Q: When is a Mall Not Really a Mall? A: When It's Block E
I know a mall when I see one. Despite the street-y connotation of "Block" and the multi-use corporate-speak about it being an "entertainment complex," and all the hand-wringing in the papers over the precedent the structure sets for "urban architecture," Block E is a downtown mall. And no, to all you fuddy-duddy 17th-century history buffs out there, a "mall" doesn't mean a shaded, pedestrian-only street. This is Minnesota, dammit. We've been at the vanguard of mall culture: Southdale was the world's first enclosed shopping mall, and if I sing, "There's a place for fun in your life...," you'll know exactly where that place is. Okay, it's true that you can't buy much of anything that you can take home at Block E, which has traditionally been one of the criteria for mall status--the Snyder drug store closed in February, leaving EB Games, Borders, and the Hard Rock gift shop as the only retail outlets in the place (and after spending a couple of weeks at Block E, I noticed nobody buys anything at those outlets either). But Block E is a mall. Trust me.
So, how does this mall function, about a year and a half after it opened? I mean, it is a mall, but how does a $134 million downtown mall without any shopping work? What do teenagers do without anything to shoplift? Do people from the suburbs come out to this mall? Have black people migrated across Hennepin from the City Center to this mall? Do hipsters from Uptown have anything to sneer at without a Thomas Kinkade in this mall? Like I said, I spent some time trying to figure all this out by simply hanging around; at GameWorks, in the Meridien Hotel's club Infiniti and its restaurant Cosmos, Crown Theatres, Escape Ultra Lounge, Bellanotte, Jimmy John's, Panchero's, and Applebee's. I spent my time sitting on park benches on the second-level rotunda, bugging middle-aged women when they got out of movies, sitting in Borders drinking tea and talking about the war with Somalis, butting into people's double dates at GameWorks, and standing in lines for Escape that started in the underground parking ramp.
First of all, a little more history, both about Block E and myself. Now, evidently, Block E used to be something other than a parking lot for First Avenue--it used to be a hardtack, boozy block filled with smut shops, all built around the now-infamous Moby Dick's Bar, home of the "whale of a drink." There were homeless people, and gutter punks, and crime--muggings and prostitution. I imagine it to have been like pre-Disney New York City. This was before it was razed in the late '80s and stood vacant for years while the city government deliberated over what to build there. Now a little bit about myself, because I meant it when I said that they built Block E for me. I grew up in the suburbs, cordoned off from the city by the 394-494-694 moat. I live in Uptown now, and I don't get to the mall much anymore (although my sister works at Brookdale and keeps me posted on the Wetseal/Forever 21 $11 miniskirt wars going on as we speak). But like most suburban kids, I was raised by the mall. It clothed me, it fed me, and it entertained me. The only reason I'm telling you this is to point out, to either your relief or your disappointment, that I'm not one of those Rem Koolhaas urban critics who decries the disposable commercial culture brought on by the modern American mall. Rem didn't cut class to shoplift Oakleys and see Terminator II at Maplewood II. So, basically, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm okay with malls.
To sum up what Block E planners must've been thinking by the time they figured out that everybody who worked downtown was commuting from the suburbs and then taking their money home with them: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But this isn't really the first time downtown has tried this strategy--malls have been developed downtown, and have ultimately failed, before. While other communities, like Denver and San Diego, have revitalized downtown shopping districts by going the "upscale" route, that strategy has been difficult to implement here. Both the Conservatory and Gaviidae Commons attempted to attract a cosmopolitan, moneyed clientele only to discover that, for the most part, Minnesotans are very modest shoppers. Most of us are still one or two generations off the farm, and our conspicuous consumption is done in exclusive, out-of-the-way pockets...like Edina. So upscale downtown malls fail, like the Conservatory (which was torn down several years ago and replaced with the headquarters for Target), or are scaled way back and forced to rent out their retail space to a bank, like Gaviidae. On the other hand, Minnesotans aren't too populist--rich people make them nervous, but so do poor people. As a retail spot with a food court and stores like Marshall's that appeal to a broad social demographic (read: black people), City Center lost its luster because white people who work downtown don't shop there--it never figured out how to completely displace all the cityness that comes with the city.
So, were these lessons learned this time around? Well, another Minnesota trait that needs to be mentioned is our very deliberate, attentive approach to the political process when it comes to building anything downtown. There may have been lofty aspirations as far as an "upscale" tenant list at one point, but by the time the developers and the City Council were through debating whether or not the place should have a public bathroom, there was a full-on recession happening. The upscale business model went out the window, leaving the Meridien and Applebee's as strange bedfellows. Who knows, maybe the process finally worked.
