Concrete Jungle

The Bar and the Battleship

As a kid, my favorite storybooks were the ones with maps: Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, The Hobbit. Unlike the indecipherable highway atlases stuffed in our car doors, these maps only showed a road, path, or mountain pass if it was useful for an adventure. And their mansions, forests, shipwrecks, and crooked palm trees marked exactly where to go if you were looking for a meaningful experience.

When I read Heart of Darkness in Jay Wood’s ninth-grade English class, Marlow put my own feelings into words: “Now when I was a little chap, I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth.” The difference, of course, was that Marlow grew up in an age when the most fantastic maps showed places he could visit. More than a hundred years later, in the last decades of the 20th Century, it seemed unbearable to be a little chap in a world where all the blanks had been filled. No matter how far I rode my bike or followed the railroad tracks, all I found were more lawns and houses, 7-11s, strip malls, and gas stations.

I spent most my 20s emulating Marlow, going further and further afield in search of the places where meaning happened: following a band across America, joining the Peace Corps and going to Kenya, riding a bike from Bellingham, WA to Henderson, KY. But I never found the heart of anything. I only learned that living an adventure isn’t the same as reading one.

But, gradually and haltingly, I’ve been making a map. Ironically, many of my map’s most prominent roads marked are the same kind I tried so hard to escape as a kid: the ones without sidewalks. Like a block on Richmond Highway “between Mount Vernon Plaza and a Honda Dealership” that I walked one bright morning in 2006. I was a young reporter in way over my head, desperate for details on a man who’d been shot dead by the cops after robbing a bank one day before. With nothing for my story but a press release, I decided to follow the route between the bank the man robbed and the apartment building where he was cornered. I’d driven that stretch of road hundreds of times. But that day, walking a weedy median, I stepped out of my own cramped consciousness and imagined how that street would seem if I was just a few months out of prison, carrying two box-cutters and a pile of cash in a backpack, passing “a gas station, a pawn shop and businesses selling mattresses, hubcaps and carpets”: the last piece of the universe I would ever see before my journey ended in a storage area below the stairs of an apartment building.

I ended up giving that block a story, a good one, and it will always be marked on my map: a skull and cross bones.

I’ve found that the map fills quickest when you move to a new city. Places take meaning simply because you’re seeing them for the first time. For instance, an intersection in Minneapolis—Blaisdell and Lake—with a White Castle, a K-Mart, and a sports bar called Champions. A few weeks after I moved to Minneapolis in May 2010, I set off on foot one humid Friday morning to watch the opening game of the World Cup there. The bars I was used to were places where people went to meet strangers, not to drink with the same people they saw every day. But Champions was a neighborhood bar. There were photos tagged with first names all over the walls. It was one of those places, I was sure, that had one good deal if you knew what to ask for. I didn’t, so I ordered a Blue Ribbon and it cost me $4.50. The thirty or so people in there that Friday morning, most of them middle-aged Latinos, didn’t come close to filling the place. South Africa was opening against Mexico. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. It was a low-key, satisfactory morning. I was glad to have seen the inside of Champions, but I felt little desire to ever go back.

When I finally got a job, my most direct route to work took me past Champions and through the K-Mart parking lot to reach an on-ramp to the Greenway (the bike path I described in my last post). The K-Mart and its parking lot blocked Nicollet Avenue, the neighborhood’s major road. To reach the Greenway I had to ride through the lot into the alley behind the K-Mart, past shipping pallets, bales of flattened boxes, and a long row of dumpsters, then dismount from my bike and carefully push it through a small opening in the chain link fence that separated the K-Mart alley from the bridge over the Greenway where the four lanes of Nicollet abruptly dead-ended.

It was a strange way to get to work, but I didn’t think much of it. To say that I assumed there was a good reason the K-Mart was there would be overstating the amount of attention I devoted to urban planning. I simply accepted its presence the way I accepted the steep hill on Franklin Avenue; it was one more feature of the landscape. That’s not to say I liked it. My internal soundtrack to the daily trip behind the K-Mart was the Bob Marley song this column is named for.

