Can authentic experiences lead people back to downtown?

By John Horchner

Melvin Tennant, head of Meet Minneapolis, said that conventions can help lead downtown’s recovery, but “attendees want an authentic experience when they visit.”

This means mixing with the locals. The problem is there aren’t enough local people downtown yet.

Some office workers are starting to come back. But there are also many who have not yet and may never return since Covid-19 hit.

There are also suburbanites who don’t necessarily work in the city, but who in the recent past filled the streets for sports, theater, music or, otherwise, just went out for a good time. Many of these folks are still missing, some say, due to safety concerns.

In response, a coalition of city organizations, including the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the convention bureau, have created fun events downtown this summer. Events include the booked conventions of course, but also additional music, sidewalk art events and farmers markets.

For a list of upcoming August events, visit

Most interesting to me were the sidewalk pianos with scheduled times for professional entertainers. Turning the downtown streets into a virtual amusement park is something new for me.

As a kid living in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s, we did not visit New York City for fun. My grandfather had a doctor’s office in Brooklyn below his apartment, and if I was dropped off there because my mom was desperate for a babysitter, I wasn’t allowed to leave.

As a family, we’d visit Gooder’s Shoes, owned by Mr. Gooder, a friend of my grandfather, for free shoes. There was a butcher we’d also visit who decapitated chickens in the store and left the heads in a barrel for all to see.

That was it for my entertainment.

Pianos on parade

In Minneapolis, the pianos on the street were part of an event called Pianos on Parade. The majority of pianos were on Nicollet Avenue, a thoroughfare that received millions in dollars of upgrades in recent years.

I went downtown in June on my bike to check it out. Bikes must share Nicollet Avenue with buses and also with scooters and skateboards. But I think it’s great that no cars are allowed.

Right away, passing me going the other way, I notice a bike rider much younger than me doing a wheelie, and I think, “He’s pretty good,” even as he goes through a red light.

Further up, I stop to gather with a group watching a giant chess board on the sidewalk. There’s a multi-cultural mix of well-dressed and not so well dressed who seem seriously into the watching the game.

One reason Minneapolis attracts conventions and visitors is because it has a downtown that is supported by an organization, the Downtown Improvement District, that hires ambassadors, the most visible part of its programs.

I stop to talk to a DID ambassador we can call Joe, who tells me things are picking up downtown, especially because of the conventions. I ask about safety; and he says the weekdays seem fine, but he was not so sure about weekends.

I slide off my bike and cross the street to a hot dog vendor whose cart is open Monday through Friday and sometimes, weekends. He says days when the conventions are in town his sales are the best.

And, I see the number of people hanging out starts to increase across the street from the Mary Tyler Moore statue on Seventh Street and then increases again two blocks up, across the street from the downtown Target.

But during my trip, it’s the start of rush hour so the number of people hanging out are matched by workers heading home with their briefcases or backpacks slung over their shoulders.

Across Nicollet Avenue, every seat outdoors is taken at the popular watering hole, The Local, and there’s a new place, Ties Lounge and Rooftop, with multiple floors.

I stop to try the piano in front of the YWCA. It’s a Wurlitzer Vertical Grand according to the label, and I’m expecting big things. Two young professional women stop chatting and look up from their phones. I realize the whole process is somewhat addictive, first finding a piano and secondly playing it and finally, wondering if anyone will listen.

I play one or two songs but start to notice badges for the Conference on Mass Spectrometry that is going on all week and decide to head up to the main stage, which for me would be the front of the Convention Center.

Up there, no one is using that piano and although I’m just an aspiring professional, I realize this is a big opportunity.

I put on my game face and start pounding the keys with my right hand, jazz chords with my left, as the attendees stream out of the convention center.

I get a few furtive looks, but one or two outright smiles as people walk by. A few people sit on the benches nearby and check their phones, and one sits right behind me and claps. He calls the conference the Super Bowl event for the spectrometry industry, which studies the interactions between light and matter; and he is visibly excited by its success. I bring up the city’s promotion as a destination, and he couldn’t be more complimentary.

I return to the piano and play Billie Holiday’s version of “God Bless the Child.” A guy walks by and points at me and says, “That’s good.”

And I stop to think that it’s very cool being downtown. 

John Horchner is a professional writer and lives in St. Anthony Park.

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