Following the red brick road ...

Wendy Knox salvaged granite pavers and bricks from Lake Street.

Photo by Cyn Collins

In this article, Cyn Collins visits two big road reconstruction projects that form a great “L” shape in the Seward, Longfellow and Cooper neighborhoods this summer.

Where did they come from, where did they go?

After street construction workers go home, several people are out with their pickaxes and crowbars, chipping out granite pavers and red bricks, well into the sunset. These are the treasures from streetcar days gone by, lying under the asphalt roads of 27th Avenue S. and E. Lake Street, roads being torn up for reconstruction.

The pavers were used to create level surfaces with the streetcar rails, said Scott Heiderich, of the Minnesota Streetcar Association, adding that they were preferable to concrete as they could be more easily moved around when repairs were needed.

Now, no sooner does a new section of street get torn up, exposing pavers and bricks, than it gets scavenged by people forming new paths and borders in their yards and gardens. These landscaping materials of choice go fast; those along 27th Avenue are long gone. On Lake Street, from 27th to 37th avenues, people dot the rough terrain, some with their kids, picking out pavers and loading their cars, no matter how small.
“It’s like beachcombing for clams,” said Wendy Knox, leaning on her pickaxe and peering into the sunset down the road at the smattering of dusty people hacking and prying pavers from under asphalt edges.
It was the paths and landscaping in her friend Maria Asp’s garden that inspired Knox. “That’s where I got the idea. I was jealous!” Knox said.
Knox shared a sentiment expressed by many: “It’s neat seeing the streetcar tracks.” Huge piles of timber ties and crumpled steel tracks are scattered about, soon to be taken to the hazardous material landfill in Wright County, and to scrap metal facilities.

Unlike the creosote-soaked rail ties, the bricks and pavers are not a toxic concern, according to toxicologist Daniel Peña, a house assessor with the Minnesota Department of Health. “There’s likely to be burnt oil and lead on them from traffic, but people are unlikely to ingest those,” he said. Peña, who works the “Arsenic Triangle” from the CNC site, advises washing hands before eating or smoking when handling the pavers.

A foreman of the Hennepin County contracted construction workers who gave his name only as Paul said, “As long as people stay out of the way, we don’t mind. I kicked a bunch out today—it’s not safe.” He added the bricks and pavers belong to the contractor, who sells them for a dollar apiece.

Occasionally people get lucky and score dug-up pavers from piles left by construction workers and their equipment, but otherwise it’s hard work to retrieve them.
But a few scavengers are skilled construction workers and used to the labor entailed. Tommy Thompson, a landscaping construction worker from Bloomington and owner of TNT Concrete, brings in his own crew of four to five workers and sometimes a couple dump trucks to collect the pavers. As of early June, he and his crew had collected 15,000 pavers since they started this year. Stories abounded up and down Lake Street and in the Seward neighborhood about the suburban guy’s motives. Thompson said, “I’m not selling. A woman offered me $3 per paver, but I said, ‘No.’” He noted pavers such as these cost $200 for a ton, or $2–3 apiece at Gerten’s garden store. Thompson said he plans to pave his own 4,000-square foot driveway and build retaining walls with the pavers.
Like the yard of Asp and her partner, Razz Russell, numerous yards in the Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods have already been beautified, brick by brick.

Tim Nelson and Cindy Burns have been working on their landscaping and borders for more than eight years, collecting from various sites such as Franklin and Central avenues. They spent a couple hours per day, totaling about 30–40 hours collecting a few hundred granite pavers, and about 500 red bricks from the 27th Avenue construction site, about 50 bricks at a time in their little car. They plan to build more paths and edging, a patio, and a permeable driveway with the pavers. Their goal is to replace cement slabs where they can to create more permeable surfaces in their watershed-friendly designated yard “like others in the neighborhood,” Burns and Nelson said.

