I loved the old Block E, and I'm not the only one

Bock E was notoriously rowdy back in the 1970s, and that's the way some people liked it.

Bock E was notoriously rowdy back in the 1970s, and that's the way some people liked it. Wikimedia/U.S. NARA

I read something about Block E a couple weeks ago.

The downtown Minneapolis building is now referred to by the decidedly awkward name “Mayo Clinic Square,” after the sports medicine clinic that inhabits it. In a story about the square’s $98 million sale to a Chicago firm, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Journal described Block E as “once downtown Minneapolis’s most unloved building.”

That’s a popular perception about the block: That it was a problem spot, a blight on the city. A Minneapolis City Council member even sang a song at the destruction of an earlier iteration of the block, to the tune of “Bye, Bye Blackbird”: "Pack up all your crime and porn / Block or scorn, be reborn / Bye bye, Block E."

But I loved Block E. And I wasn’t alone.

There were really two Block E’s during my life. First there was the rough-and-tumble, bustling block of the 1970s and 80s, crowded with bars and businesses, including the now-legendary Moby Dick’s, whose signage promised “A Whale of a Drink.”

The bar was notorious for the amount for police calls it received, but it was also a hangout for locals; it was one of The Night of the Gun author David Carr’s favorite watering holes. I peeked in a few times at odd hours, early in the afternoon, expecting, I don’t know, bikers and bar fights, and was always disappointed; it seemed like a pretty ordinary bar.

I wasn’t a regular there, but there were a few places on the block that I haunted. Block E was bordered by two Shinder’s bookstores. On one end of the block, as I recall, the store was cluttered with a vast number of newspapers and glossy magazines, and the other end tended toward porn. In fact, in 1984, a woman set fire to herself in Shinder’s to protest the adult material.

Her name was Ruth Christenson. She had reportedly been a victim of a rape; she wrote a suicide note before the protest saying, “Sexism has shattered my life.”

Christenson’s story has stuck with me a long time, and was eventually subsumed in a general sense that Block E was a squalid place where terrible things happened. Now, I don’t think the enormity of her pain should get swallowed up like that. It is part of the legacy of the area.

Beyond the porn, Shinder’s offered a genuinely remarkable selection of printed material. There was a group of cross-dressers who frequented the area, including adult director Chi Chi LaRue, and Shinder’s had a selection of publications directed at that community, offering everything from mail-order large-sized high heels to detailed descriptions of how to fabricate realistic breasts.

There were an awful lot of publications like this. Just by wandering through Shinder’s and picking up magazines at random, you could be exposed to a dizzying variety of subcultures and countercultures. Come to think of it, those were also represented in the flesh around Block E. When I started going there, it was a popular destination for the local punk community.

Especially popular was the Rifle Sport Gallery, named for a former arcade in the space (which also gave its name to a local band).  I mostly went for music performances, starting when I was in high school. I don’t think the bands are especially well-remembered nowadays: I saw the Urban Guerillas a number of times, and then a huge succession of high school bands. If you lived in the suburbs and had a funny haircut and a guitar, it was pretty easy to get a gig downtown.

The block was torn down in 1988, but for the old Shubert theater, which was literally rolled a few blocks away on rubber tires. This was the event that had a City Council member cheerfully serenading the demise of the block. It’s easy to understand that viewpoint: The previous year, Block E had been the location of 25 percent of all crime reported downtown. One imagines City Council members saw it as a more a pain in the ass than anything else.

But Block E had so much crime, in part, because it was so heavily used. It was an unofficial nexus of downtown life, and the block catered to those needs. For many downtown residents, which then included me, the destruction of Block E felt less like a solution to crime, and more like the city was trying to clean up downtown to cater to a base of suburban shoppers.

The city was then trying to woo suburbanites to return to downtown with a series of mostly failed development ventures, such as City Center and Renaissance Square.

Whatever the actual goal was, the loss of Block E genuinely punched a hole in downtown, and it remained unused except as a parking lot until 2001.

I didn’t want to like the Block E complex that followed. I found the tan and brick architecture anonymous, and the building was populated by chains: an Applebee’s, a Cold Stone Creamery, a Hooter’s. Who needed to come downtown for that? It was occasionally amusing to peek into the Hard Rock Café to see one of Prince’s guitars or puffy shirts, but otherwise a block that had once suffered an excess of character now had none at all.

Well, almost none. There was an AMC Theater in the new Block E that seemed genuinely responsive to its audience. It filled a gap left by the loss of the Skyway Theater on Hennepin in 1999, which had been something of a grindhouse. The new theater programmed action films, B-horror movies, hip-hop biopics, and other fare traditionally targeted at an urban audience.

It was almost inconsequentially easy to sneak alcohol into the theater, and audiences tended to be rowdy and liked to shout back and the screen. It was a fun crowd to see a film with. They’re gone now too, since the theater closed in 2012. I am not surprised that Block E was “unloved” by city managers and developers, but there was a time when a trip around the block was an education, of sorts. Sometimes a profound one.

What can you learn there now? That professional athletes injure themselves, but can afford expensive health care? 

Who could possibly love that?