Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Support the Northfield Skateboard Coalition

photo courtesy of Shay Canning
In the right sidebar of this blog, you’ll see a GiveMN.org widget that allows you to make a secure online donation to the Northfield Skateboard Coalition through its fiscal agent, the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative. All donations will go toward designing and building a permanent skateboard park in Old Memorial Park in Northfield.

In 1986, Northfield passed an ordinance that prohibited skateboarding within “the central business district.” Three years later, the late Bev Finholt, then a member of the Northfield City Council, questioned the skateboard prohibition, and the mayor, Jerry Anderson, brought up the possibility building a city skateboard park.

That was in 1989.

Fast forward to 2006. A group of young skateboarders, mostly sixteen- and seventeen-year olds, formed the Northfield Skateboard Coalition. Their mission was to raise money to build a permanent skateboard park in Northfield. Within a year, the Skateboard Coalition had secured and matched a $10,000 grant from the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, and hoped to move forward with construction of a skateboard park in Old Memorial Park near the municipal outdoor swimming pool.

Fast forward again to 2014. Fast forward, but keep in mind that for the youth involved, the process over the past eight years has moved in agonizing slow motion. The youth who founded the Skateboard Coalition in 2006 have all grown up—with college degrees, and jobs, and some with children of their own—and another generation of skateboarders has inherited their effort to create a skateboard park. After several years of inaction, the Northfield City Council in December 2012 approved Old Memorial Park as the site of the skateboard park, and allocated $60,000 toward the design and construction of the park. Now there's another $50,000 to be raised.

Though I've never skateboarded, I became involved with the Skateboard Coalition in early 2012. Amy Merritt, then the executive director of The Key (Northfield’s youth center), knew she would soon be moving on to other opportunities, and wanted to make sure there was another adult working with the Coalition. At the time, the Coalition was under the capable and dynamic leadership of Frank Meyer, a high school senior and non-skateboarder who was instrumental in securing a site for the skateboard park. In April 2013, Frank and the other youth members of the Skateboard Coalition were awarded the Making a Difference Award from the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative for their efforts on behalf of youth in the Northfield community. Throughout the years, the skateboarders have been models of civility and public engagement, attending numerous city meetings, respectfully advocating for their cause, and earning the respect of City officials and staff, neighbors, and members of the community at large.

Members of the Skateboard Coalition receiving the Northfield HCI Making a Difference Award in 2013

Skateboarding provides young people with opportunities to participate in a demanding and rewarding physical activity, encourages healthy behaviors, and provides a sense of place and of belonging to a community. A skateboard park will provide a public place for skateboarders to practice their skills that is safer and less disruptive than streets and sidewalks. A skateboard park will serve the recreational needs of a population of youth not currently served by the City’s recreational facilities. Finally, a skateboard park will be a valuable investment in Northfield’s youth, and a recognition of the involvement of youth in the process of building and strengthening our community.

It’s been twenty-five years since the possibility of creating a skateboard park in Northfield was first raised. Temporary skateboard parks have come and gone, but the city is still without a permanent park, despite years of hard work on the part of local skateboarders and their supporters. We’re closer than we’ve ever come to getting a skateboard park. You can help finally make that dream a reality. I hope you’ll join me in supporting the Northfield Skateboard Coalition.

For more information on the skateboard park, check out our blog.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pedestrian Enhancements in Northfield: A Wish List

On Monday, May 5, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm, the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation (NDDC) will be holding a discussion on “public infrastructure for multi-modal transportation” in Northfield. You can find out more here. Among the suggested topics of discussion are “proposed pedestrian enhancements at 3rd Street and Highway 3” and “challenges to pedestrian crossing of Washington and Woodley Streets.”

