Saturday, January 31, 2009

Uptown Leaders Speak Out

Regular readers of the Southwest Journal probably remember the January 12 article "Slowing but still growing: Thoughts about Uptown from Southwest Community Leaders." If you haven't read it, it's worth taking the few minutes needed to at least give it a quick skim. Reporter Brian Voerding interviewed five local prominant figures, asking each to give his or her vision for the future. The article is, unfortunately, heavily edited; undoubtedly a necessity, but one that does raise the question of how much was lost in the process. Still, it's quite interesting to see what these people think about Uptown and its future. Bear with me as I take the rest of this post to reflect on some of their responses.

Stuart Ackerberg: Ackerberg, owner of longtime Uptown development firm The Ackerberg Group, highlighted the need for daytime activity in Uptown. "The key to vibrancy is daytime population," he argues in his statement. I think he's right on the money on this one - Uptown used to have more offices and even schools (remember the dental school where Stella's is now?) and those people pumped money into the neighborhood economy during lunchtime and before heading home. I think this a key component to Uptown's future successes. These people will help make Uptown an around-the-clock destination, to the benefit of everyone living in the neighborhood. As an added bonus, many of these office workers may already live in (or move to) Uptown; how nice to be able to walk or bike to work. Convenient for them, good for traffic reduction, and great for an overall sense of shared community.

Ralph Remington: Ralph Remington, Uptown's city council member, spends a lot of time thinking about Uptown and discussing neighborhood issues with constituents. While I don't agree with everything he says - anytime someone cites "character of the neighborhood" I get nervous (I think "character" is too often misused for specific political purposes, but that's another posting...) - I do appreciate his focus on pedestrian safety and a light rail connection. Both of those elements are vital for Uptown to thrive as a great urban neighborhood. He's a CARAG resident himself, and I hope that he remains a local activist on these issues even after his city council term has finished.

Thatcher Imboden: Imboden, the young president of the Uptown Association, as well as an Uptown historian, brings a much-needed historical perspective to the discussion. Uptown's been around a long time and has seen its share of ups and downs. Like Ackerberg, Imboden also emphasizes the importance of daytime activities. He also mentions the possibility of a hotel. I know that there has been talk about this in the past; I hope his vision comes true and we can at some point welcome a hotel to Uptown. Travelers, whether visiting for business or personal reasons, will support neighborhood businesses, among other things. Many of the county's nicest urban neighborhoods - Washington DC's Dupont Circle, any number of New York City neighborhoods, etc. - offer a wide range of hotels, and their neighborhoods are the stronger for it.

Craig Wilson: Wilson, the co-founder of Kandiyohi Development Partners, noted the importance of "independent, original, interesting places." That's what I love about Uptown, and I hope that he is correct that the future will encourage the retention and formation of these types of spaces. Uptown doesn't want or need to be a mall or even just another nice urban neighborhood filled with the same stores found in other similar neighborhoods nationally - we want to retain a sense of place and a feeling of community.

Lara Norkus-Crampton: ECCO resident and City Planning Commission member Norkus-Crampton's comments were the only ones that left me feeling quite conflicted. On the plus side, she spoke extensively on the importance of pedestrian-friendly streets, including pointing out that "pedestrian-friendly" needs to take into account Minnesota's brutal winter weather. Beyond that, she had some weird statements that may be a result of editing or could be symbolic of her larger, more anti-urban feelings. First, she talked about "buffer zones" between commercial and residential developments. I may be wrong, but I got the impression that she disapproves of these pairings. I, on the other hand, think that - within appropriate parameters - this type of development is not only desireable, it's essential. The integration of appropriate commercial and residential uses adds vibrancy to the street and provides residents with convenient services (not to mention possibly giving the businesses a built-in audience). I think the more of this the better. Sure, it doesn't make sense to plop a convience store or salon into the middle of, say, Fremont between 33rd and 32nd Streets, but in an ideal world it would be wonderful if no resident had to walk more than three blocks, tops, to get to a coffee shop or deli. These sorts of things help build community.

