Andy Sturdevant is taking the month off; this is the third of four Strolls by guest authors.
As a dual citizen of the USA and Canada, I’ve always been interested in borders, those conceptual demarcations between our civic spaces. Often our borders are rivers or arbitrary lines (see this helpful map); sometimes they’re more interesting.
There’s a town on the Vermont/Quebec border that demarcated its border with a row of flowerpots, its library shared between two countries. There’s an airport runway in northern Minnesota that stretches into Canada, so that planes take off internationally. The U.S./Mexico border is famous for its own less celebratory reasons.
Here in the Twin Cities, borders are subtle. Mostly, they’re a concern of the bureaucrat. Who is going to plow which side of the street? Where does the county park begin and the city park end? As an urban geographer and planning nerd, I find it’s often interesting to pause at the border and inspect it for signs of jurisdictional change. What are the parking rules on each side of the line? Do the street markings change? Street signs? Are there differences in zoning or density or housing setbacks?
No doubt, the most interesting Twin Cities border runs between St. Paul and Minneapolis, our two oldest towns. We’re mostly past the era when Minneapolis and St. Paul compete over population, business seduction tactics or cultural prestige, but one can occasionally feel a tension along the MSP border.
Descending into the river valley to walk the beaches, to gaze at the other city on the far shore is to daydream, to fly for a moment toward an alternate reality. Most of the time, the Mississippi serves as the Twin Cities’ border, but for two-and-a-half miles between Southeast Minneapolis and far west St. Paul, the two cities touch and rub shoulders like brothers in a backseat.
I’d always been curious about this particular borderline. So the other day I decided to walk the seam between Minneapolis and St. Paul from south to north. I’d stay as close as I could to the exact edge, respecting as many property rights as I could while accomplishing my goal.
I consulted a few different maps, and knew that walking the line would be difficult. There are many barriers — freeways and railroad tracks — but there are also places where streets come together and the towns meet in the middle. What does the border look like? Can you tell the cities apart by looking at land use, building types, or pavement markings? Is the border neglected or celebrated, haphazard or crisp? What happens when the Twin Cities come together?
East River Road to Emerald Street — When the border between Minneapolis and St. Paul unceremoniously turns north out of the Mississippi and climbs the river bluff, there is no trace of it. Rivers care not for such things, and it is not until you reach the top of the bluff along the East River Road, that you find the demarcation. As anyone who has jogged, walked, or biked along the East River Road knows, the border is easily apparent. Heading North into Minneapolis, the asphalt darkens, slightly fresher; the other direction, a grand limestone gate topped with a faux-historic lamppost welcomes you to St. Paul.
The two cities’ divergent character is visible in how they stripe the recreational path. Modernist Minneapolis divides its path neatly in thirds: one-third for pedestrians, two-thirds for bicyclists in each direction. For old-school St. Paul, the path is a free-for-all. I remain unconvinced which is the better approach.
From here, the border turns from the river and runs along a small spur of Emerald Street. Unfortunately for your narrator, Emerald lasts for only a block before the border disappears behind a low-rise apartment complex. These must be the only apartment developments in this otherwise upper-class riverfront neighborhood, and the border itself is a series of fences, garages, and retaining walls overgrown with trees and shrubs, separating the Minneapolis apartments from the St. Paul homes perched above. Following the borderline through the backyards, I immediately step into a pile of Minneapolis dog crap. Welcome to borderland.
St Anthony Avenue to Interstate 94 — The border emerges from the apartment complex at St. Anthony Avenue, again clearly marked into the asphalt. (This time, the St. Paul side of the street is darker, more freshly laid.) What’s more, a faint white line appears painted on the street, presumably so that the competing public works crews know when to stop their machines. This is the only time on the whole borderline journey that I saw an actual line drawn on the ground.