Here’s my wish list of improvements to pedestrian access, safety, and connectivity in Northfield:
  1. A safe, traffic controlled pedestrian crossing on Highway 3 at Third Street. I’ve blogged about this here.
  2. A four-way stop at the intersection of Washington and Fifth Streets. I’ve lived within sight of this intersection for over 20 years, and have lost track of how many accidents occur there. Especially during downtown events, such as the Deafeat of Jesse James Days, cars parked along Washington Street make it difficult for cars on Fifth Street to see cross traffic without pulling out so far that they risk being hit. A traffic count should be done on both Washington and Fifth to determine whether a four-way stop is warranted. If not, the pedestrian crossing should at least be improved.
  3. A continuous sidewalk on at least one side of Woodley Street from Highway 3 to Prairie Street, together with marked pedestrian crossings at Linden/Jefferson Rd. and Washington St. There is currently a sidewalk on the east side of Linden/Jefferson south of Woodley, but it ends at Woodley and connects to nothing. Woodley is a busy street and it is dangerous to walk along the side of the street. Of course, Woodley between Hwy. 3 and Division St. is a state highway (246), so MnDOT would have to approve any enhancements. A marked pedestrian crossing of Woodley at Washington would create a safer pedestrian route to the high school.
  4. A continuous, safe pedestrian and bike connection between downtown Northfield and the new police station and Arcadia Charter School. What does it say about Northfield that an essential service such as the police department is safely accessible from downtown only by car? The walk or bike out to the new station (and to a grades 6-12 public school) is hazardous for pedestrians. The bike trail currently ends at the old Village School site, and the sidewalk ends opposite AmericInn. The road beyond this point doesn’t even have a well-marked shoulder for bikes and pedestrians.
  5. Better traffic control and pedestrian safety at the intersection of Division (Highway 246) and Jefferson Blvd. I find it incomprehensible that a major intersection in the vicinity of three schools (the high school, Bridgewater Elementary, and the middle school) is so dangerous and poorly controlled.
  6.  I blogged earlier about the intersection of Armstrong Rd. and Highway 19. A safe crossing at Hwy. 3 and 3rd St. and at Armstrong Rd. and Hwy 19, together continuous sidewalk and trail on Third St., Forest Ave., and Armstrong Rd, as far as the entrance to Sechler Park, would provide continuous connectivity (a loop, in fact) between Bridge Square, Odd Fellows Park, and Sechler Park. It would improve connectivity between the east and west sides, and between the west side and Sechler Park.

As I see it, based on almost 25 years in Northfield and thousands of hours of walking in the city, these (and the TIGER Trail) should be the priorities for improving the public infrastructure for pedestrians in Northfield.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pasqueflowers

On the dry southeastern faces of the prairie hills, the first native flowers of the spring, the pasqueflowers, were in bloom... 
Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year

I biked out Hall Avenue with the wind in my face, down the narrow rumble-stripped shoulder of Highway 19, and down the loose buff-colored gravel of Canada Avenue to the far entrance of the Lower Arboretum. At the entrance to the Arb, I locked my bike, swallowed some water, and headed east down 320th St. W. My goal was McKnight Prairie, a little over five miles away, and the pasqueflowers.
Pasqueflowers always remind me of the late Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow, who describes them so beautifully and with such care in his first book, Journal of a Prairie Year (1985). He explains how the pale pastel flowers serve as solar collectors, rotating to catch the sunlight, trapping heat and attracting insects who sometimes shelter at night inside the closed petals.

He was a newspaperman in Worthington, Minnesota, when he wrote that first book, but in the late 1990s he was living in Northfield, teaching at St. Olaf, the author of half a dozen books of essays about making a home in rural Minnesota, about belonging to a place. This was something I thought a lot about in the 1990s, when I was staying at home with the boys, baking my own bread, beginning to explore Northfield, learning to love a landscape that was so different from the Finger Lakes where I grew up.  I came here because this is where my wife got a job. How could I make this place my own?