My other concern with Norkus-Crampton's remarks include both her historical understanding of the neighborhood as well as her comments about property taxes. "This area wasn't always seen as such a perfect place," she said, "there were parts of Uptown considered borderline." I consider myself pretty familiar with Uptown's history, both recent and historic, and I think this doesnt' reflect reality. No, it wasn't a "perfect" place, but "borderline" just isn't true. Of course "borderline" is in the eye of the beholder, and this off-the-cuff comment suggests to me that there are some class issues at work here. Uptown has always been fairly safe (with some problems, of course, but this is - and has been - a city neighborhood with all the accompanying pluses and minuses) but it did at one point have a younger, less wealthy, and more blue collar population. This also ties into my second concern, which admittedly may be an issue of editing: "People pay dearly to live here, pay a lot of property taxes, and I think it's as important to preserve these long-term stakeholders that help build and maintain our city as it is to invite new uses, new neighbors." My translation of this statement, fair or not? "Rich people pay a lot to OWN homes here and we need to take care of them." Yes, property taxes impact everyone, renters and owners alike, but my feeling is that Norkus-Crampton is thinking only about the homeowners. Since Uptown is a majority-rental area, I'd have been more comfortable if she had also pointed out the dangers of rising rents. What about long-time stakeholders who rent and not own? Stakeholder does not necessarily equal homeowner. And, for that matter, I'm sure plenty of those longterm stakeholders, renters and owners alike, are annoyed by Norkus-Crampton's portrayal of the neighborhood as a former "borderline" area, and see her remarks as a reminder that Uptown's gentrification over the years has not always been a good thing for everyone.

To be fair, I don't know Norkus-Crampton or her views on most things, but her comments don't give her much sympathy among those of us struggling to afford rent or to buy our way into the area's home market. Her property taxes may have gone up, but then, so has her home value. Finally, those who speak the loudest about things such as Uptown's previous "borderline" history are the same ones who are the most likely to paint a historical picture of a small agrarian village atmosphere, one in which the neighbors all lived quiet lives on quiet streets. The reality, of course, is that Uptown has always been - at least among most residents' lifetimes - a busy, bustling place with all the accompanying noise, traffic, and urban amenities and sometimes problems. To put it bluntly, I don't think Norkus-Crampton knows what she's talking about, at least when it comes to local history.

I give the Southwest Journal kudos for compiling this article. I now hope that they continue this discussion, maybe asking another round of community leaders (neighborhood board members, perhaps?) as well as regular residents of different ages and tenures for their hopes and vision for Uptown's future.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Violence is Violence

More than 400 people marched in support of local resident Kristen Boyne following her recent brutal beating. Boyne is a lesbian, and the two men who beat her used that as an excuse for their inexcusable behavior.

I think it's great that so many people in Uptown - and beyond - showed up to make the statement that we should be able to walk Uptown's streets, regardless of time of day or sexual orientation. What bugs me is that constant talk about this as a hate crime. I have mixed feelings about hate crimes; isn't a crime a crime? There may be times when it is appropriate to label something a hate crime. Someone who was systematically terrorizing a particular group of people to make a point would fall into that category. A team of men who roam the streets looking for lesbians (actual or just perceived) could fit into that definition. But two men who brutally beat a woman because she was out on the street? Like I said in an earlier post, the anti-lesbian aspect of this is the least of my worries. Who's to say that they would have just as happily beaten any unfortunate person who crossed their path? It's not like those of us who aren't lesbians can just breath a big sigh of relief because we're off the hook and wouldn't be bothered by these kind of thugs. Violence is violence, and the kind of people who would do something like this aren't going to be models of citizenship in the non-homophobic parts of their lives.

Discriminating against someone based on their sexual identity, let alone beating them, is, of course, completely unacceptable. That's not the point. The point is that EVERYONE should be able to walk the streets at night without being mugged, raped, beaten, murdered, hit on the head, or harassed in any shape or form. That does appear to be the main point of the march, at least, but the hate crime aspect does at times overtake the more basic issue of safe streets for all.

