Life on Sound Effects Avenue South

Picture waking up one sunny Saturday morning in April, birds a-twitter, the smell of greenery in the air replacing winter’s pent-up indoor must, and you briefly enjoy the fact that you didn’t have to wake up at all. You turn off your alarm clock, roll under the covers, and then —

SKRRCH BAMMS GARUNG UNG UNGG!

These metal-on-metal smack-ups we hear on our block would have made Mad magazine’s Don Martin proud. My friends, we live near one of the craziest corners in Minneapolis, at the intersection of SCREECHBAM and KAPANG — also known as 35th Street & 1st Avenue.

This corner and three others in a two-block radius, were awarded the city’s ill-fated red-light cameras, a trophy for the most accident-prone corners in Minneapolis. Maybe you got a ticket during the brief period that the “photo cops” were turned on. No offense, but we loved them. Every night we were pleasantly distracted by the silent FLASH FLISH-FLASH on our curtains, to which we raised our glasses with the toast, “Say cheese, sucker!”

Southwest Minneapolitans, when I tell them where I live, invariably say, “Too bad for your neighbor on the corner.” His fence got hit so many times, he told the city, “I’m not fixing it; there’s something wrong with this corner.” For a few years, we didn’t give it much thought — there but for the grace of mass times velocity squared, it could’ve been our fence.

Inevitably, it was. Once we had guests staying over, and they called me at work on a Monday morning: “You got a BMW on your front step.”

“Is Ed McMahon driving it?” I asked. No such luck — it was totaled, as was the Porsche that the Roadster body-by-Maaco-checked into Ernest’s yard. The Porsche tried to beat the light going north, while the BMW saw the yellow in the other direction, and figured he could sail through as it turned green. Got a new fence from Beemer-Boy’s insurance, though.

That close call was actually kind of disappointing: We’ve seen multiple cars land on their roofs. A school bus once got pit-maneuvered and stuck between two trees across the street from each other. Another time when two cars were shredded from this traffic chorea, we had to chase a purse thief who took advantage of one victim’s shock. After watching the EMTs work on the wounded here so many times, we could probably affix crash victims to a backboard in our sleep.

So what is wrong with the corner? Answer: Traffic control hubris, a too-proud over-reliance on technology — granted, 19th-century light bulbs. These lights don’t prevent accidents, relying as they do on drivers to see around corners at 35 mph. Thus came the introduction of 21st-century technology — digital red light cameras — to solve the problem.

When you fly through our intersection, consider how lucky you are that there are good people at the ready. Nikole next door has always been an angel of mercy, within seconds tending to the victims bobbing up from this vehicular maelstrom. While her fence has relocated quite a distance from the smack-up zone, her heart and attention to the victims has always come through to calm those at the tail-end of near-death experiences.

Once we discussed this problem with a traffic engineer, in a meeting arranged by then Council Member Brian Herron. We weren’t alone — Kingfielders were also fit to be tied about the mayhem on 36th Street, as were Centralians on 2nd Avenue.

Why not, we proposed, simply replace the semaphores with stop signs? Then everyone would have to come to a stop, but without the hurry-up-and-wait frustration these traffic lights built into the experience. We pointed out, in the aftermath of the Great Hailstorm of 1998 (remember, when you got that new roof?), when these “superior” traffic control devices were out of commission, along with the electricity, for several days and were replaced by “inferior” stop signs on sticks, traffic never ran more smoothly. “No,” it was carefully explained to us, “If a superior traffic control device were replaced with an inferior one, and an accident took place, the city could be held liable.” Ah, so many lawsuits, so little time. And so little common sense.

We couldn’t blame the engineers — they were tasked with controlling ever-increasing amounts of car traffic, unwittingly to the detriment of the bodies contained therein. “Traffic will always increase; therefore we must control that with the most powerful tools at our disposal.” And in the end, we would just have to put up with more BABINGK ATWAZE PPFffftzzzs in our
neighborhood.

So 10 years later, we greet with thanks the publication of Jay Walljasper’s “Great Neighborhood Book,” which includes a chapter citing traffic studies that contradict what we’d been told. In fact, whole cities have unplugged hundreds of their semaphores one night, replaced them with stop signs, and woke up to an era of far fewer accidents. Instead of KABAMAKLANGADINGINGING every hour on the hour, those corners may have heard an occasional SCREECH from those new to the area or taken aback by the sign.

It’s time everyone rethinks these traffic “control” policies. It would be funny if so many didn’t have to pay the price of escalating convenience. Don Martin, may he R.I.P., could not have dreamed of a corner so rich in sound effects possibilities, all courtesy of the collective wisdom of an auto-centric traffic-control theocracy. Even so, some day I would like to FFWOOP — close the book — on this our corner’s accident-prone history.

