Beneath the Skyway

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Every city in the world has something that makes it special. But the ones that really capture my imagination, are the cities with distinctive forms of transportation. Venice has its canals, London its bright red, double-decker buses, and the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have skyways. In both cities’ downtowns, there are vast networks of climate-controlled pedestrian bridges that reach over the streets and connect building-to-building on the second floor. Here’s how Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar describes them.

Amy Klobuchar:
The skyways, of course, are the glass-enclosed above-ground tunnels that connect our buildings.

Stephen Colbert:
Because if you go outside in the winter, you will die.

Amy Klobuchar:
That’s right. And they’re like a human habitrail.

Katie Thornton:
Habitrail is the brand name of literal hamster tubes, and that’s a pretty good description.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter and Minneapolis-lifer, Katie Thornton.

Katie Thornton:
Walk along almost any downtown street in the Twin Cities, and you’ll see a series of these enclosed glass bridges, tying together huge office buildings and shopping centers. Thanks to the skyways, you can park in a heated garage, go into work, run some errands, maybe go to the gym, all in short sleeves on a minus 20-degree day. People legitimately brag about how many weeks they can go without stepping foot outside.

Roman Mars:
Downtown Minneapolis has the oldest and largest contiguous Skyway network in the world. There are nearly 10 miles of totally enclosed, climate-controlled pedestrian bridges and downtown St. Paul has its own massive system.

Katie Thornton:
The skyways are integral to the Twin Cities’ sense of self. Amy Klobuchar was made Miss Skyway of March 1988, for which she was awarded a free month’s worth of Jazzercise classes and an 8-by-10 color portrait from a Skyway accessible photography studio.

Roman Mars:
There’s also the time the St. Paul skyway system was turned into a mountain bike racecourse.

[COMMENTATOR: THE ONE-MILE COURSE WOUND THROUGH NARROW CORRIDORS, DOWN STAIRCASES, AROUND HAIRPIN TURNS AND YOU CAN SEE PARTICIPANTS DIDN’T ALWAYS MAKE IT.]

[COMMENTATOR: WOW, HE’S OKAY WE’RE TOLD, BY THE WAY.]

Katie Thornton:
And then, as many Minnesotans of a certain generation will remind you, there’s the 1992 children’s hockey movie masterpiece, The Mighty Ducks.

[GORDON BOMBAY: PUSH! KEEP YOUR KNEES BENT. SIDE-TO-SIDE, GOOD. FOLLOW ME.]

Katie Thornton:
There’s this one beloved scene in particular, where coach Emilio Estevez and his ragtag team of kids meet downtown to train on roller blades, also a Minnesota invention. The kids fly through the busy skyways, struggling to stay upright on their blades, while well-dressed shoppers with arms full of gift-wrapped packages leap out of the way.

Roman Mars:
After all, whose inner ten-year-old wouldn’t want to whiz through a glittering metropolis in this sky?

Bill Lindeke:
I think there’s an initial love that comes from the skyways, of wonderment. People look at that and think, “Wow, this so special.”

Katie Thornton:
Bill Lindeke is an urban geographer and writer in the Twin Cities. Bill gives architectural tours of the skyways, and he says the visitors on his tours are justifiably impressed. The whole skyway system comes across as a grand civic achievement.

Bill Lindeke:
There’s something marvelous and futuristic about the best parts of the skyways, where you really feel like we as a society have transcended something. And especially in wintertime, that feels marvelous and triumphant.

Roman Mars:
Futuristic. Triumphant. It sounds almost utopian. A cozy micro-city within the city, where you and other twin citizens can look down at the icy street beneath you, smug in your short sleeves, and collectively laugh in the face of winter.

Katie Thornton:
There’s just one problem, at least from Bill’s perspective.

Bill Lindeke:
Well, I hate them. I think that they make downtown almost unredeemable, and I really wish that we could start taking them down one by one.

Roman Mars:
A lot of people love the skyways, but others want them gone. In fact, over the years, architects and urban planners from all over the world have said that the Twin Cities need to tear the skyways down.”

Katie Thornton:
Bill and other skyway antagonists have plenty of reasons behind their opposition. For them, it has to do with who gets to be in the skyways and who doesn’t. And also, what the skyways have done to harm the streets below.

Roman Mars:
The skyways haven’t always attracted this kind of criticism. In the beginning, long before people like Bill Lindeke turned against them, they were heralded as the salvation of a struggling downtown.

Katie Thornton:
In the 1950s, Minneapolis like many cities across the country, was trying to stay lively or even occupied. In the post-war era of white flight, downtown shops suffered as city residents began moving to the quiet expanse of the burbs.

Roman Mars:
But on top of this national trend away from downtowns, Minneapolis retailers faced another challenge. In 1956, in a fancy new suburb seven miles Southwest of downtown Minneapolis, something happened that changed everything about how people shopped.

Allison Kaplan:
Minnesota, the Twin Cities, we are literally the birthplace of the enclosed mall.

Katie Thornton:
Allison Kaplan is a retail reporter and the editor-in-chief of Twin Cities Business magazine. And she says the world’s first indoor climate-controlled shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota took not just the Twin Cities, but the world, by storm. It was called Southdale Center.

Allison Kaplan:
Let’s be honest, we all know it gets cold in Minnesota. And so, it was about creating this amazing experience, where you could park, go inside and spend hours.

Roman Mars:
Southdale had 74 stores across three stories. Plastic foliage promised greenery, in all four seasons. There was a central plaza called the Garden Court of Perpetual Spring, featuring a 21-foot vertical birdcage.