Some other questions: I've read that Boyne herself called 911 (or possibly a friend who then called 911 on her behalf) from her cell phone after awaking post-attack. If this is true, then one of the most troubling parts of this whole situation is that someone could be beaten brutally on a busy street in an urban area without anyone noticing. That scares me more than anything. Random, violent crime can happen anywhere, and even if we can't prevent horrible things from happening we should at least be able to respond to it quickly. We owe it to the victims.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Remembering Uptown's West High School

Once upon a time Uptown had a high school of its own. In 1908, local high school students first entered the halls of a brand new school. West, located on Hennepin and 28th, housed students in grades ten through twelve. The school thrived, and at one point it was the second largest high school in the Minneapolis system. Its students, clad in their green and white letter jackets and sweaters, swarmed the streets of Uptown. After school let out for the day they'd head to the library, to the soda fountains, to their afternoon jobs, or back to their nearby homes. West was, up until its closing in 1982, an important center of neighborhood life.

Today's local high school students don't have the luxury of a neighborhood high school. They go to Southwest or South or perhaps Blake or Breck or some other private school. And Uptown loses something in the process.

A neighborhood school does more than simply educate its students. It boosts the sense of community. Residents, with or without kids at the school, can attend student theatrical productions, cheer at the homecoming game (or just watch the parade) and help nurture the development of teenagers into fullfledged adult members of society. High schools have some downsides, too - lots of bad drivers floating around, probably an increase in litter and petty vandalism, cigarette butts on the street. But overall they're pretty good places to have around.

It's been more than a quarter of a century since our high school closed. Realistically there's no going back. For those that attended West, it must be a bittersweet experience to walk past the site of the once-grand school and its many years of good (and bad) memories. For those that came of age in Uptown post-1982, it must be difficult to imagine a time when one could walk to school quickly and easily. The next time you walk along Hennepin by 28th Street take some time to reflect on changing times and the ups and downs of neighborhood life.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Uptown - Neighborhood or Commercial District?

I hadn't realized it, but apparently there is, among some people, a debate about whether Uptown is a neighborhood or a commercial district. Granted, I first came across this discussion on Wikipedia and the people involved may be the only ones out there who think this is a debate, but it's also possible that this is a bigger question than I'd realized. One Wikipedia editor goes so far as to suggest that Uptown is a creation of "suburbanites." Is this is a real debate? Are there others who consider "Uptown" to be only the district's main commercial hub?

First, to get it out of the way: Uptown is, of course, not an official "neighborhood" as defined by Minneapolis city maps. Minneapolis has formally-defined neighborhoods with official neighborhood leadership organizations and which have historically received NRP funds. The neighborhoods most often considered to be Uptown, or at least that encompass Uptown, are the Wedge (LHENA), CARAG, ECCO, and East Isles.

And yes, "Uptown" is defined differently by different people. The Uptown Association, the Hennepin-Lake district's chamber of commerce, has a commercially-oriented view of the area. The city's Uptown Small Area Plan focuses heavily on Uptown's commercial core. I would agree that Uptown is anchored by its commercial district, centered at Hennepin and Lake and radiating from there.

What do others who live, or who have lived, in Uptown think? Do renters and owners have different views? Do new residents- say, those who have lived here five years or less, have a different opinion than those who moved here ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago? What do people who don't live here, but who perhaps work, eat, or shop in the commercial areas think about this? I would be more likely to guess that people who live around here think of Uptown as a neighborhood, while those who only come here to shop or eat would be more likely to think of it pure terms of its commercial district.

I believe it to be misleading and irrational to say that Uptown is not a neighborhood. Admittedly "district" might be a better term, given that in this city "neighborhood" in some circles carries with it a distinct and formal meaning, but for all intents and purposes Uptown is a neighborhood. I grew up here, and I never once thought that my childhood home - not in the commercial core, but certainly within easy walking distance (and within one of the official neighborhoods encompassing Uptown) was somewhere other than Uptown. I was an Uptowner. And as the writer of this blog, my vision of Uptown today certainly includes both our neighborhood's commercial and its residential areas.

The term Uptown has also grown in popularity in past decades, so perhaps there is some truth to saying that people who moved here long ago (and I'm talking pre-1985 or so) are less likely to have always thought of this area as "Uptown." The term Uptown itself has been around since the 1920s and was initially used to refer specifically to the commercial district, so I suppose the commercial argument supports might get some traction there - IF they were talking about Uptown of years past. There's no question in my mind that in the past 20 years most people living within close walking distance of Hennepin and Lake would define themselves as living in Uptown. Because really, are you seriously going to tell your friends or coworkers from the 'burbs that you live in CARAG or ECCO? No, because no one would have any idea where you were talking about. Tell them "Uptown" and they'll get the picture. If you're talking to someone who knows the area well you might give a different answer, but at that point you're probably going to say "31st and Irving" or "28th and Girard" or some other specific location rather than cite your formal neighborhood or neighborhood association.

