17 years of watching downtown Minneapolis go from vibrant to shaky to frightful

I filmed dead gang members being rolled into ambulances after a round of 15 gun shots went off on my block in 2016. The metal door in the lobby of my building still displays the bullet indentations.

I filmed dead gang members being rolled into ambulances after a round of 15 gun shots went off on my block in 2016. The metal door in the lobby of my building still displays the bullet indentations. Wikimedia

When I moved into the Warehouse District of Minneapolis in 2000, my dream of being able to have a wonderful home in the heart of the city became real.

Downtown was alive. I could walk to anything -- restaurants, shopping, theater or the mighty Mississippi River -- in just a few blocks. Public spaces such as Peavey Plaza were a welcoming respite to hectic city life, with its iconic modernist fountains flowing into a large pond, providing a calm spot to have lunch or enjoy the scenery of Orchestra Hall and Nicollet Mall.

In the winter, the pond became an ice skating rink, looking like a modernist’s take on a Hans Christian Andersen novel. It was idealistic. Mary Tyler Moore was right: you could make it after all.

While downtown lacked certain basic amenities such as a real grocery store, it was a minor inconvenience to city dwellers like myself who relied on pizza delivery and Chinese take out.

Sure there was noise. After all, I lived in the Warehouse District, which was full of nightclubs and bars along 1st Avenue. Sometimes I would open the window just to watch people saunter on by and take in the sounds of the city.

Weekends especially were filled with partiers and revelers out for fun. It felt safe. Anyone could see there was a police presence proactively keeping the peace.

Apart from an occasional siren, bar backs dumping bottles into the recycling at 2 a.m. outside my bedroom window, with the sanitation department coming at 5:30 a.m. to pick it up, the noise of the city didn’t bother me. I am not one of those nettlesome types who move downtown expecting silence. I became accustomed to the noise and soon it disappeared from my radar. As a matter of fact, downtown Minneapolis has been historically as quiet as any suburb during the wee hours of the morning.

But in recent years, all that had been idealistic has changed.

In the span of 17 years, I’ve watched the city go from vibrant to shaky to frightful. No longer do I enjoy watching revelers along 1st Avenue, nor entertain the notion of going out for dinner downtown if I’m to arrive home after nightfall.

It’s not for a lack of interest, but for what I now see: an audacious mix of angst, boredom, victim and predator roaming the streets. Downtown has morphed into something more disturbing and despondent than anything in recent history.

The once vibrant Nicollet Mall, which needed no change to succeed, has succumbed to the terrible fate of becoming a vanity project of reconstruction dreamed up by city council and the Mayor in order to keep up appearances of a first rate modern city. Three years into the making, the torn up mall has managed to kill off tourism, revenue and take what retail and small business we had (who were already hanging on by a thread), and effectively push them off a cliff.

When giant, retailers such as Macy’s or Neiman Marcus close up shop, it isn’t because they missed the mark on fashion; it’s more of the notion that downtown now eschews people more than it embraces. It is an epic fail before it is even “substantially” complete (as the banners around the area woefully remind us of).

Peavey Plaza is but a shell of its former glory. The famously iconic fountains haven’t operated for years and stand dry as a bone, aging away in disgrace. No one really sits there to relax anymore. It is essentially a relic, an abandonment that needn’t have happened if the powers that be cared about it and what it provided for the community.

No more Holidazzle parading down Nicollet Mall with families cheering on. No more downtown block parties to celebrate summer or the Aquatennial in any form resembling what it did when I moved in. Our downtown community has dried up.

Hard to say if it’s the shortsightedness of the city council, the mayor and building owners alike contributing to the downfall. I’m willing to bet its a combination of all, favoring finances over community. Egotism over generosity.

What has replaced it is a mixture of gangs, troubled youth and panhandlers that move along the corridors with frequency no matter day or night.

In the past several years, the quality of my home life has changed. I have now become accustomed to breakout fights happening during the day along Hennepin, where troubled youth challenge each other regularly.

A particular hot spot seems to be the sidewalk in front of the Public Library. I can only make street-smart, educated guesses as to why.

Gun shots that ring out two to three times a week from competing gangs at 2 a.m.- 3 a.m., intent on offing each other, have become the norm. Years ago, I would have jumped out of my sleep at such sudden noise. Now it’s routine, as is my call to 911.

I filmed dead gang members being rolled into ambulances after a round of 15 gun shots went off on my block in 2016. The metal door in the lobby of my building still displays the bullet indentations.

I’ve watched fights break out and knifings happen in the middle of Hennepin Avenue at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, stopping traffic. With no police in sight, cars just drove around the melee to get by.

One would think I live in a war zone, and that notion wouldn’t be wrong. The police now have become reactive instead of proactive. Political restrictions placed on them by a higher level of city government render their abilities almost futile, since a crime has to happen before they can act.

And city council? When I send them the footage, I am lucky if I even get a response back. In the case that I do, it’s usually some slick rhetoric that does nothing to solve the issue, while real time crime continues to escalate.

The irony is that, despite the climbing crime rates, the area I live in has catapulted into one of the most expensive places in downtown Minneapolis. I refer to it as “The Guilded Cage.”

The North Loop, as it is now called, has revived itself as a haven of exclusive shops and restaurants during the day. New bona-fide grocery stores dot the tiny parcel of downtown, and new apartment complexes have surged to an all time high.

Technically, downtown has become more livable. But it doesn’t prevent the invasive growth of crime moving into the area like buckthorn.

It will be hard to rid ourselves of this without an enormous amount of vision and strength in our leaders. I don’t believe our leaders have the fortitude to be as tough as their rhetoric decrees.

Even Target Field and US Bank Stadium, arenas built to attract crowds, can’t retain visitors after an event. Downtown is just too scary after dark, so people leave.

It’s sad to see a city go to waste when the potential is so high. It makes me want to move to somewhere safe, somewhere where I don’t have to hear sirens all night or meth heads hacking up old memories in the back alley. Or gunshots.

It’s as though city government has turned a blind eye to the real life problems of downtown, determined to put on a glossy cover to a badly written book. And for what? Vanity? Arrogance? I cannot tell.

But you can’t photoshop reality. It brutally is what it is, and if city leaders don’t buck up and get tough in the form of verifiable action, our downtown is doomed as an oasis of exciting vibrant life with a plethora of options for all.

“All that glitters is not gold,” my grandfather used to say. I think it’s safe to say, for me at least, that the gold I experienced when I moved into my home 17 years ago is gone. Our town may be a glittering sight in photographs, all shiny and new, but don’t let the slick cover fool you. Downtown needs help, a monumental amount of help in order to turn it around. Getting rid of buckthorn isn’t easy. Our leaders better get the right equipment to do the job before it’s too late.

I fell in love with a beautiful city. I want it back.