One morning, Paul Gruchow invited me to his house on Lincoln Street for coffee, an invitation somehow arranged by a mutual friend. We talked about writing and fresh-baked bread and old-growth forests. About how in the forest west of the river wild ginseng once grew, and how there used to be pitcher plants in the low marshy places between Manitou Heights and Heath Creek. About things that were gone, and things we could try to hold onto.

He showed me a framed broadsheet of Thomas McGrath’s poem “The Bread of This World”:

On the Christmaswhite plains of the floured and flowering kitchen table
The holy loaves of the bread are slowly being born:
Rising like low hills in the steepled pastures of light—
Lifting the prairie farmhouse afternoon on their arching backs...

Like McGrath, Gruchow had grown up on an Upper Midwestern farm where his family grew wheat, milled it, and baked it into bread. In his own essay “The Transfiguration of Bread,” Gruchow wrote about how the labor that went into a loaf of bread connected his family to the land and brought a sense of purpose to their lives: “Our souls depended in ways we had not anticipated upon the sanctity of the labors that brought bread to our table...Making bread was a critical element in the purpose of our lives, and one of the ways by which we were literally joined to the land. It was at the center of our culture, a civilizing force.”

Out on Sciota Trail, where it crosses Alta Avenue and bends away from the Cannon River, I stopped for a moment on my walk to look at the old Sciota Township Hall, which was built in 1860 as a one-room schoolhouse. In 1854, Charles Lewis selected this land along the Cannon River as a town site, and in the following year had it surveyed and laid out as a town, which he called Lewiston. Within five years, there was a bridge across the river, a mill, a blacksmith shop, a carriage shop, a post office, a hotel, private residences, and this little schoolhouse.

Within a couple of decades, the land bubble collapsed and speculators could no longer profit from town lots in Lewiston, and the town began to disappear, until the little schoolhouse was the only thing left.

From the old township hall, it’s a straight shot east to McKnight Prairie, a little more than two miles away past broad flat fields overarched with irrigation systems. Before long the prairie came into view—the long brown camelback reclining under a pale blue sky. This is virgin prairie, never broken by the plow, still rich with native grasses and wildflowers. Prickly pear cactus grows in a sandy patch on the west side of one of the hills, and at this time of year, there are pasqueflowers—hundreds of pale purple flowers in the dull brown grass on the top of the hill, opening bright yellow coronas to the sun.

On the hilltop, braced against a stiff wind from the north, I remembered the scientific name for pasqueflowers: anemone patens. Exposed windflower.

Aldo Leopold wrote that pasqueflowers “endure snows, sleets, and bitter winds for the privilege of blooming alone.” But to Paul Gruchow there was something more sociable in their character:

Pasqueflowers bloom at an inhospitable time in a quirky season. They carry the impression of wit and grace. If a pasqueflower were a person, one would want to have it come to dinner at the first opportunity. Surely, that would be the occasion for much laughter and bright conversation.


Before heading back home, I sat for a while among the pasqueflowers, thinking about things that have been lost and things that remain. Lewiston erased from the map. Paul Gruchow, dead of a suicide in 2004 after he had finished writing his last book, a book about living with depression. But here still, returning year after year, are the pasqueflowers. Here is this little patch of virgin prairie.


The walk: 11.29 miles on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 (Earth Day)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Failures of Connectivity: Third Street and Armstrong Road

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the opening of Highway 3 in 1963 effectively split Northfield in half. Here are two pairs of photographs showing Third Street before and after the construction of Highway 3. In each, you can see that before Highway 3, Northfield’s downtown effectively straddled the Cannon River, with buildings and busineses extending continuously along Third Street up to the tracks of the Great Western Railway.


For over half a century, starting in the 1880s or so, you could walk up Third Street to one of Northfield’s three train depots and hop on a passenger train to Minneapolis, Chicago, and points beyond. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, came the expansion of the U.S. highway system, which eventually led to the end of passenger rail service in Northfield. Personal automobiles and the state highway system became Northfield’s connection to the outside world. Northfield’s remaining train depot, the depot of the Milwaukee Road (or Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul), stands derelict, and with no traffic control or marked pedestrian crossing it’s dangerous, and often impossible, to cross Highway 3 at Third Street.