Uptown, Minneapolis - commercial district or neighborhood. To me the answer is clear: a residential district (or neighborhood, if you will) anchored by its commercial core.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Uptown Attack

It's things like this that really shock a neighborhood. A local resident - a woman walking home from work, stopping in at the store to get some ice cream before bed - is beaten by men who call her a lesbian. How could this, a hate crime, happen in Uptown of all places? Here, where we pride ourselves on being open and accepting? I don't know the latest, or if they've caught the jerks who did this. I have no idea where they live, or what they have against lesbians. It could just have been that they were out driving (walking?) around looking for trouble, and this woman was the unfortunate victim who first crossed their path.

There's only so much that Uptown can do to protect our streets. Uptown isn't a bubble; even if we rid the area of our own in-house criminals (and unfortunately they do exist) we can't block out others coming in from elsewhere. It's a trade-off - as long as Uptown is a desirable place to visit there will always be both wanted and unwanted visitors. That doesn't mean we should give up. People should be able to walk home from work even late at night. We should be able to stop by the store to pick up a late night quart of rocky road. Gay people, straight people, young people, old people - we should all be able to walk the streets of our own neighborhood without being mugged or assaulted.

Let's avoid the temptation to make this into a "hate crime" issue. Yes, she was possibly attacked because she was (or was perceived to be) a lesbian, but I doubt that this one incident suggests a rise of anti-gay sentiment in Minneapolis or Uptown. I don't care why these guys attacked her - what matters is that they did. Whether it's someone being mugged for $20, a woman beaten because of her sexual orientation, or someone attacked or assaulted for any other reason, the end result is the same. It's not just lesbians who are scared by this horrible attack; these men have shattered everyone's sense of safety. Let's leave it to others to focus on the sexual orientation aspect of this incident; as Uptowners we should be concerned about any such attacks on a fellow resident (or anyone else passing through our streets), regardless of motive. Let's focus on making our streets safer for everyone and make it clear that crimes - hate crimes or otherwise - are not welcome on these streets.

Things I Don't Like About Uptown

While I love Uptown, that doesn't mean I love all things about it. Here's some things that go on my personal dislikes list:
  1. Modern Condo Buildings. That doesn't mean I don't think they're well-designed, serve a purpose, or don't belong in the neighborhood, it just means that I prefer the neighborhood's older houses and buildings.
  2. Chino Latino. I've had perfectly fine food and drinks here. I think it's that Chino Latino seems almost stereotypically suburban in the way that everything is so artificially fine-tuned to appeal to their audience. Maybe it's just that it doesn't feel connected to the neighborhood, and I'm just not into trendy.
  3. People who Don't Shovel. Sure, this happens other places, too. But this blog is about Uptown so I'm singling out Uptown property owners. Who are these people who don't bother to get out their shovels or call a plowing company? Their laziness endangers the rest of us and makes our neighborhood far less pedestrian-friendly.
  4. Parking Permits. People who buy houses two blocks away from Hennepin and Lake should realize that tight parking comes with the territory. I might support a one-side permit-only parking option, or possibly two hour parking for those without permits, but permit only all the time? Ridiculous.
  5. The Uptown Transit Station. This has potential to move to a list of things I like in the future, but for now it's just not living up to its potential. At the moment it's just a glorified bus stop with uncomfortable seats.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Things I Like About Uptown

