29.5.09

***Sidewalk Weekend!***

Sidewalk Rating: Walktastic

Now's the time, before summer bakes your soles. On cooler days the flowers smell extra aromatic, and on warm days you can bask in the sunshine.

Why not use this opportunity to walk to the Dairy Queen or Creamy Cone?


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Sesame Street was always about sidewalks...




... and Oscar the Grouch was a homeless muppet.


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At long last, New York City has closed off Broadway to car traffic for a short stretch.

It's really funny to see these photos of people lounging on black asphalt as it if is a beach or the San Marco plaza in Venice or something.

No, actually, its a freakin parking lot asphalt street, and not very pleasant aesthetically even if there are no yellow cabs running you down and crushing your legs beneath their four tires.

This NYT great architecture review of the space is worth reading;

So far the pedestrian mall in Times Square is marked by little more than a few wobbly tables and metal chairs. A row of orange barriers frames the mall’s northern edge, where a half-dozen police officers patiently redirect traffic heading down Broadway. Workers have scattered a few potted plants across the street’s asphalt surface. (Seventh Avenue, which intersects Broadway at 45th Street, remains open to traffic.)


It's an example of how easy it can be to change space... all it takes is a few orange barels, and *Presto!* you've got a pedestrian plaza.


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A cool map of a Ring Road flower:



All the Ring Roads of the world (e.g. 494/694) put together to create a flower. Who thought of that???


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I like this story about the theater on Nicollet that used to show Triple Espresso for like 10 years... Particularly the part about the marquee, and how it's necessary to enliven the sidewalk.

Even though Triple Espresso isn’t packing the auditorium anymore, locals will notice the marquee lights continue to light up. Christensen decided to light the marquee when 3,000 runners traveled down Nicollet as part of the TC 1 Mile, and now he’s flipping the switch even when events aren’t underway.

“I want this area of Nicollet to be lit up,” he said. “It’s all about making it a fun place for people to come out of their apartments and walk over and see what’s going on.”


This is definitely true. Hennepin Avenue used to be lined with excitement and lights, blinking signs, theaters and advertising. Glance at any of those old photos of DT Mpls Pre-WWII, and you'll see how exciting it must have been.


[Nicollet Avenue's Music Box / Loring Theater in 1945. (Photo fm. MNHS.)]



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My friend Reid Priedhovsky has had some interesting sidewalk related material on his personal website lately. First, there are photos of the sod at the U of MN, which is continually being damaged by the salt they put on the sidewalks during the winter time.


Secondly, these is this awesome city-wide treasure hunt (a "puzzle game") that takes place, where people have to explore around the city and 'collect' sites at different places of interest (including Deja Vu, and the new stadiums).


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Here's a piece of anti-sidewalk tripe from George Will, calling Obama's DOT chief to task for questioning the supremacy of the automobile.

I've never understood why sidewalks have to be politicized? There's nothing inherently right wing or left wing about people walking around and enjoying streets, people, shopping in neighborhoods, etc. In fact, for a party that so glorifies "Main Street" and "small town" America, positions like this do nothing but undermine those very sorts of places.

Maybe its just that a lot of the right wing base drives pickup trucks and lives in the second-ring (sidewalk-less) suburbs? Does it have to be that way?

(For more on this, check out NARP.)


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Great photos of self-reflexive panhandlers on the streets of Minneapolis, courtesy of Mt. Holly.

E.g.:



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Some sidewalk music for you from R&B legend Solomon Burke:




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Three photos for you!

1) The old gateway (fm. SAM)


2) A utility person hole cover in Saint Paul. (Photo fm. Blog about Sarah.)


3) The way in which cities look like motherboards. (Photo fm. Tom Vanderbilt.)

28.5.09

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #19

Viewer discretion is advised for a bit of the Ultra-Violence...



... on the mean and future sidewalks of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (1971).

26.5.09

Wabasha Freedom Bridge

[This is content recycled from my now mothballed website, www.excitablemedia.com. Please enjoy!]


But how long will she last?" the mayor might have been heard to ask the bridge engineer. "Will the old girl make it through the winter?"

