Minneapolis Skyways Offer an Escape from Reality

mpls skyway opening 1963“Since the first skyway opened in 1962,” Kim Ode writes in her piece on the expansion of the Minneapolis Skyway System, “the elevated passages have signified escape, whether from traffic noise, stoplights or the weather.” Yet there is another kind of escapism at play here: an escape from the demands of empathy, social responsibility, and beloved community.

Those who escape are the warm and comfortable, they who belong to the corporate, governmental, and educational institutions of the skyways. Indeed, through the Minneapolis Skyway System, you can stay cozy on your stroll from the US Bank Plaza to Macy’s, the US Federal Courthouse to the Minneapolis City Hall, and the University of St. Thomas to the Capella Tower. You walk above—both in elevation and social class—those who remain cold below. It is with those excluded from the system (in both of its meanings) in mind that I am writing to streets.mn, taking up Ode’s call “to examine the invention that made possible our second-story city.”

Urban planners have noted that Minneapolis’ skyways promote a segregation of populations. For instance, while the system is connected to parking lots and ramps, it can be difficult to find entry points on the street—a design that favors automobile rather than pedestrian culture, and thereby suburban commuters rather than downtown denizens. But a more pernicious kind of segregation looms—one along gender and racial lines.

The simple fact is this: Our skyways link institutions in which unjust discrimination against women and people of color remains.

Let’s look at the numbers. The Women in the Workplace 2015 study comments, “Women are still underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline,” and “women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership.” The Harvard Business Review writes, “Even as multicultural fluency is increasingly prized in today’s global business environment, the very people who represent that diversity feel shut out,” adding that “[m]ore than 35% of African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as 45% of Asians, say they ‘need to compromise their authenticity’ to conform to their company’s standards of demeanor or style.”

This discrimination continues in our government. Of the 201 seats in the 89th Minnesota Legislature, only 68 are occupied by women. Our state has never had a female governor. And as Tim Pugmire reported in a 2015 MPR story, “The Minnesota House and Senate don’t come close to matching the racial and ethnic diversity of the state’s population. The current roster of 201 legislators includes 10 minority group members, less than 5 percent, representing a state where about 19 percent are people of color.”

The discrepancies persist in universities, too. Dr. Kristen Ghodsee writes that at U.S. doctoral universities “nearly 61 percent of faculty in 2014 were men; only 8 percent of the women at those institutions were full professors, compared with 26 percent of the men.” And according to National Center for Education Statistics’ data on the 2013-2014 school year, 2% of the faculty at the University of Minnesota are Black, and 3% are Hispanic; while 3.8% are foreign-born.

I suggest here that just as the Minneapolis Skyway System connects a self-contained web of institutions—corporations, federal and local governments, and universities—so too are these institutions themselves “skyways” that connect to one another in an insulated, unjust, and discriminatory manner—too often leaving women and people of color “outside” in the cold.

Indeed, Minneapolis’ skyways allow us to escape the realities of the winter street, but there is something more demanding than the wind: namely, the face of the man who confronts the cold with only a jacket, who calls into question our high-rise help, our commitment to community. As long as we literally look down on him, the life in the sky will not be called into question.

I’ll conclude on a hopeful note. Young people—the millennials of the Twin Cities—can reshape our urban landscape. Facing the harsh, cold realities of the street just as we must face those of historical and continued gender and racial discrimination, we can tear down these “skyways” of injustice and rebuild our cities with imaginative and democratic bridges of community.


About Benjamin Davis

Born and raised in Minnesota, Ben Davis is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University, where he studies American philosophy and the mystic and activist Simone Weil. Beyond the academy, he's interested in poetry's generative metaphors, how space informs relations, and sharing really good espresso.

20 thoughts on “Minneapolis Skyways Offer an Escape from Reality

  1. GlowBoy

    Having moved to Minneapolis fairly recently, and occasionally a downtown visitor, I still struggle to navigate the skyway system at times, and in particular finding my way in. Many of the street-level doors that can lead one into the Skyways give little or no indication of the fact. I can be looking up at a Skyway from the sidewalk, and end up walking several blocks before finally finding my way in.

    It is almost as if the system is designed to discourage entering it from the street. Which, ultimately, is what you must do if you’re not arriving via an elevator from a parking garage reached using a private automobile.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Okay, so we’re restarting the skyway wars (I never did do my defense of skyways post…).

