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.
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.