2017-08-17

Notable Quotes #10: Jonathan Raban describes Downtown Minneapolis Skyways c. 1981

Minneapolis itself, though, had gone indoors. When it had done all it could to tinker with the Mississippi; when the bridges, mills, power plants, locks and dams had been finished; then the city had turned its back on the river and focused inward on itself. Now it was engaged in yet another exercise in utopian gadgetry; building a city within a city, a perfumed maze of artificial streets and plazas set in midair, four stories above the ground.

No wonder the streets had seemed so empty. The city had gone somewhere else and cunningly hidden itself inside its own facade. To go shopping, one had to take the elevator up to this other Minneapolis. It was a completely synthetic urban space. Glassed-in "skyways" vaulted from block to block, and the shopping plazas had been quarried out of the middles of existing buildings like so many chambers, grottoes and tunnels in a mountain of rock.

Here, fountains trickled in carpeted parks. The conditioned air smelled of cologne and was thickened with a faint, colorless spray of Muzak. The stores were open-fronted, like the stalls of a covered Arab souk. Like all the best utopias, this one was only half-built. It was the nucleus of a dream city designed to stretch out and farther out until Minneapolis-in-the-air would be suspended like an aureole over the deserted ruins of Minneapolis-on-the-ground. If one put one's ear to the walls, one might hear the distant reverberation of workmen with pneumatic drills tunneling out more corridors and plazas in the wider reaches of the city.

The skyway system was as vividly expressive of the peculiar genius of Minneapolis as the roller-coasting freeways are of Los Angeles or the glass-and-cement cliffs of New York. Only a city with really horrible weather could have arrived at such a thing. Here people had left their local nature behind altogether. It was something nasty down below, and the skyways floated serenely over the top of it. "Nature" here was of the chic and expensive kind that comes only from the most superior of florists: ornamental palms and ferns, rooted not in soil but in coppery chips of synthetic petroleum extract

Voices melted into the musical syrup of André Kostelanetz that trickled from hidden speakers in the palm fronds. Footsteps expired on the carpeted halls. At a mock-Parisian street café, the shoppers sat out at gingham tables, drinking Sanka with nonsaccharin sugar substitutes. Skyway-city turned one into an escapee. it was a place where everyone was on the run--from the brutish climate, from carcinogens, from muggers, rapists, automobile horns. Even one's own body was being discreetly disinfected and homogenized by the deodorant air. Up here, everything was real nice: we were nice people who smelled nice, looked nice and did nice things in nice places.

Four floors below, we could see the nasty world we'd left behind. Hennepin Avenue was stretched out in front of us, famous for the Original Sin in which it wallowed. Beneath the skyway, a crummy little store sold rubber wear and shackles. Posters for the blue-movie houses showed nipples and pudenda so imaginatively colored and airbrushed that they'd ceased to look human in origin. A wino pissed in a doorway, watched by his dog. It was a pregnant bitch, and looked vaguely ashamed of its owner.

Looking down on that fallen world from the standpoint of this temporary synthetic Eden, I thought that perhaps Minneapolis and I were really on much the same track, traveling hopefully, never arriving. I loved the audacity of that American principle which says, when life gets tainted or goes stale, junk it! Leave it behind! Go west. Go up. Move on. Minneapolis had lit out from its river. Now it was trying to wave goodbye to its own streets. The skyways were just the latest stage in its long voyage out and away. "Where ya goin'?" said the truck driver to the hitchhiker at the end of Manhattan Transfer. "I dunno. Purdy far." It was the same answer that I'd given to the drunk in Moby Dick's, and on the skyways the whole city seemed to be echoing that classic traveler's statement of intent.

[From British travel writer Jonathan Raban's 1981 book, Old Glory: an American Voyage, about a trip down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans.]
[Downtown Minneapolis in 1981.]