I lived in Minneapolis for a few years, a long time ago.
I lived primarily in Dinkytown, the area surrounding the University of Minnesota. I was in a graduate program there, you see, and when time permited I did theatre throughout the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. When I wasn’t working in the immediate vicinity of the university, the bulk of the shows I worked on were in small theaters or parks in the suburbs ringing the north and east of the Twin Cities. The most prestigious venue in which I ever performed, in the Uptown part of the city (which was south of where I lived, because that city’s geography never made any sense to me), was the Bryant-Lake Bowl. That building is a combination of bar, independent performance venue, and vintage bowling alley – which perhaps tells you something about the state of my career at the time.
The least prestigious venue I ever played in the Twin Cities, and far and away my favorite, was a derelict building in which a bunch of bored graduate students put up a production of Frederico Garcia-Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Apparently, back in the 1970s, it had been a pornographic movie house, but the rise of home video had rendered it obsolete. Now it stood vacant, and while it had been reclaimed as an independent venue for performance groups to rent, only one of the three theater spaces inside was actually available for use. The other two were used as wing space and storage space, full of decrepit old movie seats (dear gods I hope somebody had cleaned them at some point), decades of dust, and unclassifiable detritus stacked to the ceiling. It was seedy, run-down, and vaguely dangerous – which is how its surrounding neighborhood was described to us as well.
That theater was on Lake Street, and if you’ve been watching the latest batch of horrific national news and are still somehow able to read this blog despite the shellshock, you’ll recognize the name as being a part of the city particularly hard hit by the recent riots in the wake of the death of George Floyd. It seems that the area had begun to flourish in recent years, buoyed by economic activity generated by the city’s Somali immigrant population. You can find a terrific overview of the neighborhood’s history here; going by the timeline presented, I was performing in that rundown part of Lake Street at a low ebb in the area’s fortunes, just prior to its economic rejuvenation.
That’s certainly how it was described to us. I distinctly remember the actors receiving lectures – from fellow students, of our own presumably progressive generation in a presumably progressive city – of how to avoid the dangers of the area, speaking in hushed tones about that dangerous area of the city. And I distinctly remember it being nonsense – I rehearsed there, performed there, went across the street to the convenience store for periodic snacks there – without a problem.
It was an economically depressed area, whose problems had been triggered by “white flight.” And even we couldn’t be properly honest about it.
I’m not happy about that.
Other people in the city of Minneapolis have far more urgent stories to tell about that city, about Lake Street, than I do, and you should make a point of listening to them. But for the record, here are the salient points of my story:
The show is still one of the favorites I’ve done. I got to wear a cool cape after all.
The only crime I ever witnessed there was when I was bringing some sound equipment around the back of the theater and interrupted a prostitute and her john just as they were about to, well, proceed. For the record, both were Caucasian.
The only misfortune I ever suffered while working at that theater was having my car towed from the parking lot. It’s by far the least of their transgressions, but Minneapolis police would tow cars at the slightest pretext.
I never heard a citizen of the Twin Cities talk about that part of Lake street with any sense of the larger social problems that had led it to the state it was in when I was there, and never with any sense of their own complicity, intentional or not, in those problems. It was simply “the bad part of town,” with all that leaves unspoken.
As I said, other voices are speaking about Minneapolis right now, and those are the voices you should be listening to. All I can add to their stories is that, based on my own experiences, I believe them completely.