Skyway to Macy's
Photograph by Caitlin Abrams
I walk through two skyways on my way from parking garage to office. Sometimes, I leave my coat in the car. Even in January.
I haven’t stopped doing this since the formation of Eric Dayton’s Skyway Avoidance Society, but I’ve felt twinges of guilt never before experienced as I traverse those temperature-controlled glass tunnels in the sky. Years of discussing, lamenting, writing about the demise of downtown retail—right up to the most recent punch in the gut of Macy’s plans to close the Nicollet Mall store—and I never stopped to consider: I might be part of the problem.
It’s Dayton’s contention—and many an urban study has confirmed—that downtown Minneapolis sidewalks are empty because of the skyways. Dayton is trying to get us to focus on that as our city’s fundamental flaw. Not the malls. Not suburban sprawl. Not being too cheap to pay for parking. Not the Internet. We’ve spent years trying to figure it out—questioning whether our modest Minnesota spending habits just aren’t enough to support Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, whether we’re big enough to maintain a vibrant downtown retail district as well as the largest mall in America, especially now that Amazon offers one-hour delivery. We’ve tried to justify the endless store closures—they didn’t get us; they didn’t give us their best product. We’ve campaigned for more trendy retailers and restaurants, promising them we’ll come, we’ll spend, that we’re ready, and gosh darn it, we’re cosmopolitan enough. That if we just got an Apple store on Nicollet Mall, or a Zara or Nordstrom (not Rack), retail would begin to thrive again, prompting people to spend more time, and money, downtown.
Maybe we need to look at our own reflection in the skyway glass, and think about the toll those above-the-street paths take on our consumer habits. To be fair: The downtown stores I do frequent are on the skyway level, and I’d probably be less likely to pop over during the lunch hour if I had to walk outside to get to them—especially at this time of year. But fundamentally, skyways are about utility. They don’t inspire discovery. They literally cut us off from the interesting things we might see across the street on our way to grab that morning coffee.
The skyways have turned our city inward, making it difficult—and, one could argue, not even very tempting—to get in, and just as challenging to get out. Better signage, which is being discussed, doesn’t solve the problem, Dayton argues. “Less bad isn’t good enough.” By concealing our vitality, the skyways have eaten away at it. They make the city appear dead at a time when it isn’t. Businesses are returning to downtown; residential growth is soaring. “We’re not getting any credit for the hustle and bustle,” Dayton says.
On an unusually balmy November morning, the day before Dayton took to Nicollet Mall with a clipboard, asking people to pledge to avoid the skyways and “be part of the solution,” I sat with him at his Bachelor Farmer Cafe in the North Loop—a neighborhood that proves Minnesotans will walk outside in the winter (after all, they need to show off the North hats they purchased at Dayton’s Askov Finlayson store). We talked about the historic images of downtown Minneapolis that had been popping up on Twitter since Dayton reignited the skyway debate. The grainy snapshots show bumper-to-bumper traffic on Nicollet Mall, and crowds of people in topcoats and hats on the sidewalk in front of the stately department store his great, great grandfather built. “That’s the city I want to live in,” Dayton said.
As farfetched as Dayton’s call for the removal of our nine-mile maze of skyways seems, his objective to get people back on the sidewalks is sound. We have to stop waiting for the businesses to come to us, and start proving that we are there, at the ready. Eager for something better. It’s time to walk the walk. Occasionally, that’s still going to take me through a skyway as I visit my tailor, my barista, my burrito stand. But I’m also going to make a concerted effort to put on a coat, and get outside. The fresh air will do us all some good.