WANTED: Moveable Chairs on a Saint Paul Jail

[The old Ramsey County jail as seen from the Wabasha Bridge.]
One of the more interesting spots you'll find in downtown Saint Paul is right at the top of the Wabasha Freedom Bridge, along the river bluff just across the street from City Hall.

The sidewalk opens up in odd ways right to form three red brick plazas along the riverfront. There's some odd infrastructure, like a loading dock, a doorway, and the top of an elevator. And most strikingly, there are lovely views of the river valley and Saint Paul's West Side.

But the strangest thing about the space is that you're standing on the rooftop of an old jail. Beneath your feet, abandoned jail cells are literally embedded into the face of the cliff. The building is the old Ramsey County jail, where inmates had amazing views of the Mississippi River. The other day, I was chatting with a long-time Saint Paul resident about the old jail, and he told me a story. Back in the 80s, inmates girlfriends would sometimes stand on the edge of the Wabasha Street bridge and flash their incarcerated boyfriends across the way. The whole jail would cheer, noses pressed against the glass.

Today, while the plaza provides amazing views of the river valley, it remains strangely lifeless. It's a shame made more poignant every week or so, when food trucks park here along Kellogg Boulevard. Somehow, despite having a plaza right next to a river, and despite having dozens of people with food in their hands, it doesn't seem to get much use. The main problem? There's nowhere to sit. There's no shade. There are no tables... There is little more than a solitary metal sculpture on a promontory surrounded by a few planters.

Oh, and flags. Lots of American flags.
[Part of the jailtop plaza.]

[One of the alienating plazas; very gulag-y.]

William Whyte to the Rescue

[A guy sitting and eating on a rusty staircase.]
William Whyte is the founder of placemaking. He was a famous urban writer and designer who became famous for thinking about plazas in downtown New York City. He devoted many years to describing how to make them useful and popular through the group that he started, the Project for Public Spaces.

(Sidenote: he also thought downtown Saint Paul sucked.)

The way that Whyte saw it, plazas are pretty simple. People enjoy watching other people. People like sitting down, sometimes in the shade. People like food and water. It's not rocket science.

But here's one lesson that seems to be lost on many folks today. People like to have some control over their street furniture. Whyte was particularly fond of moveable chairs. Here's the clip from his wonderful documentary, the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, where he describes moveable chairs:

(You should watch the whole thing later sometime. There's even brief footage of the IDS center from the early 80s.)

The famous place for Whyte's moveable furniture experiment is Bryant Park in New York City. It's a medium sized grassy park right next to the main downtown library. The city added lovely green tables and chairs, all completely moveable, and it's become one the nicest place in Midtown. Today, moveable chairs are all over Manhattan, right in the middle of Broadway.

[Whyte's famous moveable chairs in Bryant Park.]

[Moveable tables and chairs in Times Square.]

Just Do It

[Three lonely and unmoveable tables.]
The concern that you always hear about anything moveable is that it might be stolen or vandalized. But that's a viscous cycle. The more you turn your downtown into "defensible space" immune to tampering, the more you make it cold, inflexible, and alienating.

(For example, one of the jailtop plazas has fixed tables that are most often empty.)

Similarly, to provide security is often more expensive than the initial cost of the chairs and tables in the first place. The total budget for some movable tables and chairs would be less than the annual maintenance of a single stoplight.

The other reaction I've gotten about improving Saint Paul's unused plazas is that the space is going to be redeveloped and greatly improved in the future. To that I say, how long from now? How many years will it sit comatose while we wait for a magic developer to improve our sidewalks?

At a certain point, it just makes sense to trust people to be decent citizens, to trust that you'll have enough "eyes on the street" to maintain a minimum of civic life. The gesture alone is worth making.

Have a seat, Saint Paul. You deserve it.

[Lots of people standing around with food truck food.]

[A guy eating off a ledge; two women perched somewhat awkwardly.]

[Some friends of mine brought chairs to the plaza the other day, and lo and behold, people sat in them.]

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