St. Paul’s skyway project won’t let us look away from each other

There are occasional times when my breath is literally taken away by the beauty of the diversity of where I’ve chosen to call home.

A few years ago, for example, I walked up to see the very first Crashed Ice, running head-long into the A Prairie Home Companion crowd leaving the Fitzgerald Theater on a Saturday night, shortly before I faced the tide of country music fans heading to the Xcel Center, competing with the parka-and-boozed-up people checking out Crashed Ice.

Three different groups sharing a city. Each doing its part to make a shared moment alive with its own energy.

I wasn’t prepared to lose my breath, however, when I made a dash to the Post Office through the skyway this afternoon. I had read in one of the papers that there’d be an installation of stories from people who also had chosen to come here from somewhere else.

But I didn’t expect it would be so downright beautiful.

St. Paul’s Skyway is typically a monument to desperation, the crushed dreams by empty storefronts, the fellow traveler immersed in a smartphone to avoid humanity.

But each picture, which cannot be photographed head-on because they become more translucent, comes with a story that reminds us that we’ve sought the same thing in choosing our home.

Elsa Mekuria, from Ethiopia, made a picture to leave with her family when she left them for us.

“I got goose bumps when I came to Minnesota she said,” noting that in her home country — her first home country — she was expected to stay home.

Another picture describes a family’s flight from the Soviets, arriving here from Latvia. “If I were to return there now,” she says, “I would be viewed as the American and discriminated against because I’m lesbian.”

Emmanuel Munyankusi, born in Rwanda,  is proud of the picture of him in the first pair of shoes he ever owned. It was taken the day he passed his high school admissions test.

Roman Avetisov recalls the first words he learned when he first arrived in America from Tbilisi in Georgia were “I’ll be back.”  He started working in northeast Minneapolis and learned more English by practicing with his customers.


Anna Lena Skold — Sweden —  didn’t plan to come here. But then she met the man who would be her husband. She’s a chef.  She misses her grandfather.


No doubt some people will see the installation as another liberal plot to influence the current debate on immigration and there’s not much we can do about them. They’ve chosen to live in their world, a cocktail  of mistrust and desperation and fear.

But there’s plenty to love about the individual stories and journeys of the people because their story is our story too.

  • Guest

    “I wish dem durn furigners would jus’ leave and get outta here. This usta be a decent country full of decent folks…..until the let in jus’ anyone……now looka the crap we gotta take”

    signed Geronimo 🙂

  • AL287

    My father’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Finland in 1910. They came through Canada.

    My grandfather was a logger and met my grandmother in northern Minnesota. The two of them moved to Oregon to take advantage of the logging camps there. My grandmother cooked for the camp and my grandfather later took up carpentry.

    My great grandparents on my mother’s side came to the U.S. to the Gulf Coast on their honeymoon and decided to remain permanently.

    I am the product of immigrants and so is my son, whose father escaped Czechoslovakia and landed in Southeast Louisiana where we met and later married.

    We are a nation of immigrants as the St. Paul Skyway Project so clearly and beautifully illustrates.

    It makes the xenophobia currently infecting the country that much more difficult to understand.

    • Ralphy

      Well said. The first thing I thought of when I saw these photos were the historical photos of the loggers, farm workers and miners that came to America in search of…
      Many did not have papers, all had a dream of building a community and a better life for their family. The only real difference between my ancestors and today’s immigrats is often just the color of their skin.

  • Gordon near Two Harbors

    A very nice and fitting display. Of course, in this modern age the “elephant in the room” is the question as to just how many should continue to migrate here now that our population has swelled past 320 million; and sprawl, congestion, and environmental degradation threaten to destroy the opportunities and quality of life that most Americans take for granted.

    No one wants this land to become like the worn-out places our ancestors fled.

    • Joe

      The EU has about twice as many people in about 75% of the space of the US. Meaning we could double our population and still not be as dense as them. So I’d say we have some room.

      • QuietBlue

        And then there’s Japan, with 39% of the population in 4% of the space, as another example. The U.S. has very low population density compared to the rest of the world.

      • Gordon near Two Harbors

        The only reason Americans have the opportunities we enjoy is because we still do have a relatively low population density. Why anyone would want to change that is beyond me.

        In Europe there is very little hunting and fishing available to the masses, wilderness and open space is almost non-existent, and most people live in apartments and densely populated towns and cities.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            I get it, but could you expand on this?

        • Lindsey

          Hunting and fishing are still enjoyed by many in the EU. On average, the EU’s cities are more dense, but that does not mean they do not have wilderness. Have you been to the EU?

