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A Walk on the West Side

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 8:26pm
We live on the east side of Northfield, a few blocks from Carleton College, where my wife started working in 1990, and right on the edge of downtown Northfield. It’s a quarter mile down to Just Food Co-op, and EconoFoods is even closer. It’s faster to walk down to The Hideaway than to make a pot of coffee at home in the morning. As I write this, it’s been three weeks since the car left the garage. We walk everywhere.
Ames Mill from the Fifth Street BridgeMost of my walking in town has been done here on the east side, but a walk early last week took me out of my east side comfort zone and into the less familiar territory of the west side of town. Setting out from home at about 10:00 on an early spring morning, I headed west down Fifth Street, crossing Division Street and stopping briefly on the Fifth Street Bridge to look across at Northfield’s iconic Ames Mill. Then, at the corner of Fifth Street and Highway 3, I had wait for the light to change. I pressed the button for the pedestrian signal, and an insistent voice told me to wait.
Crossing Highway 3 at Fifth StreetNorthfield is split down the middle by Minnesota Trunk Highway 3, which extends roughly 45 miles from Faribault in the south to Inver Grove Heights in the north. But until the early 1960s, there was no Highway 3, and the division between the east and west sides was less starkly defined. Buildings and businesses ran along both sides of Water St. north of Fourth St., and along both sides of Fourth St. west to the railroad tracks. The opening of Highway 3 in 1963 created a four-lane barrier between the east and west sides of town.
Unconnected sidewalk on Odd Fellows LaneOnce the light changed and I crossed the highway, I continued along the sidewalk on the north side of Highway 19 (Fifth St.), past the Malt-O-Meal factory, to the end of the sidewalk on Odd Fellows Lane. This is one of a number of places in Northfield where the sidewalk abruptly and inconveniently ends: another failure of connectivity. But there are many places where as a pedestrian I don’t feel inconvenienced by the lack of a sidewalk. Many of the residential streets are wide enough and the traffic volume is generally low enough that I can walk in the street without feeling endangered. But there are other places, such as along Woodley Street, where the lack of sidewalks is inconvenient and even dangerous for pedestrians.
The lack of a connecting sidewalk on Odd Fellows Lane is no more than a two-block inconvenience, and soon I was back on the sidewalk along Forest Ave., heading for St. Olaf College. My walk would take me around the St. Olaf campus, then back down and out Cannon Valley Drive, past the Northfield Retirement Community, to the city limits at corner of Cedar Avenue and Thye Parkway.
When we moved to town in 1990, this corner of Northfield was still a cornfield, but in recent years residential streets have been laid out and upscale houses have cropped up in place of the corn. Home prices in this neighborhood generally run between $200,000 and $600,000. But less than a mile-and-a-half walk away (less than a mile as the crow flies) is the poorest neighborhood in Northfield: the Viking Terrace mobile home park. The population of Viking Terrace is primarily Latino, generally poor, frequently undocumented. The mobile homes are in small, close together, and in various states of repair. On a Tuesday morning, the neighborhood was quiet. I passed two older men standing outside one of the trailers, conversing in Spanish.
Houses around Liberty ParkViking TerraceIn between these two neighborhoods is Greenvale Park Elementary School. The entire west side of Northfield west of Highway 3 and north of Highway 19 is included in the Greenvale Park attendance district, and Greenvale Park is where the children of relatively affluent Liberty Park should mix with the children of Latino immigrants who live in Viking Terrace. But this isn’t always the case. In 2012-2013, Greenvale Park accounted for 46% of the loss of students from the entire school district through open enrollment, leaving a school where 42% of the students were living in poverty and 23% were learning English as a second language.
What the entire west side has in common, though, is the lack of unimpeded pedestrian access to downtown—to the grocery store, the public library, the coffeeshops and businesses that are within easy walking distance for me. Heading home from Viking Terrace, I walked down Spring St. to Greenvale Ave., where Spring St. narrows and the sidewalk disappears. If I had chosen to turn left on Greenvale and walk home along Highway 3, I would have found no sidewalk on the west side of the highway, and no safe crossing to the sidewalk on the east side.
A combined pedestrian and bike trail (the TIGER Trail) was first proposed as part of a multi-modal transportation study in 2009 as a means of re-connecting the west and east sides of the city. But opposition to the rising cost of the project has stalled the TIGER Trail in City Hall. 
I have to admit that I felt a little nervous walking through Viking Terrace, knowing that I was a minority there, imagining that a strange white man snapping pictures with his camera might be viewed with suspicion. I felt acutely that I didn’t belong there. But I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve walked down cul-de-sacs in more upscale neighborhoods on the east side. Cul-de-sacs don’t invite recreational walkers like me. No one who enters a cul-de-sac is “just passing through,” because by definition a cul-de-sac doesn’t lead from one place to another. Anyone who enters a cul-de-sac must either belong there, or have legitimate business there, or must not belong there.

