Tales from Saint Paul Alleys

alley painting 38th

Alley in Minneapolis painted by John Sauer.

When people comment that there really are no differences between Minneapolis and Saint Paul there is one thing I can tell them that always makes jaws drop: Saint Paul does not plow its alleys. It is the responsibility of each block to figure out how to get its alley plowed.

Seriously.

Want to see neighborhood politics at its best? Jump into a Saint Paul alley plowing battle. For the last eight years I have been a bystander to the action, nodding in sympathy with the combatants because I had a corner lot without alley access so I was not expected to pay. I recently moved from Hamline-Midway to West 7th and have alley access. Here are stories from the front lines of Saint Paul’s Alley Battles.

West 7th – Bayard Avenue

My new next door neighbor, Jim, told us that our alley was not plowed for years. Jim has lived in his house for 25 years and has been the organizer for nearly all of it. He inherited the job when he bought his house, which happens on other blocks as well according to this Pioneer Press article from 2010. After not being paid for several years, he quit having it plowed about ten years ago. Then, he wanted it plowed, so three years ago, he started paying the $350 per year himself. He appreciates donations, but about half of the households do not pay. He used to work to get people to pay and it led to resentment and frustration. He did not like feeling that way about his neighbors so he does not put much effort into collecting the money. He decided that paying for the alley plowing was his way to contribute to the neighborhood.*

When I asked other neighbors, I found that having a single, long-time coordinator was not common across the neighborhood. Many other blocks have a rotating coordinator with terms of only a few years. One person on Palace Avenue said that the job moves around the block with each household taking it on for two years. I asked whether some people just ignored their duties, and she said they have never had a problem and always have the alley plowed. During her term she collected while Trick or Treating (another thing I have heard before) and nearly all households contributed.

Hamline-Midway – Blair Avenue

Blair Avenue has had some good alley battles, but the plowing has mostly gotten done. There was one plow coordinator for 20 years, Barb, who was also the block club organizer and all-around go-to person for neighborhood issues. About five years ago, Barb wanted to retire and Tricia took over. Barb used to go door-to-door and collect, but that got to be a problem with the growing number of vacant buildings and rentals. Tenants often expect landlords to pay for alley plowing, but the plow coordinator has no way to contact landlords, and many phone calls to landlords who do not live in the area go unanswered. At one point five buildings were vacant, which increased the costs for everyone else.

The “big battle”, however, was due to Big Truck Dude (not his real name). Big Truck Dude lives in the center of the block. Not only does he not pay, he dumps the snow from his driveway and yard into the alley, creating a big mound of snow in the center of the alley. One winter, mid-snow event, the plow guy walked (or drove) off the job because this mound damaged his equipment. The alley did not get plowed for about a month while Tricia frantically looked for a new contractor willing to take on this mess. She did and was happy to find a plow contractor who bills each household himself. The new plow guy sends each household an invoice for $30 and only plows if he collects at least $360. The alley has been plowed each year since he took over, so his more official-looking billing must bring in at least twelve households.

A side effect of the Plow Battles can be enmity between neighbors – those who pay and those who do not. Not that Big Truck Dude was the most neighborly man prior to the snow dumping incident, but it serves as an example of the antagonistic relationships that can develop. Often, it is more of a passive-aggressive slow burn of resentment where the not paying households are not included in block parties or alley breakfasts.

Highland Park – Rome Avenue

Lisa has been alley coordinator on her block for three years. Each household pays $35. She volunteered, but now admits she wished she had not. She goes door-to-door each October and leaves a bill with directions to drop a check in her mailbox. She says half the households pay immediately, but she has to track down the remainder. The previous coordinator sent out email lists saying who paid and who had not, but Lisa was uncomfortable with this form of public shaming. She is thinking of starting it back up again because it was more effective than her method. She still gets almost 100 percent compliance in the end, but it is a lot of work.

The challenge on her block are the corner households. Unlike my previous house which was not abutted by an alley on any side, these houses have garages that are along the alley but the garage doors face the north-south street. The owners argue that they do not use the alley and, therefore, should not pay for its maintenance. The previous alley coordinator used her email lists to literally highlight in red that these people were not paying, but Lisa has just let it go. She explained that you can’t make grumpy old men do things they do not want to do, and it is not worth the hassle for $70.

