29.3.12

Department of Transportation Buildings of America #1



[Department of Transportation Building, Alabama.]

[Department of Transportation Building, Alaska.]



[Department of Transportation Building, Arkansas.]

[Department of Transportation Building, Arizona.]

[Department of Transportation Building, California.]

A World-Weary Tour of St Paul's new Union Depot

[Under the massive skylight.]
I’m a natural born cynic. Confronted by a glass containing a moderate amount of water, I immediately imagine a world paved with drinking fountains. Any piece of good news landing at my feet appears to me a missed opportunity for perfection. Given lemons and the inevitable lemonade, I taste only the lack of sweetness, the acid tint. I wonder loudly if it is locally sourced. (Hint: NO! its NOT!).

This is why even a piece of ostensibly good news is, to me, an opportunity for unfurled pessimism. Each ribbon cutting an exercise in the mental yoga of the jaded.

Speaking of which, I was excited to get the chance to tour the Union Depot in downtown St Paul one sunny afternoon. It's a magnificent train station of the type too rare in America, an endangered urban species that barely survived its 20th century parking lot habitat carnage and the great railroad plague. Most of these beautiful old stations have vanished or are crumbling, replaced by beige concrete boxes that make FEMA trailers relatively opulent. You can list on few hands America's remaining beautiful stations. I have seen Philadelphia's 30th Street, Portland's  and Washington's Union. I have wandered through Boston's South at dusk, stumbled into New Haven's, and lost myself in New York’s Grand Central. I hear that Cincinnati has a great old station kept in captivity, only used twice a week for lack of trains. Detroit's is growing trees. Minneapolis's is kept half frozen. New York's Penn can only be found in grainy photographs nailed to the pillars of purgatory.

And for years now, St Paul's beautiful quasi-condemned train station has lurked like a dark oak on the edge of the river, used only to display famous shipwrecks. The station wiles its days harboring a marginal Greek restaurant like a forgotten expatriate genius playing checkers in a foreign tongue. Eating lamb in the midst of this mammoth mothballed building must be like pacing a mossy tomb, ghosts passing condiments.

But now - all hail the congressional earmark - the old Union Depot is being completely remodeled and restored. The historic preservationists have selected one particular historical moment - 1928 (or something) - and they're doing everything within reason to re-create that moment in time, down to the exact ticks of the clocks.

[That this water fountain looks strange is proof of its authenticity.]

[Station Master goes here.]

[This "Central Standard Time" once surrounded a clock, I'd bet.]

[Somehow, the Greek restaurant still has a few years remaining on its lease.]

[The tops of marble pillars.]

The tour was glorious. The building looks beautiful. The large entrance hall now wears its original colors, which happen to be a really unusual combination of light pink, bright yellow, and olive green.  It’s rather like the original colors on the horses of the St Paul Como Park carousel, some forgotten palette greeting us like a man in a strange hat. They've installed marble floors to amplify the echos of your hard shoes. They have a sign that says "boiler room" sitting in an alcove, waiting to be mounted.

And when you walk through the almost doorway into the endless waiting room, you find forgotten ornament bathed in ambient skylight. You see a bas relief mural winding round the entirety of the interior cornice of a massive space, a thin slice of texture telling "the story of Minnesota transportation” from Conestoga wagon to streamlined train. Few tour guides enjoy their jobs as much as ours did as he told the tale of cleaning off every last grain of dirt from the mural, only to realize that without dirt, nobody could make out any carved detail. They had to go back and re-dinge the relief sculptures around the edges to provide at least some contrast between the fore and background.

[Entering the waiting room.]

[Click on this photo to examine the detail.]


[The tour guide points up.]


The Other Side of the Coin


There you have it. A glorious train station. And through some sort of bureaucratic miracle, St Paul has enough money to restore all of it to its pre-automotive zenith. All this is good.

There’s only one catch, to my cynical mind. The problem with restoring a glorious train station in the middle of St Paul in the year 2012 is that, today, there are no trains. Currently, at present, the giant train schedule mounted in the lobby will display exactly one train departure and one train arrival. Having a beautiful train station in the middle of St Paul is like running a VCR repair shop. It doesn't really matter how good you are at your job; your business model has a problem.

Of course there are plenty of great plans for the future. If you talk to the Ramsey Country Rail Authority planner type people, they’ll show you a vision for the Union Depot with a great many colored arrows pointing all kinds of ways. The map includes trains leaving and coming and going to and from Duluth and Madison and Chicago ("high speed rail" translates into 100 miles per hour, by the way) and Rochester and all manner of points West. It’s a nice vision! But in the real world reality of the situation, in the Twin Cities that we actually live in, there is only one train and it's supposed to have been here at 10:30 but it's running ninety minutes late. Taking the train from this station will be like sitting down at Chez Panisse and ordering a hot dog.

