April 5, 2020
Macalester-Groveland, Merriam Park, Summit-University, Summit Hill
The 2020 Saint Paul By Bike riding season began today. The expedition was suitably unnatural first and foremost because the shroud of the coronavirus and COVID-19 hung everywhere. In the midst of Governor Walz’s stay at home order, streets were lightly traveled by vehicles, but busy with walkers and bike riders.
I intentionally biked on side streets as much as possible and still encountered more people than usual, but not enough to affect the ability of us all to properly “socially distance” ourselves.
A pile of twigs leaning against a tree stump on a boulevard prompted the first pause of the afternoon. I initially passed by thinking the twigs were part of the homeowner’s spring yard cleanup, but doubled back after catching a sliver of color.
A child, or children, created a world featuring a shelter, garden, pergola and decorations for dolls.
Back on the bike, I headed north (via residential streets) to where Cretin Avenue crosses over I-94. I paused on the bridge over 94 for a picture of the eerily empty freeway below.
My next stop was only a couple dozen feet south, where Cretin Avenue and the eastbound I-94 on-ramp meet. Traffic on Cretin was heavier than anywhere else on this ride.
Confession time: Besides enjoying a gorgeous early April day, the primary reason I jumped on the bike was to take advantage of the weekend closure of about three miles of east I-94 in Saint Paul. My
half-arsed carefully formulated plan was to coast down the Cretin Avenue on-ramp and onto deserted eastbound I-94. I’d cruise along the interstate for about two miles, past the Snelling Avenue exit, through the heart of the Midway, and onward to Lexington Parkway, where I’d leave the below grade highway and return to city streets.
What could go wrong with my plan? I mean other than being spotted a police officer, state trooper, or a member of the construction crew? Just because the sign on the Cretin on-ramp and at nearly every one says it’s illegal for bikes to be on the interstate.
The potential for a fine or arrest was there, but to me it was worth the risk. Sue, my wife, didn’t agree and proclaimed in no uncertain terms that she would not bail me out should that be necessary.
After carefully checking in all directions for authority figures, and seeing none, I rode down the on-ramp and merged onto 94.
As soon as I got on east I-94 I stopped to take a picture. I wanted at least one shot documenting just in case I got picked up.
Less than a mile into my freeway ride I was dismayed to see a Saint Paul Police cruiser drive down the Snelling Avenue ramp and enter westbound 94. I watched as the black and white Ford Explorer decorated with standard Saint Paul Police graphics continued west until my view was blocked by a bridge. I couldn’t tell whether the officer saw me so I hastily decided to get off I-94 at the Snelling exit.
I hung out on the Snelling Avenue overpass looking for the police vehicle and snapping pictures.
After several minutes with nary a police siting on the surface streets or on 94 I felt confident that I hadn’t been spotted on the interstate, so I was ready to get back on.
After leaving I-94 at Lexington Parkway, I continued east on the frontage road – Concordia Avenue – to Dale Street to explore the bridge construction that closed the highway and made my illicit ride possible.
According to Ramsey County’s website, the new bridge should be open to traffic by the end of November 2020. However, the associated reconstruction of nearby sections of Dale Street will extend until the summer of 2021. Everything you’d want to know about the project can be found here.
The trip back home traversed city streets and only city streets, but was significant in that it captured three serious and timely issues.
First, in Summit-University, two memorials to young African-American men who were tragically shot to death within feet of each other in separate incidents. The first memorial honors Raytrell Benjamin who was murdered while sitting in a van on February 21, 2019. To this day no arrest has been made in the killing of Raytrell, who was also known as King RB.
The other memorial, to Wilbert E’lee Harris-McCalister, was on display just around the corner on Avon Street. Wilbert was 19 years old when he was shot while during a marijuana deal on September 7, 2018. He died a short time later on the street. Both of the people charged with Wilbert’s shooting are in prison.
The next issue, while not important compared to gun violence, was still discouraging. I’m talking about the poor condition of many of Saint Paul’s streets. Potholes of various sizes, shapes and depths are more plentiful than dandelions in May. To vehicle owners, the rough pavement on many roads can be a nuisance, but some could lead to tire replacement and damage to the suspension and steering.
For bike riders the stakes are greater. Plenty of streets are an obstacle course where one mistimed glance away from the road or an errant turn of the handlebars could lead to a broken bike and broken bones. No doubt the Department of Public Works staff is under great stress from social distancing restrictions, illness and work levels, but city leaders need to increase funding and staffing to improve the condition of our streets.
Finally, back to reactions to COVID-19. People were outside in every neighborhood, working and playing. From what I saw, wherever more than a single person gathered, folks kept at least six feet apart.
Then there were signs of encouragement in yards and on windows.
That concluded the first trip of 2020. Regular readers know I like to have at least one personal story with an interview for each ride but with social distancing that isn’t going to happen. When – or if – I have another blog ride this year remains to be seen. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, here’s the map of today’s trip.