Hennepin Avenue: A Street for All Ages

Being raised in a family that didn’t default to driving gave me the wind in my hair as a toddler on the back of my mother’s bike; a sense of self-confidence as my father would walk with me to school; the knowledge that I will always have choices in how I get around. But that awareness brought with it an unsettled discontent, knowing that the fear and anxiety I experience so often on our most dangerous city streets is a byproduct of the city’s infrastructure priorities, not an inevitability of life in Minneapolis. 

My earliest memory of Hennepin Avenue is approaching it from Douglas on foot with my father, holding his hand tightly as we went at the pace he liked to use with children: walk a block, run a block, and he’d carry me a block. The bottleneck was then, as now, a wide swath of pavement filled with cars. 

As a city kid, my independent travel started earlier than my suburban peers—I was walking and biking to the park for soccer with my younger brother by 10 and to friends’ homes with them. My first experience being sexually harassed was with a friend in a nearby park, boys our age yelling at us in our swimsuits, getting dirt on their hands, and chasing us to wipe the dirt on our bodies. We tried to clean ourselves off, made up stories of why we were dirty, then hurried home, saying nothing to our parents for fear of losing our precious freedom to wander. 

The author on Hennepin Ave

Hennepin Avenue became the axis that my world spun on as I got older, whether walking to the Basilica for mass with my family or catching the bus to a friend’s house alone for the first time. At 14, biking on the sidewalk on Hennepin, heading home from the Walker Library with my 10-year old brother biking behind me, I was hit by a driver leaving a gas station who wasn’t paying attention at all. I sensed it about to happen, the slow motion of survival instincts displacing conscious thought, pulling my left leg over the bike so it didn’t get crushed. I remember what I was wearing: my favorite Mickey Mouse t-shirt and black leggings. 

My pink Huffy bike was bent and unrideable, but my little brother was safe, untouched. The driver left, and the gas station employee, barely older than me, came out to say he saw it and handed me a slip of paper with the license plate. I didn’t know what to do, nor how to respond. 

My brother and I walked our bikes to a nearby park to sit on the swings for a bit. I didn’t want to tell my parents—just as with the boys who’d violated my space and my body a few summers earlier, I felt somehow as if I’d done something wrong, afraid again that my freedom in this world might be curtailed. So I told my mother about my ruined bike as if it didn’t matter, and she responded as casually as I’d shared about it. And then I took a book into the bathroom, drew a bath, and cried quietly for a long time for reasons I didn’t have words for. 

My mother found me a new bike at a garage sale and I eventually started biking to the library again, and sometimes down to the thrift and fabric stores of Richfield. But as I biked through Uptown, slowly and cautiously, the police would harass me for being on the sidewalk. So I started taking a lane every time I needed to bike on Hennepin. I was 4’11”, barely 100 pounds, desperate to keep up with the pick-up trucks on every side of me, trying to get to speed after each light so they wouldn’t harass and honk me. Despite the glorious freedom of the bike, I rode less and less, because where could I go safely from Lowry Hill? By the time I was in college, with that steal of a semester-long UPass and the speedy 52C (now 113) bringing me to and from Franklin, I’d stopped biking almost entirely. Instead of my default mode, it became emergency-only, a way to get around during bus strikes.     

The author and their father walking towards Hennepin Ave, heading to catch a bus to the May Day Parade

Not long after I’d graduated college, my father started slowing down. I’d been living on Hennepin Avenue for a year or two, renting an apartment with roommates. As he aged, my freelance job allowed me to become his caretaker. His sense of time started shifting and I learned to navigate the street through past and present. Some days he’d meet me at Franklin and Hennepin (his corner selling newspapers as a child during the Depression) and on others we’d meet up at the old Witts grocery store (where he’d been hired to deliver groceries by bicycle but was fired his first day when a larger and older boy applied). 

We walked Hennepin Avenue over and over, catching buses, sitting on benches, talking about the street as it is now, as it was in his memory, as we both imagined it could be. A few years into caretaking for him, I joined the City of Minneapolis’ Pedestrian Advisory Committee. I was motivated by my experiences walking the city with him, his insight as a civil engineer, his deeply ingrained, pre-car-culture defaults to people-centered street design and modes, and—most of all—the lifestyle he was afforded just by living in this part of the city. I wanted to do what I could so that the walkability and independence he had as he aged wasn’t remarkable in its rarity.