For the most part, our streets are designed for the convenience of motorists and the privacy of residents, not for the communion that comes from walking and encountering each other on foot. This has been the most interesting part of walking around Northfield (255 miles as of today): this strange feeling of not belonging.

Sidewalks and trails alone won't change people's habits. They won't, on their own, cause a decrease in obesity or an increase in neighborliness. But they do create an infrastructure for that kind of change. They can make connections possible that weren't possible before. 
7.66 miles on Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Categories: Citizens

Dallas Crow Poetry Reading and Sidewalk Poetry Documentary

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 8:49am
If you live in Northfield or nearby, you're invited to celebrate National Poetry Month with a poetry reading by Dallas Crow this Thursday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m., at Monkey See, Monkey Read. Dallas is a 1988 graduate of Oberlin College, teaches English at the Breck School in Minneapolis, and in 2013 published his first poetry chapbook, Small, Imperfect Paradise (Parallel Press). You can read an excellent review of the chapbook at Verse Wisconsin Online. I'll be opening for Dallas with a short selection of my own poems. Copies of our chapbooks will be available for purchase and signing.

Dallas has also contributed a poem to St. Paul's sidewalk poetry project, which is the model for Northfield's sidewalk poetry project. I currently have three short poems stamped on Northfield sidewalks, and in 2013 I served as a judge for the sidewalk poetry competition. Local filmmaker Paul Krause made a documentary about the 2013 Sidewalk Poetry Contest, which is now available in its entirety.


Categories: Citizens

Complete Streets: All of Northfield on Foot

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 11:21am
In 2009, Stephan Bossert embarked on his quest to walk every street in Minneapolis. He took along his camera and the walking stick he needed since shattering his femur in a motorcycle rickshaw accident on vacation in Cambodia. As of October 2013, he had walked 80 of Minneapolis’s 87 neighborhoods. His walks are recorded in photographs posted on his (public) Facebook page.

Walking the West Highland Way.  July 2011.I started to get serious about walking in August 2010. Early each morning, before the sun was up and the temperatures had started to climb, my wife and I walked out to the James Gang coffeehouse for a generous house cup of medium roast (currently $1.95 with a free refill), a round trip of just under 4 miles from our front door. At the time, I was about 25 pounds overweight, and at my most recent check-up my doctor had been concerned about my cholesterol levels. By April 2011, after months of almost daily walking and cross-country skiing, combined with improved eating habits, I had lost 40 pounds. My cholesterol level was no longer a problem. My blood pressure and resting heart rate had also improved significantly.
In early July, my wife and I travelled to Scotland, where over seven days we walked the hundred-mile West Highland Way and climbed Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. But most of my walking has been done on the streets of Northfield, Northfield. So I was interested when City Council Member Erica Zweifel suggested that I follow in Bossert’s footsteps, so to speak, and set out to walk every street in Northfield. It seemed like a perfectly realistic goal.
I experienced a setback in my walking last March, when a serious skiing accident in the Arboretum sent me to Northfield Hospital in the back of an ambulance. But now I’m back at full-strength, and since the second week of March 2014 I’ve walked 235 miles—almost entirely on Northfield city streets (except for weekly walks out to Dundas to enjoy a pastry at Martha’s Eats and Treats).
I suppose there are various ways of going about the project of walking every street in Northfield. For example, I could be obsessively systematic, as I tried to be when I took this 11.56 mile walk on March 18, starting on the east end of First Street.

When I described this route to my friend Christopher (who in January completed a 135-mile bike race through the woods of northern Minnesota in record cold temperatures), he told me I was crazy. Coming from him, I took that as a compliment.

Northfield is a relatively small city, and at my current pace (40-50 miles a week), I could walk every street in a fairly short time. Most likely, I’ll proceed at a leisurely pace, choosing a section of the city to walk and incorporating it into one of my longer daily walks. Many of my walks will retrace ground I’ve already covered (like the walk out to Martha’s), but gradually I’ll fold in previously untrodden parts of Northfield. And from time to time, I’ll blog about my walks here.

Coming soon: A Walk on the West Side
Categories: Citizens

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