Sidewalk of the Week: South 5th Street

A few months ago, a little news story passed over my desktop. It was about a “guerrilla sidewalk” that one day appeared in a vacant (city owned) lot on Cedar Avenue. Unbeknownst to the city, some neighborhood locals banded together to install a sidewalk. “Foul!”, cried the planning commissioner. “Safe footsteps”, replied the neighborhood. This mystery sidewalk caused no large stir, but (as you can imagine) piqued my interest.

Without missing a step, I found myself walking over to Cedar-Riverside to investigate. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Cedar-Riverside is probably the most interesting spot in the Twin Cities, a historic immigrant mishmash that bears the scars of all possible eras of Midwestern American planning. Bordered on all sides by a trio of freeways and the Mississippi River, it has a ton of old brick mixed-use commercial buildings, an ever dwindling stock of 19th century slapped together wooden homes, a trio of massive post-war institutions, a few low-density pedestrian housing projects, and the largest clump of high rise ‘project’ public housing this side of Chicago’s South Side. Today, whirling mix of Somalis, hippies, frat boys and people with too much education, it’s a fascinating place to be for a city-phile.

At first, the sidewalk in question seems like nothing special. It lies in the vacant lot between the Nomad World Pub/West Bank Social Center and a two-storey building that houses a bunch of Somali coffee shops, a mosque, and a grocery. Its back side abuts a parking lot shared by a bunch of other buildings, including K-Wok Asian Restaurant, Hard Times Café, and some old apartments. (This particular vacant lot also boasts Minneapolis’s only bona fide memorial obelisk.)

[A guerrilla sidewalk cutting through a vacant lot.]

[Two desire paths leading through the snowdrifts.]

All the uses on all sides means that this vacant lot sees a lot of foot traffic. I’ve cut through this lot many times myself, on my way to or from any of the wonderful places on Cedar. Because of the heavy use, it bears some emergent footpaths (also called “desire paths”, because they are formed by the people’s collective off-road desires). So, in a way, its only natural that someone, somewhere should take it upon themselves to pave the path. (The logic is quite wonderful, actually, resembling an experiment I heard about once where a University campus landscaper left it up to the collective student body to determine which parts of the green space should be paved.)

[This particular vacant lot sits at the intersection of a bunch of destinations.]

Of course, the city didn’t see it that way. They own this particular property (and a lot of other property in the C-R), and even though city funds didn’t have to pay for the sidewalk, if ever the lot is sold and built upon, the sidewalk will undoubtedly cost more to destroy than that gravel that preceded it.

But there’s something more at work about this act of sidewalk resistance. What at first appears as transgression may just be an act of restoration. Not too long ago, before the engineers of ‘urban renewal’ got their freeway’d fingers on Cedar-Riverside, this particular vacant lot used to be a public street. South 5th Street runs, very awkwardly, into the back of this spot, dead-ending into an access alley. My guess is that the 60s planners chose to cut off the street to keep traffic from congesting Cedar Avenue, which became a key through-way for traffic between the awkward intercourse of Interstates 94 and 35-W. (That’s one reason why Cedar Avenue, which runs through one of the most pedestrian-heavy parts of the entire city, is a four-lane, parking-deprived, narrow-sidewalk’d travesty.)

[The intersection of Cedar and Riverside as it looked from above in 1947 (courtesy of the Borchert Map Library) ...

[ ... and the same place today, post multi-institutional makeover.]

Meanwhile, even after all these years, this bit of gravel covered ex-street could not be repressed. Just because some plan had it marked for a building didn’t mean that it didn’t make a lot of sense as a connecting point for foot traffic. This spot is haunted by the ghost of sidewalks past. The old corner of 5th and Cedar, strangely still marked by a stoplight, continues to whisper at the feet of the adventurous. And this sidewalk, which seemingly sprang from out of nothing, might merely mark the long-dormant rebirth of old Cedar Avenue. It may be the first sign of a spring in your step, after a long winter of concrete and modernism.

[The looming presence of Cedar-Riverside towers over the ghost of South 5th Street.]


Reuben said...

great post & photos! I'd love to see 5th Street reconnected to Cedar Ave someday. The pedestrianization (and parking-lot-ization) of 19th Ave is also interesting.

charlie said...

Really a lovely post!

Alex B. said...

Recycling the Center City, Judith Martin's account of the creation of Riverside Plaza, indicates that the original plan for the projects included a pedestrian bridge over Cedar Ave at 5th St. You can kind of see where it would have crossed by looking at the awkward ramp behind Palmer's Bar. I've never been able to figure out whether it was ever built - my guess is no, and hence the crossing signal there. While I'm not always excited about the forced separation of pedestrians from the street, it seems to me that a ped bridge there would be kind of cool, especially if combined with the existing signal, a la Little Earth.