30.11.12

Reading the Highland Villager #72

[Christmas light pole in "The Village".]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]





Headline: New look in store for Snelling-Selby corner; Initial ideas aired for redoing Associated Bank properties
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Report on the new mixed-use development slate for the 60s Associated Bank [used to be Liberty Bank] on the corner of Snelby. Article has quotes from neighborhood group members about the “essential” need for pedestrian orientation for the future building: “Look at the CVS store at Snelling and University and do the exact opposite.” [Kudos! Only, the exact opposite could be construed as the equally odious Spruce Tree Center on the cross corner, which the inimitable Paul D once said looks like the interior of a bathroom tile. –Ed.] The developers own a bunch of the property on this corner, including the [mysterious and well-named] Getten Credit Company, and the houses on the corner. The number of drive through lanes will be reduced from eight to “four or five.” There will no longer be an “overflow” surface parking lot for the area [making it that much harder for me to go to Cahoots to get the best cup of coffee in the Twin Cities.]

Headline: Federation disapproves of proposed Victoria Park apartments; Board, neighbors prefer open space to 162-unit river bluff development
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Report on recent vote by the local neighborhood group to unanimously oppose a proposed apartment building in the “Victoria Park” area [an almost entirely undeveloped empty series of vacant lots in a prime location along West 7th Street]. Article cites CM Thune’s support for the project, quoting him as saying that “this project has been in the works for some time.” Objections include: the five-story building will be a “tragic mistake”, Article includes long history of the site, including fights with Exxon/Mobil, a property owner, and the neighborhood over the kind of housing [apartment v. single family] and what kinds of parks would be on the site. Article cites city planning official saying that the building is within code, and conforms with the master plan. [Because, you know, why would the city of St Paul want to have a bunch of people living in apartments along one of its main commercial and transit corridors, in a prime location along the river, when you could just have fields of grass that people could mow every week with those really large riding lawnmowers? –Ed.]

Headline: Avenue of a thousand dreams; Documentary asks: Does university's colorful past portend a bright future?
Reporter: Frank Jossi

Short short version: Article on the recently completed hour-long documentary on University Avenue's history to air on TPT2. [Note: I have seen a few clips of this film, and it looks interesting and chock full of wonderful Twin Cities urban history tidbits. In particular, it focuses on the birth of University Avenue as an auto-oriented car dealer "strip", which the proper context for this street. -Ed.] Article includes biographical details of film maker, following intriguing sentence: "if streets could talk, University Avenue would be quite the raconteur." [OK, I'm not into anthropomorphizing University Avenue. Even identifying it with one particular race or era is problematic. Is University a middle aged Al Bundy-like pathetic figure bearing the faded dreams of the Griggs-Midway building? Or is it a scrappy home to Fatimah psychic, Russian Tea House, and Trieu Chau like something out of a Spike Lee movie? -Ed.] Article includes pornographic history.

Headline: Developer closes on purchase of former brewery buildings
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Report on the Dominium purchase agreement of the Schmidt brewery. There will be a restaurant on the "main-floor space."

Headline: Work finally beings on new Edgcumbe bridge
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: There will be a new $1M road bridge over Edgcumbe at Hamline Avenue. The old bridge was designed by a man named "Martin Sigvart Grytbak."

Headline: St. Thomas requests relaxation of liquor license conditions
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The University of St Thomas is lobbying the city to expand its liquor license terms, particularly increasing the number of sales locations and the port-a-potty and trash requirements during football games. Article mentions that unlike the earlier debates, zero people showed up to the community meeting to oppose the University this time around. [Probably because nobody knew about it. -Ed.] 

Headline: High Winds Fund withholds $24,000 grant from Union Park; faults district council for lack of transparency, open process [Who knew that "withholds" had two "h's" in it?]
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: A nonprofit associated with Macalester is denying a grant to Union Park because of their "failure to adhere to its own bylaws w/r/t transparency and open processes." [That is code for lacking basic common sense and democratic decency, and for airing one's own laundry out in public in the most disturbing manner.] Specific issues involved include fights over the approval of meeting minutes, the Pizza Luce issue, and the student housing ordinance. The nonprofit is still planning on funding and supporting a plan for traffic calming on Marshall Avenue, and future Snelling Avenue medians. [Man, that is some serious St Paul District Council smack down.]

