Living With Less Together: the Fun Side of Sharing Your Urban Life

Macy's store in background with a Skyway connection and steps going up to it from Nicollet Mall. It is autum and the trees on the mall are turning. People are traveling on the mall.
Dark kitchen cabinents along a corner wall with stainless steel appliances. A breakfast bar is set for a meal in the foreground with orange counter stools. Hanging glass lights are over the bar.

Can less be more? A well-appointed compact kitchen in a unit at the Grain Belt Apartments.

When John and I moved to the edge of downtown Minneapolis in the fall of 2013, I was shocked at what we found there.  The area was fast becoming a ghost town, with retail stores shuttered and some of the mainstay restaurants we were familiar with, sitting empty.

Only eight years prior, I had been working in the center of downtown for a nonprofit, connected to the Minneapolis Public Works department, focused on helping downtown Minneapolis businesses thrive through behavior change methods related to multi-modal transportation options.  In short, it was my job to get employers excited about encouraging their employees to get to work in ways that didn’t involve driving a car into downtown alone: car/vanpooling, bicycle commuting, and taking transit.  My service was funded by a federal congestion mitigation grant, and was doing some important, effective work to limit ozone emissions.

My job took me through the downtown skyways and office towers several times each business day, for meetings, commuter fairs and other functions, while I served the needs of more than 250 employers with whom we had built relationships.  Avoiding the skyways during the noon hour, I learned that it was too congested to make it to my appointments on time. due to the elbow-to-elbow congestion. The retail stores were so prolific, and tempting, in those days. I set a weekly spending limit for myself to stay within my budget.

This downtown neighborhood had been even more robust when I was a child in the 60’s and ’70s, when my mother took me shopping in the “big city” from our nearby rural Wisconsin home. The street scene on the Mall was always busy and populated with business people in suits and shoppers like ourselves. Dayton’s (now Macy’s) was THE premiere store and there was almost a hushed, museum-like quality when we walked by the Oval Room or had lunch into the Oak Grill.

Walking down Nicollet Mall in November of 2013, thinking I would be walking back into the hustle and bustle of the holiday season I had seen in 2005, I was stunned to witness that downtown Minneapolis was beginning to look a lot like the vacant downtown St. Paul from which John and I had just moved.  Granted, we had come to accept that all neighborhoods change and that, at times, they don’t change into what works for you, so you move on.  But I was truly worried about the abandonment of what I had always found to be a vital and lovely urban center.

Feeling safe on Nicollet Mall quickly became a memory as I found myself dealing with panhandlers whose bold approach rivaled those I had encountered in other major cities.  Shouting matches and physical fights broke out around me so routinely on the Mall that I found it was easier to simply walk through the skyways to reach places like Target and Macy’s.

I was worried.  Had we made the right move here?  Giving up a car and moving into a smaller apartment to simplify our lives by being closer to more retail and public transit options?  The retail was fast disappearing. Frustration set in when Office Depot closed and I was back to ordering supplies for my office online.  Public transit was plentiful, but not as safe as it had felt when I last worked downtown.

When I heard of City of Minneapolis’ and Mayor Betsy Hodges’ ideas to transition downtown from an employment center into an urban neighborhood, I was excited.  Not only did the plan make sense to me from the standpoint that it would buoy our urban center, it posed an exciting prospect for individuals in a world where resources are shrinking.

The “land use” geek inside of me, fostered by the years I worked on transportation initiatives for the City of Minneapolis and

Roof top public area showing outdoor upholstered sofa in front of a fire pit. Downtown Minneapolis buildings are in the background.

Though we don’t live here (yet…) the Nic on 5th in the heart of downtown has some very cool shared amenities on their rooftop including fire pit and hot tub. Best part? We can spend our money on starting a mission-based business and get to use amenities like this because we’re willing to share!

Minnesota State DOT, fueled thoughts in my head about people finally “getting” the practical, and flat-out FUN value of living together in less space.  The idea of moving people closer together so that they can share resources more effectively isn’t a new one.  But it is one that can free people up to live less complicated, richer lives. Being a mother who raised a daughter as a single parent, and someone who has always sought jobs that had a higher “paycheck of the heart” than cash value, it had always been easy for me to see how each of us could have MORE by living with less and sharing what we have.

Urban living, in either apartments or condos, allow people to pay for less while having more. Smaller homes mean less furniture, lower utility bills and less to keep clean. Building amenities, like the patio with gas grills and fire pit, fitness center and well-appointed community room and kitchen, which John and I share with our neighbors at the Grain Belt, give us access to luxuries we may not have be able to afford on our own. (HINT: apartment living gives you the freedom to try out new buildings and areas too!)

Perhaps what I love most about this kind of urban living is what occurs when you share space and resources with your neighbors.  We’ve met so many people of ages and backgrounds very different from our own, over the BBQ grill, in the elevators or taking in the Tour de France via the TV in the community room, in the buildings we’ve lived in.  Friendships have been formed and our lives have been fuller, and more fun, as a result.  So much so, it’s hard for me to even entertain going back to living in a single family home.

