Caveat: For a real overview of this intersection, I’d check out Craig Wilson’s piece. My writing here is informed by my training in urban geography, but primarily by knowledge gleaned from both my own experiences and those of my extended family–my grandmother was a servant at one of the intersections here when she first immigrated to Minneapolis from Ireland about 110 years ago, my father grew up walking this route as a kid on his way to school (sans adults, over walls and through alleys, of course), my mother traversed it frequently to see her own relatives, and my family history from all sides has grown and evolved along this particular spine of the city from the interment of my great-great grandparents on the Chinese side at Lakewood Cemetery.
I grew up not far from here and I’ve walked this area thousands of times in my life, as well as biked, bussed, and driven along it. My personal memories predate the Sculpture Garden (and include regular chats with Frank Gehry as he built this piece) and some other nearby developments. The route has the charm of a desolate sewage pit surrounded by a few beautiful buildings that might as well be abandoned for all the human activity they show most of the time. Basically, I have thirty years of interacting with this particular dehumanizing concrete mess and the accumulated frustrations of generations of citizens who have to use it daily.
Since March of last year, I’ve been part of an advisory group working with City of Minneapolis engineers and the city’s contracted design firm to figure out how to transform this from hellscape to streetscape. I’ll try in a later post to sum up my experiences as a part of this group, but let me assure you, before I jump into describing the failures of the current situation, that the representatives from both the City of Minneapolis and Kimley-Horn have been really great to work with.
Above, I’ve illustrated for you the basics of what we’ve been dealing with since Minneapolis had streets called “Hennepin” and “Lyndale.” Hennepin is one of Minneapolis’ main drags. It’s one of those streets that goes from N/S orientation to E/W orientation (or vice versa, depending on your direction of travel). You can see this in the red line above–its southern boundary is Lakewood Cemetery, and the eastern boundary is where it hits St. Paul and becomes Larpenteur.
But we’re in Minnesota, where the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is well established, where–St. Paul excepted–we generally take our cues from science in the form of the almighty compass. [Tangent: the Iron Range, and how it changes the magnetic fields in northern Minnesota, totally messed with the compasses of the PLSS workers. If you ever take the time to look at a map from those parts, things are pretty off-kilter (for a compass-based survey). There’s been a secret plan fomenting for some time in my heart, a dream where Magnetic Fields–the band–is the headliner for new Woodstock on the magnetic fields–the Iron Range–of Minnesota. /shameful pun-based world domination] Therefore Lyndale is firmly oriented north-south, continuing into infinity in both directions.
There are hatch marks to show these two different grid systems. Use your imagination to continue the pattern to whence they meet and figure out how that happens nicely and neatly. Then cut away entire blocks for your highway system, overseen by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT), which tends to be pretty car-oriented–it takes a lot of trucks to get the food from the farms of Greater Minnesota to you! Keep in mind that Lyndale is administered at the county level (Hennepin County), which is notoriously car-centric. And Hennepin Avenue? I’m honestly not sure who’s in charge of that, especially at this junction. Suffice it to say, where Hennepin and Lyndale intersect was always a problem for traffic flow, but with the addition of highways and a reorientation to the car, it became an area nearly totally incompatible with other modes of transit.
HOW DID WE END UP WITH THIS HELLSCAPE?
Minneapolis spread from St. Anthony Falls at the Mississippi River on a grid that developed parallel to the water until it got a bit further away and found itself back under the rule of the compass. This means that we have the section that I kindly call “Hellscape” on the map. It wasn’t always a hellscape, if my father’s recollections are to be trusted, but it’s always been a kind of transit disaster. In the 1950s or 60s, the city did what many foolish American cities did and began gutting public transit and destroying neighborhoods in favor of highways. Highways are functional rivers (minus the nature thing), and one of the benefits of settling on rivers is defense. By destroying neighborhoods under the guise of “progress,” cities isolated their poor residents, often people of color, from others who felt threatened by them. It also allowed those living elsewhere to work in the city and take advantage of the clustering of businesses/cultural amenities, but not have to actually pay taxes to support it or live there, where they might accidentally run into a Poor!!!