Headline: Council favors status quo for nonconforming use petitions; concerns of district councils, residents cited for keeping city's current requirement
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council voted non to change the way that non-conforming use petitions [a very common circumstance] are handled by the city, after years of debates over changing the process. Sticky wickets include: how many property owners are required to sign off on a non-conforming use petition (66% v. 50%). [Basically, this was a fight between city planners and the Planning Commission, who wanted change, and local neighborhood groups, who did not. -Ed.] The only neighborhood group to support the rule relaxation was Mac-Groveland. [Rather shocking, that. IMO, relaxing rules a bit to make it easier to not conform to zoning is a good idea. There are tons of non-conforming use rules that come before the Planning Commission, and in most cases we allow them if they pass a common sense threshold. However, once a building goes unused for a time, re-establishing the use becomes very difficult and neighbors find it easy to stop the use if they so desire. Oh well.]

26.11.12

HELP WANTED Camera is broken

My trusty small red Canon camera, kept normally in my pocket, with which I photograph things like hand-written signs and solitary street dogs, is out of commission. I am seeking your advice!

Here is the problem. To take a picture, you press a small black button. Currently, the small black button is located here:





It should be located here:


I have tried simply pushing it back into place, but it doesn't seem to want to stay there. My camera is currently a paperweight.

Advice? Thoughts?

23.11.12

*** Sidewalk Weekend! ***

Sidewalk Rating: Wintry
Had the renovations to the minister’s house on Bansinghall Street followed an accelerated timetable, it’s likely that Priestley would have never stumbled across his “delightful Pyrmont water”; without the brewery, it’s possible the Priestley wouldn’t have thrown himself into the study of gases that dominated the next decade of his research. We tend to talk about the history of ideas in terms of individual genius and broader cultural categories – the spirit of the age, the paradigm of research. But ideas happen in specific physical environments as well, environments that bring their own distinct pressures, opportunities, limitations, happy accidents to the evolution of human understanding. Take Joseph Priestley out of Enlightenment culture, and deprive him of the scientific method, and his legendary streak no doubt disappears, or turns into something radically different. . But take Priestley out of Meadow Lane, and deprive him of his hours at the brewery, and you would likely get a different story as well.”
 
[Stephen Johnson, fm The Invention ofAir.]

[Minneapolis' milling district by moonlight, c. 1930s.]


*** CLICK ON IMAGES FOR LINKS ***




*** ***


*** ***



*** ***



*** ***




*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***


*** ***




*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***






*** ***


*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***


*** ***



*** ***



*** ***


16.11.12

Reading the Highland Villager #71

[A Highland Village lightpole.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]
 

Headline: New aircraft navigation plan raises red flags in Minneapolis; City officials want a new study in light of changes
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Planes are still flying in and out of the MSP airport, making noise.


Headline: Ford plant demolition to start next year; Planning Commission still must OK master plan for clearing site
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Bulldozers will likely being destroying old Ford factory building early next year. There still isn't a master site plan for the area. There's a City task force, but they haven't decided anything yet. There's a separate "demolition plan" that needs to go through the public hearing process before the bulldozers can do their work. Article includes phrase "recycling light bulbs."


Headline: Desnoyer still hoping for a I-94 sound wall
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Cars are still driving back and forth on I-94, making noise. Sound walls cost $1 million / mile.


Headline: Nonconforming Grand Avenue dog care center's days may be numbered
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Twin Cities' first ever "dog day care", which opened in 1999, is a "nonconforming" business that doesn't meet code approval. [Note: At today's Planning Commission meeting, the nonconforming use permit was granted. As a non-dog owner, the whole dog day care concept seems impossibly tortured. If you need to pay for "day care" for your dog, why have a dog? Dogs are not humans. Get a cat. -Ed.]


Headline: To cover rising costs, city increases fees for vacant buildings, problem properties
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Vacant buildings will have to pay $300 more in fees to the city. [This seems highly reasonable. We need to incentivize property owners to do something anything, to re-use vacant buildings. OTOH, maybe this will just encourage people to bulldoze vacant homes, which is bad. -Ed.] There are 1200 vacant buildings in the city of St Paul.


Headline: New Highland Village sign district rules are released
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: You cannot have flashing or changing signs in the "Highland Village." [We're looking at you, Ford Parkway Super America.]


Headline: Council seeks more time to tweak permit changes
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council is changing proposed changes to the city's non-conforming permit structure. The Planning Commission had recommended rules making it easier to get non-conforming use permits, reducing the number of signatures from neighbors, and capping the total number of signatures. Neighborhood groups didn't like these changes. [The City Council seems to be siding more with the neighborhood groups. -Ed]


Headline: Grand Ave. zoning study on fast track for hearing
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: There was a public meeting about the redevelopment and zoning study for the West side of Grand Avenue [the one that was initiated because there was an apartment building built near St Thomas]. Article includes [sensible] quote from CM Tolbert: "students and student rentals need to go somewhere."


