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


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