To follow the border north from here, you tramp through woods and have to cross over the rail spur that leads across the “Midtown Greenway” bridge. Today only a few trains each week cross these tracks, but it’s a common sight to see joggers and bicyclists using the path alongside this rail line. A few years ago, St. Paul attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate with the railroad about using this bridge and right-of-way for a bicycle connection to Minneapolis. Like the Mafia, railroad companies are notoriously difficult negotiation partners, and today there’s little hope of this ever becoming a connection to the heart of Minneapolis.
Heading across the tracks, the border runs through woods between the rail lines and the freeway, neglected trees filled with odd pathways, debris and what look like occasional hobo encampments. As with most of my journey, fences serve a strictly symbolic function, typically falling apart or overgrown with shrubs. I won’t say that walking the border through the woods is easy, but it can be done with a decent pair of shoes and a spirit of adventure.
Running up to the side of the freeway, the border receives no fanfare. Apparently railroads, rivers, and state departments of transportation can ignore city lines with impunity. Only the green “St. Paul Pop. 285,048” sign marks the border along the freeway, passed by 150,000 cars each day.
Emerald Street to University Avenue — On the other side of 94, you find yourself on Emerald Street, the eastern border of Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood. This was one of the neighborhoods cut in two by the interstate, separating the Prospect Park hill from the river. (The freeway bifurcation has also led to one of the less elegant neighborhood group acronyms in Minneapolis, the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association or PPERRIA.) Along this stretch of Emerald, differences between the two city’s zoning maps are clear to the naked eye.
On the St. Paul side sits the Weyerhaeuser lumberyard, a vast, gray, windowless complex that occupies one side of Emerald Street. On the Minneapolis side sits a quiet row of leafy single-family homes. It’s rare to see two opposing land uses so awkwardly conjoined, and preventing this kind of juxtaposition was precisely the reason that zoning was first invented back in the 1920s. But every zoning map must have an edge, and so here we are.
Following Emerald Street to the north, the industrial activity along the St. Paul side gives way at Franklin Avenue to become a set of inelegant four-story apartments, approximately five years old. With the advent of the light rail line, there is a lot of pressure to redevelop the aging industrial borderland into apartments aimed at over-crowded college students, a fact that worries neighbors in both cities (though for different reasons).
The Emerald Street border abruptly ends at University Avenue where it runs smack dab into a seam in the Raymond Avenue LRT station. From here, the tall KSTP antenna rises over a thousand feet into the sky before you, seemingly bending the borderline off the ground and pointing it toward the heavens.
The KSTP Building to the Union Pacific yards — North of University, the border runs directly up the sidewalk and into the front doors of the KSTP building. This is the first building on my journey that straddles the city line, so I wander around the building until I find two men standing by a picnic table outside the back entrance.
“Is this building in Minneapolis or St. Paul?” I ask them.
“Both!” one of the men replied after a brief pause. “Yeah, the TV side is in St. Paul, the radio is in Minneapolis,” chimed the other. I imagined them to be cameramen or audio technicians.
“That’s amazing. Is it marked? Is there a line running through your office?” When interviewing strangers about the seemingly mundane, the key is to project enthusiasm.
“There’s a KSTP logo on the floor, and the border runs right through the middle of the K.”
Sure enough, as I entered the lobby of the KSTP building, I found myself standing atop a great KSTP lightning bolt embedded into the teal floor. When this building was first built in 1948, it must have been quite the sensation, and for post-war architecture, it’s aged pretty well.
The border continues directly through the precise middle of the towering KSTP antenna before popping out the other side on a haphazard road (known in St. Paul as Territorial Road and in Minneapolis as Southeast Fourth Street). Here the border is marked by a series of concrete barricades seemingly intended to keep the Minneapolis hordes from accessing the St. Paul parking lots. On foot or bicycle, these are a barriers easily breached.
