River Wild

Al and Carol Kratz are waiting to hear the last word on their house--and a backyard full of squirrels
Mark Wojahn

Carol and Al Kratz haven't had this many neighbors in months. A turquoise tipi sits on their front lawn, a camp kitchen takes up the sidewalk next door, and two houses down a guy is perched atop a 20-foot metal tripod with his neck bike-locked to the structure. There's a hint of Rainbow Gathering about the scene, what with the smell of wood smoke, the sleep-rumpled T-shirts, and the strains of a flute from the tripod. Protesters have strung vacant houses with webs of teal and purple twine and erected handmade signs announcing "Camp Two Pines"; members of the Mendota band of Mdewakanton Dakota, a group seeking federal recognition as a tribe, have laid a line of sage bundles across the lawn near the Kratz's peonies. "It's wonderful," Carol Kratz beams. "We're finally getting the attention we've been looking for all these years."

Ostensibly, the object of all the activity is the Minnesota Department of Transportation's plan to demolish three vacant houses on the Kratz's street. But the protesters' real aim is to draw attention to what MNDoT wants to build on the land--a four-lane replacement for a worn-out stretch of Hiawatha Avenue two blocks to the west. The plan has been controversial since it first surfaced three decades ago, but the opposition has gained new momentum recently as hikers, naturalists, and historians rallied around what they call Minneapolis's last urban wilderness. The Park and River Alliance, a coalition of organizations fighting the rerouting, has lost its first battle against MNDoT in federal district court, but is appealing the decision.

Carol and Al Kratz, meanwhile, are waiting for U.S. Magistrate Franklin Noel to rule on the condemnation of their small white house, the only one still occupied on their side of Riverview Lane. Carol argued that case in court herself last week, and a good number of the protesters came along. They talked about the birds, the deer, the raccoons, and squirrels that populate the Hiawatha right-of-way; about the food Al Kratz, whose emphysema rarely allows him to leave the house, makes for them from toast, peanuts, and sunflower seeds; about how Al does not understand why they should move. "She certainly made it clear that she didn't want to leave the property," recalls Mike Sindt, the assistant state attorney general representing MNDoT in the case. "But it would seem, in my opinion, that the petition will be granted. That's what happens 99 times out of 100, and we made her an extremely fair offer." If the judge finds against the Kratzes, they'll have to move by the middle of October, says Sindt. "There is some flexibility in that, but we're talking days and weeks, not months."

But months are exactly what the protesters are aiming for. They know that their camp would yield easily to the blade of a bulldozer; what they're betting on are delay and publicity. Prominently displayed on their information table are flyers listing "media talking points... on which we have consensed." Press releases have gone out almost daily, with a bold-type offer to "facilitate live interviews." So far the strategy has been working: All the TV channels have come out, and WCCO went live for its 5, 6, and 10 p.m. newscasts one day last week. The broadcasts have brought a steady stream of gawkers, many bearing encouragement and groceries that threaten to overwhelm the small camp kitchen.

Bob McFarlin, MNDoT's director of public relations, knows a sympathetic cause when he sees one, and he says MNDoT is not about to get tangled in some David-and-Goliath scenario. "The houses will have to come down eventually, but not right now," he says. "We're just trying to take a real calm approach to it and not force any kind of unpleasant confrontation." His office has issued a fact sheet of its own, highlighting the Hiawatha project's long planning history and pointing out that public agencies from the Minnesota Historical Society to the Minneapolis park board are on record supporting it.

At press time things were quiet on Riverview Lane. Protesters were sleeping in the backs of cars and under canopies; the flautist on the tripod was silent. Even the squirrels seemed sleepy in the thick August air.

Inside the small white house, Carol Kratz was sorting her documents. People had been asking her, she mused, whether she'd started to pack yet. "Not a thing," was her answer. "I may be way out in space, but they've been trying to do this for 30 years, and they haven't yet. I may lose my house, I know that. But I don't think this highway is ever going through here."

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