Instead, the union depot will have a lot of buses. There will be Greyhound buses, city buses, and a light rail train stopping outside of its vast and historically accurate car-free plaza. I suppose the hope is that the simple fact of having a beautiful train station will somehow spur the development of a passenger rail system in the Twin Cities, but at the very least one has to admit to a leap in logic. If you build it, will they come? If the trains don't come, what will become of this beautiful place? Will it sit unpeopled as an empty fairground?



Union Depot Connections


There are other questions, too, with the way that Union Depot will join hands with the middle of St Paul. As Jeff has already pointed out, the plaza in front of the Union Depot is half beautiful and half ugly. It seems to me a potentially perfect public space. It sits in a lovely nook of old 6 – 12 story office and warehouse buildings, and spending time on a bench there could feel as good as sitting in San Francisco’s Union Square or New York’s Washington Square. The only issue, according to historical preservationist fiat, that there are no benches. The plaza is completely empty, and feels feels instead like a parking lot.

[The only thing historically inaccurate about this plaza is its complete lack of people.]

The county planner explained that they've put out a bid for someone to come in and run the  commercial and retail aspects of the train station, and that whoever wins the bid (which apparently includes lots of companies who run similar train stations in other parts of the country) will be able to program the plaza space for some sort of social events. The only catch is that they won't be allowed to make "permanent changes" to the space. I’d like to see something similar to what they do in the Hennepin County government center plaza, something like William H. Whyte's favorite kind of  moveable furniture.

Also, they couldn't figure out how to use the massive depot as a way to bridge the downtown and the  riverfront, which seems like a missed opportunity. Who can walk to the river in St Paul without almost killing themselves on Shepard Road? Nobody.

And last but not least, probably the only way to get to the station along Kellogg Boulevard involves walking down the smallest sidewalk in the city, a sidewalk that's almost escalator thin.

So there you have my best attempt at cynicism. Now that I look at it, I see the hopelessness of my stance. I hear my futile bitterness. Faced with my empty pose, my hand keeping up my chin, I can only release a whispered sigh that gathers dust floating through the brick room, coming to rest on the handle of an empty coffee mug waiting to be washed away.      


[To trains.]

[The future train platform, and the only original staircase.]

[An unfinished escalator.]

Update:

Immediately after posting this article, the persons in charge of the Greyhound Bus Transportation Company concluded, after all, NOT to run buses out of the Union Depot in St Paul. It's almost as if they read my words and were decisively swayed.

23.3.12

*** Sidewalk Weekend ***

Sidewalk Rating: Spring Surprise! 

So, let’s put the question differently: what things are contemporary? Consider a late-model car. It is a disparate aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods. One can date it component by component: this part was invented at the turn of the century, another, ten years ago, and Carnot’s cycle is almost two hundred years old. Not to mention that the wheel dates back to Neolithic times. The ensemble is only contemporary by assemblage, by its design, its finish, sometimes only by the slickness of the advertising surrounding it.



[A girl biking with her dog on Lake Street.]


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BikeSnobNYC Coming to Cauffman Union Tuesday

[I peed myself when I saw this sign.]
As a "blogger", it's important that every once in a while I pause to consider that my life is pretty pathetic. It consists of assumptions of self-importance based on what basically amounts to random search engine traffic accidentally being sent to this site from Eastern Europe. Approximately 12% of the non-random traffic to this site is just me clicking the referesh button.

I spent almost all of my day typing what should be private thoughts into a small text box, before deleting them. The rest of my time is spent wandering the streets of the Twin Cities searching almost in vain for tiny details of the landscape of which to take photographs that only about twelve people ever see. I spend three hours every day walking up and down Lake Street looking for dogs tied to parking meters. When I finally spot one, I get far too excited.

Basically, I wander the sidewalks in a creepy manner, not unlike a zombie paparazzi. People routinely cross the street just to avoid my ungainly visage.

But, that's the life of a sidewalk blogger I guess. And it's a lonely life, at least if you assign any value to actual face-to-face human interaction. Thankfully, I don't!