Hamline-Midway – Thomas Avenue

Luisa’s block has never been plowed in the nearly ten years she has lived there. She attributes this to Thomas Avenue being a busier road so neighbors are not as close as some other blocks, and the larger share of apartment buildings and four-plexes on the block. She does not know if there has ever been a coordinator, and she has never been asked about plowing. Her house is on the corner, so she and her husband use their snow blower to clear from their garage to the entrance of the alley.

Alleys are often plowed earlier and more cleanly than streets, but, like Luisa’s, some are never plowed. Having a good sense of which alleys are plowed well and which ones are not is one of the secret handshakes and hidden short-cuts that any good Saint Paul bicyclist knows, because they can be a great alternative to poorly plowed streets. For years I biked to work from Hamline-Midway to downtown Saint Paul via Frogtown. It seemed to me that large sections of Frogtown were never plowed, while most of Hamline-Midway was. In the winter I would snake through alleys in Hamline-Midway and then go down to University Avenue once I hit Frogtown and its unplowed alleys.

Given the larger proportion of rental housing, multi-unit buildings, and vacant buildings in Frogtown, this observation makes sense. There are no data about how many alleys are plowed and if it varies by neighborhood. The Pioneer Press article claims that nearly all alleys are plowed, but my observations have not found that to be true. And sometimes it appears that a single person is taking on all the work (like the 70-year old who does his alley with a snow blower in the PiPress article) or cost (like Jim, my new neighbor).

Not a City, But Neighborhood City-States

When asked whether plowing should be done by the city, most of the people I know say that it absolutely should. They see it as a basic public service that increases safety and access for emergency vehicles. They note it could probably be done more cheaply by the city than block-by-block negotiations with an army of guys with pick-up trucks, where some blocks pay as little as $250 and some pay over $700. They are concerned about the environmental costs and impact on the streets from so many pick-ups driving around. They also want to make sure all areas of the city are plowed, not just well-organized blocks with mostly owner-occupied buildings.

On the other hand, if neighborhood Facebook pages are indicative of anything, many people like things just the way they are. Private plowers get the work done more quickly than the city, and do a better job. They like having to get to know your neighbors and say that organizing plowing leads to other organized activities like block clubs (alley plowing as the gateway drug to National Night Out?). One woman remarked that her bill ($17) has not gone up in more than a decade and she was certain the city would increase fees more often than that. Some people simply did not see the need to change a system that is working, even if it is not working for all parts of the city.

To me, this feels an awful lot like the garbage collection debates. If you live in Saint Paul, how does your block handle it? If not, be careful if you buy a house here because you might unknowingly inherit the job.

* We donated $25, in case you’re wondering.


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32 Responses to Tales from Saint Paul Alleys

  1. Melissa December 1, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    Garbage is also private in St. Paul, and the alleys do not have streetlights unless residents pay for them. I was plow lady on my block in Highland for years (I also arranged for the streetlight and convinced everyone to use the same trash hauler to minimize noise and alley traffic). I can’t count the number of times I got stuck with the plowing/streetlight bill. It was a royal pain and I am glad to live in Minneapolis now where these services are part of the package.

    • Dana DeMaster
      DanaD December 1, 2015 at 11:07 am #

      Yep. Tricia, the alley coordinator on Blair, has a street light in the alley that is on her household’s electricity bill. No one ever believes that.

      I tried to coordinate our block into a single garbage carrier. It lasted about six months and was very difficult to set up and maintain. People were suspicious about what I was doing, like I was working for a certain carrier. People move and it was hard to get new people involved, especially when Waste Management had a deal with some of the realtors. Others would forget about the deal and change carriers when there was a sale.

    • Matty Lang
      Matty Lang December 1, 2015 at 11:54 am #

      Interesting. I hadn’t noticed the lack of a street light in my alley. Most garages have motion triggered flood lights on them so I guess that’s why I didn’t notice.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary December 1, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

      Street lights I’m somewhat sympathetic to leaving up to the homeowners, since that is actually handled pretty well by private residents. My alley in Richfield also has no street lights (except at the intersection with the street), but every house has a motion light, and a handful of people have lights on timers that stay on all night anyway. I have been tempted to shell out for paying for the street light (a few bucks a month), but I’m also more pro-lighting than the average person.

      Garbage is worse, and I agree there is a lot of inefficiency (and unnecessary damage to the streets and alleys) created by multiple garbage companies going through.

      But neither of these compares to snow! Because while it’s less-than-ideal of my neighbor has bad garbage service, it’s not nearly as obtrusive to me as their portion of alley not being cleared.

