The more things change: Is Minneapolis-St. Paul a better place than it was 20 years ago?

Southdale Center

Southdale Center Star Tribune

Twenty years ago, when we first asked people how they would change the Twin Cities for the better, we used the headline “When You Wish Upon a City.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at a handful of the wishes people made at the time, and how many of them have been granted in the years since.

Richard Flood

former chief curator, Walker Art Center

WISH: The ongoing dumbing-down of the city’s skyline and the Mississippi’s shoreline is one thing I would love to see change. The absence of architectural vision and innovation is progressively turning our vertical city into a cluster of undifferentiated high-rises with rental-information banners as their only distinguishing features. I hope that in the new millennium, those people with the money to build and those who issue their permits will stop and think more about what makes a great city and less about what it costs per square foot.

GRANTED? Well, the Mississippi riverfront is a livelier place than it was 20 years ago, thanks in part to the completion of Jean Nouvel’s idiosyncratically designed Guthrie Theater. And if Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat gets his way, a nearly mile-long curved “Wishbone” promenade will one day stretch just above St. Anthony Falls. Then again, there’s the proliferation of featureless, cookie-cutter condos across the Twin Cities over the past 15 years, which no one would claim display “architectural vision and innovation.”

Gene Sampson

co-founder of Big Daddy’s Old Kentucky Bar-B-Que

WISH: I would make St. Paul more vibrant in the Lowertown area. Put a baseball stadium there, maybe, though that’s voted against already. I’ve had a business in St. Paul since 1979—my place is in Lowertown, on Fourth Street, in the old Union Depot. After 5 p.m., they just roll up the sidewalks around here and call it quits. People need to come see me more; don’t let me get so lonely at night.

GRANTED? In 2015, the new home of the St. Paul Saints, CHS Field, opened in Lowertown. And extensive renovations to Union Depot were completed in 2012. These are just two of the major investments the city has made in that neighborhood, though St. Paul nightlife still hasn’t caught up with its more metropolitan twin’s. As for Big Daddy’s, it left Lowertown years ago, and eventually settled on University Avenue in the Rondo neighborhood in 2008.

Skip Humphrey

former Minnesota attorney general

WISH: I’d want to see Minnesota become smoke-free, so we can have a whole new generation of young children that live happier and healthier lives.

GRANTED? In 2005 Minneapolis led the way with a (then-controversial) ban on smoking indoors. St. Paul was next in 2006. And in 2007 the state of Minnesota enacted similar legislation. Now it’s hard to even remember what it was like to see a band in a smoke-filled club. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of smokers in Minnesota has dropped sharply since 2000, from nearly 20 percent of the population to below 14 percent. Vaping? Well, that’s a whole ’nother story.

Michelle Hensley

artistic director, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company

WISH: I would make all suburban shopping malls disappear, to get rid of an incredibly ugly blight, and force people to think about what else they can do with their lives besides buying things.

GRANTED? The malls still exist, but (aside from the Mall of America, which is as much a tourist attraction as a shopping center) they’re struggling to retain retail chains. Southdale has been partially rescued by taking in a DVS and a library, and the question of what to do with these complexes when they’re no longer commercially viable is a pressing one. Who could have suspected back in 2000 that an online bookseller would one day make some people nostalgic for what was then the ultimate symbol of suburban commercial vacuousness?

Nellie Stone Johnson

labor movement veteran (died 2002)

WISH: It’s very simple for me. It would be for equal opportunity for people of color in education and employment. There is such a big discrepancy here between white and black people in this. It seems like there’s more training and concern given to each other by animals than what we do. I always come back to a job—everyone’s got to have some way to work and make money to take care of themselves and their families, and that comes back down to having an education. We’re just not doing the best we could for people of color in this regard, and that’s a shame.

GRANTED? Not even close. The numbers tell a grim story of racial disparity. For instance, white poverty is at 7 percent, while 32 percent of African-Americans live in poverty—the third worst gap for any state in the country. Similar gaps persist in employment, education, and homeownership. “We’re just not doing the best we could for people of color” remains as true as ever, and that’s still a shame.

Eric Tretbar


WISH: I would eliminate all the parking meters. With a $2 billion state surplus, who needs 25-cent meters?

GRANTED? Hahahahahahahahahaha.

Read our 2000 feature "When You Wish Upon a City" here.

Read "2020 Vision," in which we asked people today how they would improve the Twin Cities, here.