Published: May 2009
By Henry Alford
In search of what turns an ordinary place into a cultural mecca, <b>Henry Alford</b> explores—and deconstructs—Minneapolis, the city that's so hot it's cool.
I will admit to having had initial misgivings. First, the name (mini-apolis), which sounds like Greek for "tiny city." Second, the fact that it has more golfers per capita than any other place in America. So when a fellow New Yorker told me that Minneapolis is cooler than ever, my brain slightly sputtered. Yes, at least three institutions there (the Guthrie Theater, the Walker Art Center, and Theatre de la Jeune Lune) are perennial purveyors of cultural chic, and, yes, it was a rock-and-roll mecca in the eighties thanks to musicians like Prince, but still I wonder: Can a part of the country responsible for Post-its and the Pillsbury Doughboy ever be accurately described as hip?
Before heading to Minneapolis, I came up with 16 Cool Factors essential to city swank, ranging from the specific (e.g., An Architectural Marvel, Memorable Food, and A Public Bathroom That Excites Comment) to the open-ended (More Culture Than I Can Accommodate, Random Sublimity, and An Example of Curatorialism Gone Amok) to the wholly abstract (The Clash of Old and New, Expectations Confounded, and A Jolt of Épater le Bourgeois). I stayed at Le Meridien, 21 hushed stories in the middle of downtown. This was Minneapolis?Once in my room, I marveled at two particularly lovely details—a 42-inch plasma TV and a bar of Hermès soap in the bathroom—and asked myself, More Culture Than I Can Accommodate? (It wasn't.) Down in the hotel's sleek restaurant, Cosmos, I supped on Memorable Food, including a chocolate-tarragon cake with mint oil and vanilla-bean gelato.
Early the next day, I headed to the up-and-coming Riverfront District; here, the ceilings are high and the use of brick is not ungenerous. Abandoned flour mills and warehouses along the Mississippi are being converted into loft apartments, and the Guthrie is building a new $125 million theater center designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. (The Guthrie isn't the city's only potential Architectural Marvel: this month the Walker opens a 130,000-square-foot addition designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron that will double the museum's size; the expansion includes a four-acre park adjacent to the famed Sculpture Garden.)
To walk the becalmed streets of the Riverfront District in the slanting sunlight is to enter an Edward Hopper painting. The signage of many of the buildings' former occupants has been left intact; you see NORTH STAR BLANKETS, EMERSON PLOWS, and enough signs with the word flour to suggest that turn-of-the-20th-century Minneapolis's answer to soot must have been a light dusting of wheat. Indeed, given the utter and unending sexiness surrounding flour and its production—I am vibrating even as I write this sentence—I was surprised to find three of my Cool Factors at the Riverfront District's beguiling new Mill City Museum. The towering ruins of its stone walls, left standing after a fire in 1991, contrast beautifully with the new aquamarine-glass sheath of the museum (Clash of Old and New). Inside, a tour guide gave me both my Repeatable Informational Nugget and my Makes History Come Alive factoid when he cautioned: "It's no coincidence that while Minneapolis was the milling capital of the country from the 1880's to the 1930's, it was also the center for the design and manufacture of artificial limbs. So keep your hands away from the machines, please."
Thinking that the district might yield more Cool Factors, I took my friend Ingrid, a fashion photographer who has lived in Minneapolis for sevenyears, to dinner at Babalú, a sprawling Latin-Caribbean restaurant. Afterward, we went to Mell's Beauty Bar, where you can have a manicure or a massage over cocktails. (To drink and be massaged at the same time, it turns out, is virtually impossible; it's the whistle-and-eat-crackers of the cocktail world.) Ingrid opted to get her nails done, during which she opined, "Minneapolis is conservative and liberal at the same time. Last night I was trading elk-hunting stories with my dad and his friends, tonight I'm having a manicure and a martini."
