They cleaned it up before I got here

Here are two photos of the Minneapolis cityscape, one from the 21st century and one from 1970. Can you guess which is which?


Some things do get better. Although I’m now disturbed by the realization that Mary Tyler Moore was throwing her hat up into such filthy air.


  1. gog says

    I can name most of the buildings in the background of the 1970 picture!

    Left to right: Hennepen County Government Center, Minneapolis City Hall, Foshay Tower, Qwest Tower (or whatever they call it now, don’t know the next one, and the plainly obvious one is the IDS Centre.

  2. Lady Mondegreen says

    I’m about your age, PZ. I grew up in Southern California, and live in urban Los Angeles now. The difference in air quality between then and now is palpable. Or perhaps I should say the air is no longer palpable…

  3. brucej says

    Typical liberal lies.

    I’m reliably informed that the Clean Air Act was nothing more than a socialist plot by that notorious RINO Richard Nixon to take money from deserving capitalists and has actually made pollution worse.

    Also putting out the fires on the Cuyahoga river destroyed the thriving packaged s’more industry that used to exist in Ohio. You don’t know ANYONE making an honest living at s’mores do you? Check and mate yah libtards!

  4. karellen says

    Well, it helps that one of the photos is taken in winter, where all the trees are bare, and the other in the middle of summer, where they’re in full bloom.

    Also, given the orange-to-grey gradient from right-to-left in the 1970 photo, it looks to me like the sun is much lower in the sky (on the right-hand side) at the time of day when that photo was taken, which could be a winter thing, or could mean an early-morning or late-evening shot, as opposed to the middle-of-the-day shot from the 21st century. That accounts for a fair amount of color difference. Also, what do you get in the early morning in winter, even in clean cities? Oh yes, mist.

    I’m not saying that 21st century Minneapolis isn’t much cleaner now than it was in the 1970s, in fact I think it’s very likely that that is actually the case. I just don’t think that those particular two photos are very good for making a fair comparison.

  5. says

    Photographically, I have to say I like the light in the first picture better. As karellen says, it’s got that lovely fall/winter low angle and yellow light which I think is my favourite light. That said, the thing that makes for rich sunsets is the particulates in the air; sunsets after world-spanning eruptions are supposed to be especially spectacular, and I understand that when you can see through the smog, the sunsets in Beijing are supposed to be pretty.

  6. quotetheunquote says

    I always did think that those outdoor shots in the opening credits of the MTM show looked kinda grainy… on the other hand, it may have had something to do with the 17″ B&W TV I was watching it on…

  7. yazikus says

    I lived in New Delhi years ago and the progress they’ve made since then is astounding. I mean, you never really saw the sun before. Trees and bio-diesel buses go a hell of a long way.

  8. busterggi says

    I remember wondering why there was a brown dome over NYC back in the ’60’s when we went to visit relatives there.

  9. abelundercity says

    The air was so thick back then, you’ll note, that Mary’s hat never came back down.

  10. psanity says

    Oh, look, the Foshay Tower! I wasn’t in the Minne-apple in 1970, but I was there in 1967, and yes, it did look like that. All day, pretty much all the time, except right after it rained. (The 1970 photo, by the way, looks like early spring, with the trees just budding out.) You can see the classic layer of car exhaust, about halfway up the buildings, that you used to see in all big cities from a little distance.

    And here’s the thing — by the late 60s, Minnesota and the Cities had been working for some time to improve the sad state of the Mississippi, with a good deal of success — it was much cleaner than in the 50s. And some attention was already being paid to the smog, I think because Minnesotans had too much self-regard to want to have anything in common with LA. So by 1970, when that photo was taken, the air in the Cities was already improving. People were always saying how much better it was. It was a slow thing, though, till the Clean Air Act gave the process a kick in the pants and a set of teeth.

    Minneapolis has always been a beautiful city to me. It’s remarkable for its urban forest (which used, unfortunately, to be primarily American Elms) and water. When you look down on the Twin Cities from the IDS Center, or in the old days the Foshay Tower, what you see is trees and water, with a city in it. It used to be pretty gray, though, especially in the cold months.

