Steve from Wayzata’s Long Fourth-Quarter Walk

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:

Stevewayzata

via Nick Halter (@mspbjHalter)

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.

Some Thoughts:

#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?

Whomst?

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.

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6 Responses to Steve from Wayzata’s Long Fourth-Quarter Walk

  1. Brian November 4, 2019 at 3:04 pm #

    There is going to be waiting and congestion after a Vikings game no matter what mode of transportation other than perhaps biking. If you take a bus you’ll probably have to wait for the bus and there might be a line to get on. If you take light rail there will absolutely be a line to get on the train. If you drive there will be congestion in the streets. Even the sidewalks are likely to be congested for pedestrians.

    When US Bank stadium first opened light rail riders complained because it took an hour or more to get everyone on a train. They apparently expected that fifty plus rail cars would just show up out of nowhere. There isn’t room to just stage all those rail cars in downtown without essentially shutting down remaining LRT service.

    Media caters to car drivers because the majority of their readers/viewers across the entire metro area use a car as their only form of transportation.

  2. Monte Castleman November 4, 2019 at 6:33 pm #

    If Mr. Arundel lived in Minnetonka, or even St. Louis Park I don’t think wouldn’t make that much of a difference in travel time or even St Louis Park. Having gone to Vikings games from Bloomington in the past I expect an absolute minimum of an hour of garage to seat time, so with all the construction around downtown Minneapolis I don’t find an hour and 45 minutes to be unbelievable.

    I do agree that it’s ridiculous to expect going to a Vikings game to be as easy as a going to the Pizza Hut at the local strip mall As much as I liked it when the North Stars were in the suburbs and I didn’t have to go into the city to see a game, it still took some time to arrive and leave after the game. Garage to seat time could approach an hour even with me living in the area.

    The problems with cars are not intrinsic. We could make wider streets, build more parking, ban pedestrians from certain streets to ease car travel. The fact that we don’t due to the value judgement we’ve made doesn’t mean this is “intrinsically” the case. Having said that I shake my head at why anyone would want to leave a sporting event they paid that kind of money for before it’s over for any reason.

    Not saying who exactly is doing the harassment is a wise choice nowadays in order to not have accusations thrown out. But if the people doing the harassment are the panhandlers, based on several personal experiences, arriving and leaving the game with the crowd is no guarantee of avoiding harassment. Presumably a bunch of people rich enough to go to a Vikings game all together is lucrative.

    Since 4/5th of the population lives in the suburbs and those that subscribe to the paper are probably disproportionately well-off, it’s not surprising that they’re represented more than poor residents in the city. Ultimately sensationalist stories about crime attract more readers than stories about how everything is fine. Since the newspapers aren’t published by taxpayers, they have to do what sells papers to stay in business. This isn’t anything new; as documented in Larry Millet’s book “Strange Days, Dangerous Nights” at one point the newspapers would even print graphic crime scene photos. If we expect a media without biases and without motive to do whatever it takes to get revenue; we’d have to have something along the lines of the publicly supported BBC.

    • Julie Kosbab November 5, 2019 at 8:42 am #

      It is generally not reasonable to build infrastructure based on the needs of ~10 evenings a year of traffic, however. People need to expect that special events are going to create some congestion.

  3. jack November 5, 2019 at 9:36 am #

    Last Friday, I met my husband downtown after work. (I take the light rail to work, husband took it to meet me). We had drinks, then dinner and a play at the Guthrie (Steel Magnolias, which was awesome).

    We did not walk out during the third act to beat the crowds. We did have to walk in the sleet on our way back to the train station and the trains were running a little late, but I did not feel compelled to write a letter to the editor in complaint.

    Choices.

  4. Mark November 5, 2019 at 10:45 am #

    A quick fact check on the ‘implausible’ transit time. Downtown Wayzata to US Bank stadium is 15 miles, leaving at 5:15pm according to Google Maps the journey takes between 26-50 minutes that time of day. That route avoids driving through downtown and connects to the stadium off 35W & 3rd, changing it to go through downtown by taking the 12th Street exit and dropping down to 8th adds 10 minutes. So on the long end, which would be expected on a weekday Vikings game, it’s reasonable to expect it to take an hour to drive from some suburban mansion to a parking oasis downtown.

    Add in time to pull into the parking garage which will inevitably be backed up, find a spot, walk to the stadium, stand in an asinine security line where umbrellas and purses are confiscated out of fear and the need to sell clear bags, walk through the stadium to get to your overpriced nosebleed seat…..that all can easily take 45 minutes.

    Implausible? Hardly. Welcome to reality, and that’s why people who drive complain about downtown, why they want more parking options, wider roads, etc… Obviously the solution is better transit, especially since in this case it takes about an hour to get from Wayzata to downtown, regardless of traffic, since there aren’t any dedicated express buses coming in downtown at 5:15pm. Maybe we should focus on that, and enacting real world change, and educating those in the suburbs about better choices, instead of laughing at them and making ourselves feel better about our own person choices. Just a thought.

  5. John November 8, 2019 at 10:50 am #

    A weekday Vikings home game (does this scheduling even average once per year?) during rush hour. 1:45 minutes. Where is the problem here? Perhaps in a few years they can cruise down to Eden Prairie and take the train in. Luckily, they won’t be inconvenienced by routing through uptown.

    All good points above – I think a great blog post would be about the evening summer weekday twins games. It is always a veritable **it show on those days as many patrons just don’t know how to navigate downtown and it ends in non-moving gridlock. Externalities abound. Not sure about the answer, but I bet the readers here have some good ideas….

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