          One could say that residents of the EU enjoy many more opportunities than residents of the US, including vacation time to actually enjoy their great outdoors.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            Yes, I have, and I have family in the EU. No real backpacking or canoe tripping available there. Europeans visit North America for those activities. Many are very envious of our open spaces and natural environment, and lament the fact that theirs is mostly gone–reduced to tiny, highly regulated fragments.

          • Again, Daniel Alvarez has pretty much proven this is categorically false.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            A book proves nothing. I’ve been there, and most Europeans, outside of Scandinavia and Scotland, would agree with my statement. Again, many come to North America for those activities.

          • Barton

            There are SO many places to backpack in the EU. Heck, you can backpack around Scotland for months and still not see all of its beauty (and Scotland allows wild camping, which makes it quite easy and affordable to do). In southern France, people take long treks backpacking through the Alpilles and into Spain.

            And canoe trips, like the Boundary Waters? Certain politicians and corporations are attempting to end that dream in America as we speak.

          • This is a good opportunity to read Daniel Alvarez’ blog, Predictably Lost documenting his latest adventure which was walking from the very northernmost point of Europe to the very southernmost. He didn’t seem to have much difficulty finding vast open spaces.


            Also, 82% of Americans live in cities.

            The areas of Minnesota that are most economically depressed, by the way, are rural ones.

    • MikeB

      Employers can’t find enough workers. There is space galore in rural areas. Cities can become more dense.

      A beautiful display in St Paul

      • Gordon near Two Harbors

        Lots of unemployed people here, including many that are disabled. Training and providing apprenticeships, as they do in Germany, would do a lot to remedy this.

        • MikeB

          You are taking both sides of your argument.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            No, what I am saying is that we need to get our own citizens fully employed first.

            Also, the brain drain from countries that are desperately trying to develop their own economies makes that process all the more difficult.

          • There are plenty of jobs out there, including the ones left behind by migrant workers who are now too afraid to work in the US become of anti-immigrant rhetoric, that are (literally) ripe for the picking.

            There was a recent poll conducted by the National Association of Home Builders that determined most millennials do not want to work in the high-paying home construction industry (where, according to CNBC, employers have had to double wages to keep workers from hopping job sites) no matter how much (even $100,000+) they could earn.

            Perhaps our problems are less with any hard-working immigrants than it is with a general lackadaisical attitude toward “hard work” among our own citizens?

            A big reason why you don’t nowadays see so many high school students flipping burgers or working behind the fast food counter, as in decades past, is not because an immigrant “stole” that job: It’s because (most?) high school students don’t want to flip burgers, anymore, anywhere, for $10 an hour.


          • I just googled “Jobs in Two Harbors.”

            That was illuminating.

          • You got me curious. Wow. Twenty-nine out of 32 listings for Two Harbors (specifically) are labeled “entry-level”. Seems if you want something other than an entry-level job (at Shopko, McDonalds, Holiday, etc.), you’d better have a degree and prior experience in manufacturing or production supervision.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            Yup, so if your argument is that you fill those positions with low-skilled, immigrant labor, the business owners get to profit off of their low-wage employees–and the taxpayer gets stuck with paying for the health care, subsidized housing, and everything else that the employees can’t afford.

          • You wrote: “Yup, so if your argument is that you fill those positions with low-skilled, immigrant labor, the business owners get to profit off of their low-wage employees–and the taxpayer gets stuck with paying for the health care, subsidized housing, and everything else that the employees can’t afford.”

            It’s interesting, isn’t it, that 40% of Walmart’s work force has to depend on taxpayer largesse, with food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, etc. because of Walmart paying less-than-living-wages. All those people employed there receiving “welfare” can’t all be “low-skilled, immigrant labor”.

            Coincidentally, Walmart enjoys an 18% share of the SNAP (food stamp) market. That means that, in 2013, for example, $13.5 billion out of $76 billion in taxpayer-funded food stamp sales went into Walmart cash registers … and profits from those sales into shareholder (read: Walton) pockets.

            So, tell me again that it is immigrants who exacerbate our labor and wage issues?


          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            Yup, it’s illuminating, all right. Young people (anybody, really) in rural America cannot survive on the wages that entry-level jobs provide, so they either head to the big cities, scrounge out a life of near-poverty in their hometowns, or end up on public assistance. This is true across rural America–and a BIG reason that the big idiot, Donald Trump, won the last Presidential election.

