a walking project by Larsen Husby
Skyline, Emerald City
I have collected many views of Minneapolis over the years. Every time I happened upon a lookout from which I could see the skyline, I noted it in my mind for future reference. As a college student in Saint Paul, I would sometimes walk in pensive moods down to the little park at the end of Summit Avenue overlooking the Mississippi, where I could see just the tops of the tallest skyscrapers poking out from the trees on the opposite bank. A little later on, I found a more impressive view from the sloping lawn of Indian Mounds Park, on Saint Paul’s East Side. From there, it is possible to see the downtowns of both Twin Cities simultaneously, Saint Paul’s quaint and compact in the foreground, and Minneapolis’s tall and imperious, a giant silhouetted on the horizon.
Two years after graduating, I moved to a studio apartment in Stevens Square. From each of my windows I could see the skyline easily across an unkempt parking lot and above the scrubby trees lining Interstate 94. It was not a grand view: from that close angle the towers seemed truncated, crowded, less impressively tall than they appeared from a distance. Still, I cherished it, and spent many evenings sitting on the edge of my bathtub, smoking joints out the window and gazing at the illuminated buildings behind the highway. I had been longing for such a view since my adolescence in suburban Boston, which had led me to believe that everything cool, exciting, and adult happened in “the city.” Now I was there, close enough to see it from my bathtub.
Thinking back on that time now, I recall a scene from The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions emerge from the depths of a dark forest into a patch of pink flowers. She rushes forward, her eyes wide with excitement, her arm outstretched, and cries: “There’s the Emerald City!” The camera cuts away and we see it, a profusion of acid green spires sparkling on the horizon among rolling fields of poppies. The towers are framed perfectly between a tree on the left and cliff on the right, and they glisten so brightly that a white halo of reflected light is thrown against the sky. “Oh, we’re almost there, at last, at last!” Dorothy cries. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Just like I knew it would be.”
Now, when examined more closely, the Emerald City actually looks very little like a city, at least any that I have ever seen. The green towers are round-topped and windowless, and they are clustered together so tightly that they more closely resemble turrets on an enormous castle than individual skyscrapers. What’s more, the skyline does not taper off into shorter and shorter buildings; instead, the towers rise straight out of the ground, as compact and vertical as the trunk of a tree. How fitting that the Kansan’s image of a city resembles a collection of silos, the skyscrapers of farm country.
Still, there is no doubt in Dorothy’s mind, or in ours, that what we are seeing is the Emerald City, for what else could it be? The image is one we have all seen a hundred times before: from the white walls of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings to the metallic spires of Disney’s Tomorrowland, the cities of fantasy are often taller than they are wide, sitting in a blissfully undisturbed natural landscape. Perhaps it is a daydream born of the modern era: at the same time that skyscrapers became a physical possibility in the late 19th century, so too were trains and trolleys (and a little later, automobiles) allowing cities to grow ever more horizontal, spreading their industry and habitation further and further across the ground. The skyscrapers are beautiful, impressive, modern; the sprawl that surrounds them is not. In reality, the horizontal city is a necessary precondition for the vertical, but in fantasy it can be left out. There are no gas stations or car dealerships lining the Yellow Brick Road.
Not that we can’t pretend the horizontal cities of reality don’t exist. Perhaps Dorothy’s vision has permeated deeply into our culture, or perhaps it merely capitalized on an existing predilection, but either way depictions of real cities as rising improbably from greenery have become ubiquitous. Do a quick Google Image search of just about any major American city, and the results will always skew heavily towards photographs of skyscrapers. Often, the pictures are taken from such an angle that a line of trees or a green hillside obscures the lower portions of the buildings, and, if possible, the skyline is set against a backdrop of mountains.1 In this way, Houston is presented as a real-life Emerald City, despite the fact that it is a patchwork of mostly low-slung buildings spread out over 669 square miles — decidedly wider than tall.
Minneapolis, whose downtown represents a mere 5% of its total area, produces the exact same Google results. There is the skyline as seen from the top of Tower Hill Park, or from the banks of the Mississippi, or from the air above Lake of the Isles. And yet, if Long Trace of Minneapolis has taught me anything, it’s that most of Minneapolis doesn’t look like that at all. There are thousands of one-storey bungalows, two-storey duplexes, and three-storey apartment buildings, but only three structures (the IDS Center, the Wells Fargo Center, and the Capella Tower) over 700 feet. Yet which three buildings appear in practically every shot? Apparently, they best encapsulate Minneapolis. The skyline hardly seems like an accurate representation of the place as a whole, but the correlation of search term and image result is clear: in the popular imagination, the city is its skyline.