This had been the recurring theme for the Wabasha Street Bridge (WSB) ever since the Mississippi had first been bridged back in 1859. They replaced the woodwork in the main truss within a decade, and the other truss sections underwent reconstructions and desperate stabilizations for nearly 50 years, until finally the St. Paul Common Council built a truly hardy bridge that lasted nearly a century, until replaced by the all-new WSB.


Fun Fact

In choosing their color scheme, the WSB designers chose patina green as a central decorative hue. They wanted the bridge to match the faded green copper color of St. Paul's landmark Catholic cathedral, which sits atop a bluff overlooking the city.

[The first WSB.]


The new WSB was the best bridge yet, colorful and blessed with what its designers called an "amenities package," an architectural codeword for wide sidewalks and decorative metalwork. When Hereditary Chief Ernest Wabasha VII dedicated the WSB in 2001, smoking a peace pipe and chanting a prayer, he thought this bridge would be another symbol of permanence, a lasting tribute to peace between the old urban East and the boundless West.


Side Note

The building of the original WSB was contingent on a bridge toll used to fund the construction. They toll annoyed many, and was finally removed in 1873 in exchange for the land that is now St. Paul's West Side.





[Handheld flag at the WFB dedication.]



He couldn't have been more wrong. It was less than two years before the WSB was renamed the Wabasha Freedom Bridge (WFB) on the 1st anniversary of 9/11, in memorium. The naming ceremony made headlines in papers across the country largely because the St. Paul City Council adorned the bridge with upwards of 75 American flags. If there was a Guinness record for flag per bridge-foot, no doubt the WFB would have been in the running, as every 10 feet saw another occupied flagpole, and at the bridge's periodical focal points the flags were clustered in groups of 4. The bridge's patriotic fervor made it a focal point for both the VFW and local anti-war groups, and now more than ever, the WFB has become a center of attention.

Apart from its dual christenings, the most dramatic WFB event occurred on July 4, 2003 when a local clinically-depressed woman took her young twin sons in arm and jumped from the sidewalks of the WFB. Witnesses told police that the jumper yelled "Freedom!" during the 75-foot plunge from the bridge, and continued screaming the word as onlookers rescued one of her twin sons, who bore the odd name Supreme Knowledge Allah.

Her other boy, Sincere Understanding Allah, was tragically swept away by the Mississippi current. Boaters a dozen miles downriver discovered his drowned body 2 days later.



[Hereditary Chief Ernest Wabasha VII at the pre-Freedom Bridge naming ceremony (since rescinded).]

25.5.09

Reading the Highland Villager #1 (May 20 - June 2 Edition)

This is a feature I've wanted to start for quite some time. Basically, the problem is that the best source of local streets / sidewalks news in Saint Paul is the Highland Villager. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. The editor / publisher Michael Mischke (who I've never met) clearly doesn't like the internet for some reason. But there's a lot of good stuff in this local bi-weekly about developments and street debates.

So basically, I'm going to have a twice-monthly post about what I discover when reading the Highland Villager. Maybe it'll encourage you to go get your own copy, available anywhere that's anywhere in Saint Paul. Or maybe I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to? Either way...until this newspaper goes online, information must be set free.

  • Story #1: Basement use remains sticking point at Grand Place, by Jane McClure
An article about the space in the huge development at Grand and Victoria (the one with Pottery Barn, J Crew), and particularly the space that used to be a bookstore (Bound to be Read) and then a Best Buy health store (EQ Life). Both failed, and it's been empty, but there's a lot of tension about what kind of thing should go there next. The 'HealthEast' clinic is trying to move into that space, and the debate is over whether or not the basement can be used as a commercial space, or whether or not it has to be used as a storage space.

As usual, the Summit Hill Assn. (SHA)'s zoning codes are restricting what kind of commercial spaces can be used and for what purposes. (I seem to recall that they were trying to get a no chain store ordinance passed, and that it might have failed?) There is a definite tension between controlling and shaping capitalism according to certain values, and having too many restrictions on how and what kind of business can move into a street. I'm not sure on which side of the line this falls...