      I think St. Paul needs to offer a plowing service for a uniform fee, and allow people to opt out if they really prefer having their private removal.

  2. Wayne December 1, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    So wait, does St Paul offer *any* municipal services you’d expect from a real city? No wonder parking meters are such a stretch over there in the suburbs.

    Only half-kidding, though. It’s bizarre that these kinds of services that are pretty standard for any town over a certain size are just left up to residents in St Paul.

    • Dana DeMaster
      DanaD December 1, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

      On the flip side, I have found that if you want something special for your block – Paint the Pavement, a roundabout, speed humps – the city really doesn’t care. There is no committee or rule or process or long-term plan. Just raise the money and get a certain percentage of neighbors to agree and you can have your speed hump or roundabout.

      • Wayne December 1, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

        Hm! That’s also really intriguing. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, because in some ways having things hyper-local like that can be great if you have people that care. But I also worry that it would breed provincialism and a ‘we got ours’ mentality that might lead to exclusionary problems, or well-organized well-to-do areas getting better treatment because they have the luxury of free time and resources to get those kinds of things done. Maybe there are some things that it makes sense to leave in the hands of residents directly, but I just feel like it’s another way that poorer areas probably get screwed.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman December 1, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

      I suppose it can be assumed St. Paul doesn’t plow the sidewalks either, so homeowners have to hire their own contractor or else do it themselves.

      The alley lights thing- that’s why Minneapolis had cobrahead lights in the alleys- they’re considered city street lights, and why other cities have NEMA bucket lights when someone pays for one- they’re considered private area lights.

  3. Nathanael December 1, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

    All of this stuff should be public services. All of it. If you can’t get the entire city involved, make “special districts”.

    Out east where I live, most cities have rules where the sidewalks are supposed to be plowed by individual homeowners. It doesn’t happen. Eventually the cities and towns will get sued for ADA violations and forced to do it themselves. Streetlights are always public (with special “streetlight districts” with their own taxes since some areas have no streetlights).

    Garbage is public in some cities and not in others. I live in an area with private garbage haulers — there are only two so it’s nearly a monopoly, and both of them have outrageous prices relative to my low garbage production. So I just drive my trash to the waste transfer station myself. If I had city pickup included in my property taxes, I’d use it. So there you go, bad policies generating more cars on the road.

    • Wayne December 1, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      Don’t forget the economies of scale of having one large provider for everyone vs. several smaller providers with overlapping service areas. Duplicative services will drive up costs just as fast as competition might drive them down, but with duopoly or small group prone to collusive behavior you’re going to just end up with inferior service at higher prices (like you have). Also, at least when a city is negotiating a contract it probably has (barring any significant corruption) a better chance at getting a good deal than joe public paying for his trash individually.

    • Justin December 1, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

      Heh, so much for the “private industry should control services” argument from the right. Expensive and uneven service. Literally stinks.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary December 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

      Cities are not legally responsible for homeowners failing to clear their sidewalks. Although, generally, I think snow is something not well accounted for in the ADA.

      It makes somewhat more sense to expect homeowners to clear sidewalks, since the cost is greater to plow, and the practicality of the homeowner clearing it is much greater. Plus sidewalks (especially in commercial areas) often have unique obstructions, like lamp posts, newspaper bins, benches, etc that make many of them difficult to clear with a large city plow.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini December 2, 2015 at 8:30 am #

        It would be nice if sidewalks had wide enough berth that a small vehicle with a blade or brush could clear a walking path without obstructions. I suspect 90%+ of the linear feet of sidewalks in Minneapolis & St Paul meet this definition; most residential street sidewalks do not have poles or benches or mailboxes, they’re in the boulevard. Commercial areas (and a few streets without boulevards) are the exception. Still, your average sidewalk is probably more difficult to get down to bare concrete with a plow owing to the frequent heaves at joints or tree roots.

        In light of that, you could make the case that since sidewalks will require much more labor per foot of sidewalk to clear than streets where a (more expensive) plow can just buzz through, it’s good policy to defray the costs to individuals who (mostly) don’t bear actual labor costs – homeowners just have to spend time/effort and buy a shovel. On the other hand, we routinely value citizens’ time savings in dollars for transportation improvement. Why do we pick and choose when saving people’s time is worth it vs. when it’s not? And, in a city where a large number of properties are rentals, condos, or commercial – necessitating paid labor to clear sidewalks – why isn’t that taken into consideration?