Katie Thornton:
The place even had its own Christmas jingle.

[SOUTHDALE CHRISTMAS JINGLE]

Katie Thornton:
Southdale was an instant hit with consumers. And in the years that followed, a ring of indoor malls would come to surround Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Bill Lindeke:
They’re all called the Dales. So you have Ridgedale, Southdale, Brookdale. There’s probably more Dales I’m not remembering.

Roman Mars:
Over the decades, more and more shoppers and businesses would decamp from the city to the suburban oasis. But in the late 1950s, a loose alliance of Minneapolis developers, business owners and city officials, began formulating plans to lure people back to downtown.

Bill Lindeke:
So, they kind of threw lots of things at the wall to see what sticks.

Katie Thornton:
And they came up with a bunch of ambitious and sometimes wacky ideas, most of which never happened. One proposal would have installed a bunch of pedestrian underpasses, so that shoppers wouldn’t have to contend with or contribute to downtown’s horrible traffic problem. While an opposite proposal, envisioned sinking all the thoroughfares below the ground levels, so that the surface streets would be just for pedestrians.

Roman Mars:
But the idea that ended up sticking, was arguably the most ambitious and wacky of them all. And it was the brainchild of a far-sighted Minnesotan, named Leslie Park.

Bill Lindeke:
Park to me, epitomizes the waspy business type that Minneapolis was famous for.

Katie Thornton:
Park was one of the city’s largest property holders and a strict religious conservative.

Bill Lindeke:
For example, he owned hotels and restaurants, but he would set aside all of the income that he got from liquor sales and put them in a separate fund and give that to charity because he felt it was immoral to profit off of a vice.

Katie Thornton:
It also appears that he didn’t like the kinds of things that cities were associated with, like smells and crowds and street-level chance encounters.

Roman Mars:
So Park took a cue directly from the family-friendly suburbs and their clean indoor malls and added a twist, an architectural innovation that would allow downtown shoppers to stroll from building to building without ever hitting the pavement.

Katie Thornton:
He got the city to grant him air rights, not just for the building he was constructing, but for the street in front of it. And once the building was finished, like a lot of other places downtown, it had a handful of stores on the first floor.

Bill Lindeke:
But it also has an almost 19th century Parisian arcade-style second floor, except with silvery glass and steel ceilings and walls.

Katie Thornton:
And jutting out of the second-floor shopping area was a big glass-enclosed climate-controlled bridge, the first skyway.

Roman Mars:
A skyway that conveniently led to the second floor of another building that Leslie Park owned.

Bill Lindeke:
And so, what had been the second floor, the least valuable part of the building, is now more retail corridors that people can walk through and becomes much more valuable than it used to be.

Roman Mars:
And that transformation of the second floor into a space for pedestrians and workers, would itself end up transforming the Twin Cities.

Katie Thornton:
It took a few years for everyone to catch on, but Leslie Park’s skyway eventually proved to be a win-win. Consumers discovered that it provided the indoor shopping experience they were clamoring for, while developers realized it potentially doubled the amount of space buildings could devote to retail.

Roman Mars:
In the following decade, downtown building owners started making agreements with their neighbors across the street to build their own skyways, a process that only accelerated in 1972.

Bill Lindeke:
I like to think of it as the moment where the skyway system became sentient, where it achieved its own critical mass.

Roman Mars:
That year, the IDS Center opened in downtown Minneapolis. Designed by Philip Johnson, it was the tallest building in the state and soon radiating out in all four directions from its beautiful glass-walled central shopping and dining court, or skyways, it quickly became the city’s central hub.

Allison Kaplan:
That was kind of the moment that there was hope that okay, the entire skyway system is going to come together, so that you’re not just going to one shopping area. You could go to five blocks worth of shopping destinations, without ever going outside. The suburbs can’t compete with that

Katie Thornton:
In Minneapolis, skyways became a given in any new construction. And impressed by the new indoor development and their sister city, St. Paul officials started developing their own city-run skyway system. Everyone wanted to be on the second floor, even classic downtown mom and pop shops and shoe shines, moved to the skyway level, and customers followed

Roman Mars:
Within a few years, the average downtown worker in Minneapolis and St. Paul, was spending twice as much money as their counterpart in other cities during their lunch break. In the skyways, it was just so easy to buy things uninterrupted. You could walk to the food court for lunch, get your shoes shined along the way, pick up a gift or a new watch, all without stopping for traffic or putting on your coat. The Cities had gone upstairs.

Katie Thornton:
But the skyways offered more than just a hypnotic ability to make workers spend more money.

James Garrett, Jr.:
Everything that you would have on the ground floor, was scattered throughout downtown at the skyway level as well, which was awesome.

Katie Thornton:
James Garrett Jr. Is an architect in downtown St. Paul, he lives and works in buildings connected by the skyways. And as a kid in the 1980s, the skyways were his happy place.

Roman Mars:
Or as James would say, his “awesome” place.

James Garrett, Jr.:
When I was growing up, there was a movie theater on the skyway, which was awesome. There was a park connected to the skyway, with indoor plants and trees and you could walk around and go up this ramp. And I mean, it was like a waterfall there and it was awesome.

Katie Thornton:
In the skyways, James would go to restaurants and pool halls and record stores, even a mini-golf course. And beyond just the shops and parks, James’ teenage architect brain was taken with the physical structures themselves. So after all the stores and restaurants had closed for the evening, he and his friends would meet up to explore every nook and cranny, finding the dead ends and the transfer points.