Inspired by the nearby yard of Burns and Nelson, Charlie Bueller plans to make a garden path and a 10-by-10-foot circle patio of pavers with his piles of about 700 bricks and 400 granite pavers.
He learned from Thompson a technique for patio-making with granite pavers of uneven heights: use a jackhammer compactor on a piece of plywood covering a new paver to make the paver levels uniform. Then fill the gaps with a cement and sand mix swept over it.
Is all this brick-scavenging breaking the law?
… and does anybody care? “City policy is ‘No, [they’re] not open for public use,’” said Kelly Moriarity, 27th Avenue project manager for the City of Minneapolis Public Works Department. But she added, “obviously we don’t have guards there 24 hours a day.”
The city has a stockpile of pavers it offers to neighborhood groups, according to Public Works Engineer Larry Matsumoto. He said the city recognized there were enough pavers to offer to neighborhood groups as a “no-cost endeavor” in which Public Works would neither make nor lose money. They assessed costs of retrieving, cleaning and palleting the pavers. In January they sent letters to city boards, agencies, and the 81 existing Minneapolis neighborhood groups, offering to sell the pavers. Only one group, the Minneapolis Building Commission, expressed interest. Matsumoto said they’re now strategizing next steps. If they decide to offer the bricks to individuals they’ll make public announcements in newspapers.

When asked his take on people taking bricks, Matsumoto said, “The bricks are the property of Minneapolis, which is the taxpayers of Minneapolis. We [Public Works] discourage people from doing that. It’s frowned on by Public Works — first and foremost, we don’t want people to be hurt or injured by doing that.” What if someone is caught red-brick handed? “We try to ask people politely to stop, telling them this is not permitted,” he said.

Ward 9 City Councilmember Gary Schiff echoed the main concern of safety. “It’s legal to pick up bricks. It’s first-come, first-serve. Crews might not allow it, because it is dangerous.” Regarding the contracted foreman’s comment that the bricks belong to them, Schiff said, “We didn’t sell them assets. He’s probably worried about liability, if anyone gets hurt.”

How’s business?

Schiff said Lake Street hasn’t been reconstructed for 50 years, a typical life span for a road like Lake. The work includes replacement of sewer, curbs and gutters, as well as removing the streetcar lines. He said the underlying materials cause buckling of the roads. The reconstruction is assessed and charged to business and property owners on Lake Street affected by it. Business owners like John Kolstad of Mill City Music, 3820 E. Lake St., dispute the assessments, which they say unfairly burden small businesses.

Regarding how business has been at Hymie’s Vitage Records, 3318 E. Lake St., since the Lake Street construction started outside their front door, co-owner Auralee Likes said, “It’s been about one week so far since they put yellow-and-white barricades next to our sidewalk, so it looked like we were closed. Business has halved. We’re mostly supported by regulars—they’ll find us, but people who notice us as they drive by likely won’t stop.” Likes noted that if business goes down significantly they may have to resort to selling records on eBay, although they would rather not. “We’re a classic record store. We wish the city would treasure things like this. Corporate [stores] can go anywhere,” she said.

There may be hope for Lake Street–area small independent businesses such as Hymie’s. Joyce Wisdom, executive director of the Lake Street Council, said the focus is on small, local independent businesses. “Everyone wants them,” Wisdom said, of all 15 neighborhoods bordering Lake Street. She said in Uptown, Einstein’s Bagels, Border’s Books, and Panera all pulled out because they were losing business—area people aren’t frequenting corporate chains as much as small businesses.

As to how Lake Street businesses are doing since the construction, Wisdom says, “So far, so good. We encourage local residents to keep going to them especially during construction.” She reported on some of the businesses’ sales: “Town Talk Diner hasn’t seen much difference.

Dashen has seen some reduction. Manny’s Tortas has three locations with the philosophy his other businesses will help support one(s) affected by construction. Midori’s is down just a little. It hasn’t affected Resource Center of the America’s class attendance. Denny’s has regular customers, so they’re doing all right.”

She added something many may have seen, “Parking has been a real issue for El Nuevo Rodeo patrons. It always has, now it’s just a little more of a problem with reconstruction. They get as many as 800 people on Friday and Saturday nights.”

During the construction and afterward, the Lake Street Council encourages small businesses such as Hymie’s to develop websites to increase sales that may be lost due to construction and to gain broader audiences. “That will be the difference between making it or not, increasing revenue to match loss.” This summer, the Lake Street Council plans to have a meeting about businesses using the Internet to help guide them.

The Lake Street Business Association is looking at holding a celebratory event to support local businesses when reconstruction is over, likely in November. She said it could be finished earlier, as construction crews have been managing to complete projects faster and faster, ahead of schedule. Until then, Wisdom emphasizes, “The shopping needs to happen. We need more people to support local businesses.” 

last revised: June 26, 2006