I encountered more of this duality the following day while wandering around Lyn-Lake—a neighborhood at the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street that looks like a college town where no one ever graduates. After a pit stop at Bob's Java Hut, a biker hangout, I visit Bill's Imported Foods, a specialty food store where Curatorialism has run amok. There, amid huge bags of sesame seeds and frozen gyro slices, I counted 82 kinds of olive oil. "Look at all the oil possibilities!" I gushed to a fellow customer. "It's for cooking," she replied. Minneapolis may be cool, but it is unblemished by irony.
I walked along Lake Street over to Uptown, one of the few neighborhoods where you can window-shop at boutiques without stepping into a mall. At the fusion restaurant Chino Latino, the unisex bathroom's stainless-steel sinks offered the opportunity for intermingling with other patrons and merited the encomium A Bathroom That Excites Comment. From there, it was a half-hour walk around Lake Calhoun to the Bakken, a museum devoted to "electricity in life." I experienced Random Sublimity by playing a theremin, the precursor to the synthesizer. You don't actually touch this U-shaped musical instrument to play it; you approach its antennas. Dramatically floating my hands around the machine, I created eerie, violin-like wails. The moment would have been more fraught only if I had been wearing a cape.
On my last day, with four Cool Factors left to discover, I concentrated on the downtown area—lots of tall buildings connected by skyways (if gerbils had briefcases...). Amid the skyscrapers I spied a life-sized sculpture of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Mary Richards (Artifacts of Famous Natives). The Cool Factor that I least expected to find in Minneapolis was Épater le Bourgeois; so it was with low expectations that I jumped into a cab and headed to the Radisson Metrodome, the unlikely site of a drag-king convention. There, in the Hubert Humphrey ballroom, just yards from Japanese businessmen and U of M parents wandering about the lobby, I saw six women of size, all in drag, strip down to their bras and panties while dancing and singing "Fat-Bottomed Girls" by Queen. The businessmen and the university parents missed it, but this bourgeois is still recovering from the épating.
By trip's end, I had, to my delight, found or experienced all but one of my search items, Someone Makes a Joke in a Foreign Language. There was certainly More Culture Than I Could Accommodate (e.g., catching alt-country rocker Lucinda Williams at First Avenue kept me from seeing Randy Newman at the Pantages), and my Expectations Had Been Confounded (the city has one of the largest Somali populations in the Western Hemisphere). I also discovered that Minneapolis's cool is unsullied by hauteur or attitude. At Figlio, a restaurant on Hennepin Avenue with a wood-fired pizza oven, my tattooed, all-in-black waitress signed my check with two exclamation points and a smiley face; the Marshall Field's clerk who sold me my Hugo Boss pants at 40 percent off told me, in a heavy Minnesota accent, "Ya, that's a nice traveling slack."
Who needs scowling and pouting?Minneapolis makes New York City, Marrakesh, and Seattle look downright sulky. But black fingernail polish and a downturned mouth needn't be inseparable. Grooviness in Minneapolis often coincides with something more earthbound and wholesome. And that, in and of itself, is pretty darn cool.
HENRY ALFORD is a contributing editor for T+L.
WHERE TO STAY
601 First Ave. N.; 800/543-4300; www.lemeridien-minneapolis.com; doubles from $199.
WHERE TO EAT
800 Washington Ave. N.; 612/746-3158; dinner for two $90.
601 First Ave. N.; 612/312-1168; dinner for two $85.
3001 Hennepin Ave. S.; 612/822-1688; dinner for two $75.
WHAT TO DO
3537 Zenith Ave. S.; 612/926-3878; www.thebakken.org.
Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave.; 612/375-7622; www.walkerart.org.
Mill City Museum
704 S. Second St.; 612/341-7555; www.millcitymuseum.org.
Mell's Beauty Bar
606 Washington Ave. N.; 612/338-1680.
Bob's Java Hut
2651 Lyndale Ave. S.; 612/871-4485.