Tilting at Highways

War against the planned Hiawatha Avenue extension is being waged on several fronts--but it's an uphill battle.

Al Kratz makes sandwiches for the raccoons. He'll wrap slices of stale toast around whatever is handy--leftovers, stale vegetables, discount groceries his wife Carol brings home. "They don't like cabbage or tomatoes," he explains, "but they're crazy about hot dogs." The raccoons come in the evening, out of the woods past the railroad tracks that border the Kratzes' backyard. Squirrels come too, gray and black ones, and the occasional fox. "Once I counted 27 raccoons," Al boasts, "all sitting around the picnic table munching their sandwiches."

These days there's more wildlife than usual in the Kratzes' neighborhood. Maybe that's because there are fewer people, now that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has torn down most of the 40 houses that once lined Riverview Road. MNDoT wants to put a four-lane road through here, replacing the worn-out stretch of Hiawatha Avenue a few blocks to the east. If all goes well, you'll be driving through the Kratzes' backyard on your way to the airport three years from now.

But Al doesn't talk much about that. When Carol starts in on the highway, he heads for the kitchen, dragging the plastic tube that connects him to the oxygen machine he needs for his emphysema. "We put on an extra-long one this year so he can get out to the backyard," Carol says. "That's his life right now."

Dina Kantor

It may not be much longer. Two months ago the Kratzes got a letter on Minnesota state letterhead: "From Hubert H. Humphrey, Attorney General," it read. "All persons occupying the property described in this document MUST VACATE THE PREMISES ON OR BEFORE JUNE 17, 1998." That's the order the Kratzes are fighting right now; they're scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis May 12 to explain why the state shouldn't tear down their house.

A scant two weeks earlier, on May 1, an environmental group will be in the same courthouse making a related but broader argument: It will claim that MNDoT, the federal Department of Transportation, the city of Minneapolis, and the Minneapolis Park Board have no right to put a four-lane highway through the city's last "urban wilderness."

To understand the story of Hiawatha Avenue, it helps to get into your car, preferably during the evening rush hour, and head south from Lake Street. Traffic is smooth along the four-lane boulevard as commuters head for the airport and the booming suburbs beyond. At about 46th Street the road narrows to two lanes as it crosses Minnehaha Creek. Take a left at 54th Street and park where it dead-ends. Get out and walk back about 100 feet.

You're standing in one of the most ancient landscapes in Minneapolis. Behind you a tangle of oak, buckthorn, and ironwood tumbles toward Minnehaha Park and the Mississippi River a few hundred yards away; to the left a grassy savannah stretches into the distance, dotted with massive bur oaks. You can walk for hours from here, along trails that seem to transport you hundreds of miles, and hundreds of years, away.

This is the right-of-way for the new Hiawatha Avenue, the same road that's slated to cut through the Kratzes' backyard a block away. Four to six lanes of concrete are planned here, swinging in an elegant curve toward the river bluff, with sound berms and spindly trees on either side. MNDoT says it's a long-overdue solution to a highway bottleneck--a service, as Hiawatha corridor supervisor Mike Spielmann puts it, "to our customers. We are trying to provide the best possible product for the city of Minneapolis and the people of Minnesota."

At one point MNDoT had a much grander product in mind. Forty years ago the agency envisioned Hiawatha as one of a series of freeways radiating out from downtown Minneapolis. Lyndale and Cedar Avenues would have been part of the network, as would the proposed
I-335 corridor to the northeast. Most of that plan was doomed by neighborhood opposition and dwindling highway funds. But the Hiawatha project remained, a stubborn remnant of 1950s vision. MNDoT battled the Minneapolis Park Board all the way to the Supreme Court and won; hundreds of families lost their homes as the agency cleared land for the freeway. Finally, in 1974, MNDoT ran out of steam and federal highway money.

By then Carol and Al Kratz had been in their house for almost two decades. In 1956, when they moved in, he was working at a print shop and she was about to have their second child. The tiny house was all they could afford, but the location--on one of a few blocks wedged between Hiawatha and the park--was fit for a mansion. "Nobody knew this was here," Carol remembers. "So we were all by ourselves. One train a day would come through on the railroad tracks out back, and the kids would all go out and wave."

As the years went by, Riverview Road grew even quieter. "As our neighbors got older, when they wanted to get out they always sold to MNDoT," Carol explains. "Even after the court said they couldn't make the big freeway, MNDoT kept buying, because they had a plan to make a smaller road." No one, she says, really thought much about what that smaller road might look like, or where it would go.

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