Now, mostly this blog is about sidewalks and cities and planning and the art of moving and feelings of wonder at living and an extended ode to environments that help you surprise yourself and things like that. Mostly.
Every once in a while, not too often, I become publicly upset about the doings of our Republican Governor, Pothole Pawlenty. Not too often. Just every time an interstate bridge falls in the Mississippi, or health care for the absolute poorest people in the state gets axed, vetoing light rail projects, raising property taxes by cutting state aid for cities over and over and over again, or, well, you get the idea.
Well, somehow, the MN GOP decided to put forward the one man in the state that I actually dislike more than Governor BridgeFAIL: Grade-A fascist, Tom "Denny Hecker" Emmer.
When I worked as a Republican page over at the legislature, I watched him give speeches about trickle-down economics and how we needed more 'freedom' from government. I read about his support of castration for sex offenders*, and I watched him push again and again to tighten state voting requirements**, and basically I was viscerally, pit-of-the-stomach repulsed by Tom "Hecker" Emmer and his status as the #1 cheerleader for moving Minnesota away from a state of tolerance and acceptance and liberty and moving toward Minnesota as a state designed to serve only white property owners and run by and for people like Denny Hecker.
So, Emmer has a great great many detestable policy positions, and represents to me just about everything I loathe about American politics and culture. So, there's that.
But, never did I think he'd actually go so far as to attack sidewalks themselves! Apparently, the other day, Emmer went out of his way to attack St Paul's innovative sidewalk poetry program:
"LGA should be applied to what it was intended for," he said. "It should pay for essential services defined as police and fire service and sewer and water infrastructure. That's should what it should be going for, not to etch poetry in sidewalks in St. Paul."[via MPR's Capitol View.]
This statement is an affront in so many ways:
1)A personal affront: I'm on a personal crusade to make city sidewalks more and more interesting places for people, to think about how to improve cities and make them rewarding and diverse places for people to live.
To some extent, there's a politics to this. Old school white dude culture is based on the pickup truck, and all its ties. On the other hand, sidewalks represent the domain of the bicycle, of the elderly and the 'inner city' and those hippie kids with piercings, and basically everyone 'other'.
So, by attacking sidewalk art, Emmer is attempting to define and delineate a politics of transportation, to set out an 'us vs. them' situation between "those crazy hippie people" who use feet for some reason and live in cities and do nothing but waste your taxpayer money with their “poetry” and their “sidewalks” and their long hair and strange food vs. the kind of fence-building, suburb-dwelling, McMansion-lusting, big-ass-pickup-driving, gun-totin', kid-yellin'-at, Norman-Rockwell-dreaming, angry-at-the-world-for-stripping-him-of-his-50s-patriarchy A-hole "hockey dad" that drives everywhere and who lives a dozen miles from the nearest sidewalk and couldn't even name (let alone recite) a poem if his life depended on it kind of person.
2) An artistic affront: Poetry is the art of language. Poetry displays an intense commitment to metaphor and creation. Poetry is largely forgotten today, drowned in a sea of images. Poetry has few defenders. Poetry is the domain of artists and homosexuals and lefty liberals with fancy college degrees like Garrison Keillor and is the perfect target for a hick-trick bully like Emmer.
3)An affront to GOP principles: The irony here is that the sidewalk poetry program costs almost nothing, and is a textbook example of 'making government smarter', something that the GOP talks about absolutely non-stop as if every government program is populated by the cast from Idiocracy who sit around on their hands all day long and all we need to do is get some airport book business consultant to think really hard about the Department of Health and voilà presto you've saved 6 Billion taxpayer dollars (as if corporate consultants ever did much more than fire a bunch of people, or "re-brand", and if you've ever worked for a corporation, you know what I'm talking about).
Well, luckily, I got to talk to the director of Public Art Saint Paul this summer. She told me all about the program in question, the non-profit's Artist-in-Residence program, and it's a truly great and heartwarming and wonderful story. If this is not an 'efficient government' wet dream, then I don't know what is:
Twin City Sidewalks: So tell me about the city artist position. The artist in residence position? Do you have an artist every year?
Christine Podas-Larson, director of Public Art Saint Paul: No. It’s not a fellowship. We fussed with the name of it a lot. When we began this program in 2005 our initial idea was that someone would be there for 18 months, but after the first experience … we started with two artists. We hired two, and the wonderful Stephen Woodward, he used up 18 months of time in less than a year because there was so much demand for his time.
TCS: What kind of stuff?
CP-L: We have had for a long time a very good relationship w/ the public works dept. there is an openness and an interest in what artists are thinking, maybe b/c of the engineering background, these people really like the way things work, and the way people work that through in their mind who knows? They’re not threatened by it. Sometimes planning departments are threatened by it, or landscape architects are threatened by it. But in public works there’s just always been this big open door that says, we’re game for what you wanted to talk to us about.
We started the program in 2005 and we got funding initially from, of all places, St. Paul building owners and managers. They gave us the startup funding about $60K for the first period of time, and then the McKnight foundation stepped up big time after the first year, then we have other grants as well to support it. But the idea was that the artist would either contract or work for Public Art Saint Paul. And would be chosen by a group of people representing both the arts community with the Public Works Director and the Parks Director on it as well, with the idea that the artist would be there as part of the way that the city thinks.
TCS: So how has this had an effect?
