When you look at predictions about the future of the Twin Cities, you sense our forebears would have been disappointed in us.
We have no heliports downtown. No monorails sliding along the lakes, no double-decker highways, no atomic-powered flying cars flitting between Minneapolis heliports and the planned communities that ringed the metro.
That's what the optimists of the Jazz Age predicted for the Twin Cities — by the 1980s.
Here's the headline from a story in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune on Jan. 23, 1921: "Ed O'Brien Sees a Population of 3,000,000 for 'Capitol of the Northwest' Sixty Years hence."
O'Brien was a booster, the outgoing president of the Minneapolis Real Estate Board. When asked about what the city would be like in 60 years, he said "newspaper feature writers in 1980 will probably have a lot of fun digging stuff out of old newspapers files and writing stories about that 'funny little old Minneapolis of the 'twenties.' "
That prediction turned out to be true, in 2021, as well.
O'Brien also said that in 1980 Minneapolis would have 3 million residents, and would stretch from Lake Minnetonka to beyond White Bear Lake. "On the north, folks who ride home every night in the 5:41 airplane jitney to Champlin and Anoka, they will also be residents of Minneapolis."
Here's the part that may stir discord: "A portion of her population will be living in what will then be known as 'the Borough of St. Paul.' "
That's right: He saw all of the Twin Cities as part of Minneapolis with the Borough of Excelsior, the Borough of Bloomington. Like New York City, we'd be "The Manhattan of the Northwest."
The Sunday Tribune also interviewed W.P. Trickett of the Minneapolis Traffic Association, and his view was nightmarish to modern sensibilities.
"By 1980," the paper paraphrased Trickett, "there won't be even a vestige left of the lofty bluffs that tower over the Mississippi River from the University of Minnesota to Fort Snelling. They'll be 'mowed down' on both sides of the river — long before 1980, and all that space down there, for blocks back from the water on either side, will be filled up with wharves, factories, railroad freight houses and switchyards."
What type of factories? Enormous cotton mills and oil refineries.
Mind you, this was the optimistic vision.
According to George Kingsley, who worked for the Soo Line railroad, the city would be a great transportation hub, with fleets of aircraft leaving daily.
"Express planes, carrying 100 passengers each, will make the trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco in 12 hours."
Air travel would replace train travel, he said, and there would be multiple "lines," just as there were different train companies. They would land at a great station on University Avenue, in the Midway district. From there, passengers would take helicopter jitneys downtown, land on the roof, and head off to work.
It's always the flying cars with the futurists, isn't it?
The article has one line that might make you sigh with regret:
"A mighty system of high-speed subways will make for swift traffic inside the limits of Greater Minneapolis." Its lines would extend to Minnetonka. No mention of highways; with the planes and trains, who'd need them?
If this New York model applied, it meant the retail center of Minneapolis would move. In New York, the fashionable neighborhood was always marching north every decade. Here it would move south, and by 1980 the height of fashion and retail would be Nicollet and Franklin. The skyscrapers on Franklin, the article predicted, will be "taller and bigger in every way than anything conceived by an architect yet."
One thing absent from the world in 1980: expensive apartment buildings.
"High class apartment houses," said Eli Torrence Jr., of the Thorpe Brothers real estate firm, "will be succeeded, perhaps, by huge family hotels — if they have families in 1980."
People would summer out of town, Torrence envisioned, then stay in the hotels in the winter. "By 1980 Minneapolis will have six or seven big transient hotels, too — finer than anything New York has now, of course."
But what of high-tech whiz-bang gadgets? The article predicts leaps in telephone service, anticipating international calls, and then noted it might not be "safe for a Minneapolis society girl to answer the phone before 11 o'clock in the morning. For by 1980 there will undoubtedly be a device whereby two persons talking over the telephone may be able to see each other in mirrors suspended over the instruments."
The article ended with the suggestion that such a thing might not be popular.
In other words, the 1921 article proved to be a standard attempt to grasp the future. Flying cars. Picture phones, which no one wanted until we were poked into Zoom cubicles. Extrapolation of current trends without considering how or why they might be disrupted, or take another form. Perhaps the most interesting line is the one tossed off by Torrence: "if they have families in 1980."
Less changes in 60 years, or a hundred, than we think.