Living without a car took some getting used to, but we find it’s easier to share short-term use SmartCars with our neighbors and take advantage of free parking on the city’s streets. (See Car2Go Twin Cities.)  We also love the fact that we get to drive premium vehicles we don’t have to worry about maintaining, for out-of-town trips, visiting relatives or just seeing fall colors. (See HourCar.) AND we love supporting mass transit by taking the bus or the train, making it possible for others who can’t afford cars to get around, who those who chose to bolster our environment or simply want to spend their money in other ways. (See Metro Transit.)

Our suburban friends say they don’t get it.  “How could you live that close to other people?”  “Where do you put all of your stuff?” or “I need to know I can jump in my car and go where I want when I want!” is what we often hear from them.  Then, quietly, when none of our other suburban friends are in earshot, they’ll say, “Your apartment looks awesome and you seem so happy.  I would LOVE to unload the house and all the junk we’re hanging on to and do what you did!”

It’s not rocket science: when you have less stuff to store, keep up and pay for, life gets simpler.  John and I made this choice partly because being single parents positioned us to be good at it before we met, and partly because we saw the value to continue in that direction with our life choices as a married couple.

Everyone’s needs are different, and so their choices must be too.  But doing it together with less, can be easier and more fun.  Just say ‘n.

Dining in the trendy North Loop? Don’t overlook the places that got it all started.

Photo of the Sapor Cafe sign painted on their window with the reflection of North Loop warehouse buildings on the glass.
Photo of the Sapor Cafe sign painted on their window with the reflection of North Loop warehouse buildings on the glass.

Creating inspired comfort food and serving them in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. That’s Sapor in the North Loop’s Freespirit building.

Living in an emerging neighborhood has its culinary delights.  After settling into the North Loop for a little over a year, we’re sharing a short list of our favorite bites and sips. As the Loop fills with the newest and trendiest spots in the city, I find that I’m drawn to the amazing few that got everything started. These are NOT listed in order of preference, just in order of my thought process.

1. Bar La Grassa: A neighborhood institution, but I was certain there was no place that could replace my favorite St. Paul Selby Avenue hideaway, La Grolla, for quality Italian. Nestled in a cozy table near the window, John and I have enjoyed romantic meals watching the snow fall on Washington Avenue on bitter winter nights.  Best part? The waiter taught us how to split salad and pasta portions to make our dates more affordable, and keep our waistlines in check.

2. Sapor: As the Loop fills up with night life, sports and sushi bars, it’s becoming more difficult to find “adult friendly” dinning. (Adults over the age of 25 that is.) Sapor is relaxing, with fun and inventive food options like handcrafted hot dogs in the summer.  We never feel rushed to leave to make room for the next diner in line, and enjoy getting to know a wait staff who take the time to talk. Friends from our building love to take their two year old there because there’s room for her to move, and the staff is relaxed about kids. Sadly this favorite will be closing in June.

3. Dunn Brothers in the Dock Street Flats: This version of our local franchise has endured change as neighborhood institution and also a move from their former building (now Shinolo) to the new Dock Street Flats apartments across the street. The North Loop DB delivers a solid cup of Joe every time and a pretty darn good crafted espresso drink.  I made a surprising discovery a few weeks ago.  Pressed for time, and hopping between appointments, I stopped by and ordered their tomato basil soup and grilled cheese with bacon.  It was fresh, tasty and a far cry from the packaged sandwiches offered at chain coffee houses. This is now my destination for quick lunch meetings with clients and friends.

4. Freehouse: By the tone of this blog you can probably tell that my husband and I didn’t move to the North Loop to join in the

Free House dinning room with metal beer kegs used as ceiling fixtures and dinning tables set for service.

From breakfast to beer, Free House keeps us coming back for unique entrees and excellent service.

festivities at the local breweries, that said, we can’t get enough of Freehouse.  Newest joint on my list, it has one of the most fun and fresh menus we’ve encountered and the wait staff is quite simply amazing.  Never having partaken of pork belly in a salad before, and salivating over the mere mention of their “Breaky” line up, I periodically also enjoy their hand-crafted brews.  The outdoor patio is fun and relaxing in warm weather.  This place just keeps bringing us back.

Photo of the bar at the Monte Carlo, with a backlit, full wall bottle display and marble counter.

You can almost see the Rat Pack of the Twin Cities, the WCCO television news crew, seated in this room as they were 40 years ago.

5. The Monte Carlo: This midcentury modern fine dining classic deserves an award for simply surviving the bleakest era of the warehouse district, (when the North Loop was known only as the dark corner where Sex World and Dejavu resided) but when you sit down to their crab salad sandwich, order a steak or allow a waitress in an elegant uniform, not seen since the 1960s, fuss over you on the outdoor patio over Sunday brunch, you understand why they’re still here.  With a wealth of vintage Twin City celebrity’s autographed photos on the wall, you know you’ve rediscovered the coolest place in down that nobody knows about.  I simply love imagining that I can still see Dave Moore, Bud Kraehling and the old ‘CCO gang at their table in the back. (If you have to ask who they are, you may not be cool enough to hang at the Monte Carlo.)