From here, the border becomes a fence between parking lots, before running across the University of Minnesota transitway and into the derelict industrial area to the north. This part of the city used to be dominated by the concrete grain elevators that still rise up into the western sky, but today it’s a mix of light-industrial logistics facilities and graffiti-clad ruins. On the other side of a truck shipping warehouse, I come across a border expanse of concrete rubble. One-foot-high escarpments are covered with colorful graffiti, and for some reason, parts of a grand piano are strewn about. Almost directly on the border itself, a piece of string graffiti by well-known Minneapolis artist HOTTEA is woven into the fence. I give the rusty piano strings a strum, and they ring weirdly in the cool air.
Wacouta Avenue to Como Avenue — North of the ruins lie the Union Pacific East Minneapolis railyards, and north of them, the border begins again next to another trucking company. This whole area is industrial land, and the border forms a kind of seam running along the backs of these properties which, because of their central location by Highway 280, rarely lie vacant for long. Still the appearance of an office marked “Colon and Rectal Surgery Associates” reinforces my suspicion that the border is a haven for facilities preferably kept out of sight.
Following the border from here was a trying adventure. The border wends behind industrial land, and to follow it you must scrabble through brush, climb up small hills and wander along ditches. Sometimes this involves bush-whacking through overgrown and prickly branches. And sometimes you find yourself walking what seems to be an old creek bed, or following a path through a large field in the shadow of the freeway. It was odd and beautiful.
Eventually, the border took me over a fallen fence and into a lumberyard, where I wound my way around piles of fresh wood wrapped in plastic, 15-foot-long boards piled high around me. I could see my goal in the distance, Como Avenue, where St. Paul becomes Lauderdale and the Minneapolis/St. Paul border comes to an end.
Still, I was stuck in the lumberyard. I had vague hopes that I’d find an open gate waiting for me at the other side of the wooden maze.
No such luck. The fence was closed, and I was trapped. Thoughts of retreat gathered in my mind like spiders as I hopped onto a pile of boards next to a fence cruelly topped with barbed wire. As I peered over the top, I saw a man getting into a gray Japanese sedan. Naturally, I froze like a deer, but apparently he saw me.
He popped out of the car.
“How did you get in there?” He shouted up, flabbergasted.
“I was lost in the woods, and had to come in over the fence.” This was the best I could do.
“I don’t have a key for this door!” he muttered. “I’m the last one here.”
That was just the start of our confusing conversation. I had to hand him my backpack, and he reluctantly began helping me over the fence.
“Come over to the east side,” he yelled at me through the wooden slats. “OK, now prop your foot on that pole.”
Somehow I vaulted myself over the top of the ten foot fence, without breaking it or myself. Relieved, I hopped to the ground. Nearly every bone in my body was embarrassed. How do you explain to someone that you’re trying to walk the entire border of Minneapolis and St. Paul for literary/geographic reasons?
I shook his hand and said thanks, intending to get out of there as fast as possible, trying not to imagine what was going through his head.
But just as I turned to leave, one last jolt of journalistic curiosity tingled through my feet. I turned back, Peter Falk style, and asked him the question.
“Is this building in Minneapolis or St. Paul?”
He paused and almost smiled. “Well, both” he replied. “The warehouse is in St. Paul, but the yard is in Minneapolis. See that part of the fence where it changes? That’s the border, due to different regulations in each city.”
After 15 minutes of wandering through the woods, I had popped my head up over the fence not 10 feet from the actual border between the two cities.
And that spot in the fence, where 33rd Avenue would be if it actually existed, marked the end of my journey. The border walk taught me a few things. There’s a big difference between theory and practice, between an idea and its execution. I had assumed that the border would be relatively docile, a landscape of subtle difference like you find along Emerald Street.
As it turns out, the border is often a no-man’s-land, a place unclaimed by responsibility, the very definition of “marginal.” There are hobo camps, strange tramp trails, meaningless fences, artistic expanses, odd paths, vast open spaces, quizzical landmarks and the rear ends of warehouses.
Afterward, I stopped for a beer at Station 280, an odd border bar in the no-man’s-land near the obsolete border freeway, where there are 2-for-1’s all day and digested my journey.