What’s new (and old) in the neighborhoods?

A crowd of people pack the bleachers surrounding a race track at the 1880 King’s Fair in present-day Seward.

Photo by Courtesy Hennepin County Libraries

New photographs and classic images document cities’ people and places

A photo exhibit running through the end of the month reveals the familiar details, past and present, of neighborhood life in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The images range from still life — graffiti-covered telephones, a bridge over the reflecting water of the Mississippi — to close, personal portraits of the people who bring life to those settings.

The images were shot with both digital and film cameras, in color and black-and-white; and historical photos, postcards and other resources from the library’s neighborhood-related archives complement the works.

The exhibit is the second phase of “32 × 4,” an ambitious three-year project to document neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

OverExposure, a local media arts organization that drives socially relevant work, is behind the exhibit. Other sponsors include the Carolyn Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, St. Paul Travelers’ Arts and Diversity Employee Committee and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (with funding from the Minnesota Legislature.)

For the project, photographers Michael Dvorak, Dustin Hoskovec, Sarah Stacke and Xavier Tavera shot eight neighborhoods apiece over the course of five months. The photographers’ assignment: to come up with 10 photos that speak to what’s new throughout those places. (Some neighborhoods are more represented than others in the final exhibit.) Last year, the rules were similar for phase one; 10 photographers focused on 10 neighborhoods. Next year, 40 remaining neighborhoods will be photographed and displayed.

The current exhibit includes the Bridge-area neighborhoods of Nicollet Island, shot by Hoskovec, and Seward and Cedar-Riverside, shot by Stacke.

OverExposure spokesperson Kris Nelson said that “32 × 4” responds to the areas’ growing diversity while acknowledging that some things remain constant. “People don’t necessarily appreciate the range within neighborhoods,” he said. “Each has its own history and story to tell that is revealing in an intimate kind of way.

Nelson said the exhibit is “a reflection of people who make up the city, not the events or political activities.

“It’s about people’s lives,” he said, “which we often don’t get a chance to share.” He said many viewers have commented that they learned something new about nearby sites. “Their understanding is expanded in a way that can’t be done through the news,” he said.

What a difference a few blocks can make

For Hoskovec, the project was an eye-opening experience. Walking around town, he said, “You see things that might be important to the people living there,” including both permanent and temporary fixtures. Having to live next to something under construction — like I-35W in the Field-Regina-Northrop area — “may shake one’s whole life and house,” he said.

Hoskovec said distinguishing between old and new isn’t always that clear-cut. “To understand what’s new, you have to understand what’s old and how the neighborhood has changed,” he said.

Nicollet Island, for instance, is “really beautiful,” he said. “[It’s] close to the city, but it has a small-town feel. It’s a weird juxtaposition.” His photo A Bridge to History, which features an historic bridge on Nicollet Island in the glow of early evening, shows that dichotomy.

Nicollet Island was more reserved than some other neighborhoods in terms of its outdoor life, he said. Few people were out and about, except peripherally, along the bike and pedestrian paths. Hence, his images from the island exude quietude. All in all, “I was impressed with how natural it felt,” he said.

Hoskovec’s photos from other areas feature a water tower, a parking lot full of Head Start buses, morning workers at a bakery and the waving of the American flag. “I tried to think about what it would be like to live there, and what do people appreciate and take for granted?” he said, adding that, depending on the place, people express varying degrees of pride for their neighborhood — a point that comes through in how receptive they are to conversation. “It’s amazing what a few blocks will do,” he said.

Similarly, Stacke honed in on the ordinary yet telling details, like a pair of pay phones in the West Bank’s Hard Times Cafe. On the one hand, it represents the fact that “phone booths are disappearing,” she said, noting also the way the sunlight hits the pay phones and its surrounding artifacts exposes wear-and-tear. While there are no people in the Hard Times photo, “you can feel the presence of people there,” she said.

Other familiar hangouts pictured include the bar counter at the Nomad Pub and the chalk-covered walls of the Seward Cafe’s bathroom. Of the gathering places she shot, “All are incredibly welcoming,” Stacke said. “Some have been part of the community for a long time. People have watched [the businesses] change, working to make it.”

One definite icon captured by Stacke is the West Bank’s Riverside Plaza. In a sharply angled snapshot, the towering complex fills the picture plane, emphasizing the importance of this landmark to Cedar-Riverside. For historical perspective, an older photo of the same housing complex is featured in the library’s photos and postcards section.

Stacke also encountered the more personal side of the neighborhoods. In one image, Cedar-Riverside resident Polly is shown reclining on a couch in a sunroom surrounded by a handful of rescued dogs.

Among the historic photos from library’s collection is a scene that combines person and place: a crowd of people packing the bleachers surrounding a race track at the 1880 King’s Fair in present-day Seward. While the fair grounds are gone, the festivity lives on in the neighborhood’s biannual King’s Fair.

The exhibit runs through March 1 in the Cargill Gallery, in the 2nd floor of the Downtown Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall. For more information, visit www.overexposuremedia.org.

last revised: February 16, 2009