    Let’s begin: this article is built on assumptions that may not hold.

    You’ve defined skyway users as “corporate” and “favor[ing automobiles.” As to the former, have you got any data for that? Or we’re just going to assume that the office buildings are on the skyway and thus the officer workers are “corporate?”

    Because I use the skyways every weekday, and when I lived downtown, not infrequently on the weekends. There are plenty of officer workers, but they are by far not the only ones. Again, I’d love to see some actual numbers, but to my eyes the crowds in downtown skyways are about as diverse as you’re ever going to find in Minnesota (much more so than I saw that Fair this weekend, for example). Then again, I work in an office.

    Of course, one of the funny things is that building owners/operators actually occasionally say they don’t want clearer connections to the street because they don’t want the wrong people to get in. That’s appalling, but it also seems directly backward. Young people with time on their hands and the homeless can figure out how to get around the system. It’s not that hard. The relative inaccessibility really keeps out infrequent visitors, who you’d think downtown businesses would want to accommodate.

    As for “favor[ing] automobiles,” I’m not sure I see that, as to me (and others I know who live(d) downtown), skyways helped facilitate a car-light lifestyle by providing a way to get around on foot in all conditions. This afternoon, for example, I went for a half hour walk that would almost certainly not have happened if I had to be outside in the humidity.

    I will grant you that we have historically pared our skyways with street supremacy for cars, but that’s changing as we re-orient the system a bit more toward pedestrians and bikes (still have a long way to go).

    As for who you will encounter in the skyway, well, you might find the African American young man who used to sleep in a corner that isn’t covered by a security camera. Or the man in the torn grey fleece (he’s got a new one now but I can’t remember what color), who seemed to spend all day every day walking around (because I’d see him all the time at different times of the day). Or the lady with the colorful scarves who’s always carrying at least two reusable grocery bags. Or the group of native people who’d shelter overnight in the skyway by the Gateway Ramp on cold nights. In other words, there are all kinds of people in the skyway if you bother to look.

    Which is not to say that skyways don’t have all kinds of discriminatory issues. As private or semi-private places, people who are not welcom, who are far more likely to be people of color and the poor, can be excluded by the property owners. That fosters segregation. But it’s quite as stark as you make it seem.

  3. cobo Rodreges

    I think this culture of framing every piece infrastructure as class/race warfare is toxic. We need to focus on how to make things gradually better leveraging existing development not point fingers and sneer.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      IMO, an argument like this isn’t saying that the infrastructure is intentionally perpetuating inequality. Rather that many of our decisions — e.g. a zoning ordinance with large minimum lot sizes, school district boundary rules, a freeway route, transit funding — have effects that are very meaningful to worsen or improve social inequality. I agree with Benjamin here that skyways increase social and class stratification and inequality in downtown Minneapolis, which, to me, is a critically important public place for bringing Minneapolis and the region together. If our downtown looks and acts like a privately controlled fortification, it often makes problems worse, or at the very least, helps us ignore them.

  4. Kevin H

    I disagree with this entire article, although it’s a nice bit of rhetoric. However, I must address the observation here and in other articles about the skyway on this site: that it’s somehow hard for pedestrians to find their way in. Here’s the handy method that I used way back in my junior high school days, and STILL SEE many people of all classes and types using:

    1) Look for a building on the skyway system.
    2) Enter that building.
    3) Go up to the second floor. Follow the signs if necessary.


    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      That doesn’t always work. For example, the ground floor doors of the Baker Center complex are locked early – maybe 5, 5:30 or something – while the skyway level is still fully accessible. (I’ve tried to get in when it was raining). Or maybe you enter and can’t find an easy way up to the second floor. Or your’e trying to use the stair from the sidewalk on the Thrivent skyway and encounter the door that’s locked to the street (it’s exit only).

      Anyway, obviously it’s not super hard to get into the system, but it’s hard than it should be. At minimum, buildings with skyway access should be marked at the street level and have signs directing people to the skyway access point. That’s just basic usability, which we haven’t done.

    2. GlowBoy

      Hi Kevin, that’s a drastic oversimplification. I have a particularly excellent sense of direction, a pretty good internal map of the downtown street grid at this point, so if I’ve sometimes had to walk extra blocks to find my way into the system I’m far from the only one.