James Garrett, Jr.:
And we’re walking around, we’re seeing how far we could go before it ends. And then, can you get up and down? Do these doors open? How do you … you know, you’re just figuring out the system.

Roman Mars:
Even today, the skyways can be hard to navigate, but James and the other kids knew the system better than anyone. So when James was 15, they were actually hired by the director of the skyway YMCA.

Katie Thornton:
In the summer and on weekends, James and his friends would approach confused looking visitors with maps and pens and help them out. They had a booth, they even served as couriers, running packages across downtown through the skyways, with no street lights or icy sidewalks to trip them up.

James Garrett, Jr.:
There’s about 10 of us, another African-American kid, couple of white kids from West 7th Street, three or four Hmong kids, and it was like the best job ever.

Katie Thornton:
When they weren’t working or catching a movie, they found secret skyway spots where they could watch the buses come in from all different directions. And that came in handy, not just in the winter, but whenever they dressed up to go out for a party, during the hot muggy nights of summer.

James Garrett, Jr.:
And so you’ve got your brand new shirt on, you got your little gold herringbone chain with your name on it, and you’ve got your Fila sneakers or whatever, and you’re doing your thing. And you don’t want to be all sweaty and all that kind of stuff when you get to the party. So you knew that if you could get in the building, you could go up into the skyway, it’s climate-controlled in there. And when the bus that you were trying to get on was close enough, then you could run down the escalator and get outside and get on the bus in time.

Roman Mars:
James and his friends always showed up to parties looking unseasonably sharp, and it was all thanks to the skyways.

Katie Thornton:
James left for college in 1990, and he says he honestly didn’t give the skyways too much thought while he was away. After all, it wasn’t like they were going anywhere.

James Garrett, Jr.:
But I started to notice that by the time I came back in 1995, after I graduated and I moved back home, that I would go downtown or whatever, get in the skyway. And it was a different vibe and there was just fewer people. There’s just a lot fewer people and it was pretty dead.

Katie Thornton:
James noticed there were a lot more white collar workers than there were kids from nearby neighborhoods. There was also an increased police and security presence to the point where the skyways stopped being fun or even comfortable, especially for young Black men like James.

James Garrett, Jr.:
And it was more, everybody’s kind of watching their back and looking side-to-side and yeah, it just, it was pretty clear that it was just like, we have to make the skyways feel safe for suburban people, because that’s what ultimately it was for.

Katie Thornton:
And of course, it’s true. That was what the skyways had always been for. A way for property owners to lure people back from the suburbs, by replicating what was working in suburban malls like Southdale.

Roman Mars:
But back in the era of white flight, when the skyways were built, those suburban malls hadn’t been for just anyone.

Bill Lindeke:
Suburbs would have defacto covenants that made it almost impossible for a person of color to buy a home. And so, that sort of set the tone for how suburbs grew in the Twin Cities.

Roman Mars:
In the suburb of Edina, the very same place where the Southdale Mall was located, there were people who boasted as late as the 1960s, that the town did not have a single Black resident.

Katie Thornton:
But as the Twin Cities grew more diverse, James says the skyways were still trying to serve their original white suburban demographic.

James Garrett, Jr.:
And it was really, I think, in the nineties that the crackdown started to happen, maybe the mid-nineties, where it was made clear to us by the way that we were policed and by the way that the security followed us around and sort of profiled a lot of us, that we weren’t supposed to be there. It wasn’t really for us.

Katie Thornton:
Even in the “good years,” James says he and his friends were sometimes followed in stores, questioned by security guards, even shouted at over loudspeakers.

James Garrett, Jr.:
And so, there was this tension between knowing that we weren’t really wanted, but then sort of giving a middle finger to that and saying, “Well, I’m going to be here anyway, because I can be.”

Roman Mars:
And from the skyways inception, well before James and his friends started feeling unwelcome, the skyways had been keeping out a long list of other people who didn’t fit the white-collar suburban mold.

Bill Lindeke:
There used to be a really big skid row in downtown Minneapolis, that was located right by the public library.

Katie Thornton:
Bill Lindeke says that skid row was just one part of a historic downtown that’s now been largely forgotten. Popular with itinerant workers coming in from surrounding areas, it featured rooming houses, bars, and a large public park. But between 1958 and 1965, the same period when Leslie Park was building the first skyway just a few blocks away, the city of Minneapolis used federal money earmarked for urban renewal to get rid of skid row.

Bill Lindeke:
So the gateway urban renewal project basically leveled all of the buildings from First Street to six or eight blocks to the east. And without exception, every historic building in that area got torn down.

Roman Mars:
In the end, one-third of downtown Minneapolis was demolished, including the park, and replaced with more office buildings.

Bill Lindeke:
The other thing that was replaced with was lots and lots of parking. So, if you look at photos from this period, you’ll see one or two modern office buildings, and then you’ll see blocks and blocks of surface parking lots next door.

Katie Thornton:
And a lot of these parking lots were connected to the office buildings by skyways, meaning commuters never needed to set foot near a rowdy bar or a panhandler if they didn’t want to.

Bill Lindeke:
So the skyways were a place to escape the weather, they’re also a place to escape the old street life of downtown Minneapolis.

Roman Mars:
Once it was assumed that new buildings would be connected on the second floor, architects and planners began a long trend of designing away from parks and outdoor areas and toward indoor spaces. They turned their back on the street.