For a brief moment, the traffic on the highway is held back by the lights at Second and Fifth Streets. I look both ways, and run.

Highway 3 also divides the city’s fourth ward. Our polling place is in St. John’s Lutheran Church, on the west side of Third Street. There is no direct pedestrian access from the east side. A 2009 “modal integration” study concluded that there was no warrant for a traffic light at the intersection of Third Street and Highway 3 because the volume of through traffic on Third Street did not meet the necessary threshhold.

Pedestrians evidently weren’t considered in making this determination.

Along West Third Street I pass the Northfield Arts Guild theater, St. John’s Lutheran, the former home of Northfield Bank Raid hero Joseph Lee Heywood, and Longfellow School (the site of the school district’s early childhood programs). Past Longfellow, the street bends to the south and becomes Forest Avenue.
The former home of Joseph Lee Heywood on W. 3rd St.
A plaque from the Northfield Historical Society is affixed to the
rock in the foreground. 
Before Forest curves south to become Armstrong Rd. and meet Highway 19, I cross the street into Odd Fellows Park. The woods here are a remnant of the Big Woods that at the time of settlement covered the land west of the Cannon River. On the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board there have been discussions of moving the city dog park from Babcock Park to Odd Fellows Park, fencing in part of the woods and leaving dogs and their owners to trample the bloodroot I find blooming in the woods.
Bloodroot blooming in the Odd Fellows Park woods.
I come out of the woods at the northeast corner of the intersection of Highway 19 and Armstrong Rd. Again, the 2009 modal integration study examined the possibility of a traffic light at this intersection, and again found that traffic volume did not currently meet the necessary threshold. Oddly, though, there a crosswalk on the west side of the intersection, despite the absence of a sidewalk along Armstrong Rd. on either side of the highway. The only sidewalk runs west along the highway for about 300 feet, away from the city.
Sidewalk to nowhere. The northwest corner of the intersection
of Highway 19 and Armstrong Rd.
From the intersection of Highway 19 and Armstrong Rd., it’s less than a mile (0.8 miles) to the west entrance of Sechler Park (the site of most of Northfield’s youth baseball games). There’s no sidewalk, the shoulder of the road is narrow, and the road is often lined with semis and traveled by truck and cars taking yard waste to the city yard waste and compost site. Ironically, because of an underpass under Highway 3 in Riverside Park and the Prowe Bridge over the Cannon River, Sechler Park is now more easily accessible to pedestrians from the east side than from the west side. It can’t be reached from the west side without crossing Highway 19.

As I’m walking along the narrow shoulder of Armstrong Rd., again feeling that I don’t belong, I imagine a controlled crossing at Highway 19 and a green corridor, including a pedestrian and bike trail, connecting Odd Fellows and Sechler Park along Armstrong Rd. What a beautiful gateway to the city that would be! How amazing it would be to connect three of the city’s parks—Odd Fellows, Sechler, and Riverside—in a continuous greenbelt.

But it’s just a daydream.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Northfield's Boulevard Trees

“Northfield is a city rich in trees,” Harvey Stork wrote. “Looking eastward from Manitou Heights, one sees in summer a green grove broken only occasionally by the steeple of a church, the tower of a school, or the roof of a commerical or factory building. It seems hardly possible that this forest shelters a population of five thousand people.”

In July 1948, Stork counted “2,426 trees of 48 different species growing in the parking between the sidewalk and curb;” in other words, boulevard trees. Of these, the most numerous species in 1948 was the American elm: Stork counted 993 of them. Sixty-one years later, few of those elms remain. Most fell victim to Dutch elm disease, which was just beginning to make an appearance in Minnesota when Stork made his inventory.