But isn’t the point of the skyline to supply the city with an emblem and prove its urbanity to the world? Certainly in Minneapolis the fact that skyscrapers exist at all has more to do with a certain brand of civic optimism than actual necessity. In places like New York or Hong Kong, skyscrapers have been constructed because of economic demand: there are so many people trying to live and work in a small, thoroughly developed area that the only direction left to build is up. But Minneapolis hasn’t had to grapple with that problem, and ironically the raising of skyscrapers corresponded to a period of drastic population loss, not growth. For the century following its founding, downtown Minneapolis was dense but low, with only a few buildings, such as the Rand and Foshay Towers, rising more than eight storeys. Then in the 1950s, as Minneapolis was beginning to lose residents to the rapidly growing suburbs, the city government decided it was time to “modernize.” Between 1957 and 1965, about one third of downtown’s historic buildings were razed, leaving enormous gaps in the cityscape. In the decades following this destruction, a number of skyscrapers were erected (most notably the IDS Center, which opened to much fanfare in 1972 as the city’s tallest building, a title it still holds), but much of the cleared land remained vacant or underdeveloped. Many of the empty lots were simply converted into car parks, the easiest way to turn land into profit without actually building anything. Certainly, Minneapolis did not gain all that much usable floorspace by constructing a few skyscrapers when compared to the amount it had torn down. But what it did gain was a skyline, making it look just a little more like New York or Chicago — or the Emerald City.
The skyline as seen from Farview Park
I’m not sure exactly when I stopped loving my skyline view, but certainly it happened. The year and a half I spent in that apartment was filled with a number of mundane disappointments which accompany many people in their early 20s. I hated my day jobs, my love life was lackluster, and my art career wasn’t exactly taking off quickly. What’s more, it was slowly dawning on me that there was an enormous gap between the reality of living in Minneapolis and the vague notion of urban life that I had been nursing over the past decade. And that gap was not bridged simply by close proximity to downtown.
Cities are naturally dynamic places. They present, by virtue of the sheer number and variety of their components (people, objects, structures, modes of movement), a multitude of possible encounters, itineraries, discoveries. And how easy it is to imagine that this dynamism will seep directly into our experiences within them! I think I had expected my life in the city to unfold as a rapid sequence of events, one after the other like the stations on a subway line, and that interesting friends were to be made in every corner café.
But that did not seem to be happening to me. How could it be that Minneapolis looked so much like New York from my window, yet felt so little like it when I stepped outside? I found myself walking back and forth from my apartment to my job and home again along the same route, and shopping at the same grocery store week after week. Rather than blame this on my own timidity, I concluded that this particular city suffered from some fundamental lack, though what that lack might be I wasn’t quite sure. Was it too small? Or maybe too “Midwestern”? Regardless, I decided that the simplest solution was to move away, and find a different city to endow me with the cosmopolitan existence of my dreams. I applied to nine different graduate schools in four different states with the explicit goal of escape — and was rejected from all of them. I fell into a bitter depression, and in my brooding I came to resent the skyline and its promise of a city that wasn’t there.
Think back again to Dorothy: “Oh, we’re almost there, at last, at last!” Almost, but not quite. She has not yet arrived when she spots those green towers on the horizon. There is more Yellow Brick Road to follow, and when she finally passes through the somniferous poppies and the emerald gates, the towers of the horizon are no longer visible. If the city and the skyline are one and the same, then the city is only ever an image, always over there, never right here. And if the city is over there, then it can only be imagined, never inhabited. Staring at the skyline paralyzed me in a state of imminent arrival, where the tantalizing possibility of what the city might be obscured my view of the city as it actually is.
The skyline as seen from the corner of N 16th St and Linden Ave
I didn’t renew my lease on that apartment. The landlord raised the rent and I, earning barely enough to cover expenses even with two part-time jobs, opted to move into a cheaper apartment with a roommate. We ended up on the first floor of an old duplex on 17th Avenue South, a few blocks east of Powderhorn Park. It was one of those rambling, turn-of-the-century buildings with dark wood trim everywhere, decorative cut glass in the dining room window, and a large front porch overlooking the street. I took to sitting out there, watching the neighborhood from a wicker chair which was slowly unraveling from many years outdoors. My view now consisted of other old duplexes with large front porches, surrounded by trees and shrubs, some encased behind chain link fences, others adorned with pinwheels and birdbaths. There were small children living in several of the houses and they often played together, running indiscriminately across everyone’s front lawns and turning the whole block into their playground. Cars were infrequent, but a bike lane brought a steady stream of cyclists past my porch, setting a brisk but measured tempo to the scene.