Katie Thornton:
Instead of facing the sidewalk, shops in new skyscrapers opened up on the inside, like at a mall. And since the Minneapolis skyways were privately owned, the developers had no obligation to be welcoming. The entrances to the system were often obfuscated in high-end hotels or expensive street-level stores.

Bill Lindeke:
People complained all the time about how it was hard to get in and out, but this was seen as a feature, not a bug, by many people in the skyway system, because it also kept out folks who maybe didn’t want to have in your office buildings or in your department stores.

Katie Thornton:
Every now and then architectural consultants hired by one of the cities would suggest ways to improve skyway access. But some property owners said easier entrances would bring the so-called “wrong element” into the skyways. Others said there just wasn’t enough money.

Allison Kaplan:
And there are multiple sketches through the years of staircases coming down to the street from the skyways that just never materialized.

Roman Mars:
If you went into downtown Minneapolis, you could see people walking directly above you, but often have no clue how to get up there. And even if you did make it into skyways, finding your way around could be an off-putting experience, if you weren’t a skyway person.

Allison Kaplan:
It could be a maze. And if you didn’t know how to get from the interior of one building with stores to another, you could be walking around in that maze for hours.

Bill Lindeke:
And there’s almost nowhere to stop or pause or rest, there’s very few benches. And there’s unwritten rules to the skyways as a result.

Katie Thornton:
Even today, stopping in a skyway to look out the window or get your bearings can result in the people behind you, walking right into you, because you aren’t really supposed to stop or else they might give you a look, as if you’re not supposed to be there.

Roman Mars:
In Minneapolis, the skyways have always been privately-owned, an agreement between two buildings landlords. So lingering too long in the passageway can get you cited for trespassing on private property. St. Paul’s system is technically public, but they still mostly connect privately-owned office buildings and shopping centers and are monitored by both private security and police. So in practice, the two cities’ systems have both grown to feel like restricted spaces that aren’t particularly welcoming to anyone besides the downtowns’ mostly white, mostly white-collar commuters.

Katie Thornton:
In one infamous incident from recent years, the St. Paul police stopped and tased a Black man picking up his two children from their skyway-connected daycare, for sitting on a bench in the lobby of an office building.

James Garrett, Jr.:
They literally followed him and chased him down through two different skyways and he wasn’t doing anything.

Bill Lindeke:
And that’s the fundamental problem with the skyways. Are they for everyone or are they just for certain people in the city?

Roman Mars:
And that fundamental problem hasn’t just impacted the people being kept out. Because over time, as the skyways grew less appealing to anyone who didn’t work there, anyone who didn’t work there stopped going.

Katie Thornton:
In the early nineties, fewer people began using the skyways to do weekend shopping or enjoy nighttime entertainment, just as building owners became less inclined to attract non-workday crowds. So James, back from college on school breaks, watched as most of the evening-oriented attractions, that he and his friends had loved, began to disappear.

James Garrett, Jr.:
The mini-golf place closed. The pool hall that used to play cool music, that place closed.

Katie Thornton:
Then the movie theater shuttered.

James Garrett, Jr.:
I think for me, that was just the one that I was just like, “Aw man, I can’t … closing the theater? What? You can’t do that.”

Katie Thornton:
Oh, and remember the indoor park, the one with the waterfall?

Bill Lindeke:
I also went there, I remember it fondly. It’s now abandoned and the glass ceiling is leaking and there’s a sign that says no trespassing, and they’ve sealed it off with a couple of cones. So, it’s all gone.

Roman Mars:
Today, the skyways mostly cater to the 9-to-5 crowd with shops that close by 6, and restaurants that serve only lunch. In Minneapolis, most of the skyways themselves close by early evening, and as for life on the first floor…

Bill Lindeke:
What’s left on the street below? You have your parking ramps, smokers, bus stops… Not much else to be honest.

Katie Thornton:
This might be the ultimate irony of the skyways. They were never intended to be equitable spaces, but developers had intended for them to save downtown retail, only the revitalization never materialized.

Roman Mars:
Because even if the skyways weren’t popular enough to keep people downtown in the evenings, they were popular enough to keep them away from street-level businesses during the day.

Katie Thornton:
Even on sunny days, hundreds of thousands of people would stay inside the skyways, and as more businesses move to the second floor, the streets below grew eerily still.

Roman Mars:
By the mid-1980s, 90% of St Paul’s retail was on the second story, leaving the first floor of the city gutted.

Allison Kaplan:
And then, the Mall of America opened.

Katie Thornton:
If Southdale Center was a disaster for the downtowns, the opening of the Mall of America in 1992 was like Armageddon. It was one of the largest malls in the world. As of today, it’s the largest in North America. And it attracted consumers in record numbers. This time, even Minneapolis’s most beloved fictional characters abandoned the skyways.

Roman Mars:
When the Mighty Ducks 2 came out, the new film featured a scene of the team rollerblading not through the skyways, but through the Mall of America, right in front of the mall’s very own indoor rollercoaster.

Katie Thornton:
Between the Mall of America and the moribund streets, a lot of the high-end shops in downtown Minneapolis couldn’t hold on. And the downtown closures have continued through the nineties, the early two-thousands, and up to the present.

Allison Kaplan:
Crate & Barrel and Polo Ralph Lauren and Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus and… They’re all gone, they’re all gone.

Katie Thornton:
The most recent big one came in 2017, when downtown Minneapolis’s last classic department store, Macy’s, also closed down.

Allison Kaplan:
Which is really a blow to have a downtown without a department store, right? Which is kind of like one of those, pillars of a city.

