By John Diers
Summer mornings usually find my wife and I enjoying our coffee on the front porch. It’s one of the many joys of living in an old house, on a quiet street in an old part of town, surrounded by good neighbors.
William Howard Taft was in the White House when our house was built in 1910. The first St. Michael’s Church, the spiritual home of the future Archbishop John Roach, stood down the block at Duluth and Pleasant, and uptown on Main Avenue there were the typical businesses of a small farm town at the turn of the 20th century – along with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul’s railroad station and its Railway Express Agency and Western Union Telegraph office. Two local passenger trains called on the station every day, and, with connections in Minneapolis-St. Paul, it was possible to travel just about anywhere you wanted to go.
Like today, there were undoubtedly walkers going by who would have said hello and cyclists headed toward Main Avenue on an errand, maybe a horse and buggy, perhaps even a sputtering Model T.
Missing, however, were the enumerable two-ton, 300 horsepower machines we seem to need today to move a 150-pound human being where he or she has to go. Think about it. All the energy, all the resources, the despoiled landscape and environment, all to move one person to a job that’s 30 miles from home or to a shopping center to buy something they may not really need – or to a health club to exercise and lose weight because they don’t walk enough.
As we sit out front and settle the problems of the world, I wonder out loud to my wife why we do this sort of thing; why we keep doing more and more of it and find it essential to keep consuming and sprawling and growing to maintain what we call quality of life when it’s a zero-sum game and the unintended consequences keep piling up?
My grandparents had a home much like ours near Fairview and West Minnehaha avenues in St. Paul. It was from the same era as ours with a similar porch, and, as a kid in the late ’40s, it was my favorite place to perch and watch the Hamline-Cherokee streetcars roll by.
Grandfather and grandmother were middle-class, well-educated people with a good income and a good life. My mom told me that grandfather bought an automobile just after World War I and would pack the family in the car and race his buddies out to Dodd Road. It was sport, but sometime shortly thereafter she said he tired of it and parked the car for good. Thereafter, he and grandmother joined the Twin Cities residents each year who dropped their nickels and dimes in the fare box and took the streetcar wherever they had to go. Mother remembered pleading with him to drive her to school to impress her friends, but he was stubborn and gave her a token and told her to take the streetcar or walk. He’d had enough of cars.
When I stayed with them, I remember grandmother calling in a grocery order to the store down the block. A short time later someone, usually a high school kid, would show up at the door with her order. There was a produce market at Snelling and Minnehaha and a butcher shop, a bakery and a pharmacy, and – most importantly – sidewalks to take us there. If it were a nice day, we’d walk, or, if it were raining or cold, we’d take the streetcar. Grandfather was a great reader and would often walk with us on his way to the Hamline Library. They enjoyed classical music and were subscribers to the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, and, when they took me along we rode to Northrop Auditorium on one of the new, postwar PCC streetcars.
I don’t believe for a moment they felt deprived or inconvenienced in the slightest by not having a car and all the technology we seem to need and take for granted. I suppose they’d be considered eccentrics or Luddites and regarded suspiciously today, but they lived quite well in a simpler, and in so many ways, a more elegant time.
My parents were the opposite. My dad bought a brand new Pontiac after the war and we headed for Bloomington, which is where I grew up, learned how to drive, joined the car culture and acquired the habits of every other consumption-driven Baby Boomer.
It’s a little late at age 71, but I’m trying to reform. Buying an older home in an old neighborhood was a good start, and, while there are sidewalks hereabouts and places to walk to, they’re an afterthought, especially if you have to cross County Road 21 or Highway 13 to go anywhere. Ask the kids and the parents who go to the dance studio and have to face the traffic on Colorado and Arcadia. Dominium is building a new senior apartment complex near Highway 13, but try getting downtown from there on foot. You can’t.
There are ambitious plans for downtown Prior Lake, but they’re built around moving cars at a high rate of speed around and through the downtown, not people who want to walk, or bike, there. That has to change.
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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email email@example.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)