What makes a big city? In New York, you know it by what you see. It’s the mountain range of buildings that rise up in the spaces between the grid of surface streets. It’s the traffic exhaust, which ends up on the Kleenex when you blow your nose at night. It’s the sheer number of yellow Crown Vic cabs and black Lincoln limo sedans that pass you by.
In Boston, you know it by what you hear. It’s the 24-hour noise. It’s the colony of surly people swearing with a New England accent, laying on their horns on the roads, mad they’re not going anywhere. It’s the insanity of the former horse-paths they call roads, and the resulting desire to undertake something as crazy as the Big Dig to put them all underground.
In Minneapolis, I know it because of the unrelenting presence of people and noise where previously there were pockets of quiet and places you could be alone. I’ve seen the pockets disappearing this summer here and there, with every empty lot being developed, with every new light rail plan that gets announced, with every immigrant, student and retiree who moves into the city core. Minneapolis is a big city. It is. I’ve seen the evidence, but it’s what I’ve heard recently that’s been more convincing. …
Saturday, 11:30 a.m.
We pull the kids behind my bike to explore the recently completed 28th Street Greenway. We get on the route at West River Road and 27th Street, and ride west. It’s quiet and residential until we come to the lanes of traffic on Highway 55 shooting past 28th Street at near-highway speeds, and as we cautiously cross this wide road, we hear the light rail cruise over our head on its elevated track.
The next stretch of the Greenway is a former train line itself, a trench dug under the middle of the city so as not to interrupt the already-built city streets. We hear the sounds of the city rise up and away from us, but we can’t see them. We ride under bridges at Cedar, Bloomington, 13th Avenue that look like they haven’t been replaced since they were built. (The dates “1914,” “1915,” “1916” are chiseled in old cement.) The cars rattle the bridge decks as they hit the seams in the pavement.
At Chicago Avenue, we stop and climb the stairs to enter Midtown Exchange, where we witness commerce in a dozen languages.
On the trip home, lots of people are using the path for a variety of reasons. Serious cyclists fly by in packs, calling out their presence on our left side. Casual bikers go by in pairs in each direction. Industrious neighborhood kids hawk lemonade, but they quit because no one is carrying money. Our kids grab each other and shriek so loudly that everyone stares.
Saturday, 5:00 p.m.
We sit in the backyard as the kids are playing. The city lots are close together so you can hear conversations from three or four houses away and across the alley. We hear a neighbor’s phone and we check to see if it’s ours. The same thing happens when we hear a kid crying. Little yip dogs challenge passing German shepherds from behind cedar fences.
Airplanes pass overhead every once in a while, even though we supposedly aren’t in the flight pattern. Teenagers cruise down 29th Street in rusty beaters, stopping and accelerating abruptly at stop signs, playing music so loud that the subwoofers installed in the trunks make the car shake. The walkers give them wide berth.
This could be an older section of any small town in America if it weren’t for the planes and the constant hum of traffic from the northeast. The freeway doesn’t seem that close, but the sound from the cars on the I-94 bridge over the Mississippi River must carry down the river valley. Or maybe the sound bounces off the cement walls in Prospect Park, east of the bridge, where they carved the freeway into the hill 45 years ago. Either way, the hum is always there.
Saturday, 11:00 p.m.
I lay in bed with the windows open, on top of the sheets, staring at the ceiling fan. I hear the people who are out on the weekend. They won’t go home for hours, and I’ll lay awake listening to them stay out. I want to yell out my window like a New Yorker and tell someone, anyone, to shut up, but what I’m hearing might be miles away. By Minneapolis standards, this isn’t even a busy neighborhood.
I hear crotch rockets from a long way off, loud and fast, and Harleys too, loud and slow. I want to ask them all if the volume is compensation for some shortcoming, but they probably wouldn’t hear me. And there are the trains and train whistles, car horns, the slamming doors, the firecrackers, people talking and yelling and laughing, sirens, tires as they peel out, and unfortunately, gunshots. Everything but crickets.
Is anyone else hearing this? It’s the first time I’ve felt that I can’t get away from people. Maybe everyone else isn’t hearing what I’m hearing; maybe they’re all blissfully barricaded in with their central air. But open your windows this summer, and you’ll realize we don’t live in a sleepy little town anymore. In a big city, people are everywhere, all the time, and it’s keeping me wide awake.