Headline: St. Paul finds matching funds for Charles Ave. bikeway; City Council taps $166K in unspent CIB money for 750K traffic calming plan
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city found some Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) money to pay for the Charles Avenue bikeway, approved earlier by the City. Most of the money for the project comes from the Feds, MN-DOT, and from a STAR grant.


Headline: Against All Odds; The former St. Francis Hotel has survived a few setbacks since its days as the center of St Paul's entertainment district
Reporter: Lisa Heinrich

Short short version: Historical article on the building on 7th Place Mall [which houses the Palace, Breuggers, Candyland, and Wild Tymes, &c]. Article includes lots of historical tidbits. This site used to be home to a temporary state capitol building, the city's largest "soda fountain," and the USA's biggest "single-room pool hall."


Headline: Local affordable housing projects receive funding
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The state Housing Finance Agency gave out a bunch of money for affordable housing, including some for the Old Home dairy site on University and Western, the Episcopal Homes site, and the old Midway Chevrolet site. [This all sounds great! -Ed.]


Headline: No Time For Poverty seeks helping hands for new clinic
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: A St. Paul nonprofit is trying to open a clinic in Haiti.

14.11.12

What's the Best Possible Scenario for Minnesota Cities Under a DFL Legislature?

[The "golden horses" quadriga looking out over St Paul, c. 1915.]
Just two years ago, Minnesota cities had a near-death experience. The Republican party came within a grey hair's breadth of having a Scott Walker-esque sleeper hold on the State Capitol. But for a couple thousand votes of people with fond memories of shopping at Dayton's when they were younger, we would have had an unimpeded Governor Emmer making draconian cuts to local governments, transit, and probably a whole host of other Koch-addled things too terrible for my imagination.There would have been sit-ins in St Paul, light rail trains burned at the stake, and all kinds of redistrcited mayhem.

Instead, we can now sit back and celebrate exactly the opposite scenario. Next year, Minnesota will be looking at something it hasn't seen for over twenty years: a DFL trifecta. It's hard to say exactly what the consequences of the Democratic sweep will be, but one thing's for sure: Minnesota's core cities will come out ahead. The Speaker of the House is from Minneapolis. The new Majority Leader is from Saint Paul. The Senate Leader will be from somewhere up north. (Somewhere roughly near where Duluth is located? It's all a mystery to me.)

For the first time in my living memory, the state's core cities will have the ability to see their agenda enacted. For the first time in my living memory, instead of the last day of the legislative session turning into a giant game of policy chicken between the two parties, each of them holding out until the very last second, throwing symbolic tantrums by throwing stacks of papers into the air, and compromising at the last second in a back-room deal that nobody in either party has had a chance to glance at, the DFL will get a chance to see if it can run the state government in a sensible, non-ridiculous way. (Of course, whether or not it can accomplish this feat remains to be seen. A lot depends on newly-elected swing districts.) My hopes are high, and Mayors and City Council members across the state should be as giddy as a young Taggart Romney on the night before Mormon Christmas (whenever that is).

So, the next two years should be a turning point for Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and the other cities of Minnesota (I can't think of any names just now).

Since the election last week, though, one question has been bouncing around my head. No, it isn't, "How much will I have to pay for my new personalized Vikings Seat License?"  It's not even, "What can we expect from the new DFL legislature?" Rather, I want to let my fantasies fly free. I want to feel a liberal wind beneath my urban wings. I want to look out my window over the Mississippi River valley and see the State Capitol leading the way, shining like a State Fair skylight over the understatedly beige Saint Paul skyline. I want to think big. I want to dream a thousand impossible dreams, the ones where William Shatner comes back to Earth and pitches a no-hitter for the Twins. I want to ask this:

What is the absolute best case scenario for Minnesota cities with a DFL legislature?

To put it another way: What would be the most astoundingly amazing thing that the State could do to strengthen Minneapolis, St Paul, and those other cities (can't think of any right now) for the rapidly changing, probably uncertain future? What flavor is the pie in the sky?

I've been chatting with a few people about this over the past week, and here are some rudimentary thoughts.


Taxes

What's likely to happen: Obviously, the first thing on the legislative agenda is to mess with taxes, the hottest of political hot buttons. The DFL (and the Governor) have long pushed raising the top income tax bracket (which was cut back in the Pothole Pawlenty / Jesse the Body days). So, we can expect tax rates to go up for the top earners.

