Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Strib's Chris Riemenschneider is Too Cool for Uptown

For those who haven't yet read it, check out the Star Tribune columnist Chris Riemenschneider's recent rant about the current state of Uptown. Riemenschneider is so clueless about Uptown and its larger context that it's hard to know even where to start. A sampling of Riemenschneider's arguments, assertions, and misconceptions, and my responses:
  • Uptown is like Riverplace, Block E, or City Center. Riemenschneider leads off by listing off a whole host of heavily city-funded package projects, most of which had brief periods of success before slowly fading off into the sunrise. His basic fundamental mistake? Uptown is NOT like any of his examples. Uptown is not a single project. It is a neighborhood, and even if you only consider the commercial district, it is still a complex mosaic of buildings, stores, offices, and residences owned and operated (and lived in) by many different people.
  • Uptown is Calhoun Square. No, he doesn't outright state this, but does call Calhoun Square Uptown's epicenter, and it is perhaps this basic belief that Uptown is Calhoun Square that leads him to think of it as in the same category of the big projects listed above. Calhoun Square is essential to Uptown's commercial success, certainly, but Uptown existed for many years before its opening. The community at large can and has worked hard to hash out a unified vision for the future, but one of the strengths of an urban neighborhood is that they evolve organically over time. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't, but that's the nature of city life - and why Uptown is more interesting than Block E, Mall of America, or any other single development. Calhoun Square is just one (admittedly important) component out of many.
  • Uptown is 20 years old. Again, not outright stated, but seems to be the logical conclusion to be drawn from his rant. I would say he thinks Uptown dates to the opening of Calhoun Square, but his references to "shuttered old mainstays" include only Campiello and Josi Wert, two businesses that date back only to the 1990s (Calhoun Square was built in the early 1980s). His lack of longterm historical perspective invalidates his larger argument that Uptown is "failing" and can be compare to short-lived Minneapolis "entertainment districts." Businesses come and go; it's a fact of life in any commercial district. And with Uptown's commercial core dating back almost a century, it goes almost without saying that a great many wonderful businesses, mainstays included (Rainbow Cafe, anyone?), have shut their doors over the years. It's ironic that he looks to the '90s as his vision of Uptown's heyday, as it was back then that everyone was up in arms as national chain stores started to arrive. I'm sure some other columnist will come along in another ten years and write about how 2009 was back before Uptown had sold out and lost its edge.
  • Developers are to blame (as always). This seems to be a favorite around Uptown. Developers - especially the ones who dare to build condos - are all out to force a bland, suburban-style neighborhood on the rest of us. I don't always like new developments, and readily agree that not all developers have the interests of the neighborhood in mind, but why have developers become the bad guys everyone loves to hate? Many of them are dedicated to good urban design, and want their buildings to strenghten the neighborhood and to embrace its unique characteristics. I don't particularly like modern condo buildings - give me a nice classic 1920s apartment any day - but if they offer more housing choices, bring in more people, and fill in empty or underutilized lots, then what's the problem? Oh, yeah, the problem is, of course:
  • People who live in modern condos aren't hip. They are pretentious yuppies who should be living in Eagan. No, not stated formally, but he does take extensive shots at local salons, people's choice of hair style, and "upchucked" newly constructed condos. I find this funny because it is the people in the new condos - people who have chosen to plunk down money to live within close walking distance of Uptown's many amenities - who are going to help provide the economic boost and support necessary to bring back Uptown's round-the-clock vibrancy of the "cooler" hipper years gone past.

So does Riemenschneider's article have any good points? Well, yes, although he's not exactly providing breaking news or even cutting edge analysis. He points out that there are lots of empty storefronts, that business seems to be hurting, and that Uptown could benefit from more customers. I'm sure that the business community and the neighborhood's residents all would agree (except for those that think business brings traffic, of course...) Unfortunately that's not an Uptown problem - it's a larger, MUCH larger, economic problem of international proportions.

Riemenschneider points to the Uptown Bar as a shining beacon of light, the purveyor of secrets that will save the neighborhood. He likes its grunginess, it's authenticity, its vibrancy and diversity. All completely understandable. I think most people in Uptown want more, not less, of the "creative and independent entrepreneurs" he cites. Complaining about the loss of the good old days, however, whether those be the '70s, 80s, '90s, or some other decade (I think the '40s sound pretty exciting, myself) doesn't do much to help. And for someone who proclaims to like diversity, he sure demonstrates a strong dislike of anyone he thinks is pretentious or simply uncool (i.e. anyone who appears to have used expensive hair products, shops at Urban Outfitters, or lives in a condo.).

Uptown is always evolving. People are always complaining about change. And yes, sometimes the change is for the worse. Most of us want a return to a greater daytime streetlife. But at the same time, Uptown does continue to offer an array of evening entertainment options, and that's not a bad thing, either. And for Riemenschneider's salons, the subject of so much derision? Even most cool hip people like him need to get their hair cut sometime. And if they combine a trip to the salon with a visit to the bookstore, a drink at the Uptown Bar, and a swing through Lunds to pick up some groceries, well, then that's doing something to help build the kind of livable neighborhood that has the necessary density of shoppers needed to support the creative vibrant businesses that we all love.

(And, as an aside, I bet Riemendschneider doesn't know that the owner of his beloved Josi Wert once managed Uptown's Urban Outfitters - a store he repeatedly bashes in his article, along with its customers.)

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