I could still find the skyline easily. All I had to do was walk over to the southern edge of Powderhorn Park and look north, and there it was, rising from the foliage once more. From that perspective the skyscrapers are joined by the Art Deco tower of the Midtown Exchange, an old Sears, Roebuck & Company mail order fulfillment center on Lake Street, built in 1927. Crowned with an American flag and enormous green letters proclaiming “MIDTOWN”, it’s the most distinctive building on the South Side, and I came to think of it as our own neighborhood skyline. Though it’s only 16 storeys, from the park it appears to dwarf even the IDS.
It was while living on 17th that I started Long Trace. I had been in the Twin Cities for eight years by then, and had studied maps of it so obsessively that I could mentally navigate to addresses I had never visited. And yet I had seen relatively little of it with my own eyes. Perhaps, I thought, there might be more to the place than I gave it credit for, and the only reasonable way to find out was to look. The more I walked, the more streets like my own I encountered, houses with tiny front lawns covered in flowers and bicycles and newspapers still wrapped in their plastic sleeves. I found a city made of stucco and brick, of mansions from the 20s and ranches from the 60s. In short, I was discovering the horizontal city, the part which for so long had been obscured by trees, and the part where, as it happens, most of the city’s life plays out.
The more I walked, too, the more skyline views I collected. I could see it from Farview Park on the North Side, and Sibley Park on the South Side, and Columbia Park in Northeast. I could see it from the parking lot of the Minnesota Gastroenterology Pediatric Clinic on Broadway, and from the parking lot of Northern Metal Recycling on Pacific Street. It became a ubiquitous sight, appearing when I least expected it in neighborhoods that couldn’t have felt farther from the corporate sheen of downtown.
Perhaps there is a virtue in this ubiquity. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who crafted the original plan of Washington, D.C., believed one of the principal purposes of that city’s many diagonal avenues was to “connect each part of the city… by giving them reciprocity of sight, and by making them thus seem connected… rendering even those most remote parts an addition to the principal.” And so he designed those avenues to convene on circles filled with monuments and greenery, to offer distinctive landmarks which could be approached from multiple angles. And why not? Most of us would agree that public spaces within cities — such as parks, libraries, and community centers — are an inherent good, allowing us to mingle democratically with our fellow citizens. So why not a public sight, a visual commons where our eyes may meet upon a single image?
For the most part, we see only what is directly in front of us, and thus our conception of the vast space of the city is limited to whichever corners we happen to inhabit. Indeed, Minneapolis is large enough that the differences between its neighborhoods — whether expressed in the built environment or the racial, cultural, and economic makeup of its inhabitants — can make it feel like a loose collection of small towns, each with its own identity. Yet it is possible to look at the skyline and be reminded that Minneapolis is also one place, one entity which manages to encompass great diversity, and that this fact does not contradict the real differences of its many components. After all, every person contains within themselves multiple, even contradictory, experiences and perspectives. In the patchwork space of Minneapolis, the skyline offers a “reciprocity of sight” to the North Side and the South Side and Northeast. It belongs to everyone.
The skyline as seen from the parking lot of the Minnesota Gastroenterology Pediatric Clinic
Over the course of many months of walking, I came to appreciate the skyline again. It can be a burden to resent something which must inevitably be encountered day after day, and so it was easier to let the feeling just fade away. I even found myself, in pensive moods, walking to the southern edge of Powderhorn Park and looking north to the familiar figures gathered on the horizon. The buildings had not changed, and I could still see in the skyscrapers the impossible dream of the Emerald City, as well as the self-aggrandizing private interests who had built them atop the rubble of the old downtown. But we do not always get to choose our symbols, merely what they symbolize. As my lived experience of the horizontal city gradually replaced my vaguely imagined ideal, the skyline ceased to represent that ideal and began to represent that experience. The skyline became, at last, the city I was in.
1 Washington, D.C., and New Orleans are the notable exceptions to this phenomenon; D.C. because it doesn’t have any skyscrapers, and New Orleans because it has the photogenic French Quarter.
Back to thoughts
© LARSEN HUSBY, MINNEAPOLIS, MN 2017