Brooks: The long road to clear sidewalks in Minneapolis

The man from Minneapolis threw down his shovel and picked up his pen.

A brutal winter storm had clogged the streets and buried the sidewalks and only one of those problems seemed to be City Hall's problem. Why, Chas A. Eskstrom wanted to know, would Minneapolis clear the streets but not the sidewalks?

"Years ago, when we had a heavy snow, the city was out in the night and morning plowing the walks so children could get to school," Eskstrom wrote. "But nowadays, the city thinks more of the automobiles and plows the streets."

His letter ran in his hometown paper on Dec. 21, 1940.

Eighty-two years later, a Minneapolis City Council member responded.

"I'm gonna keep working to make Chas's dream a reality," Council Member Robin Wonsley tweeted last week, along with a copy of Eckstrom's letter from the Star Tribune archives.

Last year, Wonsley was one of a handful of council members who pushed unsuccessfully for municipal sidewalk snow removal, or for a public works pilot project that would have sent city crews to the aid of seniors and others trapped by impassable sidewalks.

Wonsley has heard enough winter horror stories. Wheelchairs mired on snowy sidewalks. Elderly residents trapped in their homes for days. Her own sister broke her leg while walking her dog along an unshoveled Minneapolis sidewalk last winter.

"I've had over 100 emails just in the past week from residents calling for a municipal sidewalk initiative," she said. "I've heard from residents who've had injuries, who haven't been able to walk to their nearest grocery store, because of the conditions of the sidewalks. It's absolutely heartbreaking."

Eight decades on, Minneapolis residents are still asking why their city plows the streets, but leaves sidewalk snow removal at the mercy of a patchwork of property owners.

"We have a thousand miles of streets. Two-thousand miles of sidewalks," said Minneapolis Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher. "Our crews were out there from almost the beginning of snow. ... We are plowing streets, we are working as hard as we can."

City officials estimated this week that it would take a fleet of 120 sidewalk plows and a multimillion-dollar budget to make Minneapolis a walkable city in the winter.

Until then, Minneapolis residents have fanned out across their neighborhoods in shovel brigades, helping each other through the storm with grit and goodwill. Bad weather brings out the best in Minnesotans.

There are property owners who can shovel but don't — hundreds of them, by the city's estimate. Their negligence can cost their neighbors dearly.

Last winter, Wonsley's sister, Shakita Kpetay, was walking her dog when she slipped on a sign buried under the unshoveled snow in front of an apartment building. The fall broke her leg and ankle. Her injuries required surgery and more than a year of painful recovery.

Now she faces another winter of sidewalk roulette. Some streets are blessed with kind neighbors with snow-blowers — and enough goodwill to clear the whole block. Others have drifts so deep, pedestrians give up and walk in the road. Because the city clears the roads.

"If the city is getting our taxpayer dollars, I think those dollars ought to be used to ensure that we have safe sidewalks to walk on," Kpetay said. "Here in Minnesota, it should be better than that. Snow is not a new thing to us."

Some days it's hard to know if your city is working for you. Snow days are not one of those days. Mayors get a performance review every time voters see a plow.

"We understand that the job they have to do is not easy, and we really admire them for that," said Minneapolis resident and folk-blues musician John Kolstad, who spent hours shoveling the driveways and walkways around his Seward neighborhood home, only to be reburied in ice and snow by city plows clearing the streets afterward.

The way Minneapolis clears snow – or doesn't clear snow – "really makes things terrible for us," Kolstad said.

Few things make voters angrier than unplowed snow. Ask the ex-mayor of Chicago after the blizzard of 1979. Ask the ex-mayor of Seattle who didn't dig out fast enough from a snowstorm in 2009.

Ask Chas Eskstrom, bristling at the headline that ran in the Dec. 18, 1940, edition of the Minneapolis Star, while the state was still digging out from the lethal Armistice Day Blizzard.

"Must Shovel Your Walks, City Warns," read the front-page headline. "Residents, Not Municipality, Responsible for Removal Task."

Eskstrom, a man 80 years ahead of his time, fired back.

"If you do clean your sidewalks, bingo, here comes a plow hellbent down the street and throws the snow back on the walks again," he wrote. "We should all do like the man on Fourth and Hennepin, who told the city he didn't put the snow on the walks, so let the one that put it there take it off."