CP-L: Well, it depends on the artist. In the case of Marcus Young, who it would be pretty unusual most people acknowledged that for an artist who is a conceptual artists to be hired for a job like that… so he even said in his interview “I don’t make anything”… and [CP-L laughs.] bureaucratic people were like “What does that mean exactly”… but he described a project that he did in China, and it was performed again in California and New York, called ‘slow walking’ where he would go out into a very very very busy street and observe it for a couple of weeks in advance with the idea of, how are people behaving and how fast are they walking? And in Beijing he wound up with about a 7 minute walk. It started with people moving very fast, they covered this kind of ground in 7 minutes, they didn’t pay any attention to anyone else walking by, lots of people on their cell phones, not paying any attention, just a purposeful fast walk…
TCS: You’re kind of on autopilot in a lot of places.
CP-L: So then on Day One of what became a month-long performance, he would start out every single day and he has very distinctive appearance when he does this. He’s Chinese American, and he has on this (I call it his) judo suit, it looks kind of like what people wear in martial arts studios only a little softer than that (he’ll kill me for saying that), and then he has an umbrella over his head, and he walks. And that same 7 minute walk he takes half a day to do it. And he walks slowly and silently and smiling.
And you know the first few days people are astonished and it makes them... they think he’s weird. In both China and New York they tried to arrest him, but after a while people get used to it and he’s there day after day doing the same thing. Walking slowly silently smiling. And at the end of all of this, then he goes back and looks and times how people are walking. The whole population is walking more slowly. There’s less cell phone use.
And to present that project... Other artists interviewing for this job are showing their sculptures, and Marcus shows this. And you get the Public Works Director looking at this, and finally the Public Works Director said, …
All of us were going “Oh please please, can’t we hire him? We like him the best”...
And he said, the reason I’m saying OK is that he’s doing the same thing we’re trying to do. He’s trying to calm traffic. Only look at the money we’re spending to do it. We’re putting up stop signs and jersey barriers and flashing lights that say "this is your speed" and all this. This guy is just walking out the door silently every morning and he’s having the same effect. The bottom line is that we need this kind of creative thinking. We always tell our employees we want them to think outside the box in problem solving, but we will definitely up the ante by putting somebody like this in the middle of our city discussion. At the table of planning and decision-making.
So his charge is not necessarily to make anything. His charge is to be a part of the creative discussion of how the city is built and functions. And we did have at the beginning some money for him to develop a demonstration project. And that’s where the poetry thing came from.
So he was assigned at one point to have his cubicle in the sidewalk maintenance division. And he’s sitting there in the middle of the city’s annual sidewalk replacement and you know, he pops his head over the top, “What do you do?”, and they describe it and they all went walking with him so he could see. And every year this is one of the biggest contracts that the city lets, because you know we have how many thousands of miles of sidewalk in the city, we replace ten miles of sidewalk every single year.
And the cost is anywhere from a half a million to $900K, depending on the extent of the program and the bids, so it’s a big deal. As he was walking along he saw… he’s always had this idea of what he calls, "the city as a book". That was his artistic idea and he wasn’t always sure how that would play out here. And all of a sudden he sees stamped in the corner of the sidewalk panel a little logo. You know, sometimes it’s a number, or the name of the contractor so they can tell what it is. He thought, well they’ve got the technology to do this. They know how to stamp stuff. What if the words that we’re stamping isn’t ‘Knutson Construction’, what if it’s a poem?
And so he proposed that and everybody figured that would be worth a try and got on board with it, and now we’ve just finished the third year of the contest. And there are 200 and some stampings of poems out there. And we have big stamps, they’re almost as big as that bookshelf, and they’re lightweight.
TCS: What are they made out of?
CP-L: Well there’s the wood framework, and then plastic kind of fiberglass kind of stuff, and it’s just like an old fashioned printing press, but it carries a poem on it. And our crew goes hand in hand with the contractor, whoever gets the bid for this, and written into the RFP for the city is, you know, you have to work with these people and at least 100 times during the process you have to take one of these stamps from the people at Public Arts Saint Paul and stamp it in the sidewalk.
So our crew goes along and picks out the stamp and hands it over to the contractor, because we don’t want to mess up the warranty and that kind of stuff, and on we go. So they have to give a cost for that every year in their bid, and this year its $10. [CP-L gets excited.] Ten bucks a stamping! Oh my god, this is great!
TCS: That’s about the best deal you can find in any government anywhere in the world probably.
CP-L: And this can go on forever. Think about this. If we’re doing 100 of these every year, in 10 years, 20 years, the costs of this really… There was some start-up cost, but I think by Year Four our costs are going to be the 10 to 20 bucks each year that we do. … The 20 original poems that we used, we added 5 more last year and 5 more this year, so we have 30 stamps.
And it’s being written about all over the world. Part of our problem now is we’re getting calls and people are asking, how did you do it. [CP-L laughs.] This is not rocket science, you guys. You hold the contest pick the poems, get someone to make the stamps, and there you go.
* Yeah, because snipping it down there will really stop them from turning into sociopath creeps!
** Which is basically an old school, repression-of-democracy poll tax, stripping rights from people like my step-grandmother who has lived in this state for 85 years and doesn't have a birth certificate, or anyone who might be older or might be poorer and thus might not have a solid paper trail, or anyone who because of moving a lot switching apartments for whatever reason moves so that their address doesn't match their license, and is in truth a blatant attempt to intimidate and repress the (highly Democratic) vote of people who might not have the security and means of someone like Tom "Hecker" Emmer.