Councilmember Dave Thune is also quoted.

  • Story #2: Selby shops are weathering a season of road construction, by Steve Pease
An article about the new sidewalks and surfacing going in at Selby Avenue b/w Dale and Victoria this summer. It refers to the Dance Studio, the Great Harvest Bread Co., and the chair of the Sel-Dale Business Assn.

It's basically an uninteresting piece about kvetching about construction, but it does point to how difficult it really is to weigh short-term and long-term interests when it comes to businesses and commercial streets. Any improvments for the long term (nicer sidewalks, new pipes, new street trees, repaving, etc.) comes at the expense of the short-term (streets are completely inaccessible for a few months, fees and assessments for owners). And because future returns are basically nebulous scratch marks in some planner's notebook while business owners and Sel-Dale Business Assn. chairs are real people with votes and constituents and clout and money, you have a situation that tends to the NIMBY and status quo.

This piece also points out how strongly cars are linked to the economy, even in a walkable place like Saint Paul's Selby Avenue. Basically, for most commercial enterprises, cars + parking = business. This is true almost everywhere in the T.C., with very few exceptions (maybe the U of MN campus). Changing this equation is going to be a very, very long term project. And until then, the tension between providing business owners with parking spaces and making walkable places is going to be one of the main neighborhood battlegrounds.

  • Story #3: Neighbors aren't wild about Onion's request, by Jane McClure
Piece about aforementioned SHA voting against the Wild Onion's (on Grand Avenue) request to serve liquor on its outdoor patio.

The debate is really about the current policy for getting approval for drink-laden patios. You currently need between 60% and 90% of neighboring proeperty owner's consent to recieve the zoning change. The Wild Onion is claiming to have sufficient support from rental tenants, but not the actual building owners. I guess it raises the question of whether or not you have to actually own property to get a say in neighborhood disputes. Should we have a system where only property owners (i.e. the wealthy) can have a say? Where property values trump everyday use? Or, do renters lack the long-term interest in the 'neighborhood' because they don't have an 'investment' in actual property in the area?

More disturbing, perhaps, is that (according to the article) the Wild Onion is the only business on Grand Avenue that can't have drinks on the patio. Of course, it's also the only "dance club" on Grand Avenue, which means its also the most racially diverse spot on the street. And it's also the only place that can't get neighbor's approval for a zoning regulation? Certainly it's no worse (in terms of noise pollution) than Billy's? (For the record, neither of these bars are my cup of tea.)

  • Story #4: Hearings set on standards for infill housing, home additions
Another NIMBY story this time literally about back yards... about whether or not prefab houses should be allowed to be built sideways on their lots (so that completely window-less walls face the street). There's also a bit about how people are upset about pre-fab homes and house size / lot ratios in Saint Paul.

House size / lot ratios, in particular, have been one of the main ways that suburbs have tried to keep densities very low. Typically, they will set housing lot sizes so that you have these big yards, and only certain kinds of people can afford to build homes in the suburb.

This exampls isn't really very similar, but does point to the same kind of tension over density. I'm struck by my old neighborhood in the North End, where the houses are really close together. There weren't any zoning codes when my house was built in 1905 or so, but somehow people managed to put windows on the front of the home, and deal with the density of having very small yards and houses smushed together. It's not so bad, really.

  • Story #5: CommonBond is granted a parking variance for Lex-Ham development, by Jane McClure
This is a short piece on a nursing home turning into a low-income housing development, located directly along the North side of I-94 off Lexington Pkwy.

It's interesting only because even here, directly choking on the fumes of the freeway, it seems to be difficult to build low-income housing. The neighbors in this very poor neighborhood are voting against having a parking variance for a smaller-than-zoned parking lot at this big apartment site.

And again, parking for cars seems to be the main public problem for most Saint Paul-ites.

  • Story #6: BZA denies requiest to allow Dayton Avenue home's renovation as duplex, by Jane McClure
This is another story about denying an increase of density in a neighborhood, this time about a regulation requiring a minimum property width. It's worth pointing out that these sorts of neighborhoods in Saint Paul used to be far denser than they are now. Dayton Avenue when these homes were new likely had almost twice as many people living in the homes. Larger families, multi-generation families, etc.


