Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Christian Huelsman

Most preservation buffs look up to grand edifices and landmark structures. But you’re more likely to find Christian staring down at the ground. That’s because the roots and branches of every city can often be traced to the street-level corridors of commerce and culture: alleys, stairways and other urban pathways.

Christian relocated to Minneapolis from Cincinnati in 2016. While in the Queen City, Christian co-founded Spring in Our Steps, a non-profit organization to clean up, program and advocate for historic, walkable public corridors. Spring in Our Steps has since received both local and national accolades for its ingenious contributions to Cincinnati’s streetscapes.

We caught up with Christian as he was busy choosing a final route for his recent (sold out) Preserve Minneapolis walking tour: “North Side Crossings: Alleys of the Minneapolis Warehouse District.”

How long have you been volunteering for Preserve Minneapolis?

Since I moved from Cincinnati in May of 2016, so about two years.

How did you first find out about Preserve Minneapolis?

Prior to moving here, I searched for Twin Cities advocacy groups that focused on historic preservation. It was an easy way to get to know like-minded people, and I knew that I wanted to continue defending and celebrating our historic assets. My first outing was the MN Community collaboration event at Community Keg House (in 2016) and my interest grew from there.

Why did you get involved? Why do you stay involved?

I had been active with the Cincinnati Preservation Collective, and several people there had volunteered for Spring in Our Steps. That camaraderie and community-building is very important to me, as no meaningful change can be invoked in a city without a collective interest. Sitting on my hands while getting frustrated about careless demolitions of our architectural and cultural resources doesn’t work for me.

Why is historic preservation important to you?

I’m a planner by discipline. Preservation means taking a stand for walkable communities, reuse of sturdily-built structures, reinforcing affordable housing and commercial units, and maintaining the right-sized density that we say we value in our communities. My planner mind believes in each of these tenets, in spite of modern land use constraints in urban environments. Having a variety of building types and dimensions, as well as elements of surprise and intrigue, are inherent in historic development patterns, and I’m committed to helping Minneapolis understand and support these initiatives.

Tell us about your work in Cincinnati?

For more than seven years, I have led Spring in Our Steps. Our mission is to bring a brighter future to the city’s most neglected public spaces, through cleanup, coordinated activities and comprehensive planning. I have led more than 150 cleanup events of alleys and public stairways, while initiating more than 30 tours and pop-up events – including film screenings, karaoke and lawn bowling – in these right-sized public spaces. Since the city is built on hills overlooking the Ohio River, Cincinnati has dozens of public stairways and hundreds of alleys in various stages of abandonment. These are historic assets that tell a story about the city’s development and growth, and I started Spring in Our Steps because I believed these spaces deserved better.

What can Minneapolis learn from Spring in Our Steps?

From the time I called Minneapolis home, I’ve served on the city’s pedestrian advisory committee. I had moved from a city that actually included alleys and stairways as vital community connections in its comprehensive plan update. Here in Minneapolis, alleys have been treated as utilitarian, car-oriented spaces for decades, and the city’s era of rapid development embraced and perpetuated that ethos. Slowly and steadily, I’ve started asking advocates and municipal agents questions they may not have heard before, including:

  •       Why must alleys be nameless?

  •       Why must alleys not have their own identities?

  •       Why can’t we have small-scale development fronting street alleys?

  •       Can we not strategically designate alleys near commercial districts as shared streets?

  •       How are alleys maintained or addressed by the city to enhance quality of life?

I have begun to zero in on the oldest parts of Minneapolis, such as the North Loop, downtown and primary commercial corridors to pose these questions.

Tell us about your recent walking tour

On Sunday, Sept. 9, I led North Side Passage, part of the Preserve Minneapolis summer walking tour series, focusing on the integral relationship between the alleys of the Warehouse District and the powerful influence by railroads to make use of them. How they did so altered the previous development patterns and changed how buildings were oriented. Today, they’re walkable public spaces, but it hasn’t always been that way. Everything changed in 1890 because of the railroads. It’s a unique way to frame this neighborhood and I’m looking forward to doing more of these tours next year.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Several years ago, I gave in to the notion that not only am I a public space preservationist, but also that the idea of preservation can (and should) go beyond just single structures. Historic districts are about the only way that a wholesome community experience can be preserved for future generations. But only a handful of cities have districts that also include historic corridors and paved streets and alleys. Along with Boston, Philadelphia and Savannah, the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District includes these alley corridors as contributing features. I’m pleased to be able to tell the story of these oft-overlooked urban features and figure out how we can better utilize them as vital public spaces.

Do you have ideas for tours of historic Minneapolis? Please consider volunteering with us.

Preserve Minneapolis volunteer Christian Huelsman exploring an interesting alley.