Hurrying to a PAC meeting down Hennepin one day, I was crossing Douglas when an SUV driver turning west tried to hit me. It wasn’t one of the near-misses that I’d almost come to expect elsewhere on Hennepin—the drivers turning right while looking left, or taking a swooping wide left turn without checking the cross-walks, or running a full red as if they weren’t in a city full of people. 

It was brazen: eye contact, anger, aggression, domination, violence. The driver steered his vehicle and accelerated toward me, as I ran out of the way, before he sped down Douglas. Alone on the vast expanse of the bottleneck, I didn’t know what to do, but I wasn’t fourteen anymore. I called 911 to report him, confused, terrified, shaking, crying on the phone to the operator who seemed more concerned by my distress than by its cause. Somehow, despite my weekly meetings and errands downtown, it was more than a year before I crossed that intersection again. I didn’t even realize for months; I suddenly always had some reason to take the bus for part of the trip instead, or walk via Lyndale, as my subconscious protected me. 

The next time a driver used their car as a weapon against me, I was with my father. It was just before dusk in early winter, and we were blocks from my apartment where I had lentil soup waiting for us, carrying bread from the grocery store to heat in the oven. As we crossed 25th with a walk sign, the driver who was waiting at the red to turn right—who had seen us—started moving forward until her bumper hit my leg and her car began pushing me—slowly but definitely. My father was on my other side, holding my hand with his left hand, using his cane with his right; he was focused intently on the very real threat of vehicles speeding 30MPH along Hennepin next to us. As I stepped and shaped my body around the woman’s bumper, trying desperately not to throw him off-balance, I began frantically thumping her hood with my free hand. Two women, both with strollers, and a few children walking with them, started shouting at the driver to stop. 

She finally did, and so did we. I stared at her in confusion, then gestured to the light and to my father—a 96-year old Santa doppelganger barely taller than me, clearly stooped and frail. She twisted her face into a mocking sneer at me—at him!—mouthed words at us, then gestured at the light, now red for us. I made a point of staring at her license plate, the only thing I could think to do.

My father and I finished crossing, my body shaking as I tried to keep my hand steady for him. He’d barely realized what she had done—all his attention on the clear threats to life to his right—but the two women who’d shouted at the driver until she finally stopped escorted us to the corner. They were my heroes, repeatedly asking us if we were ok. One offered me a hug, which I accepted wordlessly. 

When we got to my place, I made us dinner, but I couldn’t think. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t answer his simple questions or track what he was saying. I struggled to keep my tone even, modulate my voice to protect him—at the very least—from the emotional upheaval of how we’d been treated and assaulted. I felt angry, powerless, the shaking rage of being my father’s caretaker and rendered nearly useless by what? The snotty impatience of someone who thought Hennepin Avenue was hers alone, because she was in a car. 

The author moves a piece of furniture from their home on Hennepin Ave to a friend in Longfellow by foot

Most of my near misses on Hennepin are separate from the not-infrequent harassment I face as a small female. When I’ve had to scream and jump out of the way of drivers, I see in their faces the same gut panic that has gripped me. The harassment I’ve experienced from drivers is their own issues manifest, whether an impatience at the pace of my father hobbling across the street favoring his bad hip on a hard day, or someone threatening me with sexual violence because they thought I touched their vehicle. Rarely does the adrenaline of a physical near-miss line up with the verbal aggression of the entitled. 

Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I’d be if the Hennepin Avenue I’ve known since childhood was like the one my father grew up along, or the one proposed in Option 1 for this reconstruct, where the movement of people is prioritized. No doubt I’d bike more, in every direction. I know—from walking tens of thousands of miles in this city, and thousands just on this stretch of Hennepin Avenue—that other people’s choices and attitudes are shaped by their environments and interactions just as much as I have been by mine. 