Well, that's about all the intersting city&planning news in the Highland Villager this fortnight, other than the usual op-ed about taxes, letters about the Snelling Avenue median, local high school sports reporting, and Saint Paul crime reports. Maybe someday it'll all be online...

22.5.09

Trader Joe's Update

[Karl und Theo Albrecht, German billionaire owners of Trader Joe's and Aldi, plotting to rule the welt.]

I have an irrational hatred of Trader Joe's. I'm open about that.

But, all that aside, I'm pleased to see that Rep. Karen Clark's plan to get around the Minneapolis liquor store zoning codes was shot down by the lobbying of the Licensed Beverage Assn and the State Legislature.

Clark was trying to get an exemption to a city zoning ordinance that prevents liquor stores from opening up within 2,000 feet (or is it meters or yards) of an already existing liquor store. This is a problem because Traitor Joe's will only open a grocery store if they can also sell their cheap wine (which in Minnesota must be a separate store, with separate entrances).

Basically, for whatever reason, Rep Clark chose to go through the State Legislature to undo the zoning ordinance, rather than pursue City Council action. The legislature kicked the bill back to the city, saying that there was no reazson for the State to rule on the issue.

So, for the moment, the Wedge and Hum's destroying Lyndale Avenue Trader Joe's has come to a screeching halt.

The next step, though, is to go through the City Council, and they've already ruled (in a very close vote) to support a zoning code exemption.
The Minneapolis City Council voted April 10 to support the bid for the special law. But it was a close 7-6 vote. Lilligren voted to support the law.

At this point, no development proposal for the project has been submitted to the city of Minneapolis according to Krista Bergert, spokeswoman for the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department.


This would be the time, if you support local businesses not owned by union-busting German billionaire brothers that sell too-cheap cheese and whose employees are forced to be insincerely saccharine, to contact your local city council member?

As someone who has an irrational hatred of Trader Joe's, I don't feel like I can be objective on this issue. But if you're looking for more information, try Cam Gordon's explanation of the pros and cons of allowing this store to break the city's zoning rules.


[Anti-Trader Joe's signage along 22nd Street in Uptown, Mpls.]

Art-a-Whirl is Sidewalks!

[A pedestrian sidewalk identification signage post marker directs the people flow along the sidewalks and toward the nearest art.]

Maybe I've got sidewalks on the brain*, or see the world through sidewalk colored glasses**. But I had such fun going to Art-a-Whirl this weekend, and it seemed that everything was coming up sidewalks.

I'd never gone to this Art-a-Whirl thing before, but basically it seems to me that what happens is that NorthEast Minneapolis goes crazy. Every tenth house has a yard sale, every fifteenth house is selling art, and every third house is hosting a backyard party. Meanwhile, all people are walking up and down the streets or riding bicycles all around a beautiful neighborhood in the sunshine. There are people everywhere enjoying the scent of flowers, and the sidewalks are alive with activity. NorthEast Minneapolis during Art-a-Whirl is pretty much my ideal fantasy world, with beer, bikes, art, music, and yard sale shopping all combined around neighborhood sidewalks. If only Minneapolis was always this way?


[Sidewalk flags adorn a art and yard sale in the neighborhoods of NorthEast Minneapolis during the Art-a-Whirl.]


[Sidewalk tables emerge from restaurants as people people the streets of 13th Street.]

Art is great, but it seems to me that the real draw of Art-a-Whirl are the neighborhoods and streets of NorthEast. There's so much more going on than art, and people can come from all over the city just to walk around and explore the sidewalks of the city. As nice as the Lowertown Lofts are, the Saint Paul Art Crawl just can't compete with the compact density of NE, the walkability of the neighborhoods, the yards and alleys and gardens, and the nice commercial streets (13th, Marshall, Central, University, etc.).


[Alleys and nooks fill with creperies as walkers walk by.]


[Books come out of houses and sit on yards. These books were twenty cents a piece.]

