mall, with only an exterior entrance. The same team that runs Escape runs Bellanotte, but in the case of the Italian restaurant, they're clearly courting an older, neo-Zelo crowd with the peach curtains and brick accents that look like they were put up overnight. Jimmy John's on Sixth Street inhabits a cubbyhole dug into the east side of the building. It's frequented by the cynical type of young person who doesn't want to have anything to do with Block E, but wants a sandwich served by somebody fully sleeved.

 

The south side of Block E on Hennepin Avenue is clearly the portal for common people. There's a bus stop in front, and there are more doors at street level, although most of the foot traffic flows overhead through the skyway tube that connects to City Center. Here on the sidewalk, there's evidence of downtown's fringe society: black people and smokers. At a glance, the only thing keeping them at bay is the ugly wallpaper covering the glass on one side of the entryway, and rows of books and a display of Elton John's greatest hits CDs on the other.

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