    Does anyone know what kinds of trees they’ve been replacing the elms with? Many of them must be near full maturity by now, although not yet resembling the hundred-year-old elms they replaced.

  11. PatrickG says

    @ Lofty

    Your apocalyptic sky has been exported to China, that’s all.

    This is, to put it mildly, wrong.

    The typical picture shown above is smog. Smog is NOx and VOCs (and sunlight) reacting to produce O3, leading to various processes that result in haze and health hazards.

    While manufacturing (presumably what you’re referring to with “exported to China”) was implicated due to VOC emissions and (to a much lesser degree) local, small-scale power generation, it was not even close to a major driver of air pollution back in the day. Power generation (particularly from coal) and transportation fleets were the primary culprits.

    The major focus of air quality control processes these days are to reduce VOCs from manufacturing and other operations — but that’s only because we’ve expended tremendous effort to improve boiler efficiency and processing of effluent from power plants (cyclonic filters, EGR, SCR, SNCR, nitrate injection, etc. were major advances), gasoline formulation, vehicle mileage per gallon, air/fuel ratio standards, and in situ effluent treatment from vehicles via catalytic converters.

    Current Chinese air quality concerns are also driven mostly by coal burning. Not manufacturing (though again, that does play a part!). I’ll also note that there are some great collaborative projects between the US and China on how to not burn coal in such a way that you don’t spew unburnt fuel into the air along with NO/NO2 (NOx) and various combustion byproducts, with advantages in terms of both economy and air quality.

    Takeaway: while not unimportant, manufacturing is not the main driver of air pollution. Power generation and vehicles (of all kinds) are. Thus, it’s completely wrong to say that we exported our air quality issues.

    Now, if you want to talk about the fact that we’re exporting coal for burning overseas, that’s an entirely different topic. Has nothing to do with smog in Minneapolis, though.

  12. says

    I’ll also note that there are some great collaborative projects between the US and China on how to not burn coal in such a way that you don’t spew unburnt fuel into the air….

    And, belatedly, the Chinese deserve credit for going all-in on solar power. They’ve ramped up their production to such an extent that they’ll soon be producing 20 GW of solar panels per year. The Chinese government, for all its faults, understands that poisoning its citizens is bad policy. They also understand that importing most of their coal is a serious national security problem. What happens if they get into a major fight with the West? Please keep selling us coal and don’t sink our ships?

  13. PatrickG says

    @ Area Man:
    Pshaw. You’re ignoring the fact that Obama sent Solyndra to China to destroy them. (By which I mean, an excellent point. :D)

  14. Lofty says


    This is, to put it mildly, wrong.

    Probably, but then my one liner was not meant to withstand detailed analysis. However, China now has what looks like a lot like smog, the West has much less than in 1970. I don’t suppose that Chinese vehicle emission rules are as strictly enforced as those of the US either. One hopes that by say 2050 the bulk of their electricity will be clean and their transport ditto. The West has exported attitudes as well as industries.

  15. PatrickG says

    Probably, but then my one liner was not meant to withstand detailed analysis.

    Well, that’s understandable. My response to smoggy Minneapolis is always to bring up how China is stealing both our jobs and our smog. Just don’t subject me to detailed analysis!

    Speaking of which:

    One hopes that by say 2050 the bulk of their electricity will be clean and their transport ditto. The West has exported attitudes as well as industries.

    I will quite pointedly repeat that major air pollution problems don’t come about simply because a country produces products for export. They come about because of dense urban populations consuming power and transport (again, not that manufacturing doesn’t contribute, but this is basic order-of-magnitude analysis — one number is much greater than another). Thus, your second invocation of “exporting industries” is nonsensical.

    [Side note: We can argue economics, and try to quantify how much export products contribute to air quality. I’d find that interesting, personally, but hey, that’d be detailed analysis.]

    As to other exports: as Area Man above points out, China’s actually ignoring our attitude to some degree.

    General Note: Training and background in air quality engineering, so it pisses me off to have hard-fought gains both domestic (USA) and foreign so casually waved off as one-liners.