It's probably also true that some of the accounting gimmick style "revenue enhancements" of the past decades are going to be reversed. For the first time in years, we won't see any cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA). There won't be any "school funding shifts." The State budget will actually be paid by taxing people earning money, like it's supposed to be done.

The best case scenario: Already, we're talking about some big strides. Not cutting LGA is a big deal, and means that Minnesota cities won't have to make Hobson's choices with their local priorities, no longer having to choose whether to cut fire fighters or libraries. The LGA system shifts Minnesota local government funding away from the property tax system (which fosters stark inequality) toward the income tax system (far more progressive). That's a big deal.  Maybe the best case scenario is actually re-funding LGA, increasing the payments back to where they used to be. That would be a huge step forward, back to where we were in the 80s.

But what's beyond that? What is the 'pie in the sky' for the state tax code? Ideally, that would be some sort of broad policy that gives cities more flexibility to figure out their own approach to revenue. My colleague Chuck at Strong Towns has mentioned a few times that local governments should be freed up to find their own creative approaches to funding their local obligations. Currently, Minnesota cities can't levy local taxes without (rarely granted) legislative approval. The only choice they have is the property tax, and, as far as I'm aware (not far), the property tax can only be used according to certain lines.

Why not give local governments the license to raise their own revenue (within reason), and try to figure out how to pay for roads and infrastructure using the (Strong Towns) value capture approach?

Alternately, why not allow cities to shift their property taxes from a property value to a land value basis? Currently, there's a great incentive NOT to improve one's urban property. Any improvements only increase the property value, increasing the taxes. That's one of the reasons why so much of our central cities and downtowns are composed of surface parking lots. If we taxed the potential value of the land (what it could be, a mixed-use building) instead of the actual value of the land (what it is, a parking lot), we'd have a system that actually encouraged people to develop urban infill. I'd say that would be a best case scenario for Minnesota cities.


Transit and (non-motorized) Transportation

What's likely to happen:
Well, this is the place where we're likely to see the most obvious change from the Republican to the DFL state government. Last biennium, the Republican legislature left the Southwest Light Rail line unfunded. This year, particularly since a few of the seats along the route switched parties, it will be funded.

Furthermore, the huge cuts to Metro Transit will be un-cut. And, maybe just maybe, the Bottineau Light Rail will get some initial money. Maybe the Gateway corridor out to Hudson, if it's far enough along. It's probably safe to say that the transit system will be a lot more solvent, its future brighter, two years from now.

The best case scenario: But what's the best case scenario? Well, the first thing might be a more stable source of everyday maintenance revenue for Metro Transit. If there was a better pot of money that would keep them from having to desperately beg the legislature every two years (like there is with the state gas tax), that would take a lot of political pressure off groups like the Met Council. We'd actually be able to count on a stable transit system. (I remember this being a political issue a few years ago. I'm not sure how it got resolved back then.) In the best of all possible worlds, this funding stream would allow Metro Transit to actually cut fares in half, to levels that poor people can actually afford, and that would make taking transit as appealing as apple pie (in the sky).

What more could we hope for? A pot of state funding for new projects, both transit and non-motorized transportation, that each city or project could competitively apply for, that would be used to guarantee things like LRT, BRT, commuter rail, and streetcar systems as they apply for Federal money. To give but one example, a few years ago Minneapolis completed a streetcar study that recommended a new line along Nicollet and Central Avenues. Saint Paul is working on a similar study right now. Hell, Duluth and Rochester might as well look at this too. (Imagine a line along Superior Street from Fitger's down to West Duluth.) If there was a reliable source of revenue for State dollars, local governments would be moving at light speed toward developing good local transit that would catalyze inner city development like a lightning rod.


Urban Policy

What's likely to happen: A policy perspective is a bit harder to predict. Who knows how many interesting ideas legislators have had nesting in their craws since 1980. At the very least, we can count on the legislature to pass Minneapolis's suggested slate of bicycle-friendly laws.

The best case scenario: They'd pass Phyllis Kahn's bill creating an "Idaho stop" rule for bicycles at stop signs. This is how 95% of people actually ride around the city anyway.  They'd change the state mandated 30 mph minimum speed limit, allowing cities to set their own minimums. Smart cities would quickly lower speed limits down to 25 (or even 20) mph on quiet residential streets.

But beyond that? Maybe it's time for thinking about the Metro Council. There's long been talk of shifting it to an elected structure, so that the Council doesn't change completely each time the governor's chair switches parties. (That is not a recipe for long-term policy making.) An elected Met Council would also be more accountable to the public, have a more direct relationship with its cities and citizens.