In Minneapolis, the wealthier people settled by those pretty lakes (note: some, like Lake of the Isles, were actually marshes). Of course, during White Flight, they too were lured out to the suburbs, but for whatever reason (nostalgia for wealth? lower density housing? traffic logistics?), the highway that would have cut downtown off from southwest Minneapolis was tunneled–literally, not metaphorically. No worries, though, because Hennepin/Lyndale became an eight-lane car-oriented Monstrosity of Doom!.
Here we have tens of thousands of cars a day moving, though you wouldn’t guess it from this photo. They’re mostly single-occupancy, if my informal traffic counts as a teen walking the route still hold true (note to city planners: better streetscaping might save future children from this depressing pastime!). Many of the cars enter and exit downtown from the highways. Some come for church or school or to see art exhibits or mini-golf or to attend music festivals right here. There are few people walking. There’s a well-used rather narrow transit way for people to bike, but it’s poorly maintained and technically also the sidewalk (as always, societies pit their disenfranchised against each other, in this case people walking and people biking). Additionally, because the whole set-up is so car-oriented and so closely connected to the highways, few drivers bother to look for non-motorized traffic there–I’ve witnessed multiple bike/car crashes and had friends involved in or witness to more. It’s not great for people on foot either, and I’ve been sworn at and given the finger with some regularity while walking there, as well as experiencing the indignity of being unexpectedly kissed on the neck by a stranger (broad daylight, right outside the Walker, plenty of car traffic, and eeew!).
WHAT’S WRONG WITH HENNEPIN AND LYNDALE?
The scale isn’t appropriate for an urban landscape. Unlike good city design with human-scaled institutions and streets, everything here is geared towards monuments and cars. The signage and lighting are free-way style, designed for drivers going 60 MPH and stopping only every few hundred miles. There are few trees. Each long (~1/4 mile) block–on a hill, no less!–contains one building or park. Even though these represent some really stunning world-renowned works of architecture–and full disclosure, I’d be heartbroken if they were removed–they’re massive and not designed to say to a city dweller hey, come inside, linger. Religious/institutional monuments are often spaces wherein we are supposed to experience a sense of grandeur, scope, and vista, where we can ponder and enter into mysteries–life, death, art, beauty–far greater than us as individuals. In other settings, these grand edifices that can take generations to complete rise out of smaller scaled buildings and tightly woven streets so we come upon them as a stunning contrast to the minute and mundane, a reminder of our own small role in a broader framework of humanity. In this setting, however, the architectural narrative of god and art and life and death is weakened, framed instead by the triumph of the automobile in America.
Additionally of these four grand institutions, three are denominational churches (Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist), which are definitionally places of exclusion/specialization aimed at a subpopulation. All three have done admirable work to be part of the broader fabric of the city and there are music festivals, garage sales and thrift stores, and interfaith fora (there’s a Jewish synagogue just up the hill a few blocks south, as well as additional religious institutions scattered around downtown). They work to address social issues like homelessness, domestic violence, religious intolerance/violence, and inequality. However, functionally, structurally, they are monoliths with limited access and specific times for gathering people from near and (mostly) far.
The other properties on this stretch are the Walker Art Center (WAC), the Sculpture Garden, and Loring Park. The WAC is great, and between it and the Guthrie (which used to be there), they are responsible for some pretty formative experiences in my life, from venue and audience for my writing and art as a young adult to a memorable internship and my first job. But it’s not a free public institution (except two days a month). It’s not a street-oriented space that welcomes people regardless of money to stop and stay a while. Like the Catholic co-cathedral, the Basilica of Saint Mary, it hosts an annual music festival targeted to a broader (read: whiter and wealthier) audience than Minneapolis’ own population.
The Sculpture Garden is a joint venture between the WAC and the Minneapolis Park Board. I remember when it was being built and I’ve gone there countless times with friends. I’ve even taken one very awkward second date there (note: the lack of any public bathrooms within a quarter mile was the reason there wasn’t a third date). It’s being renovated after thirty years, but right now it’s a place that I am cautious about entering. It has poor sight lines and lacks steady traffic throughout the day. When the weather’s good, it’s teeming with people, but the paths are gravel and turn muddy/icy with the barest hint of inclement weather. It hosts some summer events (and again, you can see the wealthy-privileged-people theme!): mini-golf, weddings, and senior/engagement/wedding photos. The greenhouse, the park’s sole public building, is as often as not either closed or privately rented.