In the spirit of taking the time to reflect on both the big and the small things I both like and don't like about Uptown, here's a list of some personal positives:
  1. Spanish-style Apartment Buildings. These are attractive and have fun names. They evoke visions of tropical flowers and singing parrots - especially appreciated on cold winter days.
  2. Lunds. Lunds has a long history in the neighborhood, and I'm happy that it remains a presence in our main commercial hub today.
  3. Local Coffee Shops. Minneapolis in general has lots of them, and Uptown residents have multiple independent coffee joints to get their caffeine fix. And yes, Dunn Brothers might be a chain, but at least it's a local chain. They can stay in this category for now.
  4. Magers & Quinn. We're lucky to have such a fabulous independently-owned bookstore in our midst.
  5. Calhoun Square. I think it's good for Uptown to have a large, open climate-controlled space in the main commercial core. While a private company can never be a true community center, Calhoun Square seems to be doing a good trying. I don't like traditional malls, but Calhoun Square was designed to remain somewhat open to the street and to engage foot traffic, and I hope that this will continue to be the case post-renovation.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Southwest Journal's "SW Guide" 2008-2009

While I haven't seen the Southwest Journal's 2008-2009 guide in print, you can find it online here: Take a look if you have a chance, and bear with me as I make some observations about this representation of our part of the city.

First, does anyone else out there hate the cover as much as I do? It shows a group of youngish-looking white people sitting around a table (Chino Latino, I think) drinking themed tiki drinks and eating some sort of flaming appetizer. One woman appears to be engaged (perhaps to the man sitting next to her), the others single. I know that this is a scene that gets repeated every day - and I, too, have met for drinks with groups of fellow white youngish people - but does that mean we have to embrace this one single vision of Uptown? When I see this the unspoken message is that Uptown is for younger, white, single (or at least without kids) people who have enough money to buy overpriced fruity drinks. Older? Blacker? Have kids at home? Maybe you'd be happier somewhere else.

I don't fault the Southwest Journal for this. They seem to be going for a Sex and the City vibe (but inclusive of straight men) and they can go for whatever look they want. This is only one limited view of Uptown and its options, but unfortunately it's the same one we see the most. After all, it's these young, unencumbered people who have the money to frequent Chino Latino and other area nightspots, remodel their homes, and otherwise spend money in a rough economy. And I do that think that tokenism - the random Asian woman, a single old person, or, for that matter, an ugly young person or simply just someone who is fat or has bad teeth - can get silly. Still, would it hurt to at least TRY to reflect both the actual diversity of our neighborhood, not to mention the diversity that most of us in south Minneapolis wished we had?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Are Chain Stores Evil?

It's the "in" thing to do - bash the chain stores, complain that Uptown is "selling out," and whine that chain stores have ruined the neighborhood's character. And for all too many people, get in your car and drive out to the mall to do some chain store shopping of your own. Are chain stores really so bad, and is there a place for them in Uptown?

I admit it - I'm not a big fan of chain stores. I try to shop locally and to avoid the malls. But that doesn't mean I don't think that our neighborhood has room to embrace a few of these stores now and then. A primary goal should be to get local residents to shop in the neighborhood. It's good to spend money locally. Better to spend it at a locally-owned store, but if it's a question of buying your Victoria's Secret miracle bras in Uptown or out in the 'burbs, might as well keep the tax dollars in the city.

Rather than gripe about the evils of chain stores we should try to speak with our own actions. Buy in the neighborhood whenever possible. Support local stores. And, needless to say, walk, don't drive, to get there. Try to expand your shopping radius to beyond the stores within the Hennepin-Lake core. Smaller, newer stores pop up where the rents are more affordable, and we should do our best to support their entrepreneurial owners. Besides, smaller commercial hubs scattered throughout Uptown give the neighborhood increased vibrancy.

Locals also often talk about "mall stores." I do it, too. But not all national chains have only mall stores. Walk the streets of New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or other big cities to see what I mean. They can, and do, fit into urban streetscapes. We as a neighborhood have the right to make our opinions known, and to voice our beliefs that the stores should enhance the area. Done right, chain stores can bring in additional shoppers who will, ideally, turn around and extend their shopping trips, stopping off for lunch at local restaurants, hitting a few other local boutiques, and topping it all off with a drink at a local bar.

Are chain stores evil? If it comes down to an empty store front or a chain store (done tastefully and appropriately) I'll take the chain store. The thought of a Walmart or any other "big box" store makes me ill, but the old Pier 1, Best Buy, and Borders fit the area well and served plenty of neighborhood residents as well as visitors.