I was curious about one thing. On the back wall of the K-Mart, there was a mural, visible only from the alley and the bridge on the other side of the chain link fence. It was faded, but still clearly visible, arranged in panels like a simple comic book. On the left, a man in a suit stood in a street lined with shops.

In the next panel, he began walking to his right while reaching back to pull a door handle shut behind him. In the next four panels, the door opened wider as the man disappeared in the opposite side of the frame, obscuring the street and revealing a massive gray battleship training its gun batteries directly down the center of Nicollet Avenue.

One hundred years ago, Nicollet was the main artery of an industrial city, and Lake Street was its southern boundary. Schatzlein’s saddle shop opened in 1907 to serve Lake’s many stables. Most of Minneapolis’s population was clustered downtown around the falls that powered the mills that drove the economy. The Mill owners who built mansions on large estates just south of downtown could ride ride the Nicollet Avenue trolleys north to work or south to Nicollet Park, a baseball stadium that sat at the corner of Nicollet and Lake from the 1890s to the 1950s. In 1938, Ted Williams hit forty-three homers and won the American Association’s Triple Crown while playing there for the Minneapolis Millers.

Lake Street has always attracted immigrants: first Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, now Mexicans and Somalis. Over the decades, the fields became neighborhoods—Powderhorn, Nokomis, Corcoran; the farms farther out became suburbs—Edina and Richfield; and finally exurbs: Egan and Burnsville. Lake Street became a commercial strip, thriving in the 1950s, struggling by the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s, immigrant entrepreneurs opened new businesses in the empty storefronts. The street now bustles, though it doesn’t thrive. Unlike the old county roads with no sidewalks and plenty of space to build the vast parking lots required by high-volume, high-margin big box stores, shopping malls, and car dealerships; most of Lake Street’s storefronts sit directly on the sidewalk, with cramped parking lots tucked awkwardly to the side.

Pedestrians are everywhere on Lake. To the west, where the street crosses its eponymous lakes, there are expensive condos and upscale shopping. The pedestrians are well off, young, and mostly white. They park their cars in the ramps that tower over the shops; they carry bags from North Face, Apple, Aveda, and Lund’s. Further east, East African groceries and Mexican restaurants predominate. The bus stops are more crowded. Women in chadors push strollers across the street with Aldi grocery bags hooked in their elbows, chatting on flip phones tucked in their hijabs. Lake Street manages to be both a terrible street for people, and a terrible street for vehicles. There are too many crosswalks and stoplights for cars to travel efficiently, and too much traffic for pedestrians to feel comfortable. There are too many immigrant businesses to draw suburbanites east of Uptown (Schatzlein’s being a conspicuous exception) and those businesses’ profit margins are too thin to raise the neighborhood from its economic malaise.

K-Mart was the city’s attempt to revitalize East Lake in 1978. Company officials insisted the store and its massive parking lot had to be located in the center of Nicollet Avenue. The city acquiesced, and the residents who’d organized in protest were given one consolation prize: permission to paint a mural on the back of the building that would cut their neighborhood in two.

 The back of that K-Mart has been in the in the news recently because Mayor, R.T. Rybak, in his State of the City address, “drew thunderous applause [when] he said part of a streetcar line planned for Nicollet would hopefully be ‘busting right through the back of that Kmart.’”

There are plenty of reasons to thunderously applaud that sentiment. In a neighborhood dominated by small, local business, K-Mart is a cut-rate national chain with low-wage jobs and crappy products. But the biggest complaint against the store is not the building or what’s inside, it’s the parking lot.

