Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Butterflies and Tall Bikes' explores the culture and community of Minneapolis's West Bank

Book on keyboard: 'Butterflies and Tall Bikes.'
Jamie Schumacher's 'Butterflies and Tall Bikes: West Bank Stories of Community, Creativity, and Change.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)
Rock and Roll Book Club: Butterflies and Tall Bikes
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I recently interviewed Twin Cities urban geographer Bill Lindeke for a book project, and he said he'd encourage tourists to dig right into the real culture and community of the Twin Cities by getting out of the downtowns and into the neighborhoods. One neighborhood if he had to pick? The West Bank, in Minneapolis. One spot to go? Palmer's Bar, a reminder of how integral community institutions like that have been to our urban fabric.

In Jamie Schumacher's new book Butterflies and Tall Bikes, she interviews 25 people who've had meaningful relationships with the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood; one of them is music writer Andrea Swensson, who mentions the 400 Bar history she wrote during her time on staff at The Current. She also notes, in a foreword, just how much time folk-blues legends Koerner, Ray, and Glover used to spend at Palmer's: they received visitors there, took calls there, and even got mail at Palmer's. (That includes a check Glover earned for work on the production of the Purple Rain movie.)

Schumacher led the West Bank Business Association for nearly a decade; Butterflies and Tall Bikes is both a personal memoir touching on her experiences parenting ("The West Bank loves babies!", former Palmer's owner Lisa Hammer tells Schumacher) and a recollection of organizing activities like the West Bank Music Festival (successor to the legendary Cedarfest) and the West Bank Night Market.

The highlights of the book, though, are Schumacher's interviews with a wide range of community members who talk about the neighborhood's past, present, and future. It's an affectionate but clear-eyed view; for example, multiple of Schumacher's contacts acknowledge that West Bank nightlife isn't as hopping as it was back when places like the 400 Bar and the Triple Rock were open — but at the same time, they note that today's West Bank is more integrated than the neighborhood of yesteryear.

Tony Zaccardi, owner of Palmer's since 2018, calls the West Bank "the Brooklyn of the Twin Cities. It's every kind of thing." He says the community has been incredibly welcoming, and bemoans what he describes as a common misperception about the prevalence of crime. Oh, and there's more parking than you think. "Every day at happy hour, I've got nine spots literally out front. Get the f--k over here!"

The neighborhood's most visible change in recent decades is its influx of Somali immigrants; while that community's presence may feel new to people who haven't been to the West Bank since the Summer of Love, in fact the neighborhood has been a global hub of Somali culture for the entire 21st century so far. Somalis are now established as business owners and, of course, elected representatives.

Community outreach professional Abdurrahman Mahmud points out that "nightlife" doesn't just mean bars and bands: "The Somali way of nightlife is to come, chat, drink tea or drinks other than alcohol, and chat about politics and the neighborhood...Cedar-Riverside is the only place you can come [at] 2:00 a.m. and find all kinds of Somali food. I mean, that's the only place. Even in Africa, I can say that."

The neighborhood's future is bright, but of course everyone has their own West Bank story from the past; Schumacher makes a point of asking each interviewee to share at least one. Some are whimsical (artist Mark Valdez remembers Mixed Blood bringing kites outside to fly with neighbors), some are raucous (nonprofit leader Scott Artley remembers introducing friends to the hidden-in-plain-sight underground venue called Medusa), and some are sad (organizer Abdi Mukhtar recalls the rash of Islamophobia stoked in the 2016 election season). Good and bad alike, it's important to have these memories preserved in bound pages.

While Butterflies and Tall Bikes is about much more than music, the West Bank has long been a hub of the Minnesota music scene, and music is mentioned on just about every page. Schumacher organized a West Bank Music History Walking Tour that stopped at spots both expected (Palmer's, the Cedar, the Southern, KFAI) and under the radar. Did you know, for example, that the Electric Fetus was founded on the West Bank in 1968? Did you know that acts who've played West Bank venues include Bob Dylan and the Andrews Sisters? Could you point to the spot of historic Dania Hall, a community center for European immigrants that went on to host psychedelic rock shows and burned down in 2000?

Dylan famously sang, "he not busy being born is busy dying," and the West Bank is nothing if not a neighborhood that's been busy being born...for many, many years. Butterflies and Tall Bikes is a poignant portrait of that community, and a promise of many more dynamic years to come.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

June 3: Rememberings by Sinéad O'Connor

June 10: Decoding "Despacito": An Oral History of Latin Music by Leila Cobo

June 17: Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour by Rickie Lee Jones

June 24: Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music by Eric Weisbard

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