So rather than thinking about what the Block was once intended to be and for whom it was once intended, it's easy to suss out how Block E is actually used by just standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette, and watching people try to get into the place. Like a frosted mini-wheat, Block E has two sides: the plain-looking Hennepin Avenue side and the gilded, sometimes-Spree's-Maybach-is-parked-in-front Meridien side. An example: from the north side, I would watch families from Lakeville (how did I know they were from Lakeville? Because people from Lakeville wear "Lakeville Girls Basketball" windbreakers) cross the street from the girls' basketball tournament at Target Center to get a bite to eat at Applebee's. With lab rat instinct, they would hesitantly run the "upscale" gauntlet before them--first blanching at the luxury cars and the Jesuit-looking doormen of the Meridien, then darting away from the imposing Bellanotte restaurant entrance, which is dominated by a corporate logo that looks like a New Age Emmy statuette, before finally finding the north side entrance, just to the right of Starbucks. Once inside, the Lakeville family narrowly avoids the clutches of the gay aesthetician at The Jewel Salon Spa before finally finding the elevator that safely delivers them to Applebee's.
The easiest way to enter Block E is through the Seventh Street hangar doors by car; from there the parking ramp elevator whisks would-be patrons up to the skyway level, where the movie theater, the restaurants, and the clubs are located. If you've been bar-hopping in the Warehouse District, full of Apple Pucker and bespangled with strings of beads from the endless Mardi Gras going on there, and you're making your way by foot to Block E for some dancing at Escape, well, you're fucked. An architectural wrinkle--only one elevator connects the Meridien to Block E--was devised at the last minute at the behest of the hotel group in order to keep unsavory characters from passing through, while still allowing hotel patrons access to the skyway system during winter. It worked--it's very difficult to get from the north side to the inside of the mall.
At 9:30 on a Saturday night, the north side elevator from the first floor to the skyway level is backed up. This is where the line to Escape Ultra Lounge begins. Escape is modeled after the "Ultra Lounges" in Vegas, and it attracts the most attractive multicultural crowds Minneapolis has ever seen. Tiny women of all races, in halter tops, heels, and designer jeans, escorted by men in their best Kenny Cole regalia, look out of place in the mall entryway, trapped in an airless, emotionless chamber, lit by Kubrick, waiting for an elevator that stops every few minutes, opening to display a full chamber of car ramp people, who despite having come here manifestly to grind, sure don't look like they want to start early. When the door shuts, conversation peters out, expressions sour, a drunk guy in a shiny shirt leans against the wall. Standing there, I talk to Julliane, a 25-year-old from Roseville huddled with four friends. She says it's like this every Saturday night, but she doesn't mind waiting in line. "I don't know," she says, "I guess I'm used to it."
This is one way in which Block E isn't like many other malls. There aren't themed entertainment or shopping areas--in fact, most of the businesses are physically disconnected from one another. A few loose affiliations exist: an executive staying at the Meridien might grab a latte at Starbucks, a couple from Maple Grove waiting to see a movie at the Crown cinema might browse the magazine rack at Borders. While the family-themed places on the other side, GameWorks and the Hard Rock Café, have staircases that connect to the skyway level, Bellanotte, on the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue, is disconnected from the mall, with only an exterior entrance. The same team that runs Escape runs Bellanotte, but in the case of the Italian restaurant, they're clearly courting an older, neo-Zelo crowd with the peach curtains and brick accents that look like they were put up overnight. Jimmy John's on Sixth Street inhabits a cubbyhole dug into the east side of the building. It's frequented by the cynical type of young person who doesn't want to have anything to do with Block E, but wants a sandwich served by somebody fully sleeved.
The south side of Block E on Hennepin Avenue is clearly the portal for common people. There's a bus stop in front, and there are more doors at street level, although most of the foot traffic flows overhead through the skyway tube that connects to City Center. Here on the sidewalk, there's evidence of downtown's fringe society: black people and smokers. At a glance, the only thing keeping them at bay is the ugly wallpaper covering the glass on one side of the entryway, and rows of books and a display of Elton John's greatest hits CDs on the other.