There's also a kind of open flatness to NorthEast. There's an industrial mystery that is nowhere to be found in Uptown. Quincy Street is a good example, a forgotten train-tracked assemblage of warehouses that is filled now with art lofts. The alleys and bricks were chock-a-block with pedestrians and activity, and the street was the closest thing to a Japanese mini-street fair that I've seen in Minnesota.

[The alleys of old factories are the destinations. Here a man publically makes a giant pottery pot as onlookers look on, families tour about, and everyone enjoys the tactile properties of bricks.]


Art-a-Whirl isn't really about art. It's so much more. It's about sidewalks and neighborhoods and wandering explorations. There's no way this kind of experience could happen in this same way anywhere else in the city, and NorthEast Minneapolis is really the star of the show.


[So much is going on here in this empty parking lot... It's almost too much!]


* Of course!
** My world looks like this.

14.5.09

Twin City Street Musicians #1

[4th Street, Dinkytown, Mpls.]


[14th Avenue, Dinkytown, Mpls.]


[14th Avenue, Dinkytown, Mpls.]


[Exchange Street, Downtown, StP.]



[Saint Peter Street, Downtown, StP.]



[Back Bay, Boston, MA.]

7.5.09

Space for Play


This is going to be hard to describe. I was sitting in the sunshine in the park the other day and thinking about frisbees.

I sat underneath the pine trees on the green grass in that South-East Como Park and watched these two guys play head into the park to throw the 'bee. For a little, as they wandered into the field, they were throwing the disc back and forth between the row of pine trees, the plastic disc caroming off the trunks every once in a while. It was like threading the pine needle. Very contracted, very prone to delicacy.

Then they moved over to the big ballfield and really let it fly, running in the wide open grass.



I guess it made me think about how these two people were connected. Firstly, through this flying piece of plastic. The movement of the disc back and forth connected the guys along a constantly changing line, back and forth stretched out like a thread or a shoelace or a piece of uncooked spaghetti. They were joined by this disc, and had to move back and forth, now farther apart now closer together, depending on its flight. It's just like a conversation or a dance, only operating through a game, through a particular flying material with particular abilities to curve, float, and soar.

But, too, they were formed by the field. Without the wide open space, they couldn't have had this frisbee conversation. The field was so important.

Then some folks showed up to toss a baseball, and a whole new conversation took place. I really wouldn't want to live in a place without parks, even small ones. I wouldn't want to be without wide open spaces. Even little parks in the middle of homes make a big difference, and allow for a large variety of kinds of life, of kinds of activity, of play

So here's to parks and fields and frisbees! Now's the time to get out of the house and enjoy the feeling of running, open-ness, and grass underfoot!

4.5.09

Tunnel of the Week: Hoosac Tunnel


[This is content recycled from my now mothballed website, www.excitablemedia.com. Please enjoy!]

Far underneath the Appalachian backwoods of Northwest Massachusetts lies the fourth longest tunnel in the United States, twenty-five thousand eighty-one feet long, which I'm not sure but isn't that about how many feet are in a mile? An absurd amount of money and human life was spent creating this tunnel, wa-a-ay back in eighteen-hundred and fifty-something, and the canny political observer might be reminded of the Boston/Bechtel Big Dig currently nearing its final stages in metropolitan Beantown. As far as tunnels go, this one's a doozie, even by today's exaggurated standards, and it bears on its long dark shoulders the pride of the people of North Adams, their chests puff as they tell tunnelly ghost stories and hawk tunnel T's, catering to the ever-dwindling tunnel tourism trade.

[Descending the central shaft.]