Roman Mars:
Losing Macy’s was an especially hard hit because it was housed in the building that had once been Minneapolis’s premier homegrown department store Dayton’s. The store had anchored downtown shopping since the early 1900s.

Katie Thornton:
Allison was so upset by the store’s closure, that she actually tried to save it. She publicly asked her friend Eric Dayton, whose family had owned the original store, if they would buy back the building and turn it into a modern mix of retail and restaurants.

Allison Kaplan:
And Eric Dayton responded on Twitter and said, “I will buy the building Alli, if you tear down the skyways.”

Roman Mars:
Tearing down the skyways isn’t something Allison can do. Technically, it’s up to all the individual property owners who have skyways connecting their buildings in Minneapolis. In St. Paul, it’s up to the city government. But in both cities, the process would be long, hard, and bureaucratic.

Katie Thornton:
But try telling that to Bill Lindeke.

Bill Lindeke:
We could flood them all and turn them into aquariums. That would be interesting.

Katie Thornton:
Bill thinks that unless they’re removed, the Twin Cities’ skyways will continue to wreak havoc on their downtowns.

Bill Lindeke:
I think the skyways harm the most appealing thing about a downtown, which is its density, its diversity, its connectivity and the idea that you could go there and discover something new. And it’s just so much harder to do any of that with the skyway system in place.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, there are plenty of bustling neighborhoods in the Twin Cities known for their culture, attractions and street life, even in winter. Proving that Minnesotans will spend time outside in the cold weather, if given a chance. They might even spend that time outside in shorts. Those people are crazy.

Katie Thornton:
But for now, people like Bill who want to tear down the skyway system, face a steep uphill battle, because, for all their faults, the skyways remain popular.

Bill Lindeke:
Very few people agree with me about this. You talk to people who work or live in downtown Minneapolis, or just visit from time-to-time, and everyone loves the skyways.

Roman Mars:
The lonely life of Bill Lindeke.

Bill Lindeke:
I’ve been trying to talk about it for years and years and years, and haven’t gotten very far with convincing people that they’re bad for the city, so I’m not super optimistic about it.

Allison Kaplan:
I’m very practical, and so my first thought was, I mean, “That’s not going to happen.”

Katie Thornton:
Allison Kaplan doesn’t see the skyways being torn down anytime soon, but she also doesn’t personally want to see them go. She does have critiques, but like the overwhelming majority of folks who work downtown, Allison isn’t ready to give up the perennial ease of the skyway system.

Allison Kaplan:
Let’s be honest, through the skyway, I can get to my closest coffee place in like two seconds. If I had to go down to the street level, that would take longer. So, it just becomes a convenience that people might understand, in the bigger picture, overall isn’t serving us well, but to give up that convenience, nobody wants to do that.

Katie Thornton:
And for some, it’s not just about convenience. For those with limited mobility, it can be a lot easier to walk in the skyways than on the icy sidewalks in the wintertime. So, many people within the disability community advocate for more and better access to the skyways, instead of tearing them down.

Roman Mars:
But perhaps the skyway’s most surprising defender is an architect, St. Paul’s own, James Garrett Jr.

James Garrett, Jr.:
On one hand, there’s the intellectual urban design trained architect side of me, that’s like, yes technically we’re not supposed to like the skyways and technically yes, they siphon activity and life off of the street and blah, blah, blah. But I think there’s a ton of potential.

Katie Thornton:
James knows the skyways, maybe better than anyone. He’s lived and worked in skyway connected buildings for years, so he knows they’re not perfect. He’s had white folks stop his sons and ask what they’re doing there. But unfortunately, he says, that’s not a problem that’s limited to the skyways.

James Garrett, Jr.:
I mean, that could be, we could be in any park and barbecue and have someone do the same thing or I mean, it could be anything in this country, in this moment.

Katie Thornton:
Which is why James believes that any solution to downtown’s problems, should involve the skyway system, not get rid of it.

James Garrett, Jr.:
I would love for someone to fill those bad boys up with activities and with people, with senior citizens, with teenagers and rethink and reimagine them.

Roman Mars:
So yes, they might not be the world’s best thought out piece of urban planning.

James Garrett, Jr.:
But as someone that grew up with the skyway and who’s raised kids that been in the skyway, having their strollers being pushed to the skyway or racing each other through the skyway, literally their entire lives, they don’t know any different. I see what the potential could be, and I think the skyways are deserving of some love and a second chance to be awesome again.

Katie Thornton:
So, whether we’re stuck with the skyways or someday, somehow they come down, it looks like we’ll only benefit if we try something we’ve never really done before. Designing the city for the city, in all its vibrancy, variety and splendor.

Roman Mars:
When we come back from the break, we’ll talk about how the segregated architecture of the skyways fits into our present moment of reckoning with police violence and racial injustice. Stay with us.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m back with Katie Thornton. Katie, you and I wanted to talk about how things like the skyways and divisive urban planning ties to this present moment with the killing of George Floyd and so many others, and the reckoning in the aftermath.

Katie Thornton:
So our city has been in really deep grief since the most recent Minneapolis police killing of Dolal Idd, and since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. And far prior to these two, unfortunately, these lives were part of a long history of police killings in my home city. So before these recent murders and corresponding uprisings, and especially after, I wanted to look at how divisive urban designs, like the skyways, intersect with policing in the Twin Cities. So I talked to D.A. Bullock. He is a filmmaker and a storyteller, community activist, and he’s a police abolitionist. And he moved to Minneapolis 10 years ago.

