For years, Sandy Daly didn’t hesitate to rat out shoveling scofflaws.
Until she retired last year, Daly spent three decades as an occupational therapist for Minneapolis Public Schools, making home visits to her preschool clients. Nothing made her madder than a sidewalk blocked by snow.
“I’m that bug in the city’s ear. I never called within the first 24 hours [of a snowfall] — I’m talking when it’s still slippery days later,” said Daly, who had many clients with physical disabilities.
“I had a landlord tell me he lets nature take its course. I’m sorry, that’s not OK. It’s your obligation as a neighbor to take care of your property and make sure it’s safe.”
These days, it seems that not everyone would agree.
Judging by the number of sidewalks remaining snow-covered in the past few winters, more Twin Cities homeowners are slipping when it comes to shoveling. It’s as if the unwritten contract to keep sidewalks passable is as outdated as wool gloves in the era of Thinsulate.
Increasingly, shoveling is seen as an inconvenience, if not a burden.
The time it takes to clear walks following a substantial dump throws a wrench into a busy family’s schedule, already disrupted by snow-slowed commutes. And snowbirds and travelers struggle to manage their civic duty from afar.
“We have a small city lot and finding a service that will reliably take it on has been impossible. They say it’s not worth their while,” said Todd Hanks, a retired business owner who winters in Nevada.
“The neighbor’s kids don’t want to do it. A couple of guys who said they would didn’t show,” he said. “I feel that sense of responsibility. I couldn’t live with it if someone cracked their skull on my property, but we’re kind of stuck. We need someone to start an Uber Snow. A Lyft my shovel.”
In Minneapolis, city leaders are considering taking over the job of clearing the almost 2,000 miles of residential sidewalks. In the meantime, the city has announced plans to get tougher with property owners who are slow with their snow.
Public works inspectors pledge to promptly seek out uncleared sidewalks rather than just waiting to follow up on complaints from neighbors. In the past, the city sent out warning letters before issuing citations or fines. This winter, the city has said that inspectors will move more quickly on anonymous tips about slackers.
But some prompt shovelers are taking matters into their own gloved hands.
“A lot of renters don’t understand the expectation,” said Erin Niehoff, who lives near the University of Minnesota. She has spoken to student renters on her block who run off to class without clearing their walks.
“I tell them, we have a neighbor who walks with a cane and can’t get to the bus stop,” she said. “They seem receptive but they’ll say, ‘I don’t have a shovel.’ If no one gets on it, I call so the landlord gets notified.”
But here in Minnesota, most of us are not as direct as Niehoff.
“Calling the city on your neighbor for not shoveling is about as Minnesota passive-aggressive as it gets,” quipped Joel Gryniewski.
He’s well positioned to take that dig; his novelty company Old Tom Foolery produces a popular T-shirt that reads: “Keep Minnesota Passive-Aggressive. (Or not. Whatever you think is best.)”
Gryniewski is not judging those who drop a dime on those who fail to shovel, admitting that he would do it, too.
“What’s the alternative? Have an uncomfortable conversation face-to-face with the person who lives next door? As a nonconfrontational Minnesotan, I can tell you that sounds terrifying,” he said. “Let the city deal with it and bask in the anonymity.”
Greta Grosch knows all about our passive-aggressive tendencies. She wrote six of the Church Basement Ladies musicals and has stomped the stage in a plaid housedress and buckled galoshes to perform as one of the church ladies for 15 years.
“In Minnesota, we are rule followers. We like to think we have high standards and we know best. We make someone else feel shame for not doing it the right way, which is, of course, our way,” she said. “We do it all with a smile, which is what makes it passive-aggressive.”
Grosch suggests a few classic moves to nudge a neighbor who doesn’t measure up after a measurable snowfall.
“So you don’t have to talk to them, you can put the city shoveling rules in their mailbox or under their windshield. You could leave a shovel at their door. Or you can dramatically sigh and walk out in the street to get around their snowy sidewalk, maybe trip a little,” she suggested. “Try to do this when they’re walking to the car or checking the mail so they see you.”
But in the end, when neighbors don’t shovel, Grosch thinks a good Minnesotan might just do it for them.
“We’ll do it because we worry about other neighbors falling,” she said. “And then we can sigh and give them side eye the rest of the year over our sacrifice.”
Prejudice and pride
It’s difficult for people with mobility issues to be amused by the shoveling debate.
“I wish people were more conscientious and did more than the bare minimum,” said Sadie Ruge. Born with spina bifida, she uses a wheelchair.
“Those of us who can’t walk through snow are either homebound or late to where we need to go. It often limits us to going places in the winter; we might not take the chance that the situation will be difficult,” she said.
Ruge said she has called the city of St. Paul to report uncleared walkways in her neighborhood — and for a reason.
“If people don’t say something about a problem, it likely goes unnoticed and unresolved,” she said.
Unshoveled sidewalks can also be bad news for neighborhoods.
When a block has homes in need of shoveling, it can signal a lack of pride.
“There’s no question that first impressions are incredibly important in real estate. You want a buyer to have a positive experience and it starts at the front door and the front sidewalk,” said Cotty Lowry, a real estate agent with Keller Williams and past president of the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors.
“Buyers look at the fabric of the block, the architecture and also the general maintenance. I suppose looking at a neighbor who’s neglected shoveling could influence how they felt,” he said.
Despite her on-the-job tumbles, Sandy Daly promptly shovels her own property on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis, saying having a clean walk fills her with a sense of accomplishment.
“In my neighborhood, everyone is good about paying it forward or paying it back,” she said. “When I had knee replacement surgery last year, help just showed up.”
Daly opposes the city proposal to take over shoveling sidewalks, which could cost as much as $20 million.
“This is our community and our neighbors. We have to take care of each other,” she said. “We have better things to spend our money on than this.”