The St. Paul Skyway: Public Space or Scrutinized Lobby?
by Lucy Sageser
Take a walk through the skyways at noon on a weekday, and you get the impression that you have stumbled into a hybridization of a mall, an apartment complex, and the waiting area of your local bank. The crowds hum as people criss-cross building complexes, making their way to food courts and cafes. This is the idealized skyway system- a street above the street, where the public can go to carry out errands and have lunch with their friends without having to brave the Minnesota winters. Look a little closer, however, and you will find a sort of counter-current running against this conception. The skyway code of conduct is posted on both sides of every causeway, warning against loitering in or obstructing the ‘avenues’ amongst the shops. Signage prohibiting sitting in certain areas abounds. CCTV cameras are ubiquitous, their presence often explicitly noted by placards with bold, capital letters. In just a few hours time, the reason for the existence of these proclamations becomes clear.
By one o’clock the crowds start to thin as the lunch hour comes to an end. By 3pm, shops start to close. As the last few stragglers depart from their post-work fitness classes and the halls become silent and empty, the question on everyone’s mind is “What, exactly, are you doing here?”
It’s a reasonable question. Most people who are familiar with St. Paul’s skyway system are aware that its principle raison d’etre is to function as an attractive amenity for downtown office workers on their lunch breaks, particularly during the colder months of the year. Outside of those hours, when all the shops are closed, the general perception is that the skyways are only populated by the homeless and other societal outcasts. These are the elements that the signs and security cameras seek to control. Private security guards and St. Paul police alike work to move along those who do not appear to belong; backpacks and shabby clothes are a surefire way to ignite their suspicions. Hours of operation have been limited to better control access to the space. The result is a space that feels less like a second street, and more like a scrutinized waiting room. The population is permitted to travel to and fro in order to patronize private establishments, but the moment one stops and lingers the clock starts to tick. A person visiting the skyway after hours without a clear purpose is automatically seen as suspect. Because there isn’t really anything to do in the skyway outside of its relatively short business hours, the attitude seems to be that existing in the skyway after hours just isn’t allowed.
This constant suspicion can lead to violent overreactions, like in the St. Paul taser suit. For the unaware, the suit concerns Chris Lollie, a black man who sat in a chair in the skyway to wait for his children at their daycare. He was asked to leave by a private security officer who said he was not permitted to sit in the lounge area, despite it not being labeled as employee or customer only seating. When he refused, the police were called, who tazed Lollie repeatedly despite his cooperation. Later, all charges against Lollie were dismissed and Lollie sued the city. The main point of contention in the suit is whether or not the lounge area Lollie was sitting in was public or private space. This kind of ambiguity over one’s right to occupy the skyway all but ensures that it remains an unattractive place for the public to be apart from during the workday lunch hour.
Some of you may read this and think “So what?” For many, the skyway functioning primarily as a workplace amenity and being strictly controlled outside of business hours might seem ideal, if not essential to ensure that the space remains safe and clean. Many feel the skyway is already unsafe and welcome more thorough patrols of police and other security measures, which are seen by most I spoke to as inadequate to protect the people who live in apartments connected to the skyways. I spoke with one group of apartment residents who felt the need to create an informal apartment safety patrol armed with pool cues, tasers, and in one case, even a sword after being attacked outside of their complex. They regularly waited hours for police to respond when large groups of non-residents congregated around entrances, making residents feel unsafe. Under circumstances such as these, it’s easy to see why people might think that the intense amount of scrutiny placed on after-hours visitors is a good thing. However, it is my view that this approach towards skyway management all but ensures that the skyway will spiral deeper into this dynamic of bustling during the lunch hour and dangerous at all other times.
