The Saga of an Inner Suburb's Struggle for an Identity

A gritty blue-collar town in Minnesota reflects the tensions in many places located between cities and suburbs.

Auto-related businesses line busy Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, Minn.
(Renee Jones Schneider/Copyright 2015, Star Tribune)
This is a season of optimism in Columbia Heights, a compact suburb of 20,000 people on the northern edge of Minneapolis. 

The Heights Theater, a retro 1920s moviehouse on Central Avenue, the town’s main street, draws customers from all over the Twin Cities with its combination of classic cinema and live organ music. In a few months, right next to the theater, Columbia Heights will open a sparkling new town library, built in part out of brick meant to complement the theater’s appearance.

Perhaps most important, the suburb’s southern border sits right alongside Northeast Minneapolis, a once-dilapidated neighborhood that has come alive in recent years as an arts district. Modest homes in Northeast Minneapolis have soared in value, and many locals believe it is only a matter of time before the phenomenon spreads farther north into Columbia Heights. It’s easy to look at Central Avenue and see a future built around art galleries, fashionable boutiques, and high-end bars and cafés. “It sure would be nice,” says Mayor Gary Peterson. “It’s very possible. We’d love to have more of that stuff.”

But those kinds of changes may be difficult to bring about, for one very specific reason: Central Avenue has long been known all over the Twin Cities as an automotive strip -- garages, gas stations, used car dealerships and auto parts stores, one after another, stretching the length of the town. In the span of barely a mile, there are 22 car-related businesses.

For decades, scarcely anyone in Columbia Heights complained. These were legal businesses, and they provided much of the town’s tax revenue. More recently, however, there have been rumblings of discontent about the contradiction between what the place is now and what many of its residents would like it to become. Much of this has been covered engagingly by Shannon Prather, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose work sparked my interest in Columbia Heights and its challenge.

A decisive event took place last year. An old house sitting empty downtown was sold, and the new owners began making plans to demolish it and open still another garage—this one right in the shadow of the theater and the new library. The city council looked for ways to stop it from happening and found out that it was too late. It was a lawful transaction, and nothing could be done. But something could be done to prevent it from happening again. In December, with the support of the mayor, the city council approved a six-month moratorium on any new auto-related businesses. Once the six months are up, Peterson says, the town government will make a decision about what it wants to do on a permanent basis.

In the meantime, there are those in the community who think the local leaders are overreaching, trying to reimagine their modest little suburb as something that it will never be. One of them is Tricia Ayers, longtime owner of the AutoMax Muffler and Brake Shop at the northern end of Central Avenue. “Automotive isn’t a pretty thing,” she told me, “but it’s the thing that pays the bills. Sometimes you are what you are. I’m not saying we can’t change, but you have to look at the demographics.” Ayers’ shop draws customers from distant parts of the Twin Cities. Twenty percent of them, she says, want to know where’s there’s a coffee shop nearby. The rest would rather go to McDonald’s.

Not only that, but the town would have to change quite a bit physically in order to realize its upscale potential. Sprinkled with drive-up businesses and constant curb cuts, Central Avenue is virtually unwalkable. Pedestrians who wish to stroll down the busiest mile-long strip have to cross the wide street over and over again to find sidewalk space. Could this be fixed? Sure. Is that something the town and its business owners would want to pay for? That remains to be seen.

Lurking beneath the debate, as you might expect, is the issue of gentrification. Columbia Heights is not only an auto-strip town. It’s a blue-collar town right down to its roots, one of the poorer suburbs, by household income, in the Twin Cities metro area. The upscale place that the mayor and council envision would be a lot nicer to look at, more fun to visit and a likely magnet for adventurous millennials like the ones who have been flooding into neighboring Northeast Minneapolis. But it might be too expensive for some of the current residents to live in.