Since Professor Stork wrote The Trees of Northfield in 1948, the population of the city has grown fourfold, but Northfield is still sheltered by an urban forest. In February 2014, forester Katie Himanga completed an Urban Forest Asset Management Plan for the City of Northfield (available here as part of the February Environmental Quality Commission packet), in which she inventoried 15,308 boulevard trees in Northfield. Of these, the most common species are maple (4292) and ash (3196).
from K. Himanga, CF, "Urban Forest Asset Management Plan."
City of Northfield, Minnesota. February 3, 2014.
Maple and ash are both attractive, relatively fast-growing species native to this part of Minnesota. Unfortunately, all varieties of ash are, in Himanga’s words, “susceptible to emerald ash borer (EAB) and are likely to become infested in the coming decade.” As was the case with Dutch elm disease, the emerald ash borer infestation will undoubtedly change the shape of Northfield’s urban forest.

Sibley Drive from the west.
On the east side of Northfield, Sibley Drive is a pleasant, well-shaded residential street that connects with Maple Street directly opposite Sibley Elementary School. There is no sidewalk on either side of Sibley Drive, and nearly all the boulevard trees are either maple or ash.  In the photograph above, you can see how the trees (mostly ash on the right-hand side of the street) appear to be planted exactly along the path of a possible sidewalk. It’s as if the street were designed to discourage foot traffic, including children walking to the nearby elementary school.  On the other hand, there is a good trail through Sibley Swale Park that runs roughly parallel to Sibley Drive, providing connectivity for pedestrians and bikers.

The high density of ash trees on Sibley Drive remains a significant problem, as it does on many of Northfield’s streets. In her report to the city, Himanga recommends a program of removing ash trees on boulevards and city parks (at an estimated cost of $1.8 million) and replanting of disease-resistant species (at an estimated cost of $340,000).

Related post from five years ago (April 25, 2009): The Trees of Northfield

The sound of spring peepers in Sibley Swale:


8.39 miles on Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The route:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Naomi Mitchison, "The Triumph of Faith"

Naomi Mitchison, “The Triumph of Faith,” in When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories. London: Jonathan Cape, 1924.

Naomi Mitchison (1930).
For those who have never heard of Naomi Mitchison: she was born into a prominent Scottish family in Edinburgh in 1897, married a future Labour MP, and enjoyed remarkable success as a novelist in the 1920s and 1930s as the author of historical novels set in the ancient Greek and Roman world. The novelist Winifred Holtby considered her work of Nobel Prize caliber. She would later become one of the first women to publish science fiction with her 1962 novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman. She was also a socialist, a feminist, an advocate for birth control and free love, and in her sixties travelled to Botswana (then the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland) and became an honorary member of the Bakgatla tribe. She died in 1998 at the age of 101, and according to her friend Isobel Murray remains “one of the great neglected writers of our time.”

The New Testament scholar John Court called “The Triumph of Faith” “an imaginative tour-de-force.” In the novella, Mitchison re-imagines the Letter of Paul to Philemon (the third shortest book in the Bible) as a Roman comedy. The characters includes the family of Philemon, the recipient of Paul’s letter and landowner of Colossae: his hot-tempered and sanctimonious son Archippus; his wife Apphia; his daughters Phoebe Martha and Dorcas; his steward Onesimus; and his slaves Charope, Artamo and Chet. The other characters are Philemon’s neighbor, a pagan philosopher, and his steward Balas, a worshipper of Mithras. The action is divided into two acts, each divided into six scenes with different narrators.

The plot itself unfolds like a Roman comedy:* Phoebe Martha, the daughter of the Christian father, is in love with the pagan philosopher; slaves carry letters back and forth; Archippus blusters; there’s poison; there’s a happy ending—at least for some of the characters. In the midst of these Plautine flourishes, Mitchison touches on serious issues of faith, religious intolerance, and the status of women.

