The Sidewalk at the End of the City

JOG ALONG THE eastern shore of downtown Minneapolis, out where Elliot Park falls away into a sea of concrete. Head south on the weed-edged, crumbling sidewalk of 13th Avenue. At 926 you land on a new and perfect 10-foot section of sidewalk.

Keith Koch just went ahead and paid out-of-pocket for the new public patch of sidewalk in front of 926. No threatening to leave town. No referendum. But then Keith didn't have much choice. A while back the city ordered him to pull a permit within 15 days and hire a licensed and bonded contractor or it would bid the job out, add a 10-percent fee on top of estimated costs of $500, and put the tab on Keith's property taxes to be paid over five years at 6 percent.

This isn't just any sidewalk. It's the last section of public walkway on the eastern shore. Five feet further on is an 8-foot chain link fence. Beyond the fence, southbound 35W splits into three lanes heading for 94 East, 94 West, and the 11th Avenue exit; four lanes of 94 head east with one lane peeling away to 55 South; four more lanes of 94 head west with two unopened lanes coming in from northbound 55; three lanes of 35W head north with one lane splitting off for the Third Street exit; the Fifth Street exit comes in from 94 West; and the Sixth Street ramp heads out for 94 East. Altogether you need to leap the fence, sprint across 16 lanes of freeway, climb a hill, leap another chain-link fence, and cross a street before you land on the next section of sidewalk on 13th Avenue.

If you turn and look west from the new piece of sidewalk, downtown rises like a mountain range beyond an old stucco duplex that stands like a lighthouse on a promontory. Keith Koch and Kristina Kliber live there along with Mary and Stanley. Keith goes to graduate school at the university and designs Web sites. Kristina works at Target's downtown office. And if you wander unannounced into the yard at 926, Mary comes at you with dripping fangs in a scene that scares holy hell out of Stanley who runs and hides under the back porch. Stanley is a Jack Russell terrier. Mary is a German shepherd/Lab who is pretty firm about you remaining out front on that new piece of sidewalk.

Pull hard on both ends of I-94 and you'd have a fisherman's knot. Keith says within that vast tangle of concrete is a hidden village. "Sometimes at dusk you see a steady stream of people heading down the ramps. They saunter across lanes of traffic like it wasn't there," he says. "Some carry shopping bags of groceries from SuperAmerica. Eventually they all disappear into the bushes and under the overpasses. If you're living on the street and you are pretty good at dodging traffic it's probably the safest place in town. As long as you're among friends, who's going to go in there to bother you?"

There are police all around the village but they mostly set up checkpoints on I-94 just after 1 in the morning when the downtown nightspots have shut down. They invite some drivers heading east for St. Paul or the suburbs to blow up little balloons. Despite thousands of cars and almost unlimited games of merge chicken, Keith says there are surprisingly few accidents--just lots of sirens from cops flying through the loops and ambulances heading for Hennepin County Medical Center. But the only probable accident Keith ever saw was when he spotted a distant figure lugging two shopping bags of groceries across three ramps. From somewhere in the midst of the fourth ramp a bunch of groceries suddenly flew in the air. He never heard the outcome.

This summer there was a strong aroma of natural gas in the breeze along the eastern shore. The city tore up a few blocks of 13th Avenue and Ninth Street for resurfacing. While that was going on, the gas company was required to check its lines. So every day trenches were dug and every night the trenches were refilled so neighborhood kids and people who wander away from the Andrew Care Home on Ninth Street to have a smoke don't fall in the holes.

Keith says you get used to the massive white noise of roaring traffic. Even the sirens. Even the bulldozers, resurfacing, and exotic gas stink. It's more the piledrivers when the highway department decides to redo one of the loops out there in the concrete tangle. And when they tear up an old ramp they tend to do it at night. All night. And it's never going to be over. Keith figures there are 17 plans for proposed alterations to the gigantic Hot Wheels setup out beyond his front yard. He thinks at least seven of the plans will require the acquisition of the duplex or at least his brand new patch of sidewalk.

"But we like it here," Keith says. "It's novel. If we lived out in the suburbs we'd probably have two and a half kids, a trilevel, and a boat and never know the difference. And even with a few thousand cars an hour going by, it's very private. After all, none of those people out there are coming here. Our families in Coon Rapids won't even come here."

Keith says for a while he figured the location gave him a sort of civic role to play. "After all, we're the gateway to downtown for everybody driving in on I-94 from east of the Mississippi. So last year I grew ivy on the chain link and planted sunflowers all along the fence. Not a good idea, I guess. One day I came home and somebody had cut all of it down."

At least the new sidewalk's done. From now on if you sprint down 13th Avenue and splat into the chain link at 926 it's probably something you had in mind all along.

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