The ways we move along and across Hennepin reflect the experiences we’ve had on it and other streets, the stresses and anxieties that build over time with each near-miss. It happens at a deep level, in ways we’re often unaware of, let alone able to articulate. As a PAC member, I’ve worked hard to pay attention to my body as I move through the city—not as the machine that propels me across the city to wherever I need to go, but as as an embodied creature and physical animal, with an innate sense of safety and danger, physical anxiety and comfortable contentment. 

Last fall, two and a half years into the City’s reconstruction outreach, my father was hospitalized with a serious health issue. He’d turned 100 a few months earlier, and due to his age and general orneriness, my brothers and I were allowed to take turns staying with him despite pandemic protocols. One of my nights coincided with a virtual public engagement meeting hosted by the City, and when I told him about it, he insisted on attending. He’d been dozing a lot in his week in the hospital, but when it came to the Staff presentation on Hennepin Avenue, he was attentive and alert, and I typed for both of us, asking the questions that we each had. Last week, I called him to tell him about this article and asked him what he thought of the Hennepin Avenue reconstruction. He responded “Hennepin Avenue? I think that’s kind of my responsibility.” 

The author’s father at 100, in the hospital during a pandemic attending a virtual City meeting about Hennepin Ave

And it is. It’s his responsibility, at 100 years old, unlikely to get to ride in the bike lanes that he vociferously supports for Option 1. It’s my responsibility, as someone who wakes up many nights from early spring to late fall to the wretched noise of drivers revving their engines and drag-racing past my windows until the wee small hours. It’s our responsibility, as a whole, all of us, because Hennepin Avenue isn’t just a street; it’s a community corridor. It’s the place where we work (my first two jobs as a teen were at the Guthrie in its old location just north of Douglas and at Bobby Bead just south of 28th), and shop, go to the dentist, get eyeglasses, get a haircut, see the chiropractor. It’s where we gather with friends at restaurants and coffee shops and bars. It’s where we protest injustice, where we cry out for social change, where we celebrate the end of presidential regimes of destruction. It’s where people live—there are hundreds of apartments just on this stretch—where we first explore our independence as children, and where we fight for a better world than the one we know now as we age. 

Hennepin Avenue is our responsibility, and we’ve been failing since it was last reconstructed in 1957. It’s a street where residents and businesses thrive in spite of what the city has built, not because of it. In past summers, my father and I walked by packed patios and he’d insist on stopping, drawn—as we all are—to the way a street turns into a place when people gather along it, sharing food and drink. But as we’ve sat for hours at establishments up and down Hennepin, what I notice is the frequency with which conversations are interrupted by the volume of the vehicles tearing past. At some places, even indoors, my father insists on moving seats, so uncomfortable with the speed of traffic whipping past that he couldn’t relax into his book if we sit by the window.

Our streets shape us and the lives we can live. They even shape what we can dream is possible. When I’ve talked to people—including those who primarily drive on it—about Hennepin Avenue, their feelings and responses mirror the anxiety and stress I feel walking and living along it every day. None of us are truly comfortable on this street. We know—our amygdalae know—that this is a street of danger, where cars don’t register as helpful tools but as speeding predators, even when we’re in one. 

This level of background stress isn’t normal or necessary for us to experience every single day of our lives. We come together in cities in order to choose community over solitude, but the mistakes of the nascent traffic engineering industry a half century ago continues to force too many people into the toxic isolation of cars. 

My father is 100, and he’s lived within a half mile of this stretch of Hennepin Avenue any time he’s lived in Minneapolis since his family moved into the neighborhood in 1928–roughly 75 of the last 93 years. The street he was raised along isn’t the street he raised me on; driving is not fore-ordained, nor are car-centric streets an insurmountable force of nature. In each design choice our Public Works Department makes, they shape the arc of our lives and the stories we live. 

As my father says, streets are for people, and we’re people. I am asking the city of Minneapolis—for me, for my father, and for everyone who lives, works or travels along Hennepin Avenue—to please implement a robust Option 1. And for anyone reading this, you’re people too. Please reach out to your city council member & the design team to share your support for Design Option 1. Hennepin Avenue—and every similar community corridor in our city—should be a place for people, where we feel comfortable moving freely or welcome to stay a while, regardless of our ages and abilities.

The author and their father at an earlier date