The St. Paul Skyway: Public Space or Scrutinized Lobby?

[Part of the Saint Paul Field Guide to Public Spaces, put together by a geography class at Macalester College in fall 2018. See introduction here.]

by Luke Sageser

Take a walk through the skyways at noon on a weekday, and you get the impression that you have stumbled into a hybridization of a mall, an apartment complex, and the waiting area of your local bank. The crowds hum as people criss-cross building complexes, making their way to food courts and cafes. This is the idealized skyway system- a street above the street, where the public can go to carry out errands and have lunch with their friends without having to brave the Minnesota winters. Look a little closer, however, and you will find a sort of counter-current running against this conception. The skyway code of conduct is posted on both sides of every causeway, warning against loitering in or obstructing the ‘avenues’ amongst the shops. Signage prohibiting sitting in certain areas abounds. CCTV cameras are ubiquitous, their presence often explicitly noted by placards with bold, capital letters. In just a few hours time, the reason for the existence of these proclamations becomes clear.

No Sitting or Loitering

By one o’clock the crowds start to thin as the lunch hour comes to an end. By 3pm, shops start to close. As the last few stragglers depart from their post-work fitness classes and the halls become silent and empty, the question on everyone’s mind is “What, exactly, are you doing here?”

It’s a reasonable question. Most people who are familiar with St. Paul’s skyway system are aware that its principle raison d’etre is to function as an attractive amenity for downtown office workers on their lunch breaks, particularly during the colder months of the year. Outside of those hours, when all the shops are closed, the general perception is that the skyways are only populated by the homeless and other societal outcasts. These are the elements that the signs and security cameras seek to control. Private security guards and St. Paul police alike work to move along those who do not appear to belong; backpacks and shabby clothes are a surefire way to ignite their suspicions. Hours of operation have been limited to better control access to the space. The result is a space that feels less like a second street, and more like a scrutinized waiting room. The population is permitted to travel to and fro in order to patronize private establishments, but the moment one stops and lingers the clock starts to tick. A person visiting the skyway after hours without a clear purpose is automatically seen as suspect. Because there isn’t really anything to do in the skyway outside of its relatively short business hours, the attitude seems to be that existing in the skyway after hours just isn’t allowed.

This constant suspicion can lead to violent overreactions, like in the St. Paul taser suit. For the unaware, the suit concerns Chris Lollie, a black man who sat in a chair in the skyway to wait for his children at their daycare. He was asked to leave by a private security officer who said he was not permitted to sit in the lounge area, despite it not being labeled as employee or customer only seating. When he refused, the police were called, who tazed Lollie repeatedly despite his cooperation. Later, all charges against Lollie were dismissed and Lollie sued the city. The main point of contention in the suit is whether or not the lounge area Lollie was sitting in was public or private space. This kind of ambiguity over one’s right to occupy the skyway all but ensures that it remains an unattractive place for the public to be apart from during the workday lunch hour.

Skyway Warning Sign

Some of you may read this and think “So what?” For many, the skyway functioning primarily as a workplace amenity and being strictly controlled outside of business hours might seem ideal, if not essential to ensure that the space remains safe and clean. Many feel the skyway is already unsafe and welcome more thorough patrols of police and other security measures, which are seen by most I spoke to as inadequate to protect the people who live in apartments connected to the skyways. I spoke with one group of apartment residents who felt the need to create an informal apartment safety patrol armed with pool cues, tasers, and in one case, even a sword after being attacked outside of their complex. They regularly waited hours for police to respond when large groups of non-residents congregated around entrances, making residents feel unsafe. Under circumstances such as these, it’s easy to see why people might think that the intense amount of scrutiny placed on after-hours visitors is a good thing. However, it is my view that this approach towards skyway management all but ensures that the skyway will spiral deeper into this dynamic of bustling during the lunch hour and dangerous at all other times.

Let us address the fact that the current measures of security do not actually guarantee safety. If a person is assaulted in the skyways, the only purpose that signs and CCTV cameras will serve is aiding in the prosecution of their attacker after damage has already been done. Private security officers, whose role is largely hands-off, are only marginally more helpful. If someone is attacked in their presence, outside of calling 911 there is little they can do. Your only options in such a scenario are to wait for police to arrive or defend yourself, like the apartment residents I spoke to chose to do. This example illustrates why this excessive presence of security-focused features is seen as undesirable in a space and corresponds to a one in our model. These features don’t make people feel safe, they nurture a feeling of anxiety and out-of-placeness that discourages use.

