Concrete Jungle

Stevens Square Park

The two and a half acres of Stevens Square Park are home to a few dozen oaks well over a century old, a pergola, a playground, a basketball hoop, a pump-handled well—also almost a century old—and, for two nights last week, about two billion crows. The park is surrounded by three-story brownstones, built for middle class employees of the firms downtown, which is a few blocks to the north.

Stevens Square, circa 1936, from the Minnesota Historical Society archives

The neighborhood is significantly more densely populated, younger, and poorer than the rest of Minneapolis. When Liz and I moved in this summer, we noticed it is also considerably louder than the rest of the city.

Most afternoons there were men grilling chicken in our alley and shouting obscenities at one another. In August and September we lay in bed at night and listened to distraught couples scream at one another in the street. But the park itself, which we can see from our third story window, is usually quiet. A group of young moms gather with their kids on a picnic tables near the playground. For a few warm weeks in October, a man played his trumpet, badly, below the oaks each afternoon. And when the temperature dropped in November, the neighborhood went quiet. For weeks, the loudest noise in our apartment was the clanging of the radiators.

Then the crows arrived.

I’d seen them for the first time a few weeks before, as I rode home from work. A gauzy cloud of several thousand birds folded and fluttered through the gulf of unobstructed air above the convention center and the canyon of Interstate 35-W. The individual members of a swarm have three imperatives: fly near your neighbor; but don’t crowd him; and go the same general direction. A swarm’s complexity derives from the multiplication of these simple rules. The crows in flight were delicate and majestic. They did not caw, or I couldn’t hear them above the white noise of rush-hour traffic. The murder made the sunset-addled sky above me seem to ripple like a lake.

Crows at roost present a different sensory experience. They settled on the oaks one evening at dusk. When we walked Liz’s Cairn Terrier around the park after sunset the cawing filled the square. As we passed under the branches where they’d settled like black snow, the cawing that had been general throughout the park coalesced and intensified around us, the way a black hole bends the matter of the universe. As the crows on nearby trees cawed in warning, hundreds rose from the tree above us in a thwacking wind of wings, a sound both eerier than the caws, and, unlike them, beautiful. The internet suggested the crows had come here to roost for the winter. The city is warmer than the countryside, and the streetlight around the park allowed the crows to look out for their enemy the Great Horned Owl.

Days before the winter solstice, it is dark in Minnesota from 4:30 in the afternoon until almost 8 in the morning. From the day we moved in, Liz and I have worried about the coming of winter. Liz doesn’t ride her bike in the snow; the bus drops her several blocks from our building, and on-street parking can be hard to find in the evening. If you tell someone in Minneapolis that you’ve just moved to Stevens Square, especially when you are a young white woman, they will feel compelled to warn you. This can even be true of people who live in the neighborhood. Several people in our building told Liz not to be mistaken for a streetwalker. Neither of us likes the idea of Liz walking around alone after dark. But I’ve never seen a prostitute in our neighborhood, or a drug deal. We have seen a Great Horned Owl flapping from a branch in Theodore Wirth Park, two miles from our apartment. We’ve watched a red tailed hawk stalk a wounded pigeon through a parking lot, across 16th Street, and into an alley behind Rayito Del Sol, a daycare center on Nicollet Ave. The pigeon hid below a dumpster, where the hawk perched for a minute or so, then flapped off.

I believe the crows’ fears are real, but I don’t know how to think about our own. Liz has only had her dog here for a few weeks, and she is getting to know the other dog-walkers in the park. There are many. One man with a pug named Boris told Liz he’d heard that the crows flock together for safety in numbers. He thought there was a predator disturbing them in the trees above, but Liz couldn’t see it. I do believe the threats exist—a few weeks after we moved in someone got shot a block from our building on a Sunday afternoon. But I haven’t seen any predators, just the shouting neighbors and young mothers of summer, the October trumpet player, the teenage boys who boxed one evening below the pergola while Liz and I lay on a blanket and watched, the homeless men who walk our alley each morning to check the dumpsters, the Somalis who gather down the street at Starbucks, the Great Dane, the Chihuahuas and Dachshunds, the pug, pit bull, Golden Retriever, the French bulldog and their owners. I believe in predators, but I also believe there’s safety in our numbers. According to statistics about the city, almost half us lived somewhere else one year ago. We are mobile and often strangers. But the rules to getting along are fairly simple: greet each other, or at least smile, if you choose; do not walk alone at night; if you must shout, do it in the street or in the alley; if your dogs want to sniff each other’s butts, go ahead and let them, but not for too long.

There were fewer crows the second night. Their cawing woke me the next morning. But when we brought the dog out to the park, they were already gone. All they left were shit stains in the snow and gray circles of snapped branches below the trees where they’d roosted.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.