Apart from that, who knows? What other ideas are out there? Do you have ideas? Think big! Who's been dreaming in City Hall?

The world is your oyster, urban Minnesota. Break out the food trucks, and start cooking.

13.11.12

Signs of the Times #63

No pressure.
No judgment.
Just answers.

[Window. Stadium village, Minneapolis.]


SLOW DOWN!
You're In
Longfellow
Now

[Yard. Longfellow, Minneapolis.]


SMOKE
CRACK

[Asphalt. Grand Avenue, St Paul.]


HOLD ON
TO DOOR
WHEN CLOSING

[Door. Stadium Village, Minneapolis.]


UPCOMING 
TEST?

Viewing art
increases
blood flow to
the brain by
10%

[Sandwich board. University of Minnesota campus, Minneapolis.]


RIVERSIDE PLAZA
Bike Area Is
NOT
For Long
Term Storage

Bikes Not Used On
A Daily Basis
Will Be Removed
And Discarded

[Concrete wall. Cedar Riverside, Minneapolis.]


 Thank You
to all our friends
and family for all of
your love and support
over the past years.

We hope to see you
all at home.

[Door. Warehouse district, Minneapolis.]


ounge

[Window. Warehouse district, Minneapolis.]

12.11.12

TCS Interviews George and Betty, Members of the Saint Paul Hiking Club, as they Re-dedicate a Plaque in Honor of a Veteran



 [The plaque in question.]



INTERVIEW V

[Late afternoon. Late Spring. TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS (TCS) calmly, cooly, walks toward a large glass greenhouse in a large city park in the warm sunshine. He approaches a group of mostly older people, slowly gathering together, singly and in groups of two. They are the SAINT PAUL HIKING CLUB, and as each member arrives, they are greeted with the smallest hugs. They gather together to talk in quiet voices.

After a few minutes, the group walks through a pair of glass doors and into the low brown building. They walk, with purpose, through another pair of doors and back outside, into a small zoo. Monkeys sit in a tree nearby.


The group approaches a tree and stops to stare at the ground. Next to the tree, by the guardrailing, is a white marble plaque that reads:

    In memory of
    PFC CHARLES MARVIN HUHLMAN
    Born September 11, 1918
Killed in Action, Czechoslovakia, April 25, 1945
Erected in Saint Paul Municipal Hiking Club, 1948.

An older man, in his mid 80s, GEORGE HUNKINS, holds a clip board. He turns to the plaque, places his shoe up on the railing, and begins to talk. The group gathers around, squinting in the sunshine.]

George Hunkins: [Quickly, in reedy clipped voice.] He was marine, graduated Johnson High School in 1937. HE wasn’t sent overseas until early 1945. You can see he was a PFC. The only thing lower is a buck private, you know.  He was kind of a medic attending to the thing, and I imagine that the German that shot him, I imagine he must have known that the war was going down, that the Nazis and them Germans didn’t have much left. But anyway, he was gunned down by this sniper.

And perhaps about when the word got back form his parents two or three weeks later, they probably contacted the Saint Paul Hiking Club. I think the club probably had twice as many members at that time, and I would guess they were much younger. I would guess that probably two-thirds of the men were in the military. And they decided then about the 1st Sunday in June of ‘48, they had a remembrance and they dedicated this bench. His parents came out, and the bench originally was in Mounds Park. I don’t know how long but they do know that some people that didn’t care about it, and did some damage to it.

The city decided then, you see, the Saint Paul Hiking Club. The Hiking Club was started then in 1921 and the reason it got started… Minneapolis had a club. Back in those days, there was great rivalry between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. So the Saint Paul people said, Minneapolis has a club? We gotta have a club.

So that’s how it started. Those of you that know, the presidents of this club. They know at my post because it got passed down from president to president. They don’t know much more than that, because they never had a historian. In fact, Harold Hawkinson kind of declared himself the historian.
My thing, being one of the youngest in world war two. And people say, thank you for serving, and I saw, I was no doggone hero. I was in the great lakes about six weeks when I heard a superbomb was dropped. So.

Then of course I have been active in there, and decided to wear this. I spent eighteen nineteen years out at Fort Snelling on the Thursday squad remembering all the veterans who served and got buried there.

It’s just my feeling that we should remember.

[GEORGE explains something about the united church of Christ on Saint Paul's Summit Avenue.]

George Hunkins: I went there. They have a lot of information about him. They give it you know, most of you probably know up until about thirty forty years ago, belonging to a church or a religious organization was pretty important. The last thirty years, it isn’t. I’ve noticed out at Fort Snelling, I’d say maybe thirty-five forty-five percent come out there, no clergy. That tells you they don’t belong to a religious organization. And sometimes you know, they don’t even hardly have a prayer in memory of their deceased one.