Uptown's business community changes with time. It always has, and always will. Favorite stores leave, while new favorites come in. If you don't want the future Uptown to look like an outdoor Southdale then do something about it, starting with your wallet.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What's Up With Lyn-Lake - Is it Uptown?

As Prince said, Uptown's where you wanna be. But where is Uptown? And, more specifically for this post, should we consider Lyn-Lake to be Uptown?

Minneapolis is a city of neighborhoods, with most having very specific city-defined borders. These official neighborhoods don't always fit along with reality. Uptown's the perfect example. "Uptown" doesn't appear on NRP maps - it's not a specific neighborhood. It's a fluid area that encompasses many different areas; the formal neighborhoods most typically considered to be "Uptown" are ECCO, CARAG, East Isles, and the Wedge (LHENA).

It sometimes seems as though everyone has his or her own definition of Uptown and its borders. The Uptown Association, the neighborhood's business organization and commercial boosters, define the boundaries as Lake Calhoun to Dupont, 31st Street to 28th Street. I think most of will agree that their definition is artificially limited. It is, by necessity, a commercial definition, one that revolves around the traditional Hennepin-Lake intersection. Lyn-Lake is the next business district over, and its commercial organization defines its boundaries as Dupont to Grand, and along Lyndale from 26th to 33rd Streets. Again, a commercial definition that fails to really address the larger question of neighborhood identity for local residents.

My personal opinion? I don't think the Lyn-Lake area is Uptown, although I would push Uptown's borders over to perhaps Bryant. Lyn-Lake has its own commercial hub, a vibrant and well-established one that deserves to anchor its own neighborhood. For people who live somewhere between Lyn-Lake and Uptown they can decide for themselves whether they feel more connected to Hennepin or Lyndale.

There are strong benefits to fully acknowledging Lyn-Lake as a neighborhood in its own right. Uptown has become such a city and even metro-wide destination, one that has come to mean all sorts of things in different people's eyes. Rather than have it sprawl ever-larger, let's give all local neighborhoods - officially defined or not - the chance to embrace their own unique identity. In many big cities - New York and San Francisco, for example - you can walk for miles through one nice or interesting neighborhood after another. Perhaps one day we'll have crowds of residents and visitors strolling along Lake Street from Lake Calhoun to Hennepin to Byrant to Lyndale and from there on to Nicollet and other streets and neighborhoods farther east.

Minneapolis already has a chain of lakes - let's embrace its chain of neighborhoods.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Is Uptown Diverse?

Uptown boosters like to tout Uptown as a "diverse" place, but is that true? The answer, depending on your interpretation of the term, could be "yes," "no," or - most accurately, in my view - "sort of, sometimes, and in some areas."

Uptown is filled with people who pride themselves on their openness to new people and ideas. They love the idea of a neighborhood filled with people of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds; the Mexican family on the corner, a black couple living next door, the gay Asian guy in the duplex across the street. Wishful thinking doesn't necessarily translate to reality. Uptown is still a pretty white place. That's that not surprising, since Minnesota in general remains whiter than many states. Still, it would be nice to see a broader range of faces on the streets and to hear more languages at the local parks.

Diversity doesn't just have to be ethnic or racial. Uptown is, and continues to be, very open to the so-called "non-traditional" families. There are plenty of gay and lesbian couples, with and without kids, and I assume that other non-traditional nuclear husband-wife-kids families are equally comfortable here.

When talking about diversity we should also remember to look at diversity of age. According to recent neighborhood studies, Uptown is an aging area. The Baby Boomers are getting older, while younger people (and their children) are not moving in. I would assume that part of this is due to simple economics; people might live here while they're young, single, or at least without children, but once they have a family and want to buy a house, or even rent an apartment with multiple bedrooms, they move to more affordable neighborhoods. It's an issue many other neighborhoods across the country are facing, and I hope that Uptown will manage to offer a full range of housing options for singles, couples, families with children, empty nesters, old people, and anyone else who wants to call this neighborhood home. Uptown is lucky in that there seems to be a wide variety of housing options - freestanding houses, duplexes, apartment buildings, luxury condos, etc. - with the developers all eager to fill in any empty holes.