In her note on her sources, Mitchison wrote: “Not unnaturally one always used to take sides with the barbarians against Rome.” And she reserved special sympathy for “the fair-haired slaves” from the North, her own “possible ancestors,” who found themselves oppressed and powerless in an alien land. This sympathy almost certain had its roots in her own experience as a girl who was denied many of the opportunities open to her older brother. In “The Triumph of Faith,” Phoebe Martha addresses a remarkable speech about her status as a girl to Chet, her father’s Scythian slave:
It’s so hard being a girl! Here I am, just the same as a man, really, and no worse than my brother anyway—I’ve got all same eyes and hand and ears and everything else that matters! But because of two or three silly little differences I have to be treated as if I was an animal, ordered about, not allowed to decide anything for myself! I’m shut up, I’m watched, I have to do what men tell me—nothing’s my own, money or husband or religion—I have to take what they give me and say thank you! Oh, it is unfair—haven’t I got a soul every bit as good as theirs?
 When she exhausts herself with this outburst, Chet says quietly, “Yes, I understand.”

Both Phoebe and Chet are outsiders, and feel a stinging sense of the difference between their inner potential and their external powerlessness. In one of the most richly imagined scenes in the novella, Chet goes into a trance and calls on his Scythian gods to work powerful magic—but in the next scene, he finds himself tied to a post, waiting to be whipped. There’s a gap between his imaginative power and his real power—a gap that Mitchison, as a woman, understood all too well.

As a little girl, Mitchison attended the Dragon School in Oxford with her older brother, but when, as she puts it, “the awful thing happened,” she was taken out of school to be taught at home. The “awful thing” was her first period. Until she was twelves, she had been “for all practical purposes a boy,” but puberty changed everything.

The beginning of puberty, menarche, provides an important recurring theme in Mitchison’s fiction. In “The Triumph of Faith,” when Phoebe Martha runs away from her father’s house to the house of the pagan philosopher, she’s clutching a bunch of roses the philosopher has sent to her. Her father’s steward Onesimus follows her, and tells us in his narration: “Every here and there were red rose petals, shaken loose from Phoebe Martha’s flowers: they reminded me of trailing a wounded deer...”

The name of Phoebe Martha’s intended husband is Menarchus.


Parts of this post are excerpted from a longer essay I’m writing about Naomi Mitchison.

*Mitchison may perhaps also have had in mind Pierre de Marivaux's 1732 comedy The Triumph of Love, which was set in one of her favorite historical places, ancient Sparta. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Walk on the West Side

We live on the east side of Northfield, a few blocks from Carleton College, where my wife started working in 1990, and right on the edge of downtown Northfield. It’s a quarter mile down to Just Food Co-op, and EconoFoods is even closer. It’s faster to walk down to The Hideaway than to make a pot of coffee at home in the morning. As I write this, it’s been three weeks since the car left the garage. We walk everywhere.

Ames Mill from the Fifth Street Bridge
Most of my walking in town has been done here on the east side, but a walk early last week took me out of my east side comfort zone and into the less familiar territory of the west side of town. Setting out from home at about 10:00 on an early spring morning, I headed west down Fifth Street, crossing Division Street and stopping briefly on the Fifth Street Bridge to look across at Northfield’s iconic Ames Mill. Then, at the corner of Fifth Street and Highway 3, I had wait for the light to change. I pressed the button for the pedestrian signal, and an insistent voice told me to wait.

Crossing Highway 3 at Fifth Street
Northfield is split down the middle by Minnesota Trunk Highway 3, which extends roughly 45 miles from Faribault in the south to Inver Grove Heights in the north. But until the early 1960s, there was no Highway 3, and the division between the east and west sides was less starkly defined. Buildings and businesses ran along both sides of Water St. north of Fourth St., and along both sides of Fourth St. west to the railroad tracks. The opening of Highway 3 in 1963 created a four-lane barrier between the east and west sides of town.