To investigate how the mall is used, I participated in some pretty blatant racial profiling (in effect, looking through the eyes of mall security): I watched black people hang out. I didn't empiricize my data by including black executives who work downtown; I concentrated on teenage mall rats, 20- and 30-somethings waiting to get into the clubs, and homeless guys. The bus strike has changed things a bit, but even before, Block E operated much differently than other black hangouts like City Center, Brookdale, or even the Mall of America. Maya, a 19-year-old standing around at Block E, sums up how this mall differs from the others: "Well, this isn't a place where you actually shop," she points out. "It's more of a hang--a chill, laid-back environment." Sometimes hanging gets misinterpreted as "loitering" by the fuzz, so I ask Kevin, an 18-year-old in a Timberwolves jersey, if he gets hassled by Block E's security staff or Minneapolis cops. "Well, this place isn't without prejudice--if you're black, the police will tell you to move along, you know what I'm saying, and then I'll see white people just hanging out here without getting bothered. But compared to the security at City Center, these people are much cooler." Angelo, a homeless man in an orange parka, agrees that Block E security is "the most lenient in the city," explaining, "as long as you don't sleep on the benches, they'll leave you alone." Daunte, a 26-year-old wearing a Sean Jean overcoat, tells me this isn't the place to see the premiere of, say, Barbershop II, either. "The movie theater doesn't consistently show the big black movies, so there's not a lot of buzz when they do," he says. "And to be honest, it's expensive to hang out here during the day. There isn't a Foot Locker or a food court to hang out at."
Block E moves like it's sprained--awkwardly, stiffening after a short spurt. During the day, from 11:45 until about 1:30, for about an hour and a half, the skyway level, with its neon headache and salmon-and-green painted concrete floors with tinny, Ace of Base oldies being pumped in by hidden speakers, looks and feels like Har Mar Mall circa 1985. It's new looking, but it feels dated already. There's a line at Panchero's full of techie types with cell phones attached to the belts holding up their khakis; the Applebee's indoor patio is teeming with business people and girls' basketball tournament fans noshing on rib tips; the security staff perks up, actually paying attention to the mall rats sitting on the green benches lining the cavity that used to be Snyder Drug. Every few minutes, when somebody throws some money into the tip jar, the Cold Stone Creamery employees burst into humiliating song. But around two o'clock, the skyway level slows way down.
During this afternoon dead zone, Applebee's fills with between-shifts Block E employees. It's a friendly, family-style place where they can have a smoke break at the bar. Outside Applebee's, I run into Nate Ford, a standup comedian who works as a GameWorks "card host"--a kind of casino pit boss for the bowling alley and the arcade games. "The only reason we miss Snyder," he says, "is because now we have to walk down the skyway to get gum or cigarettes." He's just off the typical daytime shift, when GameWorks is filled with kids and the parents who throw pizza parties for them. I promise to check it out later.
The only place where anybody seems to be hanging out between five o'clock and the time Escape opens is Borders. I run into Lisa and Tim, who live in the Churchill Apartments, a luxury high-rise a few blocks away. They're waiting to see Dawn of the Dead at the Crown theater. Lisa, a banker who works downtown, is sitting in an overstuffed leather chair and reading Jane magazine. When I ask how often she comes to Block E, she says she goes to see the occasional movie, but that's about it. "We're happy Block E is here, though--there's something other than bars open downtown now." After a few moments she confides, "And we're happy about the bus strike." Why? "Well, there are fewer kids from south Minneapolis running around." When Lisa and Tim get up and leave, Driye, a Somali living in the public housing on Fourth and Hennepin, sits down in the overstuffed chair with a book. When I ask him what he thinks about Block E, he tells me that he hangs out at Borders because the downtown library has reduced its hours. "I never buy a book," Driye admits with a smile, "I just buy a cup of tea and read."
GameWorks at night is a downtown mall entertainment utopia (or dystopia, if you grew up Rem Koolhaas)--it might be a glimpse into Minneapolis's future, when we all get over it and start hanging out with each other. It's packed with a diverse mix of black, brown, and white; people of all ages, from the city and from the suburbs. Amid the exploding cartoon zombies and the big screen televisions and the video horseracing, soccer, and surfing, a cross section of Minneapolis, Eagan, and Maple Grove are all having a good time. Our differences are drowned out by all the whirring and blinking and beeping and drinking. I talk to people on double dates. "This is our first time at Block E," shouts Luke, jubilantly, over the slap and rattle of an air hockey game, "and it reminds me of the Mall of America." His date capitalizes on his distraction by scoring a goal. "Ha!" Luke shouts. He doesn't seem to mind.
Finally, I run into Nate, the comedian/card boss, and he's announcing a video race between eight fiberglass Indy 500 cars. He seems to be in on the cheesy joke, and as he calls the action, he makes one of his own: "Through the final turn, car number three takes the lead...as John Mayer plays in the background!"
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