Let us address the fact that the current measures of security do not actually guarantee safety. If a person is assaulted in the skyways, the only purpose that signs and CCTV cameras will serve is aiding in the prosecution of their attacker after damage has already been done. Private security officers, whose role is largely hands-off, are only marginally more helpful. If someone is attacked in their presence, outside of calling 911 there is little they can do. Your only options in such a scenario are to wait for police to arrive or defend yourself, like the apartment residents I spoke to chose to do. This example illustrates why this excessive presence of security-focused features is seen as undesirable in a space and corresponds to a one in our model. These features don’t make people feel safe, they nurture a feeling of anxiety and out-of-placeness that discourages use.
Few will seriously argue that the only options to ensure safety after hours in the skyway is to flood it with police in every causeway or condone regular patrols by civilian vigilantes. In fact, the skyways serve as their own example of why such actions are unnecessary to ensure safety if you simply observe them during the lunch hour. The skyway doesn’t feel safe from noon to one on weekdays because it’s swarming with cops or because every lunch-goer is carrying a weapon; it feels safe because it’s well-populated with large numbers of fellow citizens lending a sense of social protection to the entire space. If one were to be attacked during the lunch hour, there’s a strong level of confidence that someone else around would immediately take note and intervene. My rating of the skyway for animation is a reflection of this. The animation of the space during the lunch hour garners a five, but its emptiness after hours reduces it to a three.
We have to address the fact that in a city where temperatures regularly drop well below zero, the skyways are always going to be an attractive place to be for St. Paul’s homeless or home-insecure populations. In this way, the skyway system has taken what should be an inherent advantage it has as a space over the city streets and turned it into a liability. Early closing hours, lack of use, and hostile levels of control and scrutiny all work together to make the skyways an entirely unpleasant place to be for everyone but the desperate. If we want the skyways to feel as safe as they do during the lunch hour, we should focus on broadly increasing its levels of animation throughout the day rather than constantly working to limit access and use outside of one specific time.
Part of what makes this goal difficult to realize is the skyway’s physical configuration, which I rated two out of five. The skyway bridges connect to privately owned buildings, through which avenues of public space run to connect to the other bridges. The privately owned businesses are required to keep these floors open and allow for public access, but have little to gain financially for doing so. The awkward combination of public and private ownership results in the private elements hiring on the bare minimum of security personnel to just keep people moving along. What you end up with is a space no one wants to take responsibility for, so instead, the hours of operation are cut.
Making the skyway a more consistently animated and vibrant place would be good for its health as a public space. There is also local interest for it, too. The apartment residents I spoke with formed their defense group did so in part because they refused to give up their ability to safely use the space after hours. Members waxed nostalgic about the days where they could walk through the skyways at the dead of night to visit a convenience store, and railed against the police force for responding to their fears about safety after dark with suggestions to just stay inside. This type of use should not be discouraged. It would make the skyways a greater utility for all of St. Paul’s residents and it is also the fundamentally more responsible thing for the city to do in order to ensure a safe environment for its citizens. The extreme over-scrutiny of those within the skyway creates a threatening and dangerous environment for the city’s most marginalized. It led to the unnecessary and brutal assault of Chris Lollie, and it’s foolish to assume this kind of scenario was a one-of-a-kind occurrence. The excessive control placed over the skyways after hours boils its users down to some of St. Paul’s most marginalized groups, such as the homeless or home-insecure, which are disproportionately people of color. This basically ensures that the majority of encounters both private security and city police officers have with skyway users are hostile confrontations with minorities, creating the perfect breeding ground for another assault on an innocent person.
This cultivated environment of bias is not limited to the police; it prompts a more prejudiced view amongst skyway users as well. The vigilante group I’ve spoken of was a reaction to an environment created by the current method of controlling the skyways, and it’s important to note the group’s use of coded language when describing the sorts of people they were watching out for. All the members of the vigilante apartment watch that I spoke with were white, and they described the groups of youth and non-residents that they were concerned about as “ghetto,” as well as suggesting that these suspect parties might be using the bus systems to come to the skyway from places like East St. Paul and Frogtown. We cannot continue to police the skyways in a way that prompts such racialized interactions. If we are serious about designing our public spaces in a way that is democratic and just, our conception of the skyways needs to become more open, and less controlled.