So that’s the background, and like I said, I could say a few other things but they’re not in my craw right now. We’ve had about 2 remembrances here, and we’ve had a couple out at Fort Snelling. He’s interred there and his parents elected to bring his remains back. I’m sure that day was January 6th, 1949. In fact, just the memory if you read the sports section this morning, you notice that the athletic director, Normam Taig, he made mention, said he was with his father. We just visited Normandy. Omaha beach. I cannot imagine what happened that day. Everybody remembers it. June 6th,1944. Plenty of blood and people there and of course, in fact, one of our members incidentally, two of our members are Gold Star. My wife. Gold Star sisters. and Pat Tiller, she’s a Gold Star sister.
We had another lady who was active in the club. She hasn’t hiked for probably 10 years. Her name was Lenore.

[A WOMAN WITH A FAMILY approaches the group, and begins to push its way through the assembled cluster.]

Woman with a family: [Pushing a stroller, annoyed.] Excuse us. Excuse us. 

George Hunkins: [Unflapped.] Her parents, she was raised in Winona, I know, but she visited her brother who was buried there in France. And she got paid by the government because the government had a program that next of kin could visit there. And her parents didn’t care to go, but she was happy to go. So that’s another thing. Lenore’s brother, she was a gold star sister.

[A pause. Members of the SAINT PAUL HIKING CLUB look at the roots of the tree.]

George Hunkins: [Semi-wistfully.] I’m soon 85 and who knows you know, who knows about the rest of my life. I’d bet come 2021, we’ll have a big celebration. But it’d be nice to carry on this honor and keep this club going from time to time. You know how the people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, how they make it. GI’s in the Second World War, they were coming back by droves. I just saw the other day, sixteen million people served in the Second World War. Our country, about 290,000 sacrificed in the  Second World War. They used to say that a couple years ago about a thousand, mostly men, were dying every day. I just saw in the paper a few weeks ago. this year they envision that 250, 000 World War Two people will depart this life.

Just a moment of silence here.

[A brief second passes. Nearby, a LOUDSPEAKER mounted on a pole makes a beeping noise and begins to bray.]

Loudspeaker: Attention Como Visitors, your attention please. The time is now 5:56. At precisely 6:00, the Como Park Zoo and the Margorie McNeely Conservatory will close for the day. This includes all buildings, grounds, the café, and gardens. Please make your way to the exits now. Thank you for joining us at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory today.

George Hunkins: [Continuing despite the LOUDSPEAKER] We gather here for Charles Marvin, he laid down his life. For all those that sacrificed their life, may they be in eternal rest. Amen.

[Silently, the SAINT PAUL HIKING CLUB turns toward the exit, walks through the building, and leaves the zoo.]





ACT ONE SCENE TWO

[Outside. In the Parking lot. The groups huddles together at the edge of the sidewalk, chatting excitedly. BETTY CONNELLY, an older woman, gets out a box filled with sugar cookies. She looks around at the others, unsure where to go.]

TCS: I’m doing a story about the hiking club for my website. Do you have time for a few questions?

Betty Connelly: As long as we can do it while walking.

TCS: Of course. It’s a hiking club. Just tell me your name then.

Betty Connelly: Betty Connelly.

TCS: What kind of stuff do you guys do?

Betty Connelly:  It depends on where we walk, depends on who leads the hike. There are people who have been here longer. Maybe about five years that I’ve been a member. Whoever leads the hike decides where we’re going to hike. Oftentimes it’s in the East Metro, but not always. It can be occasionally in Minneapolis or that area. I remember the furthest away that I went was Hastings. Somebody had… that was a neat one because of the views there, and I’m a reluctant leader. I’ve led one each of the last two years. [She laughs.] But it’s on Sundays, it’s roughly about 5 miles, though I think last time it was about 6 miles. And on Tuesdays it’s supposed to be about 3 miles and about an hour hike. And every so often usually they designate a place to meet to eat afterwards.

This is kind of unusual to do the eating before we hike. And so, pot luck. Lot of times it’s a restaurant afterwards. And I would say, at least on the Sunday hikes, there’s some people who show up virtually for every hike. A good Sunday there will be about 25 people, sometimes more. Sometimes less. And I don’t know the exact membership, I know its way beyond that. It might not be a hundred people, but it’s approaching that.

