Milwaukee & Franklin Avenues

The
antithesis of Milwaukee Avenue—the Seward neighborhood’s secret
boulevard of late 19th century homes—is the Cedars 94 apartment
complex, located just across from Milwaukee on Franklin’s north side.
Where Milwaukee Avenue has dozens of brick homes with low front porches
and gingerbread gables, the apartments have faded wooden shingles and
a chain-link security fence. Where Milwaukee Avenue has forsythia, lilac,
and crabapple trees along its center, Cedars 94 has cement courtyards
and is bound by the roar of traffic from Franklin and Interstate 94.

But
both places share a similar legacy. Milwaukee Avenue’s homes, built
between 1883 and 1895, were intended for Scandinavian immigrants who
labored in the nearby railroad yards. Crowding as many homes as he could
onto narrow lots, developer William Ragan created the first planned
workers’ community in Minneapolis, and got the most for his buck.
Then, Milwaukee Avenue was a starting place for newcomers—not a destination.

In
1974, the quaint homes, in disrepair and slated for demolition, were
listed on the National Register of Historic Places and gradually revitalized,
some with mind-blowing color schemes: a yellow brick home with buttercup
yellow gables, sky-blue trim, and tangerine accents. Part of its charm
today lies in its relative silence—a pedestrian-only urban avenue
where it’s possible to hear the wind in the trees, the faint tinkling
of glass wind chimes, or nothing.

In
the window of Charles A. Hoffman Handmade Guitars and Stringed Instrument
Repair, on the corner of Milwaukee and Franklin, a young man bends over
a honey-colored guitar and gently restrings it. Mr. Hoffman builds 25
guitars per year and runs a brisk repair business. On a Saturday morning
the small shop, fragrant with the sharp, clean smell of wood, is warm
and musical as customers try out guitars. Easy, a black poodle with
a ‘70s afro, pads behind the counter where an ornate silver cash register
sits beside a flat-screen monitor and ergonomic keyboard.

The
Swedish potato sausage and lingonberry jam that might have been here
100 years ago have given way to green tea spices and spongy disks of
Ethiopian flatbread at the Shabelle Grocery and Meat Market and to the
Seward Community Coop’s dark and leafy organic produce. At the 2nd
Moon Coffee Café, two poets, bathed in the blue haze of a Mac screen,
discuss publication: "Do you have any work out there?"

"I’m
still struck (as when I saw my first Pasque-flower)/Now at the single
soft shoot of daffodil arching, slow/Through the face of the rock-like
ground and on: up: through/The flinty shingle of March-blown sleet and
snow/On the winter-wasted ice-bound lawns of Milwaukee Avenue."

The
lyrical, hardscrabble poet Thomas McGrath lived in Cedars 94 in the
1980s until his death in 1990. The first-floor, single-level apartment
was easier for him to manage, and he chain smoked and wrote poems like
"The Black Train" in longhand at his dining-room table. Many afternoons,
he crossed Franklin to Tracy’s Saloon for a hamburger and a Scotch.
It seems unlikely that he would have been out on Milwaukee Avenue on
such a March day, negotiating the slick sidewalks with his cane and
unsteady gait. More likely, he was at home, looking out of the sliding
glass doors to his own winter-wasted concrete patio, imagining something
beautiful rising up out of the snow.

Notes:

  1. Paragraph 2: Building
    dates for Milwaukee Avenue, developer and reference to Scandinavian
    workers: Minnesota Historical Society; Rail workers reference from "Milwaukee
    Avenue
    " by Gary Hiebert, 2001. Reference to Scandinavian immigrants
    also found in "History of Milwaukee Avenue," Milwaukee Avenue Homeowners
    Association.
  2. Paragraph 3: Date
    for listing on National Register of Historic Places: Minnesota Historical
    Society.
  3. Paragraph 4: Reference
    for number of guitars built each year by Charles Hoffman-conversation
    with Mr. Hoffman on January 6, 2007.
  4. Paragraph 6: Lines
    from "The Black Train," by Thomas McGrath, from Selected Poems:
    1938-1988,
    Copper Canyon Press, 1988; page 156.
  5. Paragraph 7: Notes
    about Thomas McGrath are my own personal notes. I worked for Tom from
    1986-1988, transcribing his poems and letters in his apartment at Cedars
    94.