The word is out that skyways suck the life out of the street. Hey! If you walk the skyways for a few minutes on any given day, you realize it’s not the skyways’ fault that there is so little street life in Minneapolis. That can be laid at the feet of the genius locii of the area, a “local genius” as repressed as it is orderly.
Imagine the Jolly Green Giant as a banker or broker. No Ho-Ho-Ho from this guy. The Poker-faced Grey Broker is the spirit of the skyways, end to end. And that is fine with me.
The zeitgeist of Minneapolis invests safely, discourages public displays of affection, and though it doesn’t build great restaurants on the banks of the Mississippi, it is modestly grateful for heated walkways between buildings when the cold can kill.
Tear out the skyways and you won’t suddenly see Marquette Avenue flower with street musicians and puppet booths, palm readers and Flamenco dancers.
Does the Au Bon Pain on the promenade between the IDS and the Northstar Center prevent decent sidewalk cafes from springing up along 2nd Avenue?
I don’t think so.
Minneapolis grew slowly from the 1850s to the 1870s. The growth curve went nearly vertical in the 1880s, with the massive onslaught against the white pine forests in Northern and Central.
The first thing the economic expansion of the 1880s did was push the civic life south out of Downtown, out to the lakes. Over the next 60 years Downtown grew like lichen, slowly and with muted color.
Suddenly in the 1960s our skyline stood up, scraping the clouds with the towering IDS, and we started growing these glass and chrome, steel and iron pedestrian bridges among the main buildings.
The skyways rarely called attention to themselves, unless you count Sam Kaufman’s Skyway News. But they grew and grew. Some people compare them to kudzu or zebra mussels, killing off the stuff that would have grown naturally without them, but I think they reflect our real character.
We all get the skyway system we deserve, eventually.
Minneapolis condones the strait-laced revelry Nicollet Mall, while barely abiding the bawdiest corner of Block E (which Target Field might yet sober up and teach good manners). I believe in our genius locii. It’s brow is furrowed with moral intensity, but it embraces the arts with one firm hand, and earnest crusades against homelessness with the other.
These are superficial observations — low hanging fruit on the tree of local attitude. I have experienced something in the skyways that is more profound, however. It is much deeper than the cinematic existential appeal of long tunnels through the sky. It is more intriguing than the sensory intoxication of chrome-spanked agoras venting street-market fried aromas into carpeted labyrinths.
This “something” is paralleled, but not explained or contained, by Lao-Tzu’s meditation on nature and man in the Tao Te Ching.
What has a philosopher who has been dead for 2,500 years have to do with a local building quirk? Because the skyways exist, and work, and are not branded, and are open to all equally, they participate in the virtues of what Lao-Tzu called “wu-wei.”
It is a difficult concept to nail down, but it basically means “no effort.” With the work ethic taking second place only to our commitment to troubled sports teams, it is hard to sell the notion of “no effort.”
But the skyways have succeeded big time, because they didn’t try to be something they weren’t. They didn’t try to become the signature of the region, like the Golden Gate Bridge is for the Bay Area.
They didn’t try to redeem the loss of Downtown centrality in the 60s and 70s, even though some smart people think they helped anchor viable Downtown culture. They became because they did not try to become. They exist because there was no big program to make them exist. They are efficient and appropriate because no one special pays special attention to them.
That is the real signature of the region. The handwriting of flyoverland.
That is why I started a blog in February. That is what keeps me poking around and gawking and racking up the miles in these glass skinned galleries.
No matter what you think of them now, I have just one thing to say to you.
Walk with me. Start where you are, get up and get out there. I’ll point out a few easy points of interest, like the Accenture lobby, and some hidden gems like the human faces on the Baker Building façade, or the Chamberlain sculpture in the Capella towers.
But the real pay-off is in the miles you put on through the unfolding panorama of stone-panelled lobbies, art crusted artriums, empty byways and tumultuous intersections.
Other cities can promise the Moon. In Minneapolis we can give you the sky. Or at least, many ways to it. 82 at last count. 8 miles. All yours for the walking.
Jeff Beddow blogs about life in the skyways at skywayway.blogspot.com.