A nasty image popped into my head as I sat reading Sam Newberg’s critique of the Minneapolis skyways in MinnPost:
The thermometer outside the den window read 5 below. For just a moment, I imagined Sam out on the Nicollet Mall in his shirtsleeves, with no way to get back inside because all the doors on the buildings facing the mall were locked. I should have been ashamed of myself for that malevolent thought. Marooned on the Nicollet Mall in shirtsleeves in January would have been cruel and unusual punishment. Not at all Minnesota nice.
But Minneapolis without skyways – particularly this winter – would be cruel and unusual punishment for folks who must spend their days downtown.
Newberg doesn’t see it that way. He maintains that our 50-year-old skyway system has contributed to the deterioration of the Nicollet Mall, long this city’s urban crown jewel. Newberg, like other skyway critics, sees those handy pedestrian bridges sucking the energy out of downtown’s first-story street life. True, Newberg doesn’t want to tear down all the skyways – only those crossing Nicollet Mall.
Stopping to shop?
Unless we do so, he maintains, “our well-intentioned efforts to make Nicollet Mall one of the most vibrant public spaces in America will remain seriously hobbled.”
If the mall skyways were to come down, Newberg claims that the 15,000 pedestrians who move between City Center and Gaviidae Common each day would cross at street level and shop there on their way to and from work. Of course, they would have to cross at street level because they would have no choice. But stopping to shop while they are shivering in the cold? That doesn’t seem likely.
Today, we have a pedestrian system that connects 80 downtown blocks. It may be confusing and somewhat intimidating for first-time users, but it is a system without breaks. To sever the links between downtown’s west end, past Hennepin, and its east end, beyond Nicollet, would do irreparable harm to the system as a whole.
Newberg never fully explains the benefits that would be gained from cutting back the current system. He declares that “skyways continue to keep people off the street.”
If so, why is the mall thronging with pedestrians on Thursdays during the spring, summer and fall, when a farmers’ market pulls all those downtown workers out of their office cubicles? And what about the string of outdoor cafes that are filled with customers once the wind chills are no longer part of the daily weather reports? Newberg acknowledges the market and outdoor restaurants in an offhand way, but quickly resumes his criticisms of those skyway links that connect the east and west ends of downtown.
Not a year-round place
As plans proceed to revitalize the Nicollet Mall, Newberg wants to see vibrant street life along downtown’s commercial spine; a laudable goal but not a realistic option this month and for several months to come. As much as we may wish that it were not so, we need to acknowledge that Minneapolis is not a year-around outdoor place – at least not for those of us who have given away our snowshoes and our cross-country skis.
The skyways make Minneapolis more livable during those deep-freeze months that always seem to last too long. For the past 50 years, they have helped create a thriving downtown that anchors our entire metropolitan region. Without them, downtown would be a dismal place and winter would be a lot more painful than it is today.
Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be stuck out on the Nicollet Mall this month with no way to get back inside. A prospect that none of us, not even Sam Newberg, would find very appealing.
Iric Nathanson writes about local history for a variety of Twin Cities publications, including MinnPost. His book, “Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City,” was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
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