It’s Jane Jacob’s week here at Strong Towns. We’re celebrating the legacy of a woman who had the foresight and character to try to save American cities from the unrelenting “progress” happening all across the country. Architects, urban planners and regular citizens owe her a debt of gratitude.
While Jane Jacobs was fighting, and winning, some battles against Urban Renewal in our cities, many, many more were victims to this hubristic program. My city, Mankato MN, was one of the hardest hit.
In the early days of Minnesota, Mankato was a real up and coming city. It was a lovely town with beautiful buildings. Sinclair Lewis even spent some time here writing his book, Main Street. In some of his excerpts he describes Mankato: “in its garden-sheltered streets and aisles of elms is white and green New England reborn.” Pretty high compliments from one of our most famous authors.
However, this was not to last forever. During Urban Renewal, Mankato ripped out five city blocks of historic commercial development in its downtown. They covered what was remaining with a “downtown mall” which did fairly well until we built a new mall on the edge of town putting the nail in the coffin for downtown.
Mankato received a good deal of money for Urban Renewal. Story has it that there was a politician at the ribbon cutting of the downtown mall opened who said, “This is an all-American mall because all of America helped pay for it.”
I have a friend who is a good deal older than I am. In 1969 he went around and took pictures of Mankato side by side with pictures from 1905. He captured the change of those buildings in 60 years. I then took pictures of the same spots in 2014.
The main street was blocked off, covered and rebuilt, and not just by the mall. Where the street used to be now sits a large, money-sucking, tax-exempt civic center that takes up almost 5 acres of downtown space, but hey, Elton John came to town one time so that’s nice.
Here’s another section of downtown comparing 1905, 1969, and 2014.
To give you a little more interactive idea of what happened I’ve used a tool called Juxtapose.js. I took an aerial photo from the 40s and compared it to the 3D rendering (2014) that I pulled out of Google Earth. It doesn’t line up exactly, but it gives you an idea. Slide the bar back and forth to witness the destruction and true hubris of our city.
The saddest part of all this however, is the destruction of wealth that was passed down. Our downtown now is far, far less productive than it was back in the early half of the 20th century. I snagged some maps that detailed the commercial plats of downtown in 1924. I then overlayed it on today’s downtown using the same slider functionality as above. You can see that there are far less plats today which means less affordable housing, less space for entrepreneurs and less walkability.
As with any battle, there were heroes who tried to fight against it. Several old-timers told me that they tried to stop this nonsense, but ultimately lost the war. There’s a story that at one of the city council meetings where they were discussing the tear-down of an old building, a woman said something to the effect of, “We have to save these old buildings” to which the city manager harshly replied, “If you want old buildings lady, go to Europe.” Guess where he hailed from before coming to Mankato: Detroit.
A few years ago the head of the State Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) said that Mankato tore down more of its architectural heritage than any other city in the state.
One of my favorite pastimes is collecting old postcards of Mankato. I like to fantasize about what it would have been like to have such a great downtown. In my search I was lucky enough to find this gem of downtown taken sometime in the 80s after most of the teardown, but before any type of redevelopment. Desolation incarnate:
Wealth doesn’t spring up overnight. It’s worked at for decades and then it is carried into the future. Mankato and a lot of cities in America have still never recovered, despite the fact that we have the tools and knowledge to do so.
Urban Renewal should serve as a kind of inspiration for us, a battle cry of sorts. It's a visual and economic reminder that only strong citizens can build strong towns and we have the civic duty to try and repair the damage we did. Stay strong, stay hungry and stay smart, and we will build Strong Towns.
If you want to check out more old photos of Mankato, you can see a bunch of them on my Flickr page.