The 2010 census numbers will give us a better sense of Uptown's official diversity, but in the meantime I think it's safe to say that Uptown is far from being truly "diverse." On the plus side, Uptown is, for the most part, a neighborhood that truly values the benefits that come from having people of all backgrounds living together as neighbors, so perhaps one day in the future the neighborhood will be able to truly live up to this wishful description.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Why I Love Uptown

Since so many of my other posts point out negative items or suggest changes, I thought I'd take a moment to outline why Uptown is, and always will be, a special place for me. In no particular order here are my top 10 reasons for loving Uptown:
  1. Uptown is a (mostly) self-contained neighborhood. You can live here without having to leave to go elsewhere. You can go the library, buy your food, work, do your dry cleaning, or practically anything else you want to do. There are gaps to be filled, certainly (anyone else remember that US Post Office substation in Calhoun Square?), but overall this is a pretty good place to live if you'd prefer to spend your money and time close to home.
  2. The Lakes. Enough said.
  3. It's (relatively) affordable. Uptown isn't cheap, and is increasingly unaffordable for many, but in the grand scheme of things this is still a great deal. A location like this in many other cities would cost a lot more. Think about that next time you complain about writing out that rent check.
  4. The public transportation is good. Uptown has lots of bus lines running through it, making the neighborhood just a short ride away from major destinations such as downtown or the University of Minnesota. It will be even better if the proposed Uptown corridor light rail line gets built.
  5. I have a long history here. I grew up in Uptown and have seen it change over the years, for both better and for worse. I've lived in other states and cities, but Uptown remained my "spiritual home," for lack of better term.
  6. Uptown itself has history. This area has a long and fascinating history spanning more than 100 years. Things happened here that have both local and national significance. Interesting stories abound if you know where to look.
  7. People care about the neighborhood. This can sometimes be highly irritating, as I think some of those neighbors are bonkers and would be better off living in the 'burbs. Despite our occasional disagreements it's good to have residents who care strongly about our neighborhood and its potential.
  8. Variety is a good thing. While Uptown might not be as diverse as some boosters like to claim, it still offers a variety of experiences. There are stores for people of all economic levels and interests as well as a nice mix of residential and commercial buildings. It keeps things interesting.
  9. Uptown is conveniently located. While I think it's great that one doesn't often have to leave the neighborhood, it's nice to be so close to so many other places; downtown, Linden Hills, and Nicollet's Eat Street are all readily accessible.
  10. Uptown is pretty. Many of the houses are attractive and well-maintained, lots of the apartment buildings have fun fake Spanish names and architectural elements, there are lots of trees, and overall there aren't too many run-down or hideously ugly stretches of streetscapes.

This is a highly personal list. Whatever the reasons, it's clear that many others also feel the pull of Uptown. What makes it onto your list?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Is Uptown Overrated?

Another theme that seems to frequently come up while reading online discussions elsewhere is the idea that Uptown is somehow "overrated." Unfortunately the discussions never come with a measuring stick. Overrated as what? As a place to live? As a place to visit on a Saturday afternoon? For a single 20-something looking for an interesting bar scene? As a place to raise a family?

Is Uptown over-hyped and overrated? Over-hyped, yes, but overrated, no. It's a great neighborhood, but it is too often expected to be too many things to too many people. I think ultimately as Uptown residents we should be most concerned about it being a safe, livable , diverse, neighborhood. There are things that I don't like (and no, I don't like chain stores either, but they can serve a need and a purpose) and would change if I could, but overall I think Uptown is a great area with a lot to offer both residents and visitors.

We don't need a "cool" or "trendy" neighborhood that attracts people from around the Twin Cities. That matters mostly only to support our local businesses that may otherwise not be able or willing to locate here. I want a walkable, livable, safe area that offers me and my family everything we need to subsist. A mini-city, if you will. Other cities have plenty of these - perhaps its only because the Twin Cities lack so many traditionally urban (in the best and most complete sense) neighborhoods that everyone places such high expectations on Uptown.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Parking Problem

Uptown has a parking problem.

No, it's not that there aren't enough parking spots. It's that too many people think they are entitled to parking spots directly in front of their houses, and excessive worries about parking "problems" in the neighborhood. This kind of thinking has led to unnecessary permit parking and restrictive parking policies that place limitations on small businesses.

