This story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of The Red Cent and is reprinted with permission. If you are a graduate of Grand Forks Public Schools and would like to receive The Red Cent – as well as membership into the alumni network – click here.
Summer is upon us, and my five-year-old has announced that he will soon be a master of his bicycle. Learning to ride a bike is a bit of a challenge when you live in the country because your only surface options are gravel or grass. As his parents, it is our job to provide a “walking uphill both ways in a snowstorm”-type comparison to struggles such as these, and so my husband and I have counteracted all of his complaints of difficulty with our own tales of bike-riding woe – my husband was too busy farming to ever have time to ride a bike (none of that is true), and I managed against all odds to get myself up on two wheels on the rough-and-tumble streets of Grand Forks.
I grew up on South Fifth Street in a neighborhood tucked between Central Park and Reeves Drive. The road in front of my house was so quiet that you could still see much of the original stamped cobblestone, called granitoid. That granitoid was very charming, very historic, and very difficult for rollerblading, scootering, pushing a baby doll carriage – and especially bike riding.
A person could get away with pushing her baby doll carriage on grass or walking her rollerblades to a section of town with new sidewalks (the sidewalks in our neighborhood were also historic, and looked like what would happen if you dumped a box of Triscuit crackers out on to the ground and kind of shuffled them into an uneven line). However, my mother had two rules: don’t cross Minnesota Avenue, and be back in an hour. On foot, my little sister, Erica, and I were limited to a pretty tight travel radius in that hour…and so a bicycle meant FREEDOM.
The only “fun” place to go within walking distance was Central Park. Central Park was home to a frisbee golf course for the big kids, and a wide variety of aging metal playground equipment for the young’uns. On the playground, the two most popular pieces were the slide and the merry-go-round. The slide was made up of a series of steel panels welded together, and you had to ride the slide with your knees bent so that the panels – which, like the sidewalks, had also started to buckle – wouldn’t cut you on the leg. You also had to ride with your knees up because that slide was about 2,000 degrees even in the winter, and if you got going fast enough you could bring a literal meaning to the phrase, “Pants on fire.”
What the merry-go-round lacked in volcanic temperatures it made up for in squeakiness. The post below the merry-go-round had worn away generations before, giving it a “hearty day at sea” wobble. The strongest and/or tallest kid in the neighborhood was always tasked with the pushing, and they would run around as fast as they could, being sure to lift at the lowest wobble points to keep up the momentum, and then jump on when the merry-go-round hit rocket ship speeds.
While we all spent hours upon hours upon hours at that playground, by the time I reached the age of nine I yearned to expand my horizons – which is why I dedicated an entire week (or at least a whole day) to teaching Erica how to ride a bike as soon as she was able reach the pedals on my big kid bike. The minute she could make it to the end of the street without getting the tire caught between the granitoid, we unhooked the training wheels on her own bike, adjusted the streamers in our handlebars, and were OFF.
Erica and I were good girls and didn’t want to defy our mother’s rules; however, we were no strangers to the art of loopholes. Minnesota Avenue was (and is) the outlet for the Point Bridge, and cars would come off it at a pretty high rate of speed before turning down 4th Avenue South. That turn was our loophole; it existed because the bridge road dead-ended onto a row of houses, meaning that if cars went straight, they would run up onto the sidewalk and into someone’s living room.
Erica and I assumed our mother didn’t want us crossing Minnesota Avenue because it was so fast and not because it was a geographic boundary to downtown, so we just rode our bikes on the opposite sidewalk – no street crossings needed! – and right over to Valley Dairy. Using our hard-earned lemonade stand money, we’d buy a Freezee each, which we’d eat quickly sit on the Valley Dairy stoop to keep them from melting and also because our mom wasn’t a big fan of us consuming colored sugar water and we figured if we ate them fast, she wouldn’t know.
However, for as often as we didn’t cross Minnesota Avenue to buy popsicles, our favorite place to ride was Lincoln Drive.
To my nine-year-old mind (and also still now) Lincoln Drive was the coolest neighborhood in Grand Forks because it was on a totally different sea level than the rest of the city. To access it, you had to go down a long and slightly-windy hill – basically the perfect scenario for a young biker. Erica and I would use the length of Reeves Drive to get up to speed, and then lift our feet off the pedals as soon as we turned onto Lincoln and let nature take us for a ride. When I got older, I’d keep my feet on the pedals and put my hands to the sky so I could pretend I was one of those awesome kids who would do pop-a-wheelies and ride no-handed, even on granitoid.
Once we got down the hill, we’d have a million (or at least three) options: we could go to Lincoln School and play on their playground – which was different than our Belmont School playground because it was at Lincoln – or we could climb up the dike and barrel roll down towards the river, or we could just ride up and down the neighborhood and see what was what.
While Lincoln Drive was filled to the brim with homes and families, there were two little post-war houses just before Euclid Street that were especially perfect. One was baby pink and one was mint green, and they couldn’t have been more than 500 square feet combined. On the days when we’d decide just to ride, Erica and I would talk about how we would buy those two little houses when we grew up and put a shared playhouse between the two to give us a bit more room for our families and our daily tea parties.
Both Central Park and Lincoln Drive were lost to the Flood of ’97, and have now been replaced by the citywide Greenway and the expansive Lincoln Park, which is filled with all sorts of well-kept playground equipment that remains at the same steady temperature no matter what weather. Whether or not my son loses his training wheels this year, my family will ride the Greenway many times this summer, along the river and under the same trees as my own childhood. And, if we’re feeling up to it (which we usually are), we’ll go all the way down to the North 5th Street Dairy Queen for hand-dipped Dilly Bars…or maybe the gas station for Freezees.