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary December 2, 2015 at 8:56 am #

          I think the reason for me why sidewalks seem more acceptable than streets or alleys (besides the logistics of clearing with a machine) is that property owners already have to clear a lot of “sidewalk” — any walks internal to the property. At a minimum, that’s from the curb to the front door, but many properties also have walks around the side, walks to the back driveway/alley, etc. And for the sort of typical SFH residential situation, they have to clear a driveway, which is a much more arduous task than a long-but-narrow sidewalk.

          Although for some folks, as you note, there is a real labor cost, the marginal cost to time or money is pretty minimal to add it to the work you’re already doing within the property.

          On the other hand, an alley would be much harder to clear one-by-one — you’re left with a 12′-wide point where one person’s responsibility would shift to another, motor vehicles drive over and pack down the snow, there’s limited space to stack the snow, etc. And of course, one “big truck man” and the system would fall apart. For most pedestrians, it is possible to get through a single uncleared lot. Admittedly, there are some (elderly or disabled) for whom that is probably not true.

          I’ve seen in Richfield some unforeseen consequences of expecting the city to clear all walks. Public Works tends to be reluctant to adding sidewalks in all but the most desperate of situations, largely because it becomes a significant ongoing expense for the city. New sidewalks are made 6′ wide, which is really unnecessary on many minor streets (5′ had been the standard), but they do to make it more efficient for plowing equipment. For streets that have a lot of driveway cuts entering the sidewalk zone, the plowing job is not very good, as it can’t handle that “grade” change very well. It’s nice for major bus and school routes to get it all cleared in one pass, but it is not a system that scales well.

          • Alex Cecchini
            Alex Cecchini December 2, 2015 at 10:13 am #

            All good points. (as an aside, the comparison to drive time savings is still reasonable since we do the calculation down to the second, marginal time amounts on a total drive). I’m not really in favor of city-provided sidewalk clearing in the general sense, just kinda sick of dealing with un-shoveled sidewalks (and I say that as an able-bodied youngish person). I’m open to ideas on better enforcement, etc to get people on top of it.

            • Wayne December 3, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

              I’ll second your sentiments. I’m extra grouchy about the sidewalk shoveling even though I’m able-bodied. It makes me furious because if it’s annoying or difficult for me, it’s got to be impossible for anyone who is disabled, or even just not as spry.

              I wouldn’t put a lot of hope in the enforcement basket, though, because it literally takes an entire winter of harassing 311 and making threats to take the issue to your councilmember to get them to shovel a property with an absentee landlord that doesn’t shovel it.

              The people they pass the issues off to will bald-faced lie about it and say the sidewalk was fine when they checked, even when it hasn’t been touched. They’re super quick to close the issue though, so you have to continually reopen it and open new ones, only to have them also closed with lies about it being cleared. After about 5 tickets (with pictures!) being closed across 3 months (on a very well-trafficed stretch of sidewalk in a pedestrian overlay district), it took me telling them I was forwarding the issue and the tickets to my CM and the mayor’s office for them to actually verify it wasn’t shoveled and dispatch a crew. It was so late in the winter the snow mostly melted a couple weeks later. It was my pyrrhic victory of last winter.

              So given the fact that the city is loathe to even dedicate minimal resources to enforcement, I’d rather see them forced to take responsibility for it directly and charge property owners or put it on the city budget or whatever it takes for us to be able to hold them directly responsible for bad sidewalks.

              • Adam Miller
                Adam Miller December 3, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

                Meanwhile, downtown, sidewalks are pretty uniformly clear. Wonder why?

  4. Dave DuJour December 1, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    St. Paul doesn’t plow it’s alleys? Or handle garbage pickup? And people are okay with this?

    If the streetlight is on my private electrical bill, does that mean I can disconnect it because I don’t want to pay that bill (that my property taxes should be covering!)? Turn the light to shine somewhere else? Cut down the pole because I want to expand my garage? I’m paying for the alley to be plowed too, why can’t I just make my garage bigger to take up that space?

    Having driven down some St. Paul streets in winter, I wonder if the city even owns plows.

    It is astonishing to me to find out that the City of Saint Paul doesn’t provide basic city services to it’s residents.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary December 1, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

      You can in fact have it disconnected if you don’t want to pay for the bill. You’d just tell Xcel you no longer want that service. Obviously, you can’t modify the pole (since it’s the general utility pole that serves everyone’s electricity).