      That works with many buildings, and not with others – especially as you get towards the fringes of the skyway system. Not all buildings on the skyway system have street level entrances that are welcoming to the public, not all of them provide an easy way to find the second floor, and many of them have multiple entrances serving different businesses, not all of which connect easily to the skyways.

  5. Emily Metcalfe

    For a long time I did not realize that the skyways were open to the public. I thought they were for people who worked in downtown office towers. I did not know there were shops and restaurants in the skyways. Because I never went in.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      That’s another thing: there is almost no outside signage for skyway level businesses. Which is weird, because you’d think those business owners would really like passersby on the street to know they exist.

  6. James WardenJames Warden

    The Skyways are some of the best “streets” in Minnesota. You’ve got crowds of people from all classes bustling about the same corridors — everyone from minimum wage workers to corporate executives. People mingle, have spontaneous conversations, shop and eat. They don’t just facilitate walking; they make it seem odd if you don’t walk. Skyways check off most of the boxes for what we say we want from a good street. Don’t hold it against them just because they’re a floor above the asphalt.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Any theories on why Portland (upon casual observation) seems to have thriving downtown retail and we don’t? More downtown residents (I have no idea)? More/better transit connections? Or is it all lack of skyways?

        I think about the area around my office in DC – in the West End if that means anything – or long the infamous K Street, and there were a lot of daytime only businesses (especially lunch places). Basically just the high end restaurants and the ubiquitous CVSs were open for evenings and weekends. The financial district of lower Manhattan felt the same way. Meanwhile not all the far away, in areas where more people live, more businesses were open for evening and weekends.

    1. Will

      That shopping and other activity, by and large, ends at 2 or so. Yeah, there are a few outposts still open past that point, but it dries up between then and everyone going to their block or garage of choice.

      1. Will

        I should add that there may be something to making the skyway more accessible. (Does HTML work in the comments? Guess I’ll find out.) Open more hours, uniform hours, with services open beyond the work-a-day type that is most of the system. And easy wayfinding.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Any city with a lot of commuting workers will have a relatively high proportion of daytime-only business (e.g., breakfast and lunch places and convenience stores). Until we have a significantly greater downtown population, I think that’s inevitable.
        Significantly better evening and weekend transit service would probably help too.

  7. mplsjaromir

    I have a slight disagreement about what this article is critiquing. Capitalism in of itself is the problem. The businesses and institutions you describe are not merely unrepresentative of society’s population, rather capitalism and its cohorts are rotten beyond mend.

    Up the proletariat!

  8. Angela M.

    So how about those of us who use the skyways because they have fewer accessibility problems than the sidewalk? How about those of us who prefer it because, in the skyways, we are less often harassed, insulted, and grabbed at by men? I don’t work downtown, but I pass through it every day to use the bus system, and to do things like go to the library, grocery shop, or go to the bank.

    I didn’t see a lot of “empathy, social responsibility, and beloved community” when I was being taunted and harassed at a bus stop on Hennepin last week for no reason other than having the audacity to be a disabled woman out on the sidewalk. It’s not the first time. Nobody in the vicinity could be bothered to say anything, of course, because people never do. It’s always somebody else’s problem.

    But, hey, I guess I should just take one for the team, since taking away my safer place to walk and making it more physically punishing for me to run my errands would supposedly somehow fix systemic gender inequality. Fell on your face trying to cross the street because nobody shovels the curb cuts? Oh, well. Somebody kicked your cane out from under you because that sidewalk café narrowed the sidewalk so much that there’s no room for people to walk in both directions? Too bad; that’s the price we pay for a utopian society. Some guy grabbed you in a crosswalk for the third time this week? Stop being such a crybaby, we’re building *real* community down here.

    For someone who’s concerned about looking down on people, you’re sure looking right through a lot of us as if we aren’t even here.

    1. robsk

      Angela, thanks for sharing your personal story. We need real-life reminders to keep us in touch with our true problems. Too often, idealists and ideologues get caught up in surveys, stats, and movements to see the whole picture.

      On another note, James made an important point about skyways: “They don’t just facilitate walking; they make it seem odd if you don’t walk.”

      Skyways aren’t an escape from reality, they are an attempt to improve the realities we face. I’m more familiar with Duluth’s skyways than Minneapolis’. In Duluth, these elevated and protected sidewalks are generally liked by the community.

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