[GEORGE approaches BETTY and gives her directions to the picnic table. He offers her a ride in his car, and she accepts. Nearby, the SAINT PAUL HIKING CLUB gathers around the picnic table, laden with Tupperware, and eats delicious sandwiches made from white bread.]

6.11.12

Today on Streets.mn: Do Sidewalks Turn People Into Democrats?

I wrote an election-related piece for Streets.mn today, about why sidewalks make good predictors of political voting habits. The basic question is this: why do Democrats overwhelmingly found in places with sidewalks? Do Democrats flock to sidewalk-laden neighborhoods? Or do sidewalks foster and create Democratic values?

Here's one side of the coin, from my piece:
On the one hand, you can argue that politically left-leaning people prefer sidewalks, and choose to move into neighborhoods that have them. (Meanwhile, libertarian conservatives prefer large houses on the edge of the city.) People move into neighborhoods which match their ideologies and aesthetics, and over time, both groups “self-select” and segregate across the metro area. In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop describes exactly this phenomenon, how US cities have become more segregated over the past 30 years. (Back in 1976, only 27% of voters lived in so-called “landslide counties,” uncompetitive neighborhoods where the vast majority of people voted for one candidate. Today that number is over half.)
More and more, people live in places where the vast majority of people agree with each other. And for left-leaning folks, that means places iwth sidewalks. Sidewalks serve as a classic symbol of urban togetherness. Sidewalks represent an image of society involving dog-walking and diversity. Sidewalks attract Obama supporters. On the other hand, for a tea party libertarian, a sidewalk is like garlic to a vampire. No self-respecting free-market kool-aid vendor would be caught dead on one, so they stay away, safe and secure out on the edge of town, out in three-car automobile utopia.
It's a question of structure vs. agency. Beginning with founding figures like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, social science has been attempting to figure out the relationship between individuals and their environments. The big leap that these early sociologists made was to claim that our messy human world was organized by social structures, forces larger than any individual. These broad arrangements -- think of capitalism, the family, or gender -- constantly shape and guide collective behavior.

Architecture is a good example of this tension. Building design, all the homes, cubicles, elevators, and driveways, affect us in a million ways. We can understand a great deal about US society by simply looking at its infrastructure, its freeways and power lines and asphalt and three car garages. Our homes and environments control the kinds of people we can become.

But what about individual agency? Structures may exist in the background, but the actor in every story is the individual making decisions. Society is best understood, not through invisible structures determining our actions, but through individual choices. Our democratic system, our economic system, and our environmental outcomes are predicated on individual choice. But that doesn't stop our environments from shaping us like play-doh.

5.11.12

Nine Ways the US Democratic System Screws its Cities

No, I'm not talking about the usual anti-urban Federal subsidies. I'm not mentioning pro-sprawl policies like the US interstate highway system, FHA redlining, the mortgage interest deduction, the low gas tax, or the uneven geography of military spending. Those are all political outcomes, things that happen (mostly) fair and square through our system of representational democracy.

What I'm talking about here are political inputs. These are ways that the traditional (as of the mid-20th century) one-person one-vote system of democracy is skewed against cities, in favor of rural and suburban (largely white) America. The game is rigged against urban life, against the very places where the most people live.  Jeffersonian agoraphobia lies at the very heart of our constitutions and procedures.

Here they are, in order of least to most egregious:


Map Projections:
This may seem like small potatoes, but its sets the table for the meal of undemocracy you’re about to enjoy. When you glance at a US electoral map on the television, you see an ocean of red surrounding tiny islands of blue. It makes it seem like a vast conservative majority is somehow outweighed by little blue measles. In reality, it's the other way around. These maps reflect the basic American imbalance between population and geography that makes it so difficult to have fair representation in our vast and sprawling country.

[A population cartogram that reflects the true weight of the 2008 presidential race.]


Primary Elections: In our presidential primary system, New Hampshire and Iowa are the “first in the nation” to vote. These places get a disproportionate amount of attention from ambitions politicains. They are also places with almost zero cities. (No offense, Davenport!) This system is stupid for lots of reasons, but privileging the rural is one of them.

Locations of State Capitols: Harrisburg, Springfield, Albany, Sacramento... These are not the largest cities in America. When deciding where to put state capitals, back in the early days of the USA, those in power chose to locate them far away from the major cities. There were some good reasons to do this, because cities were extremely corrupt. But one goal was also to minimize the potential for grassroots democracy. It’s a lot harder to protest when you’re three hundred miles away. The kinds of direct action tactics that occurred in Madison, Wisconsin two years ago would never have happened if the state capitol was in Marinette, up on the Michigan border.

[Albany, New York: located far from the maddening crowd.]
 

