Skyway to Hell

Have 50 years behind glass left Minneapolis high and dry?

Sidewalks are for suckers. That’s how many people think of the Minneapolis skyways today: like a glass overcoat. But when the first skyway opened, on August 27, 1962, the idea wasn’t so much to keep people out of the cold as out of the suburbs. Malls were sucking the shoppers out of downtown, and the second-story link between the Northstar Center and Wells Fargo was envisioned as part of a huge covered mall over Nicollet Avenue. Only the name ever happened: Nicollet Mall. Futurists R. Buckminster Fuller and Athelstan Spilhaus, then the dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology, went much further, proposing an entire experimental city near Minneapolis knit together by skyways, monorails, and other geekery. Surprisingly, that came close to happening—the Legislature was on board—but we got Blaine instead. Still, the skyways grew into the world’s most extensive human Habitrail, which some believe has kept Minneapolis viable despite being the coldest big burg in North America. Others aren’t so sure: recent studies suggest that the skyways themselves are draining downtown of its street life, a feature of today’s most desirable cities, and it’s hard to argue when you’re standing at Seventh and Marquette, near the first skyway, practically alone. One urban designer pronounced the metropolis no longer “up to the beat of the world-class cities of the 21st century” and declared, “I feel sorry for Minneapolis.” But it’s not really our fault. In 1962, no one imagined that Americans today would be living largely as we were then, driving into downtowns and fleeing at 5 p.m., or that we would become nostalgic for crowded sidewalks, trolleys, and the like. We’re supposed to be zipping around in pods and traversing cities in, well, skyways. In other words, those of us who move through Minneapolis some 14 feet above ground aren’t stuck in the past, we’re stuck in the future.