In all probability, here's what will happen. You'll walk down under the Route 8 overpass after finding ample parking, and proceeding slowly with eyes filled with wonder down a short cobblestone street flanked with historical societies and pottery shops, looking like something out of a movie set, an old western to be precise, the old short street incongrous amongst the surrounding rundown mill housing and overgrown moutainside, to find a long one-story train station building marked Western Gateway Heritage State Park, and a little wooden sign directing you to the entrance, all uniformly dark gray, hard to make out amid the matching wood siding. You'll enter the foyer filled with local tourism brochures and turn to the right, to be greeted by a little well-tanned man, wearing a government issue polo open at the collar as much as possible, gold chain flickering in the track lighting overhead. The museum will look brand new, a prime example of modern museum display practice, similar to the Mill City museum in Minneapolis, all multi-layered particleboard printing and diorama style display, difficult to tell what's actually old and what's made to look old, even to the discerning eye. The Keeper of the museum is eager, eyes twinkling, making you think of the laser light show at the public observatory, almost begging you to ask him about the tunnel's storied past, which you inevitably do, as lonely as it is inside -- you're the only ones there, as far as you can see. He'll talk of tourists from abroad, following trails of tales of ghost stories, lost miner's revenge, the peril of untested nitroglycerine, the tribulation of politics and powerbroking, the way the tunnel broke the idealistic young spirit of one of the Civil War's most brilliant structural engineers, leading him to retreat to his native Tennessee, evermore cursing the name Hoosac, begrudging the Commonwealth of Massachussetts to his last.



[Advertising.]

And then there's the movie. After much promising, much hoopla, after no less than an 'out to lunch' delay whereby the Keeper of tunnel history decreed a half hour recess, recommending the foodhouse next door . . . we opted instead for the Eagle Street hot dog stand, local home to competitive eating, barstools, and chocolate milk from one of those big beautiful stainless steel milk dispensers. The movie room was a gazebo set up in the middle of the museum, and we watched the roughly half-hour piece from the second row of the neatly arranged black chairs, all other seats empty. The opening credits superimpose themselves over a tunnel, neither light nor end visible, just a few rail ties in front of the camera and folksy music piped over the sound of a train. A voice begins to speak, aged, gravelly, filled with portent: "There was only one thing that stood between bustling Boston and the limitless west . . . a great mountain . . . Hoosac." Pause for effect. Let the weight sink in, before we cut to white-bearded Fritz Wetherby, host of the show. Fritz is the tie that binds, leaping in and out of the frame, one second he's alongside the tunnel entrance, then he leaps out stage left, cut, Fritz leaps in stage right, one fell swoop, appearing amidst the beech-laden Berkshire forest saying "come with me into the tunnel," a white rope tied round his ample girth, white contrasting nicely with his red suspenders as he swings away from the rocks, somewhat precariously (will he fall?), and descends into the central tunneling shaft.

[For a spell, the tunnel was double tracked.]

O! the things that I learned. I won't bore you with a litany of detail, just a few salients. Know that after the film, I walked down through the tunnel tunnel, an educational recreation of tunnel conditions with button-activated voice actors reading excerpts from the heated political debate surrounding Hoosac, what became known to its detractors as The Great Bore. The canal tunnel was first proposed in 1819 by a small cadre of northern Massachusetts businessmen, jealous at all the rail traffic being detoured into the southern half of the state. They had a vision, a rail line that would connect Boston to the limitless west, a rail line that would speed towards the Erie Canal, that great feat of engineering, a double tracked link to manifest destinations: Great Lakes, Great Plains, Grand Canyons. The rail line would transform northern Massachusetts into an industrial utopia, invigoriating towns from Greenfield to Pittsfield, a boon to reckon with. The idea took a great while to ferment, lobbyists did their dismal duty, but eventually, by the mid-19th century, 1851 to be precise, the Hoosac alliance within the Massachusetts commonwealth legislature had enough clout to apportion some tax monies to the construction of the great tunnel, what would have been, had it been immediately built, the largest, longest, darkest tunnel in the whole wide world.

Needless to say, by the time they finished tunneling Hoosac, the Erie Canal was past its zenith, and was nosing down into the long decline toward history. North Adams maintained its station just outside the socio-political radar of the powers-that-be, at least until they converted an old factory into the fourth largest modern art museum in the world. Once again money was pissed away and lives were lost, all for some poor sap's vainglorious dream. But that, friend, is a yarn for another day.


[One ticket to the future.]

Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #18

One of the all time great sidewalk incidents...




... revolves around a scuffmark in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing (1989).