Loring Park is better with sight lines (inasmuch as it has trees rather than hedges) and offers a theoretical walking/biking connection with downtown Minneapolis. But Loring Park is a large space. The paths are amazingly poorly designed–rather than treating it as a transit connection point for people walking and cycling between southwest Minneapolis and downtown, the landscape architects must never have visited it and assumed it was more of a promenade for showing off fashions. The paved paths are very sinuous, meandering from point A to point B. Needless to say, those of us who aren’t just preening (or who are preening and trying to get somewhere) tend to take the shortest route between two points, so the park is full of additional paths worn in the grass, which erosion and time have made deep and pitted. Loring Park, like the Sculpture Garden, suffers from low-traffic times. As a kid, I was told not to cut through it by myself or with friends during daytime (morning/evening rush hour was usually okay) and even my father skirted it on his walk to work if he left slightly late. Despite increasing population densities around Loring Park, I still don’t walk there by myself without checking the situation and perhaps texting close friends/family (you know, just in case!).
Then there’s Dunwoody, a community college. Unfortunately, it’s oriented to its parking lot, though I can little blame that decision given that it’s currently surrounded on three sides by freeway and on the fourth by a quasi-freeway (it’s used for entering or exiting the freeway and sometimes, strangely, for the set-up for parades through downtown Minneapolis). There’s also the 510 Groveland at the other end, nestled between two of the large churches, a fancy older condo building set back from the street (read: very private; you have no need to enter).
It’s designed for highway-cars, not city-people.
The sidewalks here are very poorly maintained (see above photo from a walk a few years ago outside the Walker Art Center, taken after I gave up my traffic counts as too disheartening; it was an almost identical scene, sans bowling alley bumpers of snow, when I was there a few days ago). It’s hard to ascertain if there is even any attempt to shovel by most of the institutions directly on Hennepin/Lyndale–the Park Board is notorious for giving its paths a “lick and a promise” at best. For those unfamiliar with shoveling in Minnesota, plows generally are insufficient by themselves–a plow does the first round, to remove the bulk of the snow, and then someone needs to get out there with a shovel to remove what’s left behind before it becomes packed down, icy, and dangerous. To be fair, however, in the boulevardless spaces of Hennepin and Lyndale, even thorough shoveling can be quickly erased by the constant spray of slush, sand, salt, and existential angst kicked up by the cars.
Because the road is wide (eight or more lanes of traffic, not including highway), the institutions are immense, the slope is painfully obvious when on bike/foot, and there are very few trees/landscaping, people who are biking and walking are left exposed to the elements. More than most streets, Hennepin and Lyndale here offer no places for visual or physical respite from what can often be a desolate environment–harsh sun, straight-from-the-north-pole wind, dirty highway dust, car exhaust, sleet, rain, and snow. As unpleasant as these conditions are for those in cars, they are exacerbated in scale with the decrease in speed–those walking experience this hellscape tenfold, just by virtue of the additional time it takes to cross it, which is made unnecessarily long by the timing of lights and crossings in favor of cars.
Nothing in the current design encourages people to become a part of the city. Walking, biking, and transit are afterthoughts. The streetscape functions to move cars, and it does that with confusion. Crosswalks are infrequent, people biking and people walking are forced to share narrow paths, and cars hit people with impunity. The 4 route heading south deposits its riders on a tiny sloping median strip in the middle of eleven lanes of traffic and leaving the cocoon of the solid bus to stand inches from cars whipping on and off the highway is one of those choices that actually feels even more unadvisable than it sounds. To walk this stretch is to be forced, regardless of general temperament, to meditate on the futility and ugliness of life, the insignificance of your own tiny, vulnerable, and invisible self within the scope of a brutal and uncaring world. Everything about this mess as it is currently tells people who are walking or biking or stepping on/off a bus, you don’t belong; this isn’t your city.
Did I mention that this has also historically been considered one of the “gateways” to the city? This is your Welcome to Minneapolis.