A few years ago, I ran across a picture of downtown Minneapolis in the mid-70s and—even a person who loves this place as much as I do—has to admit it looked pretty sad. The historic buildings in The Gateway had been torn down and looking toward the river from the new IDS Center was a sea of vacant parking lots and just a few lonely buildings like the Towers Apartments. You looked out at downtown and had to ask: “Where’s downtown?”
I took a good, long look at that picture, like the way you look at a picture from your childhood that shows something you thought was SO BIG, but in reality, was actually pretty small. I really didn’t remember downtown from that time being so empty. That shouldn’t come as surprise because I grew up reading Barbara Flanagan’s column…almost every one of them….and she didn’t write about downtown like it was pathetic.
Barbara lived in The Towers, which, let’s face it, is not the best piece of architecture, but because I read about it religiously through Barbara’s columns, I thought it was the height of urban chic. Back then downtown didn’t have three grocery stores; it didn’t even have one. The historic theaters were vacant or sketchy and there wasn’t a single sidewalk cafe in town.
None of this bothered me and Barbara’s other loyal readers. We had Charlie’s! And Harry’s! And Murray’s, home of the Silver Butter Knife Steak! And if you really wanted to try something wild, there was…drumroll please….Nankin Cafe! Now I’m sure if we had the Nankin Cafe’s food today it would taste a lot like Chung King but Barbara’s unflinching promotion gave readers the sense that we should expand our palates. You can draw a straight line from her boosterism of the Nankin back then to Eat Street, Midtown Global Market and all the restaurants featuring cuisine from around the world that make this town so special today.
When I was growing up reading Barbara there was almost NO nightlife downtown; no First Avenue, no Dakota Jazz Club. But we had Ichabod’s! There was the swinging scene at the Haberdashery, where the cognoscenti met while piles of peanuts crunched below their feet. And before Northern Spark, Fringe Fest and Rock the Garden, Barbara promoted mass community events like the World’s Largest Tap Dance down Hennepin Avenue.
Today, thankfully, Minneapolis is a different place and you can see Barbara’s impact all over town. The most obvious is sidewalk cafes, which she single-handedly, relentlessly, promoted until, finally, she got it into our thick skulls that when it’s nice in Minneapolis you can eat outside. Today you see one in almost every single restaurant in Minneapolis.
Some of her work isn’t as obvious. Decades ago, when just about the ONLY thing people from around the country said about Minneapolis was “It’s cold”—when the only thing people said when they heard “hygge” was “gesundheit”—Barbara was promoting Winter Cities—warm lighting, skating rinks, bright paint on buildings to lighten up long dark winters, outdoor cafes with blankets and hot chocolate. You can draw a straight line from that to the Luminary Loppet and the fact that today we proudly call ourselves The North.
Now I suppose looking back I could resent that growing up I was reading a columnist who fed me a steady dose Minneapolis propaganda, but far, far from it. Barbara Flanagan has been a major force in my career. In fact, because I was a faithful reader of Barbara Flanagan, because I saw my hometown’s potential, because she held high the people who made this city better, and, even more, held their feet to the first to never ever settle for second best, I have spent the last half century, or so, trying to follow her lead.
She’s a major reason why I became a reporter writing about architecture and development for the Star Tribune. In fact, one of the great joys of my career was when I got to the Star Tribune my desk was placed outside Barbara’s office, where she became one of my greatest cheerleaders, and a true friend. Her influence did not wane as I moved on to become the development director of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the Mayor of Minneapolis and now the CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation.
I’m not the only one whose love of Minneapolis was influenced by Barbara. The Star Tribune’s Rick Nelson will tell you the same thing. So will Congressman-elect Dean Phillips. So would a lot of people you never heard of.
When I ran for Mayor the cover of my first piece of literature had just one big simple quote that could have been written by Barbara Flanagan herself: “I was born in a great city and I don’t want to die in a mediocre one.” I put that piece into people’s hands as I door-knocked all over town and it struck a deep chord because people played back to me that they EXPECTED Minneapolis to do great things. And when it fell short, they expected we should get in people’s faces and fix it.
Being a great city means lots of things to lots of people. Barbara’s vision of greatness is only one vision. But what she taught us was, no matter where you think this city needs to aspire to go, no matter what you believe needs to be better, we have the capacity in this very special place to be the best.
To honor what she gave us, I am announcing today that the Minneapolis Foundation is launching the Barbara Flanagan Fund. The description of that reads: “In the spirit of Barbara Flanagan, funds will be used to inspire, assist, prod, scold or do whatever it takes to further the leaders and ideas that keep a great city from slipping into mediocrity.”
The Minneapolis Foundation seeded The Barbara Flanagan Fund with $50,000 and has already made two grants. The first grant will fund a strategy to attract new retail to Nicollet Mall. The second will help expand the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District’s First Thursday gallery crawls. We will put in more over time and, if others contribute, we can expand the work.
Barbara wasn’t born in a great city and she didn’t die in a mediocre one. She was born in Des Moines, and the Minneapolis she moved to wasn’t so great either. But the Minneapolis she left was so very much better because of who she is and what she taught us we could do together. Barbara Flanagan is gone. Now it’s up to all of us, in the work we do—big and small across a great city—to prove her spirit lives on.