Extreme Makeover: Lake Street

Hennepin County and Minneapolis are spending millions to rebuild south Minneapolis's main east-west thoroughfare in a new image. But whose vision is it?

 

Lake Street has vexed city fathers and urban planners from the beginning. By the mid-1940s, it was a major urban thoroughfare, but the genesis of Lake Street goes back to the early 1860s, when it was simply a dividing line between the farms just shy of downtown Minneapolis and the further expanses of farmland that stretched south uninterrupted for miles. By no real design, covered wagons began using this route to cross town, and at some peril: Many got stuck in the lowlands and swamp--and, according to one newspaper account, "much horse dung"--at either the Mississippi or Lake Calhoun ends of the trail.

In 1919, Major Edward Falk, who owned a harness shop on Lake, reminisced about the early years of the "finest boulevard in town" to the Minneapolis Tribune. "[H]e used to sit in front of his shop and watch the throngs of bicycle riders, men, women and boys, going in both directions," the paper recounted. "Pedestrians had to wait for 15 to 20 minutes waiting for a chance to cross." Falk went on to recall that "in 1885, Lake Street had no business houses at all. There were only a few scattered houses. At that time the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street was the only corner that showed any promise."

Beginning around 1890, a "steam motor line" was built from 12th Street to Nicollet Avenue, then to 31st Street and out to Lake Calhoun. "Part of this trip was through prairie grain fields," according to a newspaper account. Around the same time, a streetcar line was built on Fourth Avenue from downtown to Lake Street. It was the first in the city to be "electrified." A "Selby-Lake interurban line" was added in 1905, according to the Tribune. Aside from connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul across the river, it created a great commercial interest in Lake Street. It was paved by 1910, with streetcar tracks running down the middle of the boulevard.

Lake Street's growing pains have periodically distressed the city ever since. In June 1927, for example, the Minneapolis Tribune reported an effort to repave Lake Street. There was, predictably, a fight on the Minneapolis City Council over money for the project. But in August 1927, according to the Minneapolis Star, the repaving of Lake Street from Hennepin to 29th Avenue was approved at a cost of $237,850.50. A year later, the mammoth Sears tower was built. For several years it remained the largest retail complex west of the Mississippi River. Over the next three decades, Lake Street flourished for blocks near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Lake, thanks almost solely to the Sears complex and the streetcar lines--from both Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns, all the way to Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka--that led to it. Commercial development boomed.

This changed almost overnight in 1954, when the legendary Minneapolis-St. Paul streetcar line was torn up. The General Motors Company gave money to municipalities across the nation for major road reconstruction and offered discounts to cities for buses the company had built. The end of the streetcar was the beginning of the era of the automobile. (The head of the local company that ran the streetcars had once worked for the bus division started by General Motors.) And with it came urban decay. Lake Street was a notable victim.

A September 1954 story from the Minneapolis Tribune heralded a project called "Lake of Light." According to the clipping, 335 light fixtures were to be installed between Hennepin and 29th Avenues, over a six-month period. The project was to cost $237,000, and was part of a million-dollar effort to revitalize and widen Lake Street. "Transition of Lake Street from a 'boulevard of shadows' into the longest stretch of fluorescent lighting in the world will begin next week," the clip says. "The street will be bathed in an almost glareless bluish gray light which will make details of traffic, pedestrians and buildings sharp and clear. There will be nothing else like it."

Before-and-after photos published in the Minneapolis Star in May 1955 show cobblestones, rail tracks, and streetlamps replaced by glistening pavement and towering fluorescent lights. The "after" picture, notably, features no traffic and no pedestrians. It was the last time anyone tinkered with Lake Street, until now.

 

By the late 1960s, Lake Street had slipped into a haze of empty storefronts, struggling auto dealerships, and petty crime. In 1968, students at the University of Minnesota undertook a study of Lake Street and came to the conclusion it was "ugly." "Lake Street looks like Reno, Nevada," one student told a group of businessmen, citing bumper-to-bumper traffic, empty sidewalks and boarded-up windows. "You have to have a drawing card if you want people to come here, and aesthetic harmony is a good one." According to the Minneapolis Star, the business gathering gave the students applause and $500 for their efforts.

So began a protracted battle to get a grip on Lake Street. In 1969, something called the Greater Lake Street Council was formed to "halt the deterioration some businessmen felt was afflicting Lake Street." By 1972, newspapers reported that Lake Street's "'dollar volume per square foot" was $30, compared to $56 in downtown Minneapolis and $100 at Southdale Mall in Edina--the country's first enclosed shopping mall, built in 1962.

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