How Do You Feel Strolling on Hennepin Avenue?  Dining on Nicollet Mall?

The Star Tribune recently ran a short piece (July 19) about how Haskell’s Wine Bar on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis closed last month for several reasons, one being how, “Panhandlers would approach outdoor diners on the wine bar’s patio [owner Jack Farrell said] and customers would ‘get up and leave.’”

Anti-panhandling laws and ordinances can be tricky, but I was under the impression the practice generally wasn’t allowed within sidewalk cafes.  I appreciate how Minneapolis police can’t be everywhere every moment, but it’s this kind of disorder, and often much worse (like murder), that perpetually plagues key portions of downtown.

This causes serious problems, obviously.  Nevertheless, my sense is it doesn’t offend and steam people off frequently or severely enough.  At least that has been my impression for well more than a decade.  Though in fairness, I acknowledge that various levels of incivility and crime haven’t appeared to stunt downtown’s remarkable building boom, even though I’ve long been of the mind it might.

Why have I thought so?  A major reason is that I’ve known of any number of women – as well as men – who are uncomfortable, sometimes afraid to spend time in downtown Minneapolis, especially at night.  Thinking of main drags in conceivably scarier cities across the country, they’ve told me they feel safer on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Connecticut Avenue in Washington, and Fifth Avenue in New York than they do on Hennepin Avenue, even though the latter is the core of our theater district, as well as but short walks to Target Field and Target Center where more entertainment is to be had.

A while back, American Experiment invited a Washington journalist to speak at a luncheon forum at the Radisson Plaza on Seventh Street, between Hennepin and Nicollet.  Without being rude about it, it’s fair to say she was a tough, hard-bitten journalist (goes the cliché) who had lived just about her entire life in DC.  The night before the event she wanted to take a walk, so she asked the doorman at the Radisson which way should she go?  He said don’t turn left towards Hennepin Avenue, but rather right towards Nicollet Mall.  Which she did – and then reported the next morning she was more on edge there than in her less-than-boutique neighborhood back home.

One possible reason, I suspect, was simply that Washington was home turf and Minneapolis was not.  Yet it was more than that, as there were young people on Nicollet that night doing and saying less-than-reassuring and welcoming things.  I lived in Washington for a few years in the 1980s, and for all the crime and problems in that city, I don’t recall significant numbers of teenagers and 20-somethings intimidating tourists and locals, purposely or not, in its very heart.  But as we know, a similar feeling of security is often not to be had in the heart of Minnesota’s largest and most important city.

Am I overstating matters?  I don’t think so.

Ten years ago, I wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune that talked frankly about the frequent lack of civility, and worse on Hennepin Avenue.  In many ways the most damaging behavior had less to do with actual violence than with its seeming imminence, the roots of which were vulgarity.  Not just bad language but foul language.  Not just rough manners but crude manners.  Not just hanging out in front of doors but obstructing them.  Not just flirting intently but treating women and girls atrociously.  Not just panhandling but in-your-face panhandling.

My office used to be at the corner of Sixth and Hennepin, but hasn’t been for about five years, so I don’t have a good feel for what Hennepin Avenue is like these days.  Those of you with a better sense of the strip now and then, what do you think?

As for Nicollet Mall, it sure would be nice, if after spending (what?) $50 million sprucing it up, heavily taxed proprietors could keep their guests comfortably seated and doors open.

Mitch Pearlstein’s newest book is Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees.