Skirting the Issues: The Wall

We met in the backroom of a Dunn Bros coffee shop, with three tables pushed together in a not-so-square rectangle. Twelve or thirteen people—I lost count—some in suits, some not. Government bigwigs rubbing elbows with ordinary citizens.

And at least three lawyers, including yours truly.

The agenda?

Taking on Big Brother.

Here’s the background: Marcy Holmes is the oldest neighborhood in Minnesota, let alone Minneapolis. It’s split in two by six lanes of concrete known as “35W.” On the east side, there’s Dinkytown, the U, and a million stressed-out students. On the west, you’ve got magnificent older homes, the Stone Arch Bridge, and condos and apartments on just about every corner.

In some ways, the neighborhood is sort of bi-polar—student party animal versus manicured professional and high end retiree—with the interstate serving as a kind of community interruptis (I just invented that phrase, thank you very much) that presents special challenges in terms of keeping continuity between all the parts. Still, we have something—we can look from one side of 35W to the other and wave to fellow Marcy Holmesians (another Ellie word) on a sunny day.

Big Brother wants to change that.

Coming attractions include expanding the number of interstate lanes from three to four. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (aka “MDOT”) believes this will result in added traffic and noise and require the erection (oh, how I love that word in any context other than this) of sound barriers—those forty foot walls of baby crap brown wood and concrete behind which God knows what exists. (Take a drive down 35W south of downtown and you’ll get what I mean.)

In other words, MDOT wants to “give” Marcy Holmes its very own Berlin Wall.

How nice.

More than a year ago, MDOT conducted a vote of “affected residents” who live closest to where the Wall would be placed. That vote was skewed—MDOT only polled owners of record (some of whom were landlords who didn’t even live in Minnesota). For others, postcards addressed to “Resident” were sent to various apartments. Many of those apartments were occupied by college students, who of course either completely ignored the postcards or used them as backstops for beer pong.

All of this matters because under MDOT’s voting rules, a non-vote counts as a “yes” vote. Thus, if only two “no” votes are recorded from 100 postcards—and 98 postcards are never returned—MDOT will deem the neighborhood to have voted for the Wall.

How crazy is that? I thought only North Korea conducted votes that way.

Hence why we needed to meet with MDOT.

The Dunn Bros meeting was cordial, but frank. Faced with three Marcy Holmes board-member lawyers and some feisty community activists, MDOT quickly agreed that its original Wall voting process was flawed. We then heard about “decibel ratings” for how noisy traffic can be. My eyes glazed and hearing hardened after twenty minutes of regulatory nuances and the meaning of “impacted receptors to loss or modification of noise abatement.”

Being the impatient sort, I offered a “thirty thousand foot view” of the situation. My take: Marcy Holmes as a neighborhood is already challenged by the existence of 35W. Barely anyone wants more separation, more physical polarization, not to mention safety and graffiti issues. Why spend $5 million when the neighborhood doesn’t want the “Wall?” Couldn’t we just call it a day and say that the neighborhood would be better off without those awful noise barriers?

Put the money to some other use—like green spaces. Or teaching inner city boys and girls how to read. We’re talking priorities here, people.

Bureaucrats being bureaucrats, the MDOT crowd shook its collective head. There must be another vote on whether to “give” Marcy Holmes the Wall. It’s as if that $5 million is burning a hole in MDOT’s wallet.

The lesson here: we need to protect our neighborhoods. For those of us who seek to put down roots—who want to call Minneapolis home—we must draw lines in the sand against the myriad of things that work to undermine the collective sense of “neighborhood.”

It takes vigilance and vision. It also takes time, something that many of us don’t have.

Yet, enough is enough, making me want to revert to student-speak.

Don’t Wall me, Bro! Don’t Wall me!

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