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Letter from Minneapolis: About a Bridge

When this generation of Minnesotans are asked years from now where they were on Aug. 1, 2007, I'm sure there's going to be about a half-million of them who'll say they were right on the 10th Avenue Bridge, riding their bikes from Seven Corners to "the U," as the most horrible tragedy this state has seen since the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard unfolded beside them on the freeway span a few yards away. The reality is that most of them will have only seen it on TV. I'll be able to forgive them, though, for feeling like they were there - the I-35W Bridge is about as "Minneapolis" as it gets. Not that it was beloved or anything, but anyone who was raised here feels its place at the heart of who and what we are as a city. We've all been over it so many times, it was "ours" in a very real way.

And in an instant, it - and, tragically, an as-yet uncounted number of our fellow citizens - were just gone. No warning. No preparation. The city will never be quite the same.

Big News, Small Town
  • The national media pays a visit.
  • It's hard right now to estimate just what this calamity is ultimately going to mean to us. The human toll, of course, will be enormous. If less than 30 people end up dead, I'll be amazed. In purely human terms, the only thing that I can think of that compares to it are a few horrendous plane crashes where Minnesotans were mainly the victims. But those happened someplace else. I think the most jarring aspect of this is that it happened right in the very epicenter of our civilization. This must approach how New Yorkers, vs. the rest of the country, felt after 9/11. One of the most visible aspects of their proud city totally destroyed. At least they could blame terrorists. Who are we going to blame? Societal neglect? Too much driving? Even if it turns out the Minnesota Department of Transportation is to blame somehow, it's not like there's ever going to be 19 ready-made villains wielding boxcutters to focus our anger on.

    I went out to the scene of the disaster Thursday afternoon. It was a brilliant, sunny day. When I got to the Seven Corners neighborhood, near the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, where I had gone to college, I encountered something I hadn't seen in these parts since they held the Super Bowl here in 1991: a full-on national TV blitz. Cameras, satellite trucks, world-class TV news types with perfect figures everywhere. The top level of a parking ramp that would have afforded one of the few accessible views of the downed bridge was cordoned off, available only to the networks for their Nightly News stand-ups. I immediately began to resent them and their power to shape the image of my home for the rest of the world. As the Washington Post has noted, the Twin Cities are not a place that's used to disasters, and we're not used to the outside noticing us. It's uncomfortable.


    So I went looking for alternatives and spent most the rest of the day negotiating around police barricades on both the east and west banks of the river - the authorities were doing a great job of keeping lookie-loos like myself safely away from the twisted mess. I managed a few shots which I have included in this article, including the one below, which I took from the spectacular, cantilevered balcony of the new Guthrie Theater, which opened only recently just a very short distance from the scene of the greatest man-made catastrophe in the history of our state.


    In a tragedy fraught with ironies, the juxtaposition of the new Guthrie to the disaster site one of the biggest. Its opening last year along the West River Road on the edge of downtown Minneapolis symbolized the years of effort the city had put into revitalizing its formerly forlorn riverfront. In the '90s, planners focused tremendous attention on turning the Mississippi from a nasty, polluted embarrassment into a crown jewel. The stretch where the I-35W bridge collapsed is just downstream from the very birthplace of the city - the 1850's flour mills that established Minneapolis as a real part of America. Their ruins have been lovingly restored, expensive condos have sprung up all around, new parks have been established. It spoke of everything the city hoped it could be. And today people were crawling all over it get a glimpse of a kind of death and destruction never seen here before. Part of the bridge came crashing down on West River Road.


    Again, how we feel about our city is going to be forever tainted by this. The real consequences of this for us, and the country, won't be sorted out for years. The I-35W bridge was by no means thought of highly in and of itself. It was a creature of the '60s, the "urban renewal" era when the idea was merely to speed along "progress" in a way that was as efficient as possible. It was purely functional in that you could only drive across it. There were no sidewalks - you could not develop any kind of personal relationship with it. Yet it was as familiar as your back yard, especially if you were a student at the University of Minnesota. Contrary to many, many news accounts, it didn't link Minneapolis with St. Paul - St. Paul is nowhere near this bridge. It linked downtown Minneapolis with the Southeast Minneapolis neighborhood, home of the U of M. The way three generations of Minnesotans knew this bridge is that it got you by car from downtown to the "U" and back again, traversing that murky distance between the purity of academe and the corruption of the big city. It helped give of the U of M its "urban campus" appeal.

    Its other hugely important function was to connect downtown with the northern suburbs, the fastest-growing part of the state. The severing of that link alone will result in immense damage to the infrastructure of a formerly sedate metropolis whose explosive growth over the last 20 years had already stretched its '60s-era freeway system beyond its limit. Minneapolis traffic problems certainly aren't as massive as Chicago's gridlock, but they're newer. We haven't had several generations to cope with bigness by developing an efficient mass transit system. We've just built our first light rail train. We're among the most car-dependent major metro areas in the world, so this is going to hurt.

    As the horror of pulling the bodies of our friends and relatives out of the Mississippi continues, it's too early to assess blame for this immense catastrophe. That will come later with, I predict, a viciousness that this Land of 10,000 Lakes has never before seen. But until then, I'm going to try to keep focused on the human and emotional costs that will take just as long, if not longer, to pay for than a rebuilt I-35W bridge.


    Posted on August 3, 2007

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