Why we love(d) Block E

Block E. Wild and crazy Block E. Romanticized and mythologized Block E. Why do you still get so much attention? Why is it that, in the Twin Cities, an obscure city planning designation can be so recognizable?

 
 
 

The earliest memory of Block E for me is going to the Great Northern Market. The Great Northern, the last grocery store to grace Downtown Minneapolis until recently, closed in the mid-seventies, I think. I remember that the floors creaked and the place smelled of fish.

By the time I went to work on Bock E the market was replaced by a porno theater.

Block E was what most if not all cities have (or at least had): a seedy Times Square district. I’m not talking New York’s Time’s Square of the present with the Disney Store and cafe tables in the street. I’m talking Times Square of Travis Bickle. Times Square of bars, hookers, crummy hotels, assorted ne'er-do-wells, old run-down theaters and, yes, lots of porn.

Minneapolis is extraordinarily adept at urban renewal. Well, adept is not quite right. We just like to tear shit down. We like watching wrecking balls so much that in the late fifties we tore down one-third of Downtown Minneapolis. One-third. It was like some sort of blood-lust. The first block felt so good, let’s keep on-a-goin’. That area was called the Gateway District, which included some of the most important architecture in the city. It also included an honest-to-God old-school skid row: flophouses, bars, and lots and lots of the characters Block E would soon host.

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I started working at the World Theater on Seventh Street Block E right after high school. At that time, the place was pretty crazy. But strangely homey, too. What may seem to the casual visitor to be a dangerous, out of control area, to many of us was just normal. That crazy bum screaming on the corner scare you? That’s just Bob. He’s like that.

I quit the World after about a year but didn’t go far. I got a job part-time at the Skyway Theater on Hennepin between Seventh and Eighth Streets, which was still pretty new at the time and oh so hoity-toity.

Block E wasn’t long for this world. The first hint of change a-coming was the block across the street. That block was a mirror of Block E’s seediness with the Gopher Theater by then showing porn and the granddaddy of all porn theaters, the Aster. In 1980 the block was torn down and replaced by a shopping mall. An actual shopping mall. It is a huge site, really two full blocks, with one side facing the tony Nicollet Mall.

In the mid-1980s they came for Block E. It was torn down, except for the Academy, in one fell swoop and turned into a parking lot. There it sat. And sat. and sat. Eventually, the was-Academy now-Schubert got moved a block a away, a feat of engineering we Twin Citians still take pride in. Now it's a dance venue. As for empty Block E, finally the city got tired of not making tax money from the block and took action. They built, that’s right: another shopping mall.

To make a long story short, the shopping mall eventually failed as well. By the way, across the street, that shopping mall failed too. There ya go.

Back to the original topic: why is Block E romanticized? I think because it was the last of the wild west. It was vice for tourists. It was organic, alive, eclectic, a guilty pleasure, and oh-so-real. Exactly what replaced it was not.

Are you listening to me, Times Square?