Skyway ChartFew will seriously argue that the only options to ensure safety after hours in the skyway is to flood it with police in every causeway or condone regular patrols by civilian vigilantes. In fact, the skyways serve as their own example of why such actions are unnecessary to ensure safety if you simply observe them during the lunch hour. The skyway doesn’t feel safe from noon to one on weekdays because it’s swarming with cops or because every lunch-goer is carrying a weapon; it feels safe because it’s well-populated with large numbers of fellow citizens lending a sense of social protection to the entire space. If one were to be attacked during the lunch hour, there’s a strong level of confidence that someone else around would immediately take note and intervene. My rating of the skyway for animation is a reflection of this. The animation of the space during the lunch hour garners a five, but its emptiness after hours reduces it to a three.

We have to address the fact that in a city where temperatures regularly drop well below zero, the skyways are always going to be an attractive place to be for St. Paul’s homeless or home-insecure populations. In this way, the skyway system has taken what should be an inherent advantage it has as a space over the city streets and turned it into a liability. Early closing hours, lack of use, and hostile levels of control and scrutiny all work together to make the skyways an entirely unpleasant place to be for everyone but the desperate. If we want the skyways to feel as safe as they do during the lunch hour, we should focus on broadly increasing its levels of animation throughout the day rather than constantly working to limit access and use outside of one specific time.

Part of what makes this goal difficult to realize is the skyway’s physical configuration, which I rated two out of five. The skyway bridges connect to privately owned buildings, through which avenues of public space run to connect to the other bridges. The privately owned businesses are required to keep these floors open and allow for public access, but have little to gain financially for doing so. The awkward combination of public and private ownership results in the private elements hiring on the bare minimum of security personnel to just keep people moving along. What you end up with is a space no one wants to take responsibility for, so instead, the hours of operation are cut.

Making the skyway a more consistently animated and vibrant place would be good for its health as a public space. There is also local interest for it, too. The apartment residents I spoke with formed their defense group did so in part because they refused to give up their ability to safely use the space after hours. Members waxed nostalgic about the days where they could walk through the skyways at the dead of night to visit a convenience store, and railed against the police force for responding to their fears about safety after dark with suggestions to just stay inside. This type of use should not be discouraged. It would make the skyways a greater utility for all of St. Paul’s residents and it is also the fundamentally more responsible thing for the city to do in order to ensure a safe environment for its citizens. The extreme over-scrutiny of those within the skyway creates a threatening and dangerous environment for the city’s most marginalized. It led to the unnecessary and brutal assault of Chris Lollie, and it’s foolish to assume this kind of scenario was a one-of-a-kind occurrence. The excessive control placed over the skyways after hours boils its users down to some of St. Paul’s most marginalized groups, such as the homeless or home-insecure, which are disproportionately people of color. This basically ensures that the majority of encounters both private security and city police officers have with skyway users are hostile confrontations with minorities, creating the perfect breeding ground for another assault on an innocent person.

This cultivated environment of bias is not limited to the police; it prompts a more prejudiced view amongst skyway users as well. The vigilante group I’ve spoken of was a reaction to an environment created by the current method of controlling the skyways, and it’s important to note the group’s use of coded language when describing the sorts of people they were watching out for. All the members of the vigilante apartment watch that I spoke with were white, and they described the groups of youth and non-residents that they were concerned about as “ghetto,” as well as suggesting that these suspect parties might be using the bus systems to come to the skyway from places like East St. Paul and Frogtown. We cannot continue to police the skyways in a way that prompts such racialized interactions. If we are serious about designing our public spaces in a way that is democratic and just, our conception of the skyways needs to become more open, and less controlled.

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11 Responses to The St. Paul Skyway: Public Space or Scrutinized Lobby?

  1. Casey April 29, 2019 at 10:30 am #

    <>

    How would YOU describe the sort of behavior exhibited in the above video of a fight taking place at Town Square?

  2. Anon April 29, 2019 at 1:15 pm #

    Concerned with a potential slip hazard from a recently mopped floor, young citizens rigorously test the floors for traction then relocate the cautionary yellow “Wet Floor” signs accordingly. Around 0:52, a gentleman falls on the wet floor: one gentleman offers him a helping-foot to stand back up, while two of his friends can be seen rushing over with wet floor signs to make sure the hazard is clearly marked.

