I want to take some time to consider what movements are legible in the Nicollet Mall Collection, which contains newspaper clippings, newsletters, fact sheets, reports and studies, project plans and proposals, promotional material, etc. I’ve walked up and down Nicollet Mall several times since the most recent renovation has been completed and find myself thinking about the iteration of the space I grew up with, and the original iteration of which I have only seen in photos. I originally went to the James K. Hosmer Special Collections (housed in the Minneapolis Central Library) thinking I would find the Nicollet Mall Collection to be a reflection or performance of what the city would want to present about its past. Instead, when I spoke with Bailey Diers, I learned that the Nicollet Mall Collection is, in archivist terms, an “artificial collection.” This means that materials were collected from various sources over a long period of time and were then merged together. Artificial collections “typically do not grow out of a single, specific function and are often arranged for the convenience of description or retrieval rather than in an order originally established by the creator.”
The Nicollet Mall Collection can also be considered part of the Minneapolis History Collection and could ostensibly have more documents added to it. In the past, the process of collection curation largely involved people clipping portions of the newspaper and deciding whether or not to keep certain publications or public documents somebody gave to the archive. I think about all the documents that got passed over for archival inclusion, along with what experiences were not documented at all.
Newspaper clippings make up about half of the Nicollet Mall Collection, so I recently thumbed through them to look for patterns in the way movement is discussed.
Minibus for Mall Called Logical Plan
City to Deck the Mall with Boughs, Flowers
Mall, Although a Good Idea, Needs a Sense of Civic Identity
Former Miss Downtowns Help Cut the Cake for Nicollet Mall
Nicollet will shed its sickly pine trees
Basic necessities: mall bus riders lack shelter
1-year trial to let buses, bikes share Nicollet Mall
Review Ordered on Nicollet Mall Use
These headlines range from 1968 through 1994, and I’d venture to say these are fairly typical for the collection’s clippings. Initially, I was hoping to see action verbs in headlines which would tell me about what movements and actions were deemed noteworthy by the press. If I were to look at the mall strictly through the lens these clippings give, it’s clear that it was a site for transit, construction, and spectacle.
While these headlines and articles don’t overtly address how people moved through Nicollet Mall, they do discursively show people using it as a transit mall, and often expressing dissatisfaction with it—often regarding a lack of features like bus shelters, bike racks, etc. The Star Tribune’s architecture critic Linda Mack focused on how BRW, Inc.’s 1990 redesign “hovers between completion and obsolescence.”
In these clippings, planning, reviewing, renovating, fixing, repairing are activities that occur on the mall, along with less frequent reference to mundane activities such as biking, walking, riding or waiting for the bus, and occasionally dining and socializing. Frequently, people moving on Nicollet Mall are referred to in terms of their chosen activity (as with bikers, walkers, etc.), but there’s not much here that fleshes out a broader choreography of everyday life.
I turned my attention to public documents (newsletters, fact sheets, promotional materials, art proposals), which, though interesting for the civic identity they mean to perform, don’t do much in the way of showing what lived experience actually looked or felt like in the past. One of the special collections librarians told me about a document in Hennepin County Library’s catalogue called Nicollet Mall (An Interim Report and Evaluation) from 1987. This report, orchestrated by the so-called Project for Public Spaces Inc. “studied how the Mall is currently used and perceived now, analyzed the relationship of the Mall to adjacent land uses, and evaluated the potential impact of new projects that are currently being constructed or proposed along the Mall.” This analysis then served as the criteria for the subsequent redesign of the mall. What is most interesting to me about this document is a survey of 311 pedestrians on “a central portion of the Mall, on both a weekday and a weekend day. People were also surveyed during the Norwegian Festival.” Though I wish the methodological terms were spelled out a bit more, I am glad to people’s various activities represented. Shopping, running errands, going to restaurants, and waiting for the bus are prevalent activities.
What surprises me is that 56 percent of people used the mall to stroll and window shop, and 27 percent of people said that they used the mall to socialize. It’s notable that most people surveyed lived downtown (80 percent), and the majority did not work downtown. I get the sense that the opposite is true today and that not much socializing goes on anymore. I also find it interesting that socializing isn’t defined in the survey, but I do wonder about what this looked like or what activities this included. People sitting on benches and talking? Smoking cigarettes? It was another time.
Though the sample used in this survey is quite limited and thus we can’t fully envision who was moving about Nicollet Mall with great accuracy, we can see who was included in this survey.
It’s worth acknowledging that people at this time were using the version of Nicollet Mall designed by Lawrence Halprin and Associates, so the activities people describe themselves partaking in are a reflection of what this design enabled them to do. The survey also allows people to suggest improvements for the next iteration of Nicollet Mall:
My favorite piece of this document is seeing how many people thought Nicollet Mall needed bike lanes and how few wanted nightclubs/discos. The data might suggest that people who were using Nicollet Mall were more concerned with using it for its true purpose as a transit mall, though a select few yearned to dance and socialize. This seems to keep with the mall’s subsequent renovations which have maintained a vision of more commute-oriented movement rather than providing opportunities for other types of vital choreography.
This report tells us both how people moved and how they wanted to move through their everyday use of the mall, which adds depth to the actions we could only infer from newspaper clippings. The extent to which the movements of this public was considered and incorporated into the subsequent design of the mall is unclear, largely because I cannot get access to the reports and surveys in the Minneapolis City Hall archives. This material would likely reveal how people’s engagement with the mall has changed over time, across different iterations of the mall. Perhaps this is where someone else’s research could take off.
I realize now more than before that the nature of my subject—the nature and accessibility of archives—as well as the nature of my own movement shapes how I do research. In accessing archives, I am beholden to my day job, which makes it difficult to access the Hosmer Special Collections (though, thankfully, they are open the first and third Saturday of each month) and not feasible to access Minneapolis City Hall archives. I can’t get away from the fact that I primarily engage with Nicollet Mall as someone who does not ordinarily move through it and who was not alive when previous iterations existed.
In the three iterations of the mall (1967, 1991, 2017), certain physical features of the space have remained while others have changed with the shifting economic needs of Minneapolis and people using Nicollet Mall, and the archive does have documents that speak to these changes. However, I am less interested in the intricacies of which aspects of the landscape have changed and why, and more invested in providing resources for people in the future to get some glimpses of what Nicollet Mall feels like now. How can visceral experience be documented in the past, and the present? I’ve used these blog posts to consider the ways movement on Nicollet Mall has been documented in the past, but going forward I think I will consider generating documents about present day Nicollet Mall.