It's a familiar story: urbanization endangering historic places. This might entail development companies pouncing on prime real estate and gutting the old buildings, or razing them to the ground to make room for high-rises. The fate of the Pillsbury A-Mill is in the former category, as it's poised to become an ultra-chic riverfront property right on St. Anthony Main.
In 2011, the Pillsbury A-Mill ranked on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the most endangered historic buildings in the country. Once the world's largest flour mill, the A-Mill is undergoing a transformation into more than 200 affordable artists' lofts.
Late last year, New York-based photographer Scott Heins went to the mill and documented incredible sights within, including skeletal scaffolding, colorful graffiti, and a gorgeous nighttime look at the Minneapolis skyline. We got Heins's insights about how he found this urban diamond in the rough, what it really looks like inside, and what he thinks about the rapid urbanization of the Twin Cities.
What drew you to the Pillsbury A-Mill Building?
I've never really had a strong connection to the Pillsbury Mill building. I'm sure others who have lived in Minneapolis longer than I did do [have a connection], but for me it was simply another part of the city's beautiful riverside skyline... one of the few 'lit up' buildings on the East Bank.
What drew me to it was primarily my growing interest in urban exploration. While in town during the holidays I visited a few places, mostly abandoned grain mills, looking for some interesting urban space to check out and hopefully photograph. When the 'post-use' abandoned sites didn't pay off too well, I looked for a 'pre-use' site -- meaning something under construction.
The Pillsbury A-Mill was an obvious choice, given that right now it's a) historic, b) not in use, and c) about to once again become a busy feature of Minneapolis. So I drove to Marcy Holmes, parked my car, and walked on over.
How did you get up there?
When I visited the mill it was early evening on a weekend just after Christmas, meaning that it was all but guaranteed that no workers would be around. Fences line the site, but almost no 'off limits' urban area is ever truly unimpeachable. The Pillsbury A-Mill site had a kink in its armor, and I was able to find it after some poking around nearby.
Once I got inside inside the site I quickly found there were loads of open spaces, including a giant subterranean parking garage, but getting from point a to b was almost a kind of science experiment. I had no map and no keys, so over the course of an hour I went up some scaffolds only to get to a ladder that would take me down to another level. There was a lot of vertical traveling to and fro just to go from the outdoor construction area into the actual mill building, and finally through the building to the staircase that leads to the roof.
I walked through a great deal of that building in order to access the Mill. Inside, I saw finished cabinetry, fully installed counter tops and bathroom mirrors -- the whole works. It felt both a little seedy, and also exhilarating to walk through what will soon become well-off Minneapolitans' loft apartments.
The mill itself was at that time just a bare metal skeleton inside of its brick superstructure. A single rickety scaffold led me to the roof where I finally got the view I'd been hoping to get since I first made it into the site itself. All told, from initial entry to final roof access the exploration took me an hour, and I spent another half hour on the roof admiring the view and taking photographs. Up there, it really is a gorgeous way to take in the downtown skyline.
What do you think is important about documenting urban environments like this -- even just something like graffiti -- before they transform into something else?
What's important is just saving at least a photographic momento of what this city was in the past and is right now as it continues to change throughout the future. It's too easy to live in a city and forget that you can engage with the urban environment.
It's not just something that happens to you, that you must just keep reacting to as an everyday resident while the rich and powerful grip the reins. The Twin Cities does have a vibrant and active urban exploration scene -- which I'm really not at all a part of in any way -- but you don't have to go climbing up scaffolds in order to better appreciate your city. You just need open your mind a bit and look at your surroundings as being malleable.
You're based in New York, but have roots in the Midwest. Do you think of the urbanization and gentrification of the Twin Cities as us sort of racing to compete with bigger cities?
New York to the Twin Cities isn't really a fair comparison because New York turns over on itself culturally, economically, demographically, and geographically at a much faster clip than Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's just a matter of age and size. New York City is much farther along on the path that growing cities go down, although maybe it could be argued that Minneapolis-St. Paul is now moving down that path faster than it ever has.
Here's the thing: In my personal, un-researched opinion, Minneapolis, specifically, is going through the growing pains of developing upward from one tier of American cities to the next. It's leaving the level of Portland and Austin and very quickly hitting the level of a Seattle or Denver.
As that happens, the local urban environment will gain and lose both good and bad things. The new Nicollet Mall looks like it will be gorgeous. These condos lining Hiawatha Avenue and the Greenway and the Mississippi River are a big letdown. Wealth will continue to collect near downtown and along the prettiest, most convenient parts of the city, and those wanting or needing 'affordable' housing will be pushed farther out.
This is what happens. This is the new, ever-rising and quickening wave that Minneapolis is riding. It's going to be more important now than it ever has been for those who give a shit about the city's historically important places to fight for their survival. The Twin Cities can look to New York as an example of a city that's long since gone through what it's going through now, and hopefully learn from NYC's many mistakes, as well as its many successes.
All of that is a little off topic, though. Twist my arm? Yes, Minneapolis St. Paul is racing to compete with bigger cities, for jobs and big sporting events and talented chefs and spots on bands' tour schedules.
The 'miracle' is no secret anymore, and so the entire area should embrace the development that's coming, while holding fast to what has always made it special. I might be wrong, but I don't see the Pillsbury Mill as some big metaphor of Minneapolis gentrification, and I don't want to pump up my little exploration of it into some sort of meaningful preservation act.
All I hope is for people to see the photos and maybe stop and think and about what truly is and isn't possible in urban life. That, and enjoy a view of the city that will soon only be accessible to those who can afford to drop thousands a month on a one-bedroom whizz-bang gut renovated loft. The times, they are a-changing, why not nose around a bit while it all happens?
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story referred to condos at the A-Mill Artist Lofts. The lofts are apartments available through an application process for artists to rent as part of an affordable housing program. More information on the A-Mill Artist Lofts can be found at their website.