One of the gems of Columbia Heights is the 1926 Heights Theater, the longest continuously running theater in the Twin Cities metro (as stated during last weeks screening of Rear Window). The theater was designed as a neighborhood movie house for local talent during the explosion of neighborhood theater construction. After many years of unsympathetic alterations, it was purchased in November 1998 by Tom Letness and Dave Holmgren and restored to its former glory.
The most impressive aspect of the building is the Wurlitzer Theater Organ located in the original orchestra pit. It rises before each show, with the musician playing old favorites as the masses find their seats. Just before the previews, the player takes a bow and slowly descends into the pit.
The theater survived throughout the years while most were shut up as the street car lines that served them went away. They were replaced by large cinemas in suburban shopping centers that provide more movie viewing options than the one screen theaters.
There is hope for many of these old theater buildings scattered around Minneapolis. Some are being remodeled for offices and others have become breweries. While the nostalgia of sitting in the old theater with popcorn and a soda is limited to a select few theaters like the Heights, these buildings at least have a chance at a second life with modern uses.
Last week I went to see Rear Window at the Heights Theater, a first on both accounts. The movie was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954 and starred James Steward, Grace Kelly, and Wendell Corey. The story line begins with professional photographer L.B. Jeffries in his small New York apartment, looking out onto a shared courtyard. The close proximity of buildings allows easy viewing into neighboring apartments and their inhabitants activities. The entire movie is shot within the apartment because Jeffries is confined to a wheel chair due to a broken leg.
While his nurse, Stella, harped on him for spying on his neighbors, I began to think about how he was participating in Jane Jacob's concept of eyes on the street. What made this courtyard feel safe was all the activity that took place within the adjacent apartments. There was a ballet dancer, a pianist, invalid wife, newly wed couple, owners of a little dog, and a sculptor. They all had varying engagement with the public space, some spending time on the ground level, others sleeping on their balcony, and some, like Jeffries, just viewing it all from their windows.
Designing spaces to be engaging and active was lost for many years, leading the way for high rise towers that were later demolished to eliminate the crime and decay they created. This was prevalent in the urban renewal era of the 1950's and 1960's. Activists like Jacobs began to speak out, pointing to the success of areas such as Greenwich Village that functioned much like the scene from Rear Window. Luckily her ideas caught on and we have many vibrant pockets of interaction scattered throughout our cities.
Planners can help create neighborhoods like these through thoughtful area and master plans that engage citizens in the process. The best way to find out what is working in a neighborhood is to ask the residents that live there. From there, we can maintain what is positive and propose future changes that would enliven the public spaces and create more activity.
Many Metro Area cities are engaging in this kind of discussion. Minneapolis has enlisted the help of an artist to work with the residents of the Cedarside (a nickname the residents created through the engagement process) to identify their needs and work with them to turn those into actionable items to address them. Intermedia Arts created an online Creative Asset Mapping tool for the residents to identify what they love about their neighborhood.
These kinds of processes create ownership and bring neighbors together far beyond the comprehensive or area plan process. It helps to create the kinds of neighborhoods and pockets that existed in Rear Window and Jane Jacobs spoke about. As planners we should all strive to create the opportunity for these connections to exist.