District of Columbia: Our nation’s capital is also one of nation's largest travesties of democracy. It has no official representation in congress. By complete coincidence, DC is terribly poor and disproportionately home to people of color. It’s basically a microcosm of how the American political system screws its cities and black people. If DC were an official state, it would have two senators, but it still wouldn’t be the least populous. That honor would still belong to Wyoming.

[The best license plate in the country.]


Lack of Competitive Districts: Almost without exception, competitive races are out in the suburbs or in rural areas. It only makes sense that, given this system, parties that are trying to win a majority  will promote federal policies that benefit more competitive districts. Thus, you get a military base or freeway project or some other other white meat out in the swing suburbs. Meanwhile, politicians in urban districts are absolute locks for re-election. They can go ahead and spend more of their time concentrating on building a national majority (which means catering to suburban and rural voters).

Redistricting: When faced with the political clout of many people living in a city, a hostile state government is not without options. One popular choice is redistricting, drawing the boundaries of the districts to minimize and/or ‘pack’ urban areas. Sometimes that means creating the aforementioned highly uncompetitive districts. Sometimes that means drawing districts like the ones in Cincinnati or Austin, dividing up urban areas like slices of a delicious undemocratic pie
[I don't understand this, and neither do you, but it screws Cincinnati.]



Polling Places: In the US, local jurisdictions are responsible for running polling places. Often this means that voting is more difficult and time consuming in urban areas. For the last few decades, Ohio and Florida have been particularly unequal. Having to wait in line for 10 hours to cast your ballot, while people in rural and exurban neighborhoods vote smoothly, is one outcome of our election system. Intentional or not, it does no favors to our cities.


[A line for early voting in Miami-Dade county from yesterday.]


Electoral College: It’s a little known fact that someone voting for president in Montana gets three votes, while someone voting for president in California only gets one. OK, that’s not technically true, but it may as well be. Our fossilized electoral college system allocates votes unfairly, and disproportionately to states with low population. In Wyoming and North Dakota, there is one electoral vote for every 140K people. In Florida and New York, these is one electoral vote for every half million people. Where do you think the cities are?

[Your presidential vote is weighted according to your misanthropy.]

The US Senate: Congress has two bodies. One of them is extremely unfair. Wyoming gets two senators, each representing a population of 568,000. California also gets two senators, each representing a population of 37,691,000. On top of this travesty, Senators are very powerful. They have long terms and are given the power to wield the the anti-democratic (increasingly abused) filibuster. As Hendrick Hertzberg explains, 10% of the population (the senators from the most rural states) can effectively block the will of the vast majority of the people. This means that passing a (pro-urban) bill through the Senate can technically require a ‘supermajority’ of 90% of the people. The undemocratic Senate holds our cities hostage to the demands of farmers and industry from our most remote places.

[Mr. Smith goes to Washington, screws the people.]


There you have it. Have fun voting tomorrow. Try not to live in a city, though, because your vote won’t be as important. If you really want to affect your nation's democratic system, call your old aunt Agnes in Beach, North Dakota. Her vote is worth double.

2.11.12

*** Sidewalk Weekend! ***


Sidewalk Rating: Bracing 

But there’s always that moment in a country’s history when it becomes obvious the earth is less manageable than previously thought. Ten years ago we needed to conduct comprehensive assessments of the flood defenses every five years. Now safety margins are adjusted every six months to take new revelations into effect. For the last year and a half we’ve been told to build into our designs for whatever we’re working on features that restrict the damaging effects after an inevitable inundation. There won’t be any retreating back to the hinterlands, either, because given the numbers we’re facing there won’t be any hinterlands. It’s gotten to the point that pedestrians are banned from many of the sea-facing dikes in the far west even on calm days. At the entrance to the Haringvlietdam they’ve erected an immense yellow caution sign that shows two tiny stick figures with their arms raised in alarm at a black wave three times their size that’s curling over them.



[Kids playing pumpkin bowling in Riverside Plaza, Minneapolis.]

***  CLICK ON IMAGES FOR LINKS ***




*** ***



*** ***




*** ***




*** ***




*** ***


*** ***



 *** ***


*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***


*** ***


*** ***


*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***


*** ***


*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***

In 1800, Jefferson summed up his views on cities: "I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere; and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue and freedom, would be my choice."2

[fm this.] 

*** ***

*** ***


*** ***






*** ***



*** ***




*** ***



*** ***



*** ***




*** ***



*** ***



*** ***

*** ***



*** ***



*** ***




*** ***



*** ***



*** ***



*** ***


*** ***



*** ***