A trip back to Lyn-Lakes early days

New book showcases historical photos of one of Minneapolis’ hotspots

In Uptown, some things stay the same, but most things change.

A quick stroll around the area suggests that right now is a particularly change-filled time. After a recession-fueled period of relative dormancy, new apartment buildings are sprouting up along the Midtown Greenway, two major mixed-use projects (one in Lowry Hill East, the other in Whittier) are under construction and Calhoun Square recently began a significant expansion and redevelopment along Hennepin Avenue.

But, in fact, change has been one of the few constants throughout Uptown’s history. This theme emerges in both of the photo-intensive books on Uptown’s history written by the brother-sister team of Thatcher Imboden and Cedar Imboden Phillips. Though the area has long been a renter-intensive haven for bohemian living, arts and entertainment, almost all of Uptown’s present-day physical environment is the product of repeated cycles of death and rebirth. With nary an exception, even the buildings that have stood the test of time have housed a variety of tenants and served a variety of purposes over the years.

In 2004, Imboden and Phillips published “Uptown Minneapolis.” That book focused on the emergence of the Chain of Lakes as one of the city’s premier recreation destinations and the development of Hennepin & Lake from a sparsely populated pastureland on the fringe of town to a marquee dining and entertainment node.

Now, the duo are back with a new book, “Lyn-Lake,” a companion to “Uptown” (both books are published by Arcadia Publishing). Though the histories of each book’s focal intersection are of course interconnected (after all, they’re just handful of blocks apart), “Lyn-Lake” brings to light certain aspects of Uptown’s history that aren’t fully explored in the first book — in particular, the significant role the railroad tracks along what is now the Midtown Greenway served in establishing Lyn-Lake as one of Minneapolis’s industrial cores.

‘A natural team’

Thatcher Imboden, 28, has an impressive resume.

He works as a development specialist for the Ackerberg Group, the largest property development firm in Uptown. He serves as president of the Uptown Association, a nonprofit trade association representing 175 businesses and property owners. And he is now the co-author of two books.

Imboden has a vast local social network and an urban studies degree; his older sister is a trained historian. Both grew up in CARAG and developed a curiosity about the area’s history in college.

“She’s the history lady, I’m the local person. It’s a natural team,” Imboden said.

“Uptown” and “Lyn-Lake” aren’t meant to be exhaustive narrative histories. Instead, the books revolve around photos Imboden and Phillips painstakingly gathered from historical collections, neighborhood groups, local businesses and long-time residents. Each of the hundreds of photos included in the books are accompanied by roughly 100 words of context-supplying text.

“It’s more of a teaser for local history, though we did try and arrange the photos in a way that tells some sort of story,” Phillips said, her brother adding that the books “are snapshots of general areas of life in Uptown.”

While going door to door, working the phones and digging through box upon box of unsorted photographs may sound like a painful chore, Imboden said the payoff associated with finding useable images proved well worth the effort.

“My favorite part of the project is trying to find the needle in the haystack. I like trying to find the pictures, which is the hardest thing to do. It’s a lot of work — digging through things, calling people, finding sources that people didn’t even know existed.”

And, of course, the work didn’t end with merely finding good photos.

“I’d find myself digging through a box of photos, and thinking, ‘please let me find a picture of a building, or maybe a neighborhood shot,’” Imboden continued. “Then even if you find it, it’s like, ‘now I have to find out what this is.’ But that’s why I do it, why I’m willing to spend a lot of time on these projects. It’s about the curiosity and the passion for finding something.”

Lyn-Lake’s industrial heritage

Uptown has become one of the city’s premier entertainment and shopping hubs. But excepting the substantial number of people employed in service industry jobs, it generally isn’t a place where people go to work.

With dozens of photos devoted to Lyn-Lake’s rich industrial history, Imboden and Phillips’s latest book makes clear that this was not always the case.  

In the introduction, Imboden and Phillips write: “Just one block north of Lake Street, the Twenty-ninth Street rail corridor was to play an essential role in Lyn-Lake’s history, past and present. A rail corridor made it possible for the Lyn-Lake district to develop a bustling industrial economy… Grain elevators, lumberyards, dairies, stables, and manufacturers of all types — everything and anything that needed a location with rail access — found a home along the (corridor).”

As industry relocated from the city to the suburbs (or to foreign countries) during the latter part of the last century, the 29th Street tracks were gradually phased out of use. The corridor was eventually converted to the Midtown Greenway, eliminating most of the area’s blue-collar jobs.

“People should know that both Lyn-Lake and Uptown have an industrial past,” Phillips said. “It wasn’t that long ago that people could actually work blue-collar jobs in the neighborhood.”

Imboden views the decline of Uptown’s industrial economy as part of a larger narrative about the de-industrialization of the American economy as a whole.

“Industries in general have left a lot of cities, period,” he said. “Businesses could sell their land and get some decent money for it, and being in the city is not easy for an industry. Taxes are high and industrial land is generally cheap so it’s easier to be out in the ‘burbs.”

While much has changed in Uptown since the early 20th century, some things have remained the same.

“There has always been a mix of people — the fairly wealthy, poor artists, middle class — with everyone living in close proximity,” Phillips said. “These have been urban neighborhoods with stores and housing mixed together from the start.”

‘These stories never end’

In recent years, projects like the Uptown Lake Apartments (Lake & Fremont) and Blue (Lake & Aldrich) have ushered in a new era of mixed-use development in Uptown. Projects currently under construction like Mosaic (Lagoon & Fremont — Imboden played a significant role in the Ackerberg Group’s effort to get the project off the ground) and Greenleaf (Lyndale & 28th) indicate that mixed-use remains the predominant development model.

Notably, many of the Lyn-Lake buildings that have stood the test of time were originally constructed with multiple levels and for mixed uses — buildings like the Crowell Block (Lyndale & Lake — built in 1888 and the current home of It’s Greek To Me) and the Calhoun Commercial Club (Lake & mid-block between Lyndale and Aldrich — built in 1914.)

Imboden said that if he and his sister were to update “Uptown” and “Lyn-Lake” in 20 years, he anticipates snapshots of future development would mostly capture intensive, mixed-use projects like the ones presently sprouting up all over the area.

“Mixed-use is a return to the way we used to build cities, which was pretty efficient. People kept thinking about how to retrofit the city to work under new transportation models and preferences, but I think we learned that doesn’t work very well,” he said. “So if we were to revisit the book in 20 years, I think we will continue to see the older, less-maintained buildings — especially ones that have had fewer stable businesses — converted into larger, mixed-use developments.”

It’s unlikely, however, that Imboden and Phillips will revisit “Uptown” or “Lyn-Lake” — there are simply too many other neighborhoods in Minneapolis ripe for photographic histories. Though no firm plans are currently in place, Imboden mentioned Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis as an area he’s interested to investigate, while Phillips said she’s intrigued by the rich histories of business nodes along Lyndale.

“These stories never end,” Imboden said. “My hope is that these books will inspire people to do their own research about their own house or neighborhood. The hope is that when they walk down the street maybe they’ll understand what they’re looking at a little differently.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]