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.