D.A. Bullock:
And I didn’t know a lot about Minneapolis. Prior to it, I may have visited once. I knew about Prince (laughs)… but there wasn’t a depth of knowledge about Minneapolis and the Twin Cities in general.

Roman Mars:
And a thing most people know about the Twin Cities is Prince and maybe the skyways, if my email inboxes is any indication.

Katie Thornton:
And Prince was part of this massively influential Minneapolis sound movement, which was led by a ton of different black musicians, which not everybody talks about as much. A lot of people think that the Twin cities are really white and homogenous, but that’s not true. And D.A. saw that right away when he moved here.

D.A. Bullock:
So what struck me first was that there was great diversity amongst the people, but I didn’t see that reflected in the downtown. You didn’t see the multiple Somali restaurants or the multiple Hmong restaurants, or those kinds of things, the touchstones we use when we think about culture.

Katie Thornton:
But the lack of diversity and vibrance downtown also has to do with security and policing, and not just in the Skyways. The problems totally extend to the streets as well. So D.A. and I talked about how there’s this sort of boogeyman of downtown crime. In a lot of the Metro areas’ imagination, downtown is a particularly dangerous place to be just walking around.

D.A. Bullock:
And then politically that’s always one of the red meat talking points is our downtown is not safe, even though the data really doesn’t back that up at all. It’s been the safest that it’s ever been and it’s been declining for years. And so every instance that they’re treating as the norm is really the exception.

Roman Mars:
This is the case for a lot of American cities. I mean, stats don’t support the idea of cities and downtowns being particularly dangerous places at all.

Katie Thornton:
Absolutely. And I do think it’s important to acknowledge that there has been a recent uptick in crime here in the past year, just as there’s been in a of cities. And I don’t want to minimize the crime that does take place. But up until relatively recently, crime had been on a steady decline for years and years in the Twin Cities. In 2018, many types of crime were at a 30-year low in Minneapolis.

Roman Mars:
And so why do you think that people continue to believe that these are particularly dangerous places?

Katie Thornton:
Well, I think it’s largely because of how the streets are policed. So that same year that a lot of crime was at a 30-year low, the Minneapolis police department started cracking down on things like loitering and spitting, like loud music and low-level drug possessions, things that happen all the time that can be very selectively enforced.

Roman Mars:
Like a speed trap. They could point to citations and arrests and fines of minor offenses and kind of create this narrative that the downtown was unsafe and that these actions were making it safer.

Katie Thornton:
Exactly. Even though, in the first place, there wasn’t really a problem that they were trying to address. And so sort of in the same way that the debunked idea of broken windows policing in places like New York City, opened the door for really discriminatory stop-and-frisk policies, something similar happened in Minneapolis. So for example, when this crackdown started, they did a series of almost stings to bust people for low-level marijuana possession. And 46 out of the 47 people arrested were Black.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God. I would say that’s unbelievable, but it is totally believable to me.

Katie Thornton:
I mean, that’s the painful thing about it. When you had those possession arrests downtown, not only did it give the false impression that crime was rising at the time, it also gave the impression that the people responsible for the supposed run-away crime were people of color, and Black folks in particular.

Roman Mars:
So how did the skyways fit into this picture of how downtown is policed? I mean, do we see that the skyways are something extension of what’s happening on the surface streets?

Katie Thornton:
Well, yes, but I also think that the skyways add to the fantasy and fear of imagined downtown crime. Because if someone is already afraid of the streets, they can avoid them and they don’t have to walk on the sidewalks where they might have conversations and get to know people and have their real-life experience prove the racist fantasy otherwise. And people are worried that they’re going to get mugged on the streets. And that’s ironic because one of the things that people in the skyways say is that the streets are too empty to feel safe. And it’s like, well, yes, in part, because the skyways have made them that way. So I think never going down to the street reinforces this cycle of unfounded fear, which is then even made worse by bias and violent policing.

Roman Mars:
So it’s like this vicious cycle between the built environment and policing. They just make a positive feedback loop that no one can break out of.

Katie Thornton:
Or a negative feedback loop. We see segregation ingrained in our built environment by things like the skyways, as well as things like the redlining that we mentioned in the story. And when police forces have been charged in part with safeguarding infrastructure and private property, that means they’re safeguarding that structural racism. And that sort of cooperation between urban planning and policing also plays out in another problem with downtown and Minneapolis’ urban planning. It’s something that D.A. and I talked about. And that’s the fact that for D.A. and his neighbors, it’s still really hard to even get downtown. So D.A. lives in North Minneapolis, which is where a lot of Minneapolis’s Black community lives.

D.A. Bullock:
And geographically, North Minneapolis and downtown Minneapolis are extremely close, within walking, biking, distance, close. So that’s one thing that really makes the other thing stand out, which is how difficult it actually is to get downtown, 10 times more difficult than the actual geographic space.

Katie Thornton:
So in a lot of other largely Black neighborhoods in the US, the north side has been cut off from downtown by physical barriers, and also really highly polluting barriers, like an interstate and an impound lot and a trash incinerator.

Roman Mars:
So despite that it’s really close, there’s no straight shot downtown from the north side. It’s all divided by something.

Katie Thornton:
Exactly. These big pieces of infrastructure. But in my conversation with D.A., we also talked about something hopeful, which is that people still do make their way to downtown Minneapolis. Because even though it might be pretty sleepy, people want to be in a downtown.

