Half-jokingly shaking your fist and declaring Twitter a “hell site” (or some such pejorative) is the most boring take one can have. The platform is as bad as any other place on the internet, and its users willingly subject themselves to those varying degrees of badness. Plus there’s also plenty of good.
Launched in March, the photographic history account has attracted 3,000 followers via its simple premise: “Randomly-selected, historic photos of Minneapolis.”
@MplsPhotoBot was created by Sam Penders, a Minneapolis software engineer with a hobby of browsing the Hennepin County Library Digital Collections. He’d often encounter “interesting, relatable, funny, or sad” photos that’d otherwise be tough to search for due to inaccurate or missing metadata.
“I created the bot so I could stumble upon these photos,” says Penders, a resident of the Wedge neighborhood. “And also to share this incredible collection of old photos with the large community of people on Twitter who are obsessed with cities.”
Penders programmed the bot to grab photos from Hennepin County’s collections, as well as the Minnesota Digital Library and the University of Minnesota Digital Archives. Following a “Python script” that this reporter absolutely knows about and understands, the bot plucks an image ID number at random, downloads the photo and metadata, and posts to Twitter. A sister account, @ne_mn_bot, uses the same automated process to generate photos of northeastern Minnesota.
The resulting tweets highlight buildings, people, and places—blasts of decades-spanning civic nostalgia that feel reliably welcome amid the din of shitposting, inanity, squabbling, and invaluable Racket content.
Photos of Minneapolis’s once-extensive, maliciously destroyed streetcar system tend to perform well, Penders reports.
“This photo in particular, showing the Bryant Avenue streetcar line on a streetcar-only bridge across Minnehaha Creek, struck people, making them long for what we’ve lost,” he says.
As much as the photos reflect change, Penders says, they also showcase frustrating symbols of societal stagnation. The image below shows Minneapolis cop Elmer Hillner teargassing the home of Mayme Brady Crane, whom he attempted to evict in 1941. Even after the gas hit, Brady Crane wagged her revolver defiantly, per the Hennepin County Library description.
“This one shows us that in a lot of ways, not much has changed in Minneapolis in terms of policing and access to housing,” Penders says.
Penders is particularly fascinated by images from the Gateway District, the 25-block stretch of downtown that was bulldozed in the ’50s, swapping out architecturally significant and walkable spaces for parking lots and generic concrete buildings.
“This photo shows streetcars on the old, human-scale Hennepin Avenue Bridge with the Great Northern Depot in the background,” Penders says. “Since then, the bridge was replaced by the new highway-like bridge, the train depot was demolished, leaving us with no intercity passenger rail service from Minneapolis, and half of Nicollet Island was wiped out entirely.”
And some photos are just bizarre, like this one of a woman who was hospitalized in 1938 after eating day-old, unrefrigerated stew.
“Through this bot, I hope people see how much of this city was wiped out through ‘urban renewal’ and post-war city planning,” Penders says. “Deliberate policy choices were made so that personal automobile are seen as the default transportation choice. We can and must reverse those policies to fight climate change and create healthier communities.”
@MplsPhotoBot is not all longing and regret. Randomness dictates the bot, not ideology, so for every image of the long-lost Metropolitan Building, there’ll be 10 of vintage bar-goers, throwback Gopher games, timeless structures like the Lake Harriet Bandshell, beloved landmarks like Minnehaha Falls, and strikingly intimate portraits of Minneapolitans from all walks of life.
“I really love Minneapolis,” Penders says. “Ultimately, this city has a lot of people fighting for positive change.”