By Adam Granger
Buying a house is like adopting a puppy: It’s easy initially to be struck by the positive features — the architecture, the location, the cute little fuzzy snout — while overlooking the downsides.
When my wife and I were shown what was to become our house on Blake Avenue in 1987, we tried to be pragmatic. We considered its proximity to railroad tracks and to busy Raymond Avenue, and decided, those factors notwithstanding, to buy. What we didn’t think of was the full city block of sidewalk on the front side of the property. This wouldn’t have been a deal breaker; we’ve stayed here for more than 30 years — twice as long as either of us has lived anywhere else — and I’ve made it clear to one and all that I’m going to die in this house (after, I hope, another 30 years). It would, however, have been nice had I forewarned and forearmed myself in the area of sidewalk maintenance.
We had always been renters, and when it snowed, some guy in a pickup would magically show up and clear our sidewalks. So it took a while for me to absorb and process the full scale of the burden we had visited upon ourselves. Once I did, however, I like to think that I’ve been a punctilious and conscientious sidewalk caretaker.
The first couple of winters, I actually cleared the walk with a shovel, finally buying a snow-thrower around 1990. My first one was a HumVee-sized leviathan. It could have cleared a runway in a single pass. It was great fun to operate, unless it stalled, as it did from time to time, whereupon it would sit where it was until I could get it running again (which sometimes took the better part of a day). Live and learn: My next two were little single-stage affairs, luggable, if necessary, and easy to service, even by the likes of me.
The city says you’re supposed to clear your sidewalk down to the concrete but, honestly, that’s not always possible, and it’s not always the best plan of action. A very thin layer of well-packed snow can be more navigable and can provide better traction than bare concrete, which can hide black ice. My rule of thumb here is whether a wheelchair would have an easy go of our walk. I sand when necessary, either by hand, for spotty application, or using a spreader when the whole expanse needs to be done.
Once in the habit of clearing winter precipitation, I assumed my work was done in the sidewalk department, until I got a letter one sunny summer day in 1990 from the city informing me that there had been a complaint of vegetational encroachment, and I realized that our 70-foot-long hedge of buckthorn (yes, buckthorn!) was invading our walk. Incredibly, it had never crossed my mind that non-winter attention might be necessary, so here I was, Mr. Responsible, with an obstacle course that threatened decapitation.
I took care of it promptly, and now try to keep the dogwoods that have replaced the buckthorn trimmed. I trim vertically, of course, to return the sidewalk to its full usable width, but also horizontally, to clear overhangs, and here, I employ what I call the Healy Standard, named after poet, writer, past Bugle editor, cruciverbalist, neighbor and hale fellow well-met, David Healy. Dave is about 8 feet tall and rides an equally tall bike, so if his pate clears my overhangs, I know all normal-sized humans are, literally, good to go.
Other non-winter maintenance includes edging, which is not of critical importance (and about which the city says nothing in its sidewalk maintenance regulations), but which gives me great satisfaction, and clearing a few times a summer with a blower. I know, I know: These are perfidious, un-neighborly devices, actually banned in many communities. In my defense, I try to use it when neighbors aren’t home — or asleep — and it only takes me 10 minutes to clear the whole walk versus the half-hour it takes to sweep. (Remember, we’re talking about 220 feet of sidewalk here.)
Sidewalks are great uniters. Traversing them, we encounter friend and stranger alike. Our Blake Avenue walk is particularly heavily traveled, being proximal to the Raymond Avenue railroad underpass — gateways to both north and south St Anthony Park. Sitting in the living room of the house we decided to buy 31 years ago and looking out its big picture window, I feel a connection to my community, whether it’s the couple who walk, rain or shine, to Bruegger’s for coffee every morning; or people walking their children to school; or kids from the Tibetan American Foundation trooping to Langford Park. It’s only right to make these folks feel safe and welcome during their short time on our sidewalk.
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and dog, Molly, and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.