Sunday, July 4, 2021

Minneapolis: City of Opportunity (1956)

I've promised a multi-day post about a book I found at a yard sale. Here's the book:

Published in 1956 by the city's Centennial Committee and the Minneapolis Aquatennial Association (what's that, you say?), it's basically a book of boosterism. Sure, cities should mark their significant anniversaries, but this one is a head-shaking mashup of small-city hubris — of which Minneapolis is generally a great example — with the tone-deaf whiteness and Manifest Destiny of the mid-1950s. 

The painfulness of reading its 232 pages of rah-rah is accentuated by the fact that 1956 was the peak of Minneapolis as an urban center, since it was the very same year that Southdale — located in the Minneapolis surburb of Edina — became the first enclosed suburban shopping mall in the U.S. There was even an ad for Southdale in the book!

It was also when the interstate highway system was beginning to tear its way through the cities, making it even easier for white people to flee to the surburbs farther and farther away. A quick check of the city's population over time shows that it did, indeed, peak in 1950 at about 522,000. By 1960 it had declined to 483,000 and it kept dropping until 1980, when it flattened out for a few decades until it began the climb that has been underway since the mid-2000s.

Tomorrow I will deal with the racist "history" of the city that opens the book. Today I want to look at its civic boosterism and how this book so clearly shows the way none of us (especially business leaders!) appear to have any idea what is coming in the future. And just share some of the 1950s look of the thing, too.

The foreword excuses its content as a sketch and not a formal history, and then gives us this self-justification for its ad-filled format:

The growth of Minneapolis and the growth of industry have been largely simultaneous processes; it seemed appropriate, therefore, to invite a number of outstanding Minneapolis businesses to share in the sponsorship of this volume. The response was immediate and gratifying. It made this publication possible.

The ads start on page 45, with the first one allocated to Cargill, which remains a dominant corporate player in the Twin Cities today. Altogether, there are 100 ads, almost all full pages. As the foreword said, many are for industry, including agricultural processing, such as this one for Archer-Daniels-Midland:

I learned from this ad that ADM got its start from the Daniels Linseed Company, which was built in Minneapolis in 1902. So flax was its original agricultural product. ADM still owns important pieces of Minneapolis that stand in the way of the kinds of development we need in the 21st century.

Ads from the downtown retailers of the day run on for pages of the book. All of these retailers are gone now, though the Dayton's name lives on with Target as a latter-day representative of the company. A number of large stores that were still hanging on when I arrived in the late 1980s were giants in 1956 (Donaldson's, Powers, Woolworths). That list includes Young Quinlan, whose beautiful building still stands at 9th and Nicollet. I never dared to go in there because I knew I wasn't fashionable enough to even pass its doors:

But there were also ads for retailers I have never heard of, like this one for a furniture store called Boutrells that had been in business for 84 years:


Maybe they over-extended themselves by opening the Southdale store that's mentioned in the ad copy?

When it comes to missing what was coming in the future, no one blew it more than the printing companies. There are a number of ads for printers and prepress services, but this one is my sad-trombone favorite:

If you click to enlarge that enough to read it, you'll see that the copywriter is speculating on what will be happening in 2056, offering that the printers anticipate "with pleasure our joint growth and success in the next 100 years." Not so much, McGill Company. I believe their address at 501 Park Avenue is now the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center. 

Several of the pages of the book are devoted to transportation. This page gives an overview of where things were at:

The key part in that text is this:

Wold Chamberlain Field is served by six airlines and handles a volume of air traffic that ranks it seventh in the nation. Ten trunk line railroads, four of which are transcontinental, come into the city. In addition there are five bus companies, 120 motor freight carriers, and 25 barge lines on the Mississippi serving Minneapolis.

One by one, those railroads would cease to exist or consolidate until there was no passenger rail in Minneapolis at all. That transformation was probably unthinkable in 1956.

In terms of local transportation, the year 1956 was just shortly after the last street car had been burned by the privately owned company that then provided public transit, one of the great losses of what should have been part of our cities' commons. The centennial book devotes two pages to the transit system with the headline "Horse Car to Motor Bus," yet somehow omits the 50 or so years in the middle of the system's time of existence when it was run with electricity. 

The two pages end with an ad for the private company that replaced the street cars with buses in the name of progress:

The bus company congratulates itself for being able to "transform a sprawling, confused system into a modern engineered network" in less than 25 months. They lopped off lines and, of course, replaced the electric streetcars with diesel buses made by General Motors. 

The Metropolitan Council and newly created predecessor to Metro Transit took over the bus system from this company in 1970, thank goodness. Public transit is a public good and shouldn't be in private hands. 

The book closes by thinking of the future, of course, since what would a centennial book be without that? "It is obvious that Minneapolis is at the heart of a great new inland empire — an empire of newly utilized materials and newly developed technological skills." Then taconite is mentioned, and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence seaway. Oil and uranium (!) from the Dakotas, because why not, it's 1956. And then there's this:

Within Minneapolis itself a great new Civic Center is being planned for the old Bridge Square area, the city's birthplace [now usually referred to as the Gateway area]. New superhighways are on the drawing boards. Engineers are discussing ways and means of relieving city traffic which, if carried through, will create many new patterns of life and activity. In the future, deliveries may be made underground. The city may have a vast network of subterranean roadways for more efficient and speedier movement of goods and materials.

City leaders did tear down the Gateway area, turning it into a lifeless place, and they did build "super" highways through the heart of the city, but those only made traffic worse. And of course the idea of tunneling everywhere for single-occupancy vehicles is something that only Elon Musk thinks is a good idea these days. 

But the book's penultimate paragraph, predicting the "rapid spread of people" into the suburbs, was right on. What they missed in that prediction was the effect that spread would have on the city itself, and on many of the businesses that had been able to purchase ads to support the centennial book.


Because I can't resist, here are some company logos from the ads. These are ones that are less well-known in the Twin Cities now, visually representing the era best or sometimes they're ones for current companies that surprised me, or are for lost companies. So it's basically a nostalgia break.