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman December 1, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

      If you don’t want to continue paying for a light, just tell them that you no longer want to and they will come over and disconnect or remove it. The light and pole aren’t your property so you cannot mess with them; you’re renting them. If you want the light moved but continue to pay for it, they’ll likely do it; they’d probably grumble less if they had to come out anyway to replace the bulb.

      In case anyone’s wondering here are the residential rate schedules for “automatic protective lighting”
      100 Watt Area Lighting ………………………………………………………. $7.34
      250 Watt Area Lighting …………………………………………………….. $11.64
      250 Watt Directional Lighting ……………………………………………. $12.62
      400 Watt Directional Lighting ……………………………………………. $16.12

      Normally for an alley or a backyard a 100 watt area light is what you want.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman December 1, 2015 at 6:03 pm #

        A 100 watt high pressure sodium lamp gives out about as much light as a 500 watt incandescent. The 250 and 400 watt models they probably offer them to residents because they’re the same products as offered to businesses so why not, but they’d be seriously bright for backyards and alleys; they’re what’s used on major streets and freeways.

      • SR December 2, 2015 at 8:33 am #

        I want the light in my alley GONE. It is awful. It just glares into everyone’s yards. The lights on my garage do a better job. I asked XCEL, they said the city owns it, I asked the city, they say XCEL handles that. I’m not paying for it, but someone is. When I find them….

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary December 2, 2015 at 8:59 am #

          I think they’re both telling the truth. If it’s a cobrahead-style fixture, it probably is the legal property of Xcel, but installed at the request of (and billed to) the city. Most of the cobrahead lights in Minneapolis and many suburbs are under this arrangement.

          In this case, it would be up to the City to remove it. They may also be able to install some sort of guard around the edge of the cobrahead that reduces spread/glare.

          • SR December 2, 2015 at 10:27 am #

            This is St.Paul. We have 3 lights on our block. Two are yellow tint sodium vapor. The offending light over my yard is a HP Mercury vapor ‘oil can’ style. I asked about painting the lens and was told that they won’t do that anymore. I’m considering a BB gun.

            • Monte Castleman
              Monte Castleman December 2, 2015 at 10:48 am #

              If it’s a mercury vapor light in the alley, it’s being leased by one of your neighbors, owned by Xcel, and the city has nothing to do with it. If the bulb gets broken when your BB gun went off when you were cleaning it, they’ll just come over and put in a new bulb that could be twice as bright (most non-incandescent bulbs get noticeably dimmer over time, loosing half their brightness before burning out. Newer area lights use the same fixture design but with a different attachment; a dome shaped reflector rather than an open bucket refractor, in order to make it full cutoff, but I doubt you’d be able to get them to come out and swap it out.

              • SR December 2, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

                A quick phone call to Xcel street lighting got me no where. Apparently it’s confidential who pays for the light, even though the damn thing is on my property. I asked if they can at least paint it out or change the trim, but I’ll have to ask the mysterious person being charged for it to call them for changes. BB gun it is.

        • Ed Davis December 3, 2015 at 2:55 am #

          Let the motion detector lights do the job. Have less light pollution!

  5. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang December 1, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    I just watched the guy who plows the alley on the block across the street push a load of snow from the alley into the middle of the street. It’s great over here in the wild, wild, Saint Paul.

  6. Joan Pasiuk December 3, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Husband and I have coordinated alley plowing on our block for a long time. Per household share is $18. We contract with Tree Trust, a nonprofit based in Mpls that does amazing youth development and environmental work. The plowing is reliable and professional. Never a problem. Please spread the word about this service.

  7. Mike Mason December 4, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

    In the 12 years we’ve been in Como, there are block by block plowing, but I’ve never dived too deep into figure out how to organize, as I have a dead end alley.

    Usually, not an issue… but some winters I’ve had to dig out my van to get the kids from school. However, I did hear from the city that you can call if a neighbor is dumping snow from their garage roof into the alley. Little weird… but they were responsive.

    This morning, it was a lovely ice rink to walk my bike through.

  8. Wolfie Browender
    Wolfie December 9, 2015 at 10:08 pm #

    Very interesting article. We’ve had the same neighbor collecting money since we moved here in 1993 (thank goodness!) I don’t believe he’s ever had a problem with getting our neighbors pay promptly. He arranges everything, even calling the plowing company if the alley isn’t cleared properly.

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