Lyon’s Garage and the End of Past Futures

Grand Forks is a pretty interesting little town if you pay attention to what’s going on. This past week, the long simmering news became pubic that Lyon’s Garage, a Tudor Revival style building built in 1929. It will be replaced by a predictably bland, brick-clad, steel and glass “mixed use” building with commercial or retail space on the ground floor and modern apartments above.

1280px Lyons Garage 214 218 North 4th Street Grand Forks ND

What has drawn my to the story of Lyon’s Garage is that it is the last operating business from the old automobile district in downtown Grand Forks. According the National Register nomination and a quick scan of the Sanborn Maps showed that as early as 1916, the northern part of downtown Grand Forks had become home to a number of garages and auto repair businesses. Their location at the edge of the commercial district downtown was convenient because it provided access to travelers on the Meridean Highway and the U.S. Route 2. Travelers stopping in Grand Forks could get their vehicles serviced or park their cars over in one of the several garages in the area. Grand Forks residents could purchase their vehicles in this neighborhood as well, and Lyon’s Garage sold some rather more obscure brands – including the humorously named Hupmobile – across the street from the Oldsmobile dealer. To the northeast of Lyon’s stood the Norther Pacific passenger depot and to the southwest was the Great Northern railway siding in town. In other words, Lyon’s Garage stood amid a network of roads and rail connection linking Grand Forks to the rest of the nation.

The decision to tear down Lyon’s Garage speaks a bit to how we current view the history of Grand Forks. There is no doubt that a light industrial outfit like Lyon’s fits awkwardly within the developing plans for the city. The emphasis on making downtown Grand Forks a walkable city with street level shopping and higher density residential space makes the rather single-story buildings with generous set backs rather less efficient uses of space. In fact, most efforts to promote new urbanism frown on the inefficient use of space associated with downtown car dealerships, even though they were a regular feature in mid-20th century communities (See for example, the efforts to move Select Ford from downtown Williston, North Dakota.) The effort to reimagine downtowns remain steadfastly nostalgic, however, even as they overwrite part of the urban past in the name of new urbanism. The loss of Lyon’s Garage – and the closing of Odin’s Service Station on Belmont – mark two of the older, and continuously functioning, monuments to Grand Forks automotive past. The automobile and Grand Forks developed more or less simultaneously and even today single family homes and tidy neighborhoods extend north and south along the thoroughfares that follow the line of the old Meridian highway. In effect, Grand Forks was designed for sprawl and suburbanization. The disappearance of Lyon’s Garage (and possibly Odin’s!) erases some of the historical monuments that defined the early-20th century character of Grand Forks. 

It’s interesting to think of places like Lyon’s Garage as an expression of the tension between Grand Forks as a “logistics city” that supported the regional and national flow of material through its borders and Grand Forks as a central place that privileges residents over participation in the global supply chain. The auto district of Grand Forks, served the movement of people and goods through our community (as well as residents).

More than that, it embedded the mechanics of Grand Forks as a logistics city in its urban fabric. The rail lines, auto district, warehouses, and boarding houses that characterized the northern and western parts of downtown created opportunities for genuine mixed use development. Over the past decade, however, many of the older light industrial sites in Grand Forks have moved further outside the city, in part to take advantage more, cheaper space and better connections to rail and the interstate. This shift to industrial activity outside the city itself, however, impacts downtown as it transforms the diverse environment supported by genuine mixed use urbanism into a more homogenized space of commercial, retail, and residential. In fact, the absence of light industrial activities in the urban core may well mitigate against a certain amount of economic diversity as these installations likely syncopated the spread of higher rent and high cost development that would ensure both space for less well-heeled operations and moderated the expense of downtown living. The risk of a downtown built on higher cost residential, white collar commercial, and retail and service is that the folks who work in those street level retail outlets and in the service industry can’t live downtown. As a result, they have to drive to work in the walkable urban core.  

As a brief coda to an admitted rambling post, I was struck by the rise of new businesses in town that have adopted the formal character of the garage. Sickie’s Garage for example, is a burger place that initial built a garage-like building well outside of downtown before moving into a restaurant space in East Grand Forks that they have decorated to look a bit like a garage. Vinyl Taco, another new eatery – uses garage doors to open their restaurant to the outdoors during the three or four weeks a year which this is desirable. While, I’d be loath to suggest that a place like Lyon’s Garage or Odins become local “bar ’n’ grills,” but they stand as nice example of our nostalgia for these kinds of light industrial landscapes. The visible presence of brewing equipment in both of the downtown breweries similarly evokes and tempers urban industrial landscapes making them safe for upscale retail and service. All this both reminds us of a more dynamic urban past while keeping the smells, working class people, and noise of real industrial work at a distance. It’s a local version of the famed Meat-Packing and Garment districts of New York City.

All this is to say that it will be a bit sad to see Lyon’s Garage disappear. It’s not that it was such a remarkable building or that I even patronized the business (I did, however, got to Odin’s regularly), but I do appreciate what that kind of business stood for in a town like Grand Forks and wonder whether our walkable future would do a bit better to preserve the working class landscape of our city’s automobile past. 

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