          • Sounds like population density is a pretty good thing, then if the lack of it is causing so many problem.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            You are correct. I would add that there are too many alternatives to having to work. I see young people all the time going on some sort of public assistance, because they chose to have kids, but without the means (or ambition/motivation) to support them.

          • I’ve lost track. What’s the problem again? First it was that we didn’t want to lose places to backpack and lose our open space and ability to hunt and fish. Then it was we can’t allow immigrants in because we need to get people who are here now jobs first. But there are jobs but people don’t take them. Now the problem is young people without motivation to work.

            You know who has motivation to work? The people putting the effort into coming to America.

            But we don’t want them to have the jobs because the business owners profit off them.

            If we they shut off all immigration, the people currently in Two Harbors will take those low-wage jobs that they’re not taking now, will they?

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            So, Bob, what should the US population climb to, and what is the ideal number? Is it all about economics and employment? I certainly never said that we should end immigration or that all immigration was bad. Most Americans are of immigrant stock. I stated my observations and opinions and was attacked on multiple fronts.

            My personal concern is on environmental health; intact, functioning ecosystems; and the overall quality of life of Americans. Numbers matter–especially when the US population is expected to grow to over half a billion by the end of this century. Do you think that tackling climate change, world hunger, and and environmental degradation will be easier with more people? I don’t think so.

            The current economic model in capitalist countries depends on perpetual growth. In reality, growth cannot be perpetual and resources are not infinite.

          • Maybe we need some death panels then.

            How many more brilliant surgeons should we have? How many more scientific breakthroughs should happen here? How many great educators can we hold? How many businesses should we allow to be created?

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            Again, Bob, I never once stated that we should end immigration. Not once. I have implied that we need to look at the overall numbers. The annual number of arrivals today is far greater than it was during the height of the immigration period of the late 19th and early 20th century.

          • Fine. I was responding to your request for an arbitrary number and your assessment that we have too many people so people can’t go backpacking.

            You’re placing a value on people based on their place of birth.

            I’m suggesting that’s a truly illogical calculus for what you say the problems are.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            With that logic, why have any national borders at all? Perhaps you believe that population growth has no impact on environment, quality of life, and national identity. Americans make up 4 percent of the world’s population, but consume 20 percent of its resources.

          • If population growth is your concern — and it’s a valid concern — then the big picture says there probably is a holistic way to approach it.

            My suspicion is environment and quality of life isn’t really your concern.

            National Identity is.

            In the discussion of immigration, you have to peel away the layers of smokescreen — no place to go backpacking? Oh, please — before you get to the overarching issue.

          • Gordon near Two Harbors

            Ok, now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. I suspect that you perceive me as some sort of right-wing, anti-immigration red-neck. Not true. I’m a fairly progressive guy on most issues, well-educated, and raised in the Twin Cities. I left 35 years ago when I headed off to college.

            Yes, my primary interest in environmental health and quality of life. I think you can see that in my initial post. No, national identity is not a big concern, as most immigrants ultimately see themselves as Americans, regardless of race or national origin.

            I suggest you read “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?” by Alan Weisman (2013) for a comprehensive worldwide perspective on the issue. An excellent read.

          • I’ve read your comments for a couple of years. I Don’t see any indication you’re a right winger, idiot or otherwise.

          • You wrote: “I suspect that you perceive me as some sort of right-wing, anti-immigration red-neck. Not true. I’m a fairly progressive guy …”

            I’ll admit that the thought did cross my mind. But, I was also reminded of an exchange I had at a 2004 DFL local caucus with a blue-collar DFLer who tabled a motion that the DFL support the establishment of English as the national language … because he had been spooked (his word) while waiting a bus stop by some people who were not speaking English. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but his motion received zero support from others in our caucus room.

            So, indeed, xenophobia isn’t a one-party issue.

          • You wrote: “I see young all time time going on some sort of public assistance, because they chose to have kids …”

            Are you speaking of Two Harbors specifically? Or, of the general population?

            Either way, sometimes it’s not a choice. Sex happens. Sadly, though, sex education in schools oftentimes doesn’t happen.

            Still, if single moms were pumping out the babies in Two Harbors, simply for the money, its population wouldn’t be forecast to decrease 4.9% 2016 vs. 2010, would it? Not when 10% of the households in Two Harbors already are single-mom homes?

  • Brian Simon

    Thanks for the post about positive things happening in St Paul. This one sounds like it’s worth making an effort to see.

  • rtcfrtc

    My ESL student is a lovely young man from Guatemala. His determination to learn our language, better himself and help his family back home is so inspiring to me. I wish everyone loved these people as much as they love us.