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We had the all-too brief privilege of living on a corner graced with a "Photo-Cop," aka "the Red-Light Camera." Only a couple dozen of these amazing devices graced the corners with the most traffic accidents seen by neighbors on adjoining blocks.

Actually, we haven’t seen many crashes as they happened on our corner — we mostly hear the collisions, and usually only see where the bodies in motion come to rest.  My favorite sound is the Flipa Flipa Flouppa Floop A Flooo … at 3 in the morning.  This would be the poor out-of-state Escort with a blown tire, the driver dutifully coming to a full stop at the red light.  After a couple beats, it resumes: Floom a Floop a Flouppa Flipa Flipa Flipa and into the SuperAmerica lot it rolls.

And then there’s Flipida Gangida Flipipida, Flipida Gangida Flipipida — the unmistakable limping gate of a double-Goodyear-amputee Camero which hit both potholes just outside the Lowry Hill tunnel.

And although the close calls are too numerous to count, so far as I can recall, no pedestrian has been hit and killed on our corner. Then again, I’m not here 24/7. And we don’t want to wait for a fatal accident of any category.

There are other cartoonists who come to mind when it comes to traffic folly. In a series of top-notch Community Engagement panels the 5th Precinct worked with volunteers along 50th Street to once and for all slow down the traffic through the neighborhoods. Before coming up with a full-tilt game plan, traffic officers gave everyone a grace period where drivers were clocked by radar, and their home addresses collected, toward the idea that they could be sent a cordial reminder about the speed limit, a request to respect the peace and quiet of the neighborhood, and just plain slow down for their own sake.

As Pogo could’ve told them, "They met the enemy, and they is themselves." The vast majority of those speeding along 50th Street? They lived within blocks of 50th Street. I have no doubt a similar demographic chart could be drawn for Blaisdell Avenue, with Whittervians, Lyndaliennes, and Kingfielders in the majority of infraction prone-driving. 

If you’re a mid-block resident like most people, you might not understand the lengths to which a corner owner will go to in order to survive these hazards. One block east, our neighbor Al had the ingenious Rock Insurance Plan. No, not Prudential. He actually sunk big rocks onto the boulevard down the Stevens Avenue side of his property. 

"They come sailin’ up the ramp, oversteer and the rocks beach ’em right there on the grass," he explained to me. Al is known as the Fence King — he builds fences all over the South Side.  And his own fences were his biggest sales gimmick. "You know that house on 35th & Stevens? That’s mine, and those are the fences I build." He had to protect his best marketing device somehow.

One day he called me up and said "I think I found some more rocks. I could use a hand getting them on my trailor." So we drove to a construction site where rocks from a foot to three or more in diameter were cluttering the excavation. We picked three that fit Al’s ideal shape and with blood, toil, tears and sweat loaded them up. He only needed two, and he recommended we plant the third one on Ernest’s boulevard, which we did.

Although Al has since moved east (like, to Central Neighborhood), his fence is still nearly intact thanks to the rocks. And our one rock may very well have kept one or two four-wheeled predators from devouring our living rooms.

What we intuitively knew, and experience affirmed for us but couldn’t prove at the time, was that there is no such thing as a superior or inferior traffic control device. There are appropriate and inappropriate devices depending on the outcomes you desire. Moving an annual increase of 1,000 cars per year through 35th & Stevens, using semaphores, means timing them to move another three or four cars per cycle each way. 

But anyone studying process management knows that this batching and queuing is flawed — after a threshhold is reached you don’t move more cars that way, or at least not without consequences.  And a both-way semaphore for these four high-traffic one-way streets had clearly been proven inferior and inappropriate.

And we who have to live with this madness — well, we resort to dumping rocks on the boulevard. Do I need to cite yet another apt cartoonist? How about Rube Goldberg?

When our semaphores were out of commission, traffic was a dream, and smooth all the way from 3rd Avenue to Nicollet — and incidentally, it didn’t back up in an L from 1st Avenue down the off-ramp of 35W like it does with the semaphores.

We enjoyed a quiet week after the hailstorm. But it was only a matter of time after the semaphores got turned back on, before the fence around the third house from the corner, our neighbor Eddie’s, got taken out in another hellacious collision. 

Take all of the above sound bites and add CHINGINGACHINGINGA to them, and you know what it sounds like to have your chain link fence unraveled by a flying Astrovan.  As always, Nikole, and other neighbors from the other side of 35th Street too numerous to name, were immediately at the victims’ sides to calm them as they waited for a squad and an ambulance.

I heard on the radio a few months back that for several years, through last year, the number of vehicles on the roads had actually remained nearly constant since 2003.  Perhaps when gas really does hit $4 a gallon, we can count on fewer POWTABOOPAPING’s on our corner? 

Luther Krueger is a crime prevention specialist for the 1st Precinct and lives in the Lyndale Neighborhood. Contact him at [email protected]