The sounds of Southwest

A closer look at life in one of the city’s noisiest neighborhoods

WINDOM — The noise starts every morning at 6:15. Whirring, pounding, slamming, banging, crashing, yelling, hammering, beeping, roaring. The houses along Stevens Avenue shake and rattle as if they were on a California fault line, frightening pets and rousing weary inhabitants.

Residents along the I-35W frontage road live in houses without streets. Their front lawns drop off over a brown dirt road with deep grooves in its surface from the passage of dozens of trucks and bulldozers. Yards away, where 15-foot noise walls used to be, construction workers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), clang hammers — metal against metal — and maneuver cranes taller than power lines. They drive up and down a massive dirt gully that abuts the 55 mph highway. Overhead, commercial airplanes thunder across the sky, abruptly cutting off conversations for 10-second
intervals.

“When they took the freeway wall down, it was great,” laughs Patricia Soulak, president of the Windom Community Council who lives on Stevens Avenue. “I hadn’t seen those houses [across I-35W] in 29 years.”

But a new view of her neighbors is the extent of Soulak’s glee. With all the racket outside, Soulak, who is normally a heavy snoozer, has been having a difficult time staying asleep at night. “I went to bed at 10:30 p.m.,” she says, recalling a typical night since the reconstruction began. “At about 1 in the morning, the house started shaking … [My partner] Doug woke up at probably 2 a.m., and then I woke up again at 3 a.m.”

Despite a lack of nighttime noise permits, MnDOT workers, in their red hardhats and fluorescent orange jackets, continue to rebuild the interstate all night long, holding back on extremely loud activities like pile-driving. But every morning, as the sun creeps over the tips of the trees in South Minneapolis, the crashing and banging goes into full effect.

“The minute they start pile-driving, [my cats] are at attention. And they’re just tense,” says
Soulak. “They [used to] love to sit in my window, but they don’t even go near it. They’re definitely affected. I think most animals are. It’s a sense of unease because you listen to this ‘Bam!—Bam!—Bam!’ all day long.”

Elaine Fries, who lives one house down from Soulak, didn’t anticipate the effect that the roadwork would have on her two cats. She was also surprised at the amount of dust that has seeped inside as a result of the construction. “It finds its way into the house and settles on everything,” she says. “We don’t have new windows because the airport didn’t give them to us yet.”

Fries and her husband bought their home in 1994, but Soulak has lived in her three-bedroom Tudor-style house for nearly three decades and has seen the long-term damage that comes with constant noise. “We don’t even know yet what’s happened to our walls,” she says, pointing out cracks in the ceiling and along the wall
beneath a living room window. “It’s from vibrations because you have a bunch of semis [driving past] …plus with the airplanes.”

Stevens Avenue residents and their pets are used to a modicum of freeway noise. When the soundwall was up, “we called it our ‘babbling brook,’” chuckles Fries. But for many homeowners, the reconstruction efforts, coupled with the airplane noise, are too much.

Roaring skies

On an average day, 300 planes fly over Windom — about half are departures and half are arrivals. When flights take off, they climb quickly, leaving a smaller footprint of noise over the city. But arrival flights are thunderous, descending low over houses, giving residents a bird’s eye view of the bellies of the planes.

“I know when these planes are going over,” says Soulak. “I know when I have to shut my windows. I know when I have to turn the sound up on my TV. I know I can’t entertain in my yard on Sunday afternoon or Friday night. You can’t have anybody over because it’s so bad, nobody can talk.”

Soulak and Fries have yet to receive any noise mitigation products from the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). Their neighbors three blocks north on Stevens Avenue and across I-35W received the free benefits — which included central air conditioning — in the early 2000s. But when the MAC resized its noise maps, Windom was cut out of the picture.

“The noise abatement with the airport [has] been kind of a knife in the side,” says Fries. “I think we got cheated.”

Many homeowners in Windom aren’t sure if they’re going to side with the residents who filed a class action lawsuit against the MAC, demanding noise mitigation products, or wait to hear the settlement that the cities of Minneapolis, Richfield and Eagan might receive in their lawsuit. But either way, they’ll get a temporary break from the noise this fall, as the runway that launches and receives most of the flights over Southwest is undergoing reconstruction.

What’s ahead for the Crosstown

According to Steve Barrett, resident engineer working on the Crosstown reconstruction, the rest of August will be dedicated to erecting retaining walls and building the new bridge at Diamond Lake Road — not exactly quiet work.

“Any one particular block will experience about a three-week period of night work,” Barrett explains, which includes “two–three weeks to do the excavation, about two–three weeks to get it backfilled later on.”

MnDOT is still awaiting permits from the city, which will grant crews official permission to work during the night. But with or without the permits, nighttime work will continue.

Residents can expect beeping and motor noise from the trucks hauling dirt across the highway gorge. Pile-driving will only occur during the day, but most other activities are fair game. Soundwalls will go on top of the retaining walls once they’re built to help block freeway noise, but their value is questionable.

“[They] don’t do much statistically,” says Steve Orfield of Orfield Laboratories, a consulting firm that has provided noise analysis for the airport. “The average soundwall has about a two-decibel shift in noise level, which is hardly perceptible … it really doesn’t do a lot unless you’re sitting just about right next to it. If your house is back 50-feet from the soundwall, the chance of it doing much to reduce the noise that you’re experiencing is not very great.”

According to Fries, however, the soundwall in front of her house was a big help. “When it came down, I could really tell the difference,” she recalls.

As the reconstruction effort moves north, Tangletown residents will soon known exactly what Windom homeowners are going through.

“It really needed to be done,” says Bill Hinz, who lives on 1st Avenue and 57th Street, a block away from the interstate. “And we can tolerate that for the time [being].”

In the meantime, Soulak, Fries and their immediate neighbors have been throwing block parties. They sit outside in lawn chairs, watching cars whiz by on I-35W, pausing their conversations every so often as a plane flies overhead. “We’re trying to make the best of it, I guess,” says Fries.

Contact Mary O’Regan at [email protected]