If you want a guaranteed parking spot, buy a house with a garage. Rent an apartment with a parking spot. Get a monthly spot at a garage. Most Uptown houses - and it always seems to be the single family homeowners who are the most vocal on this issues - come with garages. They might not be two-car garages, but how many cars does one family need? And, even if you need or want two, three, or even more cars, you should be able to find somewhere on the street to park them. You might have to walk an extra half block or block, but that's not the city's problem. Think of it as an opportunity to get extra exercise. If you're the kind of person who likes to drive, likes to park on the street, and can't or even just prefers not to park more than twenty feet from your home, then think about that issue BEFORE you buy or rent a place. Uptown, especially its commercial corridors and hubs, has always been a popular destination. It's not rocket science that a busy destination translates to busy streets. By all means support neighborhood parking ramps and other solutions, but stop complaining about people parking on "your" street.

Instead of complaining about lack of street parking, look for solutions. Advocate for better public transportation. Keep the sidewalks clear. Push for pedestrian-friendly street environments. Get out and walk - it's a good way to meet your neighbors, and more eyes on the street can translate to less crime. Bike. Look into car-sharing options; HOURCAR has several Uptown area locations. Actively support the proposed Uptown light rail route. Get rid of your car. Improve your parallel parking skills.

In today's society cars are a necessary part of life for many people, and certainly transport many necessary workers and shoppers to support our neighborhood businesses, but it's time we acknowledged that a parking spot in front of your house is a lucky break, not a right.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Nothing Stands Still

While reading posts about Uptown elsewhere on the web I'm struck with how many people seem to talk about "the good old days," days in which Uptown was cheaper/funkier/busier/quieter/safer/whatever. Depending on the writer's age, those days range from several years to several decades ago. Sure, a lot does - and has - changed, but what is it about Uptown that inspires such romanticization of the past? And why is that past seldom based in reality?
My guess is that the many different views of Uptown - what it is, was, and could or should be - stems partially from the many different people who have connections to or stakes in the neighborhood. Younger people seem to think that bars and nightlife define the neighborhood while middle-aged homeowners think the character is more about building heights and density. Teenage shoppers from Edina have different needs and impressions than the 80-year-old resident who is more concerned with shoveled sidewalks and a regular bus schedule. Families with small children want clean and safe playgrounds. The would-be renter or homeowner wants a decent apartment or house in his or her price bracket. Everyone has a different wish list, and everyone seems happy to bend the past to fit their personal vision.

I have a personal list, too. I don't care about bars or nightlife, other than I think they do add an important vitality to a neighborhood. A good urban neighborhood should offer a little of everything, except, ideally, crime. Uptown needs restaurants, markets, dry cleaners, laundromats, bakers, booksellers, bars, gift shops, doctors, dentists, schools, parks, the library, places of worship, nonprofits, offices, galleries, clothing stores, stores for rich people, stores for poor people, old people centers, affordable daycares, and all of the other trappings of daily life. I only care about the needs of the visitors from the 'burbs because they help provide the customer base needed to support what should be a vibrant and livable neighborhood. A good neighborhood also needs nice parks, great public transportation, and safe, walkable streets. I don't care one bit about parking, other than because without it the reality is that too many people will just do their shopping at the mall. I certainly don't think parking is a right - if you want a guaranteed spot by your house you can buy or rent a place that comes with a garage or parking lot. And, as far as height and density go, if well-designed tall buildings in appropriate locations mean more residents, workers, and shoppers, then by all means go for it.

The one historical reality of Uptown: the neighborhood has always shifted and changed over the years. Old people, young people, families, yuppies, artists - all have called Uptown home over the years. Businesses - even long-established, seemingly permanent institutions - have come and gone. What also hasn't changed (within most people's lifetimes, anyway) is that Uptown is a CITY neighborhood. If you want a quiet neighborhood with plentiful parking then there are plenty of other nice neighborhoods around, many of them within city limits. In other words: don't move three blocks from Lake and Hennepin and then complain about the traffic. It comes with the territory. That doesn't mean we have to sit back and accept negative changes such as serious or nuisance crimes. It does mean that we should pick our battles right.

And for those people who insist on living in a mythical past? What's gone is gone - let's move on with it and work on creating a neighborhood that will work for all of us.