THE BRIDGES LEADING to the skyway level of the old Chamber of Commerce Building on Fifth and Hennepin are colder than most, as if preparing you for what's ahead. Still, the space itself comes as a surprise: loose wires hang from the low ceiling like vines; bare support columns drip with a thick crust resembling dried toothpaste; the floors, chopped up and broken, are coated with a film of dust. There is a vaulted skylight overhead, but a mixture of pigeon shit and feathers cuts the light to a feeble glow, bringing no relief to the gloom. The conditions trigger something rudimentary in the brain that compels you to keep your head down and pass through quickly. You feel disoriented: you could be anywhere in the city, or not in the city at all, but in a warehouse in a second-tier suburb.
Standing in this dark, abandoned space, you realize that, even under the best of circumstances, the skyways have been a mixed blessing. In the early Seventies, faced with the resounding success of Southdale, downtown building owners had to make a decision: either make downtown more like a city or make it more like a mall. In rare cases, an architect succeeded in doing both. The bridges leading to and from the IDS Crystal Court for example, as well as the court itself, create an urgency and an openness which are a pleasure, and give Minneapolis an urban experience close to the harried elegance of Grand Central Station. Nevertheless, in the summer the skyways cheat Minneapolis out of a vibrant street life: Half of downtown is locked inside, boring through the city like a mole escaping the sun. In the winter, you may welcome the protection from the cold, but when was the last time you enjoyed your skyway experience? The skyways lapsed from novelty into convenience a long time ago.
In the old Chamber of Commerce Building, convenience is undermined by neglect and disrepair, and a surprising disregard for appearances. In a higher traffic area, fake walls would have been erected with a sign offering an apology for the mess or an announcement of the incoming tenant. When you pass through the area, you want a confident man to stride up and pump your hand and say, "Don't worry. We're going to have this placing humming. Two months. Tops!" Instead there are open circuit breakers, signage leaning against the walls, broken acoustical tile, and an air of failure.
As would be expected, representatives from Garfield Clark & Associates, the leasing agent in charge of the old Chamber of Commerce building, claim to be unconcerned about the sorry state of their space, as does the spokesperson for the Downtown Council, a nonprofit organization created by downtown building owners to set guidelines for bridge construction. Everyone seems to believe the problem, which has persisted for a year, will resolve itself. Even Ed Baker, the architect who designed the first skyway, and many since, is nonplused. He will tell you this section of the skyway is only a "minor aberration."
It's a minor aberration that people who work downtown have to tolerate. There was a time in American history when cities were dreams. People believed through a combination of science and romance you could make a city a place where people wanted to live, not just a place where they had to live. Today, cities are defined by their problems. Block E needs to be renovated, not to spice up downtown's social life, but because of the threat of crime on the corner of Seventh and Hennepin. A new retractable-dome stadium needs to be built, not to further the city's baseball tradition, but out of worries the Twins will leave us for another city. At times it seems Minneapolis's plans for the future are dictated solely by its fear of the present.
As a case for revitalizing the old before building the new, the old Chamber of Commerce Building probably isn't the most compelling argument. In an irony both too cheap to mention and too marked to ignore, it hasn't been a very good place for commerce for some time. Over the past four years a number of establishments have come and gone: a tie shop, an African-American clothing story, the Cricket Theatre offices, a postal relay station, and a snack shop where you could have a cigarette in one of the last tobacco-friendly sites on the system.
Eventually a restaurant or a series of shops will take their chances there, and if a service is offered which is impressive enough, people just might break out of their routine to venture to this edge of skyway galaxy. But until the time when the construction crews start cleaning up the space and building it out, the Skyway of Despair is at the very least instructive. If you have big plans for this city, you should pay it a visit: it's the anxious frown hiding behind Minneapolis's measured smile.