When I tell people that I go to downtown Minneapolis for a long walk once a week, it’s like I’ve admitted to playing Russian roulette.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I’m asked. “Why not take your exercise at the lakes like everyone else?”
“Because the lakes are full of everyone else,” I reply.
But that’s not the only reason I head downtown. I go for my allotted exercise, and to experience something rare.
In the middle of the week in the middle of the day, a stroll downtown is like walking through the abandoned city of Pompeii. If I chance to see someone coming down the sidewalk, someone unmasked, I cross the street. It’s not as if I’ll be hit by traffic. There isn’t any.
The first time I went downtown after the lockdown, everything felt radioactive, like I was in a post-apocalypse movie. Weeks later, it felt slightly better, but I still had the sense that I shouldn’t tarry, shouldn’t sit or touch anything or breathe deeply.
But I realized it wasn’t the empty sidewalks that made downtown feel so otherworldly: The sidewalks almost always feel empty.
On a warm day, sure, there are lots of office workers heading to lunch, the wandering folk who populate Nicollet Mall, the odd knot of smokers, a few souls at the Government Center park enjoying the rare downtown expanse of green grass.
But even on the warmest day, downtown sidewalks are rarely crowded. That’s because everyone is up in the skyways.
Let’s leave aside the argument about whether skyways ruined the city’s street life or liberated us from parkas, galoshes, umbrellas and created a new model for urban living. Whether you like it or not, the skyways are the streets of downtown Minneapolis.
If I wanted to find out what downtown was like during the shutdown, I had to go up.
I tugged on the door of an office tower and was surprised to find that it opened. I’d assumed that all the buildings had been locked for the duration. Inside, the escalators were running up to the skyway level. The automatic doors in the skyways whooshed open when I approached, just like normal.
Only no one was there. Block after block, walking through the skyways at noon felt like being a security guard at an abandoned moon base.
The indoor plazas where people met for lunch? Vacant. Here and there a video monitor showed the news to an empty room. There were no aromas from the nearby restaurants, no snatches of conversation, no throngs of people bunched up impatiently at the door that’s a little slow to open.
I walked through the empty Dayton’s building, the bright white halls hiding the restoration we’ve been waiting to see. And on to City Center, where I was stopped by a sign that said SKYWAY CLOSED.
I took off in another direction and came across a rope strung across a door that didn’t open. And then another door that had no sign, no rope, but just didn’t open. In it I saw a reflection of a strange person in a mask.
The skyways, though empty, seemed too close, like a subway car stopped in a tunnel. I gave up and went outside. It seemed safer on the sidewalk, but still not right.
I looked up at the towers that surrounded me and thought about who might be in them. A janitor performing rote disinfection on doorknobs that no one’s touched in a week. Maybe someone sneaked into the office to get some files.
But apart from that, floor after floor of unoccupied terrain. Chairs in the conference room left as they were after the last meeting, some plants going brown, the occasional TV set left on, hectoring bad news at no one. Electricity coursing through every outlet on every floor, waiting for the people to return and turn it all back on, put the world back to work again.
I heard the noise from a construction site across the street. The RBC Gateway tower at the end of Nicollet, built on the site where the city began, is rising from a deep hole. When it opens in 2022, it’ll bring new workers down to the underpopulated end of Nicollet Mall, just a few blocks from the Mississippi River.
By then, we’ll have returned to downtown — and to the skyways — masked at first, then, unnervingly, without them. Eventually the masks will be gone and we won’t even notice.