The Possibilities of a Frozen City
Text and photography by David Schalliol
In 2014, I thought a lot about winter when I was contemplating moving to Minneapolis. Most of what I knew about the city was that it was cold — so cold that there was a skybridge system that connected downtown buildings so that workers could walk to lunch without braving the winter weather.
It’s not that I was all that worried about the cold. I had been living in Chicago, where I would head outside to experience the city when the temperatures got to record lows. I loved how the winter changed the city. While there are always critical concerns about the winter elements, particularly for those who are unhoused, there is much to celebrate about the season: the city’s color palate changes; snowfall softens the sounds of the city; light bounces off of every snowy and icy surface; heading into a neighborhood restaurant takes on a warmer feeling.
When I finally moved to Minneapolis, I wasn’t really prepared for what happened when the city’s lakes freeze over. In the process of material transformation, the city becomes more open and democratic, creating a new commons.
In the lower Midwestern and Southern Californian cities where I grew up, this wasn’t the case. Sure, in central Indiana ponds would freeze over for a bit, but they would just as quickly thaw. It was the same in Chicago. Not so in Minneapolis. Here, the lakes typically freeze in late autumn and stay that way until late winter, changing the possibilities of the landscape, the city, and anywhere there is standing water.
Maybe the simplest way of characterizing these possibilities is that what typically requires a vessel to cross in the summer is now readily accessible by foot. When I confront a lake in the summer, I turn my bike or walk another direction; in the winter, I just keep going. I think about the neighborhood and the city differently. In a way, I live in a different place, or at least in an expanded place. In the summer, it would take me 35 minutes to walk around the finger of Lake of the Isles to Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books; in the winter, it’s 15 minutes, tops. Once this possibility fully sinks into me for the season, the mental geography changes, as does the possibility of the city.
The frozen lake is a little more accessible and democratic than a liquid one. Sure, you need warm clothing, but you don’t need to worry about drying off or finding a kayak; you just step on and off the lake. Like in summer, people still do all sorts of specialized activities on them: Kayaking and canoeing is replaced with ice hockey or cross-country skiing. There is also public infrastructure, like municipal skating rinks and warming huts, but some of this is informal and impromptu. Residents make their own ice rinks or create fat bike paths. All of these allow for new possibilities for sociability, work, and more.
One of the most spectacular of the typical ways people connect with frozen lakes is through the construction of ice house villages. These temporary places started as an extension of ice fishing, wherein people use augers to drill through the lakes’ ice layers to fish through the hole. Different from fishing in a boat, drifting or motoring to find fish in their feeding grounds, ice fishing typically means committing to one location. To manage the cold, people either bundle up or erect temporary shelters. The culture and industry that’s evolved from this practice produce seasonal cities on the lakes. In the most popular locations, this means creating new infrastructure and planning, from the location of ice roads to ice lots.
This also means that the city grid extends into the water and that some rural lakes become strangely populated. Amongst sprawling quiet farmland or deep in the forest, new ice cities form. And while in the summer months, most lakes are mainly used by people during the day, the ice houses are used day and night—little cities that never sleep. Like in a city, most of what’s going on is within the (ice) houses, but from the shore, the sound of people chatting, the cars and snowmobiles coming and going, and the lights all suggest a bustling town. Unlike a city, these places are also primarily the domain of men, and so while the ice houses change the potential of place, they also firmly leave some parts of the city intact.
But fishermen aren’t the only ones changing life on the lakes. Organizations like the Loppet Foundation groom trails for cross-country skiers and host major ice events, like the Luminary Loppet. The all-ages fundraiser, which takes place annually in February, combines skiing, snowshoeing, and walking amongst illuminated ice sculptures and hot cocoa stations where people gather around fires.
Art Shanty Projects takes these ideas and makes them even more dynamic, open, and, perhaps, subversive. Inadvertently founded in 2004 by friends riffing on the other potential of bringing together the arts and ice-fishing houses, Art Shanty Projects has become a regular, month-long festival on Twin Cities lakes. The events are focused around “art shanties,” which range from typical ice houses to purpose-built constructions one could never imagine finding wedged between pickup trucks and snowmobiles.
These sites are then programmed for the public with a mix of artistic, political, and playful installations. For example, among the regular appearances for the last few years have been the Free Store Shanty, where donated clothing is distributed; an information station and series of events related to threatened pollinator species, like Monarch Butterflies are held. Other installations include 2018’s Cinema Shanty, where animations were screened for visitors, and 2016’s Slumber Party Shanty, which recreated the vibe of a childhood sleepover.
Through this play and community spirit, the politics of the ice are also made explicit. Visitors to the 2022 installation were greeted with a banner protesting the Enbridge oil pipeline from Minnesota to Texas, a cause that unites concerns about the environment, Indigenous sovereignty, and more. In 2018, Mapping Prejudice created a space that allowed participants to examine the history of racially-restrictive housing covenants in Minneapolis.
But inconsistent winter weather is affecting these traditions and opportunities. In 2016, Art Shanty Projects had to remove its festival from White Bear Lake because of thinning ice caused by unusually warm weather. And this January, the combination of above-freezing temperatures and a major snowstorm caused the ice on the event’s Lake Harriet to shrink from 13” inches to 6”. While half a foot is thick enough for a quiet walk on a winter night, it wasn’t enough to support hundreds of people and ice houses. As a result, the organization launched “Project Beach,” where they installed the festival on the lakeshore and adjoining park. A few weeks later, the Luminary Loppet followed Art Shanty Projects’ move ashore. With recent warmer temperatures and even some rain, local officials tasked with monitoring local ice conditions warned people to be more careful than usual on the ice and to remove their ice houses as soon as possible.
And so as the climate changes I worry about the winter city at the same time I revel in its possibilities. I am increasingly careful about my climate impact while asking more of what the frozen landscape shows us, and what more the city can be. The way that the city’s geography changes in the winter has me thinking about what else we can do to create physical and social bridges in neighborhoods, whether they be temporary or permanent. And I’m inspired by how groups like the Art Shanty Project use the ice. These projects remind me of the DIY efforts that historian Michael Carriere and I chronicle in The City Creative: people and organizations creating places where communities can come together to address common problems and create something new. I wonder what more we can do to make the city more like that: full of surprising encounters, open, politically aware, community-minded, and joyful.
David Schalliol is an associate professor of sociology at St. Olaf College who is interested in the relationship between community, social structure, and place. He exhibits widely, including in the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Centre Régional de la Photographie Hauts-de-France, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. His work has been supported by institutions including the Graham Foundation and the European Union and featured in publications including MAS Context, The New York Times, and Social Science Research. David is the author of Isolated Building Studies (UTAKATADO) and co-author, with Michael Carriere, of The City Creative (The University of Chicago Press). He additionally contributes to such films as “Almost There and Highrise: Out My Window,” which won an International Digital Emmy for Non-Fiction. His directorial debut, “The Area,” premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Weathered is a recipient of a generous grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Their new exhibition “A different kind of tender and practice of overhealing,” works by Katherine Simóne Reynolds, opens March 25. Visit grahamfoundation.org to learn more.