Instead, I surf the internet nine hours a day while almost completely ignoring the world around me. I'm lucky if I notice the rising and setting of the sun, let alone retain the slightest degree of empathy for others. And in my world of cyber-narcisissm, I have my own pantheon of importance, idols that I hold up to admire like statuettes. And there are few bloggers that I admire more than BikeSnobNYC, who will BE HERE IN MINNEAPOLIS on TUESDAY!!!  At 4:30! In CAUFFMAN!!!

OMG

I will be there like a 1965 Beatles Fan (except in the Twin Cities, where they didn't sell out).


22.3.12

Meet the Worst Bike Lane in the Midwest

I'm sure the battle for "worst bike lane in the Midwest" is a contentious one. The USA is riddled with terrible bicycle infrastructure, from sea to shining sea. In fact, almost every bike lane is bad (by standards of "good bike lanes", which only rarely exist anywhere). It's like having a contest for the "Least Healthy Fast Food on I-90", going into Sexworld and trying to choose the "Worst Made Porn Cover", or going to all the bars in town looking for the "Dirtiest Urinal".

So basically, most bike lanes are bad and spotty and have huge gaps that force bicyclists to almost completely lose whatever dignity they might briefly have attained during their bicycle ride.

And if you're in a country where bad bike lanes are commonplace, how do you go about choosing the "worst" one? That's really where this discussion should be heading.

Given this trecharous landscape, I'm going to suggest that the following equation for choosing the worst bike lane: [total # of riders] + [quality of bike lane] = [total bike lane quality impact]


[Yes, this is the worst bike lane in the Midwest.]
And, using this equation, I want to propose that this tiny 1.5 block stretch of "bike lane" on the University of Minnesota campus is, in fact, the worst bike lane in Midwestern USA.

Allow me to explain...

Minneapolis is one of the top cycling cities in the country, both in terms of total riding and % of people riding bicycles. This makes bad bike lanes in here far worse than a bad bike lane in, say, Peoria IL, which might see a few dozen cyclists each day. Madison, WI has us beat in terms of bike rates, but they're a far smaller town. Chicago is bigger, but their rates are far lower and their cyclists more spread out. And other than Madison and Chicago, the rest of the big cycling cities are on the coasts.

So, if we're thinking about where within Minneapolis you'll find the worst bike lane, you'll need to then think about where in Minneapolis you find the highest densities of cyclists. And the answer to that? The University of Minnesota campus.

The two most dense spots in the entire city for cycling are both on or near the University campus:
Since 2007, the number of bicyclists counted has increased 47%. The busiest on-street location is SE 15th Avenue north of SE University Avenue with 3,810 bicycle trips. The busiest off-street location is the upper deck of the Washington Avenue Bridge with 6,850 trips.
There are thousands of bikes everyday day going in between these two main routes. And, what kind of bike lane connects these two major thoroughfares?

[Semi truck backing into the only space connecting two main bike routes.]

This crappy strip of narrow concrete is shared not only by tons of pedestrians and separated from the bike lanes by concrete barriers, strange crosswalks, and a ramp. On top of that, it serves as a loading dock for some sort of highly explosive-looking chemical facility, and routinely features huge semi trucks backing into and out of this tiny cramped space through which these large numbers of bicycles are supposed to flow.

Thus, I put it to you, Midwest. If you start accounting for crappy quality + total # of cyclists to create a total bike lane impact measure (Total BLIM), this stretch of the "university bike system" is the worst around.

[This, the worst bike lane in the Midwest.]

[Car driving in the tiny bike lane / parking lot / loading dock connecting the city's 2 most trafficked bike routes.]

[The Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Board scratching their heads and staring at their shoes when confronted by the bike lane.]

20.3.12

Signs of the Times #51

NO STADIUM TAX

[Bus Shelter. University Avenue, Minneapolis.]


FREE LEMONADE
with
COOKIE PURCHASE

[Side of bike path. Minnetonka or Orono or someplace.]  



Geothermal Test Area

[Concrete thing in abandoned parking lot. Wayzata.]



LOST

It's a TV show.

[Telephone pole. Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis.]



<- BARKING

[Directional pointy thing. Downtown riverfront, Minneapolis.]


If you would
like to sit outside
please notify one of
our hosts.

-Thank you,
Cecils

[Door. Highland Park, St Paul.]

DO NOT DUMP
SNOW HERE
It melts into
our basement

[Wall. Central-Hennepin NE, Minneapolis.]



Sorry. CLOSED
For Repairs

Please DO NOT
Leave Any Kind of
Papers, Flyers, etc.
Until Further Notice!

Thank You

[Door. Central-Hennepin NE, Minneapolis.]



SITE OF FORT DEARBORN

[Median. North Loop, Chicago.]