Roman Mars:
I remember James saying something similar. Back in the 80s, he and his friends just wanted to be downtown. No matter how difficult somebody made it, they were going to be downtown.

Katie Thornton:
Absolutely. And D.A. sees the same thing happening today, especially with youth and younger people.

D.A. Bullock:
Yeah, I mean, think about it. When you were young, you still found a way to do what you wanted to do. If all the action was happening somewhere else, you found a way to get there. And I think it’s still the bane of the city’s design is how do we deal with these young people or these houseless people? And all these kinds of things that they don’t necessarily say explicitly, because often those people are predominantly people of color.

Roman Mars:
So you mentioned that the D.A. is for abolishing the police in Minneapolis. But where does he land when it comes to the skyways? Is he like James Garrett, Jr., where he thinks they can be reformed? Or more with Bill Lindeke, where he thinks they should be filled with water and turn into aquariums? I mean, does he think that skyway should be abolished too?

Katie Thornton:
He didn’t have any hot takes on the aquarium question, but D.A., generally speaking, is more with Bill on this one. He thinks that there are some skyways, like in hospitals, that could stay up. But he finds the rest troubling, not just from a planning perspective, but from a symbolic perspective. Because when he came here 10 years ago, another thing he noticed right away was the skyways. And this is what he had to say about them.

D.A. Bullock:
Just physically, it’s such an intimidating dis-invitation. You immediately look up over your head and you see people literally walking above you. That’s not just a metaphor. That’s a real thing that seeps into your psyche of who belongs there and who doesn’t.

Roman Mars:
I mean, that’s the symbolism for almost the entire story, in a nutshell.

Katie Thornton:
Totally, that is the whole thesis. So thank you, D.A.

Roman Mars:
Well, Katie, this has been really eye-opening. Thank you so much for bringing us the story and for talking with me.

Katie Thornton:
Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars:
You can learn more about Katie Thornton’s work, including her original long-form essay about the history of skyways on Instagram @itskatiethornton or at her website, itskatiethornton.com. She’ll be sharing pictures and stories of specific skyways, including Minneapolis’ only used skyway, which got moved from its original location to its present-day one in a 1981 parade led by a vintage Rolls Royce, with a jazz band playing atop the moving structure. No seriously, you cannot make this stuff up.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Thornton, edited by Joe Rosenberg, mixed by Bryson Barnes, music by Sean Real. Delaney Hall is our senior producer. Kurt Kholstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Emmett FitzGerald, Katie Mingle, Christopher Johnson, Abby Madan, Chris Berube, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. We are a product of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco, and produced on Radio Row, which exists all around North America right now. But in its heart, it will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Roman Mars:
We are a part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best, most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Discover, listen and support them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. But we have pictures of skyways and clips of the Mighty Ducks and The Replacements. I know about The Replacement song. You can hold on to that email. I know all about it. It’s all at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Katie Thornton spoke with Bill Lindeke, Allison Kaplan, James Garrett, Jr., and D.A. Bullock. This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg.

    1. Catherine Steeves

      I too was going to point to Waydowntown. I loved that movie, it reminded me of living in Edmonton which has its own downtown network and Montreal where it is mostly underground.

  1. The Skyways are great, but there are a number of improvements that need to be made:

    1. There needs to be a skyway connecting downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul.

    2. There needs to be a lazy river installed that circulates through some of the buildings.

    3. There needs to be rickshaws to provide an easier and faster means to traverse the skyways.

    Once these improvements are made, the skyways will be truly first class!

    1. Jordan M Lockman

      Nice… There is the light rail connecting the downtowns that feels like a moving skyway.

  2. I believe the Calgary Alberta Canada skyway system is longer. Wikipedia seems to agree. They call them “plus 15s” because they are 15 ft—about a storey—above the ground.

  3. JEREMIAH ANDERSON-FERGUSON

    Katie Thorton,

    It was such a surprise listening to this episode and realizing how much I could relate to it.

    I currently reside in downtown Calgary, Alberta, Canada. A city in a province that is so conservative (the “Canadian republicans”), it would opt to separate from the country if it could. It’s essentially the Texas of the North.

    Anywho, the city downtown core also has a “Skyway” system we call the +15, that connects many buildings and blocks to shield those who reside or work downtown from the elements throughout the year.

    I always thought the +15 was a pretty unique system, but I also have my gripes with it in regards to how difficult it is to actually get around since not all blocks are connected/accessible and getting in and out of them can prove to be a chore if you are not familiar with the system.

    If you’re curious, here’s a map.

    https://calgaryplus15.com/

    I can also relate to this story in that it does feel like a bit of an elitist pathway of entitlement for those who work (well, worked, given the circumstances of the pandemic) in office buildings and retail stores, making it a culprit in what I would say is a divided downtown. Thankfully, the downtown core also has its own popular avenue that keeps people from avoiding the outdoors altogether during the not so nice weather, but that too seems to be fading a bit (or maybe that’s just COVID talk).

    None the less, now I want to visit more cities one day with these “skyways” and see how they compare. I personally wouldn’t want to get rid of the ones we have here, given I live in downtown Calgary, Alberta; but even I admit they could use some work and more connections to other blocks and simply better access to the roads themselves.

    Thanks for the lovely listen,

    A fellow Black Beautiful Nerd.

  4. John Heintz

    For a more balanced picture of “skyways” you should have a look at Calgary’s +15 system. Not perfect, but very much more successful than the picture you paint of the Skyways. Perhaps a more focussed picture of the architectural implications. For a more unbalanced picture you should check out the film Waydowntown.