    Later the video is posted on the internet to make some indiscernible point. Most wisely ignore the troll, but the dog whistle perks Anon’s ears, so she takes the bait and counter-trolls.

    • casey1110 April 29, 2019 at 1:47 pm #

      What dog whistle?

      I actually don’t disagree with much of the article regarding ho to fix issues in the skyways, but I DO disagree with people plugging their ears and singing “I HEAR RAINDROPS BEATING ON MY HEAD” when confronted with anti-social incidents.

  3. John Charles Wilson April 29, 2019 at 2:56 pm #

    Downtown Saint Paul used to be busier. The World Trade Center, Town Square, and Galtier Plaza were all well used. What happened?

    The spot where the guy had trouble with the guards for sitting and waiting for his kid to get out of day care, the City Attorney ruled its open to the public, yet there are tiny placards on the tables even now saying seating is reserved for building tenants.

    I have back pain if I stand or walk too long without a break. I now avoid downtown Saint Paul to avoid trouble.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller April 29, 2019 at 3:03 pm #

      One cold day this winter I took Tiny Baby (now a toddler) for a walk in the St Paul skyways. As we approached that spot, she decided she wanted to sit and made use of that seating. I noticed the placards, but the guards didn’t say anything to us. Don’t have to wonder why.

    • Monte Castleman April 29, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

      Probably the same thing that happened to the Conservatory (although according to a shopping mall developer I talked to said that one had a design flaw in that there was no atrium for you to see stores that weren’t on your level), City Center, and Gavidae Common. These all opened just before the shopping mall crash of the 1990s and 2000s.

      To the extent that people still shop at malls there’s no reason to drive downtown instead of Mall of America or Rosedale, and the lack of free parking is an enormous deterrence to doing so. I’ve never gone to either downtown for the purpose of shopping and the last time made a purchase downtown was when I was on jury duty in the 1990s. As for downtown workers if you look at the freeways it seems the first thing on their minds is to get out of downtown as fast as possible back home to their families rather than staying and shopping.

      And while the local population while dramatically increasing in the downtowns, I’d assume they want something different than regional mall stores. Things like a Trader Joes instead of an American Eagle Outfitters.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller April 30, 2019 at 10:28 am #

        Yeah, if you’re driving past shopping options anyway, there’s no particular reason to shop downtown. I do because a trip to a suburban shopping destination would mean another trip (and because I want to support downtown retail). The trick for selling to downtown workers is selling things they want to shop for during the day. Most obviously that’s lunch, but it’s surprising to me how few downtown pharmacy’s we have, as in other cities, picking up a prescription is a daytime thing (maybe we just have so many drive through options in the ‘burbs).

  4. Frank Phelan April 29, 2019 at 8:18 pm #

    Some want to get people out of the skyways and onto the sidewalks.

    Some want to get people into the skyways.

  5. jack April 30, 2019 at 8:19 am #

    If you put a chair out, someone is going to sit in it. I used to do retail merchandising, and sometimes I’d set a chair next to a grouping of mannequins and use the chair as a riser for displaying a handbag/pair of shoes that would go with the mannequin’s outfit. Inevitably, some slob would push the accessories on the floor and schlump themselves down into the chair. One time, someone sat themselves down at a vignette I had set up set up for a breakfast display, which included a slice of toast in the toaster (I had shellacked the bread to preserve it). Not only did some creature disturb my carefully curated selection of dishes, linens and flatware, but they had taken a bite out of the “toast”! I was incensed!

    I hope they choked on that bread.

  6. Rich April 30, 2019 at 1:34 pm #

    I use the St Paul skyway at least 3 or 4 times a week, morning, noon and evening. I agree, it’s a different place during non-work hours, but I’ve never felt threatened. My biggest concern is related to homeless use of the skyway. I’m not against it, but there are few amenities to support this so you have public urination or worse. And because ownership is private, it can get a bit nasty before clean up. When my daughter was going to school in Olympia, WA we used a public restroom in a waterfront park. It was built for abuse with stainless steel everywhere. It was cleaned multiple times a day and never locked. How hard would it be to provide basis sanitation facilities for the homeless?

  7. Dave May 1, 2019 at 11:12 am #

    Your solution is to make the skyways busier during non-lunch hours. Brilliant. So explain how to do that and maybe all of downtown St. Paul can follow suit. Until then, policing the skyways is as absolutely necessary as policing any other non-skyway area in downtown St. Paul.

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