Spring on Hennepin Avenue

Julia Chon’s ‘Guardians of the Flame’ mural at Kim’s

BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

The decline and fall

The big debate in local media is, “Is Uptown dead and if so, whose fault is it, and why are they not getting as much help as downtown?” OK, technically that’s three debates. But only if the answer to the first one is “yes.”
Media-wise, Axios kicked off this debate with its November 2022 piece, “Uptown closures mark the end of an era.” They were not the only ones singing this hymn, and they never said, “Uptown is dead.” Instead they put that media refrain into context, noting how it means vastly different things to different people.
In the interim, numerous other outlets have weighed in, some negatively, focusing on the closings, the crime, or whatever. Twin

The Walker Library

Cities Business, in a piece reprinted by MinnPost in August 2023, asked, “How long can Uptown’s malaise last?” They interviewed David Frank, who had been interviewed in the Axios piece as director of the Uptown Association but had since quit and gone into private consulting. He noted that the city would intervene only if it perceived a “market failure.” Lisa Goodman, then Ward 7 City Council member, stated, “There is no market failure. Uptown is undergoing a correction.” This is a view held by many, and a common aftermath of real estate overvaluing and rapid gentrification.
Southwest Voices had a more positive spin, in a January 2024 piece: “In two months, five new spots open in Uptown.” Well, yes, but by mid-March, two of the five had closed. What is happening in Uptown, in my view, is neither growth nor failure, but a sort of creative chaos. Lots of new businesses are coming in every month, but a portion of them don’t last long. But some do!

Do we live here, shop here, or party here?

Maybe it’s an identity problem. Like a popular female fashion doll, perhaps Uptown needs to ask itself, “What was I made for?” Some things to note:
• Hennepin Avenue reconstruction opened up some of the divides in residents between valuing shoppers and drivers versus valuing pedestrians, bikers and locals. Business vitality versus social vitality.
• These scaremongering “Uptown-is-dead” pieces focus on anomalous incidents or spectacular failures in the retail or nightlife scene, but rarely mention the many longstanding institutions that are flourishing in Uptown, from grocers to coffee shops to small neighborhood clinics, to schools and places of worship.
• While commercial real estate has vacancies and may be overpriced, the residential real estate market is still one of the best in the city.

The former firehouse on Hennepin and 35th once housed a 1950s civil defense office. Now it has been renovated into condos.

Housing is extremely mixed in the Uptown area, from affordable units to luxury dwellings, mini-mansions to bungalows, condos and studios. One striking recent addition to the mix is a condominium in the former horse-and-buggy era firehouse at 3524 Hennepin Ave. It had been put to other purposes over the years, including housing a civil defense nonprofit in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was bought to develop into condos for a little over $300,000, and now the individual units in it sell for two to four times that.

Hennepin Avenue reconstruction – villain or savior?

Hennepin Avenue reconstruction is actually underway at last. Currently you will find only two lanes open between West Lake Street and 26th Street. A number of the businesses (not all) which made the largest clamor about parking and got some concessions have now moved out anyway, or closed. At any rate, the construction is happening, and it was not done in order to boost businesses, but to save lives, literally. Some of the intersections being reconfigured along Hennepin were among the most dangerous in the city. It is also preparing the way for a new rapid bus transit service.

Caring organizations

Among the long-haulers are some amazing organizations and businesses. One such is Pathways. I was a member of Pathways in its infancy, when it first pivoted from focusing mainly on people with AIDS to serving anyone with a life-threatening, terminal, or challenging conditions. I was delighted to see it’s still in business (although all of its services are provided free) and survived the pandemic. Check out their website if you’re interested in learning more.
Then there is the wonderful Walker Library, resplendently visible since its complete rebuild which was completed just 10 years ago. The library has many programs for kids and adults, including two chess clubs, one for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade, and one for teens and adults. Another service-oriented firm is Justicia Law, at 3539 Hennepin Ave. They specialize in defending immigrants from exploitation, deportation, or other problems. And just a few blocks away from Hennepin Avenue is the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, the mothership of the Twin Cities’ many meditation centers.
You may not need the immediate caring services of Lakewood Cemetery right now, but did you know they also offer programs to the public? One great example is a book club led by funeral celebrant and death doula Emily Stacken. Their next sessions will be April 16, July 16, and Oct. 15. See the Events page on the cemetery’s website at www.lakewoodcemetery.org. They also have music programs in the chapel, and evening walks and bird-watching walks on the grounds.

LITT Pinball Bar

Places to go and things to see

To some people, Uptown is mainly a place to party. Although there has been an almost 100% turnover of names and ownerships in the past five or so years, there are still plenty of venues in Uptown for performances and partying. Here is where we get that chaotic energy I was talking about. As of early this year, two former movie theaters and one former cocktail bar with live music, all shuttered for several years, are now hosting live music shows, all of a distinctly different type of vibe and surroundings.
The former Suburban World cinema is now the Granada Theater. It’s sort of a dinner theater concept, with most but not all shows being live music. The former Pourhouse location was extensively renovated to become Green Room, a concert venue with a bar. And the Uptown Theater? Well, it’s still called the Uptown, but now it hosts major concerts, having been bought and rebranded by Ned Abdul of Swervo Development, also owner of the Minneapolis Armory.

Let’s go out to eat – in Uptown!

Although Uptown has lost a lot of good restaurants over the years, new ones have come in to fill the gaps or cater to a new generation of diners. Since I’m running out of space here, I’ll just list a few that have a current buzz, or caught my eye for their uniqueness.

Ann Kim of Kim’s, a new Korean American restaurant in Uptown

• Kim’s (Korean restaurant) and Bronto Bar – former owner and location of Sooki and Mimi.
• Namaste – very nice Indian food, good vibes.
• Red Cow Uptown.
• Barbette – in my view the best of the Bartmann places.
• Rinata – fine dining Italian-style.
• Urban Skillet – halal burgers and chicken wings.
• Boludo Pizza Uptown – South American pizza.

And some coffee shops and drinking spots:

• Isles Bun and Coffee – for all things bun: cinnamon, sticky, caramel pecan, and puppy dog tails. There’s a reason people line up out the door.
• Uncommon Grounds (I was thrilled to see it’s still in business).
• Curioso Coffee.
• Sencha Tea Bar – a small local chain which has just merged with Five Watt Coffee.
• Fawkes Alley Coffee – nonprofit, off Harmon Place.
• LITT Pinball Bar – stuffed with pinball machines and open to all ages until 8 p.m., then 21+ until 2 a.m.

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