Judging from recent articles and blogs, the issue isn't whether we should build more skyways, but tear down the ones we have. The argument says that skyways suck the life off the streets — literally! People hang on to street signs and parking meters, before they vanish screaming — and we can revive downtown by removing one per year. Presumably there would be yellow warning tape so people didn't plunge to the sidewalk.
The anti-skyway people say they have no connection to the streets. This is true. Can't tell you the number of times I've seen desperate people throw a cinder block through the glass and throw a rope through the jagged hole so they can get down, but this could be solved by installing firefighter poles in every skyway, or buckets attached to winches. Would that be enough? No. See, if there weren't skyways, all those stores would be down on the ground floor, and people would throng the streets, which is good and vibrant. When the same people are vibrantly thronging upstairs, it is bad, because …
… hold on, it'll come to me …
… because they should be outside like other cities. That's it.
Here's the strange thing: in the late spring, and summer, and early fall, the streets are full of people. Why is that? Correct: because it is not painful outside. If you ask most people about what they like about downtowns, here's what polls high: "strolling along a beautiful street on a warm day with a gentle breeze in my face, the sound of a busker playing his guitar on the corner, the laughter of people in outdoor cafes, and the sense of individuals coming together in an urbane, civilized fashion."
Here's what polls low: "a bitter cruel wind that feels as if beetles are driving their pincers into my eyeballs." Also "slipping on the sidewalk and feeling my back teeth slam together like a leg-hold trap."
In other words, when the weather has that screechy-lethal quality common to winter, people do not want to be thronging vibrantly. They do not want a stroll for lunch to require preparations normally associated with someone in Antarctica getting ready to use the outhouse.
The great innovation and promise of the skyways was simple: in the times of the year when it's cold, you will be inside and toasty, looking through the glass as you cross the streets, scoffing at the impotent maw of winter howling outside. Now this seems like it's bad, false, antisocial — as if the proper thing to do is not just take the streets to get to the soup joint in January, but bike there.
When the weather turns civil, the skyways thin. Office workers drowned in fluorescent light are eager to get out and bathe in the photons, because life has begun anew and the great switch has been thrown: winter is over, the doors of the coop are open. People can't wait to get out. Ever hear anyone demanding that the food trucks be hooked to cranes and hoisted up to the skyway level, because no one wants to go outside on a May morn? No.
Three other points:
1. Use of the skyways is not mandatory. You will note that when you leave a building to enter the street, thugs in uniforms do not block your path with billyclubs and say "now where do you think you're going, me boyo." The authentic street-level urban experience is still available to anyone, and while it may not be dense, that's OK.
I remember a trip to Chicago, trying to get from Water Tower Place across Michigan Avenue; the only way to get through the impossible crowd was to set my shirt on fire and wave it over my head screaming "ODIN, I AVENGE THEE." We ought to be putting this in travel brochures: you can walk around downtown in the winter looking down at your phone and not run into anyone.
2. In the afternoon the skyways are not exactly jammed like the streets of Paris on the eve of a German invasion. It's not as if there are thousands of people milling around who could be displaced one floor and create an instant New York at 3:30 p.m.
3. It may be confusing to outsiders, but the maps help. (It's 10 times worse in St. Paul; if you find a map, it might as well say "You Are Here. We Are So Sorry About That.")
In an ordinary city, en route to your destination you walk past a department store, past a bank, past a hotel lobby, past an apartment building atrium. A walk through the skyways takes you through a store, through a bank, through a hotel, through an apartment building — and each interior space is different, each building has its own tone and mood.
The Star Tribune is moving to a new building soon, and no longer will trips downtown on foot during a snowstorm mean packing a pouch of pemmican and striking out like the crew of Shackleton's Arctic voyage. It will be nice to sit in the lobby by the fireplace on a January day and watch the passing parade or wander down to the coffee shop in February without wearing 6 pounds of kapok.
The skyways are utterly unique, and we're supposed to be ashamed of them? Skyways didn't ruin the street; the retail tide had already begun to turn by the time they put the first skyway up, the model of taking the streetcar downtown to shop upended by the car and the Dales. We didn't destroy the street, we elevated it, and brought it indoors.
You are free to disagree, but please, if you send an e-mail, go outside and sit on the sidewalk while you do so. It's the vibrant thing to do.