  5. Venita Larson

    Check out what Florence Italy did with its skyway at least part of it. the sky way could be a part of the revitalization of the city if they are opened to everyone.

  6. Andy Meier

    Good luck getting rid of Mpls skyways. When it gets down to below 20 degrees nobody likes to or will go outside from building to building. Skyways are not the problem. The problem is how they are excluding or making specific people feel unwelcome. This is clearly a human behavior issue. Treat people with respect and you’ll be surprised. They also completely ripped up and reengineered Nicollet ave before our Superbowl a few years ago. I love walking from Peavy Plaza to Central Library but you couldn’t pay me to walk it in the middle of winter.

  7. Phillip

    For the first time since listening since episode one I am able to provide a correction. Not on the episode itself but on the photos that go along with it.

    The picture above in the paragraph starting with “James Garrett, Jr. is an architect in downtown Saint Paul” does not show a skyway in Saint Paul but rather a walkway between two parliamentary buildings in Berlin.

    The lower walkway is publicly accessible and called Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Steg, named after a member of Germany’s parliament during the Weimar Republic. The upper one is called Jakob-Mierscheid-Steg, named after a fictitious politician in the German Bundestag since 11 December 1979.

    References:
    * https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie-Elisabeth-L%C3%BCders-Steg
    * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_Maria_Mierscheid

  8. Just a heads up the 5th pictures down with the skyway above the waterway is in Berlin, Germany. Maybe you knew that but if you didn’t know, now you know. Also true what another commentor is saying, Calgary, Alberta in Canada had skyways for much longer, they were called +15’s for being 15 feet about the street level. As far as I know people still use them today without racial issue. I remember seeing a indie film about some people who lived in downtown, their apartments attached to the +15 circuit and made a pack to not go outside 2 weeks or a month. I’d have to google the name of it, but it was interesting.

  9. James Z

    Very interesting listen.

    It would be interesting to compare these skyways to the underground city in Montreal. I don’t know how extensive the Montreal system is in comparison, but there are a lot of buildings connected underground with quite a bit of shopping in the system.

  10. hushup

    The second I saw the topic of this episode, I thought of The Ergs’ “Radio K” which is the only other song I know that mentions the skyways.

  11. As someone who grew up in Spokane, WA, I could really relate to this episode. Spokane has had a similar system of ‘skywalks’ since the 70’s. As a kid, I loved exploring the system, discovering how far I could go without going outside. I worked in a sandwich shop on ‘skywalk level’ as a young 20-something and learned every corner of the system, but by that time it was already clear that the indoor second floor was killing the life of the sidewalks. You’d walk through silent, empty downtown streets, climb the stairs into the skywalk, and suddenly hear the sound of humans–mostly office workers getting lunch.

  12. Olivia

    I grew up in Des Moines, IA, which has a similar system. As a teenager I spent a ton of time just wandering the skywalks, particularly on cold days when my friends and I didn’t have any money to spend. At night they were empty and mostly unpatrolled. A strange, peaceful place. It certainly doesn’t accomplish what today’s planners want from downtown, but I there is a certain surreality to it that I always found interesting and valuable.

  13. I love the skyway when I am in downtown for conventions and sports games. Safety for the suburban folks that are visiting downtown is a factor. Downtown Minneapolis is going through a renaissance of people moving downtown from young adults to boomers. The skyway is great for them if they want to walk in the really cold winter.
    A good solution from a design perspective would be to find ways to integrate the skyway and sidewalk. This is done well in the IDS center and a couple of other spots, but can be applied across the system.

  14. J

    I found this episode to be disappointing. I grew up in Minneapolis, and have lived in the twin cities for most of my life. A lot of issues discussed in this episode were skewed to serve as culture war ammunition.

    The skyways ARE exclusionary, but it’s about professionals vs. everyone else. The professional workforce that fills the skyways are racially diverse. Claiming otherwise is just dishonest. If you don’t work downtown at a white collar job though, you will feel unwelcome. Racial problems in the twin cities aren’t due to white professionals not having enough interaction with other people downtown. Essentially all white professionals working downtown interact with numerous professionals from other races every single work day.

    The downtown garbage burner is not a “barrier” that prevents travel from north Minneapolis to downtown. It’s just a building. The only barriers hindering access to downtown are I94 and the Mississippi river.

    Yes, crime is down from its all time peak in the early 90s, but there’s still a lot of crime in the twin cities. No, street-level downtown Minneapolis is not the highest crime neighborhood in the twin cities, but it’s not low crime. Just look at a crime map.

    Street-level downtown Minneapolis is characterized by the roar of trucks and busses, constant construction, exhaust fumes from bumper to bumper traffic, aggressive panhandlers, sirens, and omnipresent slush and freezing temperatures for 4 months of the year. Forcing professionals to walk through the slush in their pumps won’t bring the city closer to some kind of urban renaissance.

  15. Jen

    San Francisco has a mini-system, the Embarcadero Center towers. Open air and somewhat open air, depending on the level. Along the buildings that look like books. Dying retail space, even 20 years ago. Always wondered why they connected the 2nd story over the streets, but I guess now I do.

    Useful in the winter to keep out of the rain while getting to the ferry building, but that’s about it.

  16. Stephen L. Miller

    The episode brought to mind Underground Atlanta which, if I remember correctly, had some similar considerations, possibly inherent in a sectioned off downtown business area.

  17. David Schumacher

    I waited the entire episode to hear a mention of the Replacements. Odd to leave out. Nice to see it here

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