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Burning Down My City

A Google Maps panorama at the Third Precinct by Tim McGuire

I tweeted earlier during coronavirus about how the “100-year pandemic” is something that long-term planning is indeed suppose to address. Like the 100-year flood in land use, the decisions we made yesterday are setting the stage as to how well we can cope today and tomorrow. All those zoning rules and planning commission decisions in the past 50 years on unit square footage, amenities, and setbacks, all coalesced into two months of heaven or hell for people living in apartment buildings.

For the Minneapolis riots, my first thought was of course there is going to be a huge turnout because the majority of young people work in the now-decimated service economy. Unlike the Big Coastal Cities which attract talented minds and companies, which then turn the heat on real estate across the city, the Twin Cities is by and large still a working class community with dispersed business centers. Swaths of the urban core are just single-family residential marked by streetcar-era retail buildings.

There is still confusion over who is to blame for the weekend of May 30 when Minnesotans summarily lit ablaze buildings along Lake Street. The official state government narrative was “out of towners” a very typical Midwestern strategy. News media defaulted to “protesters,” “rioters,” and “looters.” It doesn’t matter to me, as an urbanist, for the city belongs to everyone and is the manifestation of everyone’s dreams. These people are the People.

In James Howard Kunstler‘s view, public spaces should be inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good. Instead, he argues, what we have in America is a nation of places not worth caring about.

James Howard Kunstler on TED.com
Lake and Minnehaha, a suburban commercial node in Minneapolis.

Lake Street at Minnehaha Avenue is essentially a suburban big box commercial center. The urban grid of Minneapolis unravels into swaths of asphalt next to Hiawatha Ave, a name that doesn’t describe its reality as a massive freeway and concrete wall separating South Minneapolis. The rest of Lake Street stretching east toward the Mississippi is unremarkable. Single-story streetcar and postwar structures that are bland and forgettable.

Are these buildings worth fighting for, worth defending? The panorama of MPD trying to defend the 1985 dingbat-like police station that was suppose to invite the public to walk up to it, is absurd. The Target that was broken into and lit ablaze, was simply a box, as was dozens of other structures along Lake Street.

In a riot, is any structure sacred? People living in the upper stories of streetcar-era retail structures had to write signs pleading not to burn their buildings. A multi-story residential building under construction was decimated in fire. The loss of future housing for hundreds of people gone. Certainly in a riot, the language of the unheard, there are no rules, because the structures are meaningless to the unheard. The pawn shops and liquor stores were there to exploit an underclass. The restaurants and cafes simply opportunistic gentrifiers in a poor neighborhood. This is not to say businesses are not valuable, they are simply not valuable to those lighting the fire.

For planners, we must see that the ground work was laid decades ago. Lake Street was always auto-oriented since the streetcar days, sure, but it was allowed to persist that way. Each new structure added with meaningless design and poor access. A pedestrian environment that unravels constantly. Each curb cut, another slap in the face of people hauling groceries down the street. So much that not only would people want to burn down their neighborhood, but those charged to defend property would not want to stop them.