Even worse than a concrete jungle, which can at least have odd clutter and interesting murals, the lot is an asphalt wasteland the size of an entire block. I wasn’t crazy, as a kid, to be viscerally depressed that the blank spaces in my world often marked giant parking lots. In a recent study, researchers found that certain urban planning features seem correlated with residents’ levels of happiness. The neighborhoods that increase happiness “facilitate social connections and connections with place itself.” The report explains that some neighborhoods are built to facilitate connections while others discourage them. Four lane roads with heavy traffic discourage connections. So does placing large retail stores behind half-acre parking lots.

Champions is the opposite of K-Mart. I walked there that Friday morning because I didn’t want to watch the game alone. In a neighborhood with lower rates of car ownership, local gathering places like Champions encourage social connections. “The bartenders know to give Michael Mack a glass of E&J brandy without even asking him. He comes here because he likes the atmosphere and thinks they have the best chicken wings on this side of town,” according to the Star-Tribune. Unfortunately, in cities with piss-poor public transit (like Minneapolis) neighborhoods with lower levels of car ownership tend to be neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty, higher levels of crime and drug addiction, which is why Champions was in the news.

In the 1980s, Cheers gave Americans the opportunity to laugh at the hijinks of the regulars at a neighborhood bar where everyone was white and no one seemed to have an addiction less socially acceptable than alcoholism. But when some of the neighbors at the neighborhood bar are prostitutes and drug dealers, making a social connection can result in the police being called. The police made fourteen arrests after months of undercover work at Champions, five of them in the bar itself. I have to admit some patrons’ hijinks did make laugh, like the man and woman who got into an argument over who would sell an undercover agent $20 worth of crack. Ultimately, “both did.” Funny enough. But not the good, clean fun of Woody Harrelson threatening to call the police if Kelsey Grammer won’t stop singing The Mikado.

Champions was opened by a Korean War veteran in the 1950s. Nicollet Park was still standing across the street. The stadium was torn down in 1955 and is now the parking lot of the Wells Fargo where I opened a checking account on my first day in the city. For decades, people traveled to the park by trolley from their homes downtown. The Twin Cities streetcar system had over 200 million riders at its peak in 1922. It was a simpler time. The stands at Nicollet Park were full of mustachioed white men in black suits and matching hats; the prostitutes still worked in the downtown’s brothel district; and the gangsters still ran City Hall. Under prohibition, the illegal abuse of controlled substances was still genteel. People got dressed up to shop downtown at Dayton’s, which wouldn’t become Target for another fifty years, and wouldn’t turn K-Mart into a shabby has-been for another decade or so after that.

In stories, adventures have meaning because there is always danger and always a destination. But the longer you live in the real world, the more unsustainable that definition of meaning becomes. Dodging traffic with your baby in a stroller isn’t an adventure, and as bleak as it is, you’re certainly better off trying to cross a massive parking lot than the Belgian Congo.

So I’m teaching myself to tell better stories, where facing death and surviving—and going home with the girl while you’re at it—isn’t the only point. That kind of storytelling starts with being curious—a condition more easily aspired to than accomplished—and gets better as you gradually learn how to see what isn’t always visible. In this world there are no more blank places: if you want to make a map worth reading or a story worth telling, you have to show the invisible things and the secret routes that connect them. Your map has to mark what is gone, like Nicollet Park, and what ordinary people did once in public, like painting a battleship on the wall of a K-Mart, and what powerful people did behind closed doors, and then how those actions work outward, in ways that are sometimes exciting and unlikely, and usually boring and inevitable, like how the bus companies bought up all the municipal trolley systems just to tear up the rails and shut them down.

I’ve accepted that the Xs on the map of my life will never mark buried treasure. But I’ve learned that they can mark secret passages: the spots where I was able to open a door held shut by lack of curiosity and failure of imagination. Like the stretch of Richmond Highway where I first saw through someone else’s eyes. Or the alley behind the K-Mart, where I finally decided I had to learn the mural’s story, and in doing so realized this city had stopped being a place where things could have meaning just because they were new; Minneapolis was home.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.