Unconnected sidewalk on Odd Fellows Lane
Once the light changed and I crossed the highway, I continued along the sidewalk on the north side of Highway 19 (Fifth St.), past the Malt-O-Meal factory, to the end of the sidewalk on Odd Fellows Lane. This is one of a number of places in Northfield where the sidewalk abruptly and inconveniently ends: another failure of connectivity. But there are many places where as a pedestrian I don’t feel inconvenienced by the lack of a sidewalk. Many of the residential streets are wide enough and the traffic volume is generally low enough that I can walk in the street without feeling endangered. But there are other places, such as along Woodley Street, where the lack of sidewalks is inconvenient and even dangerous for pedestrians.

The lack of a connecting sidewalk on Odd Fellows Lane is no more than a two-block inconvenience, and soon I was back on the sidewalk along Forest Ave., heading for St. Olaf College. My walk would take me around the St. Olaf campus, then back down and out Cannon Valley Drive, past the Northfield Retirement Community, to the city limits at the corner of Cedar Avenue and Thye Parkway.

When we moved to town in 1990, this corner of Northfield was still a cornfield, but in recent years residential streets have been laid out and upscale houses have cropped up in place of the corn. Home prices in this neighborhood generally run between $200,000 and $600,000. But less than a mile-and-a-half walk away (less than a mile as the crow flies) is the poorest neighborhood in Northfield: the Viking Terrace mobile home park. The population of Viking Terrace is primarily Latino, generally poor, frequently undocumented. The mobile homes are in small, close together, and in various states of repair. On a Tuesday morning, the neighborhood was quiet. I passed two older men standing outside one of the trailers, conversing in Spanish.

Houses around Liberty Park
Viking Terrace
In between these two neighborhoods is Greenvale Park Elementary School. The entire west side of Northfield west of Highway 3 and north of Highway 19 is included in the Greenvale Park attendance district, and Greenvale Park is where the children of relatively affluent Liberty Park should mix with the children of Latino immigrants who live in Viking Terrace. But this isn’t always the case. In 2012-2013, Greenvale Park accounted for 46% of the loss of students from the entire school district through open enrollment, leaving a school where 42% of the students were living in poverty and 23% were learning English as a second language.

What the entire west side has in common, though, is the lack of unimpeded pedestrian access to downtown—to the grocery store, the public library, the coffeeshops and businesses that are within easy walking distance for me. Heading home from Viking Terrace, I walked down Spring St. to Greenvale Ave., where Spring St. narrows and the sidewalk disappears. If I had chosen to turn left on Greenvale and walk home along Highway 3, I would have found no sidewalk on the west side of the highway, and no safe crossing to the sidewalk on the east side.

A combined pedestrian and bike trail (the TIGER Trail) was first proposed as part of a multi-modal transportation study in 2009 as a means of re-connecting the west and east sides of the city. But opposition to the rising cost of the project has stalled the TIGER Trail in City Hall. 

I have to admit that I felt a little nervous walking through Viking Terrace, knowing that I was a minority there, imagining that a strange white man snapping pictures with his camera might be viewed with suspicion. I felt acutely that I didn’t belong there. But I’ve had the same feeling as I’ve walked down cul-de-sacs in more upscale neighborhoods on the east side. Cul-de-sacs don’t invite recreational walkers like me. No one who enters a cul-de-sac is “just passing through,” because by definition a cul-de-sac doesn’t lead from one place to another. Anyone who enters a cul-de-sac must either belong there, or have legitimate business there, or must not belong there.

For the most part, our streets are designed for the convenience of motorists and the privacy of residents, not for the communion that comes from walking and encountering each other on foot. This has been the most interesting part of walking around Northfield (255 miles as of today): this strange feeling of not belonging.

Sidewalks and trails alone won't change people's habits. They won't, on their own, cause a decrease in obesity or an increase in neighborliness. But they do create an infrastructure for that kind of change. They can make connections possible that weren't possible before. 

7.66 miles on Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Now Available: Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016.

Domestication: Collected Poems 1996-2016 . Published February 25, 2017.  Available now from Shipwreckt Books in Rushford, Minnesota, ...