Editor’s Note: One of the missing voices in bicycle planning in the Twin Cities is college students. This series aims to include the perspectives of a generation that is much less likely than their parents to own vehicles. The authors are Macalester students enrolled in the “Bicycling the Urban Landscape” course. The overarching objective is to provide intellectual and active engagement with bicycling, including understanding transportation politics, equity, bicycle culture, local, national, and global trends in bicycling, and steps toward increased bicycle mode share locally and globally. This piece was contributed by Valerie Hallberg.
Minneapolis’s Midtown Greenway in a lot of ways reminds me of a similar space in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. The Dequindre Cut, a greenway that provides a locale for urban biking and walking in Detroit, also resides in a former railroad corridor. Both the Midtown Greenway and the Dequindre Cut are urban green spaces that improve the accessibility for bicycling in Minneapolis and Detroit respectively, and remain exciting additions for the communities that they serve.
There are, however, a few key differences between the Midtown Greenway and the Dequindre Cut. The Dequindre Cut, less than half the length of the Midtown Greenway at only 2.0 miles long, is used primarily for recreation rather than commuting. The Midtown Greenway, used by commuters year-round, is a much busier bicycling hub. However, what interests me most is something I saw simply by looking at the two greenways’ visual presentations. The Dequindre Cut is known among pedestrians and bicyclists alike in the Metro Detroit area for its public art and commissioned graffiti, which work to bring local and often unseen art into the eyes of a public that has historically misunderstood it. Rather than remove pre-existing graffiti and street art, the creators of the Dequindre Cut have attempted to make the space more inclusive to all members of community by commissioning even more of it. I propose that the Midtown Greenway would benefit greatly from a push for installations by local Minnesotan artists who use the greenway already, and especially from artists whose work would further encourage local communities across the corridor to engage with the Greenway.
Pictured below are a couple of examples of public art on the Dequindre Cut, the first a mural and the second commissioned graffiti.
Both images from the Dequindre Cut show examples of large scale art pieces that can provide interest and beauty to the landscape of the urban greenway. Public art such as this along greenways serves to engage the community, creates aesthetically rich and diverse spaces along the greenway corridor, and tells local history from the point of view of local communities themselves. This is manifested in art works by artists who may even use the Greenway themselves, making works about the place where they grew up and what it means to them to have the Greenway for transportation and recreation within that community. I think the example showing a commissioned graffiti piece is especially relevant in this conversation, as in general pre-existing graffiti is often painted over when greenways are put in. Commissioning graffiti shows the community that graffiti is a valuable form of communication within a community as well as challenging visitors to the Greenway to consider the Greenway as an open space where non-conventional art may be celebrated.
I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how the green space created by bicycling paths such as the Midtown Greenway interacts with the community it’s positioned in, and how the introduction of a greenway fosters gentrification of urban areas. Within this discussion, many voices acknowledge a fear that this gentrification will bring in a “creative class” while simultaneously pushing out current residents who will no longer be able to afford to live near the greenway because of a rise in property values. While I am not suggesting that public art can fix this problem associated with gentrification, I do believe that an increase in commissions for local muralists, graffiti artists, and others will ameliorate the engagement of the greenway with the communities it runs through, creating an element of the space that residents can identify with and hold on to. Public street art from local artists living in pre-gentrified neighborhoods in particular provides a unique opportunity to lift up communities and make their voices heard.
One example of gentrification along the greenway I’ve seen is in Minneapolis’s Uptown area, pictured below. Along the Greenway bicyclists and pedestrians have a view of newly constructed apartments or condominiums, and the area has seen a growth in the number of restaurants and businesses moving in. I believe public art becomes even more important in the midst of gentrification efforts because the work of local artists will often celebrate the history of an area, either by telling the stories of immigrants, minority groups, former or current industry, and/or the environment. Telling these stories in the form of public art is an inclusive gesture, and encourages not only for the communities it is relevant for to use the Greenway, but also for the people who already use the Greenway to consider the history of the space they are occupying in the present.
Currently, the Midtown Greenway hosts “Shoes and Benches” an installation of brass shoes along the Greenway by artists Greg Ingraham and Teri Kwant. This installation, pictured below, offers Greenway users public art that is interactive and meaningful. No matter whether a bicyclist or a pedestrian, the shoes are a reminder that the Greenway is a public space, open to everyone to use and enjoy. However, despite this reminder, this installation has also worked to discourage people from lingering on the Greenway, with the design of the installation physically directing engagement with benches. This impact of the art piece makes it arguably less inclusive.
There is hope for more art on the Midtown Greenway. The Midtown Greenway Coalition raised funds this year, including a matching grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, to commission a new mural by a local artist of color. This would be a notable addition to the Greenway, and gives hope for more art that can be enjoyed by the public using this space. Their website also reveals an initiative to advocate for more art on Greenway, called the ArtSpace Committee, which is looking for more members. I would also argue, however, that the Midtown Greenway has room for much more art than it currently holds, and will be looking forward to seeing more installed in the future.