Columbia Heights’ dilemma is unusual in some ways, but in other ways it reflects a tension that exists in a fair number of inner suburbs around the country. A little over a decade ago, former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut wrote a book about these suburbs and called it Halfway to Everywhere. In Hudnut’s view, many of these places are perched uneasily between dense urban life and the car-dominated suburban territory that lies beyond them.

Many of the suburbs that Hudnut wrote about are blue-collar towns, developed after World War II to attract industrial workers lifting themselves into the middle class. As he observed, these first-tier suburbs now are home to aging populations, aging housing stock and aging infrastructure. Their brick bungalows and ramblers are generally too small to attract the more affluent homebuyers of the 21st century. Troubled schools make many of these places even less attractive than they would otherwise be. They are communities, Hudnut concluded, that are “under tremendous stress.”

But within the universe of blue-collar suburbs, there are some whose futures seem brighter. They are the ones fortunate enough to be located in the middle of a hot metropolitan area. That’s the story of Columbia Heights, a town that has a chance to move upscale and knows it.

It’s become increasingly clear in recent years that the demand in this country for an urban lifestyle -- a hip lifestyle, if you prefer -- is considerably greater than the supply of places that offer it. Some way or other, this demand will be met. One way to meet it would be to promote the construction of massive amounts of new market-rate housing stock near the center of the nation’s most successful cities. This is the solution that the economist Edward Glaeser and other market-oriented urban scholars have been advocating. But it’s far from clear how much new construction, especially high-rise construction, the current residents of these city centers will allow. There are only so many skyscrapers that downtown Minneapolis is going to accept.

Another idea is to retrofit the more affluent suburbs farther from the center, replacing their cul-de-sacs with housing density and pedestrian-friendly, human-scale commerce. This is being considered or launched in more than a few places at the moment, most notably in Tysons Corner, Va., the office and shopping colossus outside Washington, D.C., that has ranked among the nation’s dozen largest employment centers. By 2040, if planners and developers realize their goal, Tysons will be a gridded concentration of homes, stores and workplaces resembling a traditional city more than a sprawling 20th-century suburb. Maybe it will happen. But the fact remains that it has not yet been accomplished anywhere in the country; even if the Tysons retrofit works, there is reason to question how many other places will be able to pull off a transformation of that magnitude.

Then there is a third option: the reclamation of modest working-class suburbs on the edges of our largest cities. If you look at some of the wealthier, more successful cities in America right now, you will find places like Columbia Heights nestled right next to them. One good example is Somerville, Mass., a town that lies just a few minutes by car or train from bustling central Boston and is equidistant from Harvard and Tufts universities. Thirty years ago, Somerville was a drab, working-class town with rickety old triple-decker houses and an alarming crime rate, a place that even longtime residents disparaged by calling it “Slummerville.” Today its business district is a mecca of fine dining and entertainment, and some of the triple-deckers have become showplaces. The town has one of the largest proportions of residents between the ages of 24 and 35 of any place in the country.

Somerville’s political leaders saw the possibilities and generally encouraged them, and the universities were active partners. But in the end this wasn’t the most important element in the town’s transformation. The main element was simple demand. Boston and adjoining Cambridge had pretty much exhausted their supply of reasonably priced places to live. The demand for this housing wasn’t about to disappear -- it had to go somewhere. Somerville was in the right place at the right time.

I’m not saying Columbia Heights is destined by fate to experience changes like this. It isn’t walkable like Somerville, and it doesn’t have a supply of three-story houses waiting to be fixed up. Its reputation as a haven for grease monkeys won’t be easily overcome. But it will be subject, as Somerville was, to the implacable forces of demand.

Thirty years from now, Central Avenue may still be a good place to get a new muffler. Then again, it may be a street of cappuccinos and handmade quilts, a town where developers have bought out garages and repair shops and replaced them with condos selling at market rate. If that happens, it won’t primarily be a function of public policy. It will reflect the power of demographics to write the history of the places where we live.

Alan Ehrenhalt served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine, and is currently one of its contributing editors. He can be reached at