Hidden in plain sight in the heart of Minneapolis is one of the city’s most unusual pieces of public art: a 30-year-old mural conceived and maintained as a statement of protest against the construction of the very building on which it appears.
The mural is painted on the back of the Kmart at 10 West Lake Street, a building that occupies the space through which Nicollet Avenue once passed. Through oblique symbolism, the mural dramatizes a community struggle that took place in the 1970s as a major urban artery was blocked in the name of economic development.
“The businessman in the panels represents Kmart and its allies,” says Marilyn Lindström, a member of the group of artists who created the mural in 1978. “As you follow the mural from left to right, you see him closing a door on the neighborhood—which is represented by a battleship symbolic of the struggle over the store’s construction.”
Lindström, who still lives and works in the Whittier neighborhood, remembers that the arrival of big-box commerce at the intersection of Lake and Nicollet was initially a grassroots effort to revitalize the neighborhood and create jobs. “It was a troubled area at the time, and all the chains they approached said no—except Kmart.” There was a catch, however: Kmart would only agree to build a store at the intersection if it was allowed to build over Nicollet Avenue, forcing traffic in both directions to weave around the store and its parking lot. The majority of neighborhood residents found that unacceptable, says Lindström. “Nicollet is the center line of the city, running from downtown to South Minneapolis. The community did not want to see Nicollet blocked off.”
By that point, however, the city had painted itself into a corner by razing buildings at Lake and Nicollet and selling bonds it expected to service with the bounty of taxes from a redeveloped intersection. In the absence of redevelopment, the city was forced to service the bonds by paying millions of dollars out of its general fund. The undeveloped intersection “was a big bleeding sore in the city’s fiscal side,” former City Council member Earl Netwal told Southwest Journal. “The belief and hope was that a new development there would stimulate significant development in the whole area.”
Kmart further insisted that the store would have public egress only on the side facing Lake Street, meaning that the store’s north side would be a plain wall. As a concession to outraged neighbors, it was agreed that the community would be allowed to create an original mural on that north wall.
At the time, Lindström and six fellow artists were working together as Wall Painting Artists, a group dedicated to the creation of public murals. In 1978, the Whittier Alliance approached the group to work with the community on the Kmart mural. “Each of us came up with a design,” recalls Lindström, “and we presented them at a neighborhood meeting full of residents who were very angry about what was happening.” An initial straw vote went to Lindström’s design, which depicted hands tearing down the wall to reveal an open sky. Ultimately, however, the community chose the less explicit battleship/businessman allegory conceived by artist Roger Nelson. The Wall Painting Artists worked together to realize the mural, which was deliberately painted high on the wall for maximum visibility. Because the mural’s message was masked in symbolism, says Lindström, “Kmart didn’t pay it much attention.”
Responsibility for maintaining the mural lies with Kmart. The Wall Painting Artists group formally dissolved in 1979, and Lindström and Ta-coumba Aiken were the only group members available when the mural needed refurbishing in the 1990s. Lindström and Aiken restored the mural at that time; according to Lindström, the mural is badly in need of another such treatment, but Kmart has balked at paying the amount Lindström and Aiken require to do the work. Kmart spokeswoman Kim Freely would say only that “we are weighing our options” with respect to the mural.
It seems increasingly likely that the point will soon become moot: Mayor R.T. Rybak has called for the reopening of Nicollet Avenue and included the project in the city’s five-year capital improvement plan. Robert Lilligren, Minneapolis City Council member representing the 6th Ward, calls the reopening of Nicollet his top priority, and Freely acknowledges that Kmart has had discussions with the city about redeveloping the site. “There has not been too much discussion or planning about the mural as we discuss the redevelopment of the Kmart site,” wrote Lilligren in an e-mail. “The treatment of the mural will need to be part of planning when we have a development moving forward.”
Meanwhile, the mural remains, partially obscured behind trees and a chain-link fence. According to Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn, most neighborhood residents today are unaware of the mural’s significance. “I don’t think there’s much recognition of the mural now,” she says. “It’s kind of a generational legend.”