Bridge collapse dominant theme of National Night Out

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Residents near 35W bridge reflect on tragedy and look ahead to the future.

For neighborhoods closest to the site of the 35W bridge disaster, this year’s National Night Out events took on extra meaning, as neighbors observed a moment of silence and talked about the tragedy that occurred so close to home.

The annual Marcy-Holmes National Night Out event has always had a good turnout, according to local resident Marilyn Grant. At first glance, the gathering on the 500 block of Southeast Seventh Avenue was no different. The potluck food table, the root beer keg, the friendly chit-chat between neighbors, kids ooing and ahhing over the fire truck parked on the cordoned off street made it the classic American block party. Friends mingled in conversation, as usual, but it was what they were talking about that made this year’s event so different.

Strolling through the crowd, it was apparent that this year’s National Night Out wasn’t only to reconnect with friends in the neighborhood. It also served as an important outlet for people to share: where they were when they heard the news — or, for some, the actual sound of the collapse; how they have been navigating through the city with several prominent local roadways still closed; and their appreciation for those who were the first to respond to the disaster.

There were subtle reminders. A table with leaflets and information about neighborhood goings-on included a notebook with the words “I-35W Bridge Collapsed Aug. 1, 2007,” intended for personal refection and neighborhood archival. A giant poster board was set up on an easel with colorful Sharpie markers so neighbors could write messages to the first responders, many of whom work just down the street at Station 11 on Southeast Third Street and Sixth Avenue Southeast.

The City of Minneapolis made available a newsletter outlining its response to the disaster, as well as other information for residents, available on the city’s website.

The I-35W Bridge collapse has been a shock to every Minnesotan, but perhaps nowhere has the effect of the collapse been felt more acutely than by the neighbors who reside on either side of the span of freeway that used to cross the Mississippi.

“At night it’s very quiet around here,” said Melissa Bean, one of the organizers of the Marcy-Holmes National Night Out party. “You can hear the crickets now. We were used to that hum [of traffic on 35W].”

Bean reiterated what several others at the block party said: that a lot of local residents were avoiding I-35W in general before the bridge fell because of the summer construction work.

“In that way, our neighborhood was very fortunate,” she said.

There seemed to be mixed feelings about all of the “sightseers” who have flocked to the area in the past week.

“I felt it was a little bit disrespectful,” said resident Karen Sorensen.

Grant said it was simply “human nature” for people to feel compelled to see the collapsed bridge in-person.

Some neighbors expressed concerns about the local traffic chaos that has resulted from other bridge closures and detours.

“It takes me four times as long to get to the freeway in the morning and at night,” Sorenson said.

Dick Luedtke said he “really miss[es] the 10th Avenue Bridge as a local thing.”

“It seems like the new bridge — the replacement bridge — is on a lot of people’s minds,” Bean said.

Fast track concerns

Several residents in both the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, on the opposite side of the river, had concerns about the speed with which a new bridge will be constructed.

“That bridge is on a fast track,” Bean said, adding that the safety and even the aesthetics of a bridge designed and built so quickly concerned her to some degree. Bean said she hopes surrounding neighbors will have input into the planning for the new bridge. She has already heard people asking whether the new bridge will incorporate some type of memorial.

Luedtke agreed with Bean’s concerns. “I’m concerned that they’ll hurry too much to get it done,” he said. He also mentioned aesthetics as an issue and asked aloud whether now is the right time to incorporate light rail transit with a new bridge.

At a Cedar-Riverside National Night Out party at Seven Corners Apartments, Jackie Entsminger, project manager for the apartments, voiced similar concern that the rebuilding of the bridge might occur “too swiftly.”

Entsminger said that, after the bridge failure, the safety of the complex’s residents was of utmost concern to her. The day after the collapse, the apartment complex had its engineers and contractors out to determine whether the structure of any of the Seven Corners buildings had been at all compromised when the bridge fell, she said.

“Close to the Action”

When international students Sri and Jay moved into their apartment in the “A” Block of Seven Corners Apartments a month ago, a rental advertisement promised that their new location was “close to the action.” (The two did not want to give their last names.)

The claim turned out to be true — perhaps too true. Just weeks after arriving in the United States and settling into their new housing, the two MBA students got the surprise of their lives.

“It looked like an earthquake,” said Jay. “We had to run out of the [seventh floor] apartment.”

Both students said their building, which was the closest of the Seven Corners properties to the bridge, physically shook from the collapse.

At the Seven Corners National Night Out celebration, Sri, Jay and a female friend — who declined to give her name — reflected on how life has changed for them since the bridge fell.

“Everyday we wake up and see the collapsed bridge,” Sri said.

All three students said the bridge’s failure has made them at least a little squeamish about crossing other bridges in the area, including the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge, which they frequently walk.

Like their neighbors on the other side of the river, the three university graduate students have encountered problems just entering and exiting their own homes. Those in the “A” block must now walk around the entire complex to leave their homes, as the parking garage short cut they used to take is now cordoned off. Still, the students insisted the inconvenience to them was small compared with the greater tragedy.

“Overall, it’s pretty sad… five people are dead, eight people are missing,” the female in the group said, adding that she was surprised that the incident happened here in this country. “We are international students, and we thought that the standards here [in the United States] were safe,” she said. “I don’t know what happened here.”

In a time when everyone is still wondering that same thing, Tuesday’s event provided peace of mind — if not some kind of normalcy — in what has no doubt been one the most frenzied weeks in either neighborhood’s history.

While the event offered a forum for neighbors to air their thoughts and feelings, not everyone was talking. After speaking to local and national media about his actions as a first responder, one firefighter remained silent, apologetically declining to talk about what happened that evening. “It was too horrific,” he said.