On Thursday, October 24, the Minnesota Vikings played a home game against a semi-professional team from Washington, D.C. Sometime the weekend after, Steve Arundel, a fan from Wayzata who attended the game, wrote about his experience to the Star Tribune. On Monday, October 28, Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal reporter Nick Halter noticed the letter in his newspaper, tweeted it out, and it went locally viral.
Here’s the letter to the editor that the Strib published:
It’s easy to see why this letter generated ridicule. It leads with the implausible claim that it took the writer and his wife nearly two hours to travel a journey of roughly 12 miles from their home to the seats. He concedes to leaving the event — for which he likely paid hundreds of dollars to attend and experiences just once a year — well before it was over. The underlying premise that downtown Minneapolis is struggling is belied by the area’s increasing residential population and employment. Finally, his letter is a full bingo card of “OK boomer” tropes: a strong nostalgia for the city of his youth and a vague discomfort with youth of today.
Hey, I laughed at the letter, too. But you also have to appreciate how fine a simulacrum it is of the cognitive dissonance that shapes the built and social environment of our cities. It’s generally not good praxis to write thousand-word rebuttals of random letters to the editor, but forgive an exception. This one deserves 10 more minutes of consideration about what it says and where that perspective leads.
#1. The most obvious irony to the letter’s story is that the writer had moved far away from Minneapolis, and yet expected the convenience of speedy travel to the city’s amenities. Wayzata isn’t the countryside, but it’s pretty close. You would be hard pressed to move farther west from downtown Minneapolis and still retain some of the character of living in a metro. In between Wayzata and Minneapolis are four large towns with a combined population of over 200,000 and little reliable transit access. Some significant percentage of those folks were going to the game, too. The writer’s own choices and the similar choices of hundreds of thousands of others were primarily responsible for the traffic he encountered.
#2. There’s also the strange idea of spending a significant amount of time and money to attend one game a year, making a significant but unsuccessful effort to arrive early, and then leaving after only three quarters to beat the traffic. It’s striking how cars can impoverish our social experience. We attend events less frequently because driving to them is such a chore. We leave events early because we don’t want to spend too much time driving from them. Transit can impose limitations on social activities as well, but the easy solution is to run better transit service. For cars, the problems are intrinsic.
#3. Once the writer and his wife leave the game in order to “avoid the end-of-game crowd,” they immediately feel uncomfortable as a direct result of that choice. They don’t know the right way to get back to their car without running into street reconstruction. They feel harassed by groups of young men (although we’re given no concrete example of what these young men did to be so menacing). Had they traveled within a happy purple post-game crowd, they would have been less likely to take a route that was under construction, and they would’ve had no issue with strangers.
This problem occurred because their two modes of transportation — walking and driving — are best in exactly the opposite conditions. The walking experience is best when others are walking with you. The driving experience is best when you are driving alone. By driving from a distant suburb into downtown for the game, Steve and his wife were forced to accept either a pleasant walking experience or a pleasant driving experience but were foreclosed from enjoying both.
#4. That fundamental contradiction is why it’s so frustrating that Steve concludes his letter by placing the blame for his poor experience on the City of Minneapolis, instead of taking responsibility for his own choices. How should the city address his complaints? It could attempt to make his experience driving into the city much smoother, but that would require a lot more construction, which he protests, and would devastate the pedestrian experience. Or, the city could attempt to make his pedestrian experience more pleasant, but that also would require a lot of construction, plus removing or repurposing the parking ramps and wide streets that make his driving experience possible.
A third strategy, at least a partial one, is possible. The City of Minneapolis could police away the discomfort. Although nobody says it outright, I doubt I am alone in suspecting that the writer and the editors who chose to publish his letter would prefer this remedy. Why else refer to Eighth Street as a “war zone” (a term that implies destruction and violence, and doesn’t seem to fit an idle construction site)? What about this story is actually noteworthy besides the instance in which “groups of young men” allegedly harassed him and his wife? And why else would the editors title the letter “Downtown Minneapolis: It’s scaring away lifelong residents” if the emphasis of the complaint was primarily about traffic and road construction?
Steve’s letter does not reveal what, exactly, made the experience of him and his wife so threatening and unpleasant, especially with the people they encountered. I have certainly been harassed downtown (and I’m a young white guy). I have also heard horror stories of downtown Minneapolis from suburban and exurban relatives and acquaintances that ring far more of prejudice than of truth.
What is clear is whose stories and concerns are heard, and whose are not. The Star Tribune’s editorial section has been working itself into a lather over downtown crime all summer, aided by a couple of sensational and unusual incidents. Nobody would claim this is not a problem (to my knowledge no “pro-crime” faction exists). But there are many possible responses to this issue, and it matters where they come from. The voices that the paper’s editors choose to publicize, starting with their own, are disproportionately suburban and well-off. It is no surprise that the locus of this discussion has centered around further empowering the police — a disproportionately suburban and well-off group of people. How would this conversation be different if the primary speakers were downtown crime victims? Or former perpetrators? Or members of the community? Or academic experts on crime? Why are most publicized voices on this issue, and others, those who have had only passing experience with it?
I think Steve from Wayzata’s letter went modestly viral not only because of its obvious entitlement or plain contradictions. It also felt like a parody, because it was a voice and a perspective that has been so exhaustively aired. We knew from the title and the first sentence — “I made my annual trek to a home Vikings game…” — what the rest of the letter was going to say and felt rewarded as it landed every note.
In a condensed area, downtown Minneapolis hosts events that draw people from across the metro area, from Stillwater to Wayzata. It’s also the workplace of 200,000 people and the home of over 50,000 and counting. It is at once a public space, a workplace and a neighborhood, and some tension is inevitable. Everyone has a right to feel comfortable downtown, but sometimes those rights conflict. When the comfort of drivers is at odds with the comfort of pedestrians, who prevails? When the comfort of event-goers impinges upon the comfort of residents, who gives way? Some of these questions have obvious answers, but they all lead to choices that reflect the city’s priorities. It’s critically important that all stakeholders be involved in conversations about downtown, and it’s also important that those who spend the most time downtown ought to have the first say.
It would be nice to take away several things from Steve from Wayzata. For one, the Twin Cities’ existing land use and transportation infrastructure continues to make everyone unhappy, and city, county and state leaders should jettison it. For another, media sources should think more critically about which voices they air, whether those voices truly represent a diversity of informed opinion, and how they can better share unique and thought-provoking perspectives with their readers. One short, misbegotten letter to the editor ought to spur an unintended push for change.