Preserve the South 5th Street Sidewalk

[One of the old rights of way on the West Bank.]
I’m a man prone to shortcuts, and I’m not alone. Most people who walk or bike around the city have their own bag of tricks. People go through parking lots or alleys or the wrong way down a one-way street. We walk in bottom-up ways that resist the abstractions of top-down maps: desire lines and the smallest pedestrian protests.

Earlier this summer, I was startled to find one of my favorite shortcuts fenced up.

[While I was taking this picture, a woman climbed over the 5' fence.]

Years ago I wrote about a particular spot on the West Bank, the city-owned vacant lot on Cedar Avenue where 5th Street and the Dania Hall used to be.

Here’s what I said about this neat Minneapolis shortcut back in 2010:
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.)
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.

Since then, the city installed way finding signage and a new traffic signal at 5th, and even added a Nice Ride station in the lot for a time. And just this month, after a half-century of treating people walking on the West Bank like lepers, they’re finally reconstructing Cedar Avenue to expand the sidewalks and improve one of the most dangerous and inhumane spots in the city.

[Expanding the sidewalks on Cedar Avenue after fifty years of neglect.]

That’s why this summer’s 5th Street fence was so surprising. Back in June, when the fence went up, I spotted this poster around the corner at the Hard Times:

[Hard Times democracy.]

[Where the sidewalk ends.]
At the time, I'd emailed a few folks at the city and found out that the fence was part of a short-term promotion for this summer’s World Cup. The Nomad World Pub had paid the city some sort of fee to use the lot during the three-week event, and turned the lot into a (ethically dubious) favela-themed exhibition space. In other words, it was a short-term thing.

So I shrugged, grumbled a bit to myself, and thought no more about it. I even went to the Nomad a few times to watch a match or two.

Except that the fence is still there, and it’s September now.

I asked the bartender at the Nomad about the space, and he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “It was supposed to be temporary,” he told me. “But the city hasn’t told us to take it out. So we’re just using it for things once in a while.”

What is an Alley Worth?

[Privatization of public sidewalk.]
There has been a lot of urban design violence done to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood over the years. What had been an intact tightly-knit street grid was transformed into super-blocks hemmed in by freeways.

Cedar Avenue in particular was designed to maximize car traffic at the expense of anyone living in or walking through the area. The powerful institutions on the West Bank (the U of MN, Augsburg, and the Fairview Hospital) are continually buying up housing stock and expanding their parking lots and (often poorly designed) institutional campuses.

The last thing the city should be doing is fencing off more of the access points that people use to get around.

How much is an alley worth? Don’t people on the West Bank have a right to walk around the city?

I don’t often put up ‘calls to action’ on this site, but I sent an email to Abdi Warsame's office, the city council member for this part of Cedar-Riverside. Feel free to join me if you value what’s left of old 5th Street.
Dear Council Member Warsame:

I work on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, and am writing to express my desire to see the sidewalk at Cedar and 5th opened up again. It was fenced off during the summer to expand the patio next to the Nomad Pub, but I believe it is important to maintain access for people walking around the west bank. Historically, 5th street provided a key connection for people crossing Cedar Avenue and getting around the neighborhood.

The city owns this property and should keep it open to the public.


[The expanded fence on Cedar Avenue.]


I received the following email from CM Warsame's office in reply:

Thank you, Bill for contacting us.  We understand that this is a space that provides a key connection to both sides of Cedar Ave.  It is important to highlight, however, that this is not a public sidewalk.  It is actually part of the lot that the City owns and therefore private property.  As you mentioned, the Nomad Pub leased the property over the summer.  That lease has expired and this passage will be re-open very soon.

We appreciate that fact that you took the time to contact us and advocate for community issues that you feel are important.

Enjoy your day,

My only thought is that saying "this sidewalk isn't public, it's owned by the city" seems like an oxymoron. Aren't all sidewalks owned by the city? If city land isn't public, what is?


Alex said...

I keep hoping the city will put up a Brutalist Pedestrian Overpass Memorial there to commemorate the pedestrian overpass that used to be there. It would be an exact replica of the original overpass but would be inaccessible for commemorative reasons.

Gabe Ormsby said...

A bit out on a limb here, but I think his point might be based on this reasoning: Public sidewalks tend to be on city-defined rights-of-way on privately-owned property. The city does not own the land under the sidewalk. For example, the city doesn't own a strip of land between my house and the street. Rather, it holds a right-of-way defined in the deed. A city-held lot is "private" in the sense that there is no right-of-way for public use through the property. Lots (ow, no pun intended) of city property is treated as "private" for good reasons, e.g. the impound lot. The case for public access across this particular lot, of course, is pretty compelling.