|[This was the mandate.]|
So it seems like a good time to pause and look at what my goals were, and what happened as I groped with the challenge of producing a weekly quasi-journalistic column along broad “urban” themes. For one thing, I should mention that I had complete license to write anything I wanted for the Cityscape columns, with only the vague Cityscape description to guide me. To be honest, it was too broad for my taste. So when I began writing the column back in 2014, I jotted down a guide for myself.
|[My sketched "value chart."]|
theory <-> materialityAs my notes brainstormed their way across my mental horizon, the results transformed into a sort of compass [pictured] that I used for a time to guide the column through the weekly news cycle. One of my goals with my writing is to use complementary and contrasting kinds of stories to illuminate an place or problem. Sometimes you want to tell positive stories, for example; at other times you want to be more critical. Sometimes personal, sometimes empirical, etc.
Culture -- politics – history – infrastructure
Current events <-> equity/diversity
Everyday stories <-> deep knowledge->->->
In the end, I don’t know how successful I was at striking a balance between things like “built environment” or “equity issues”, but I am proud of how it turned out. There were a whole bunch of very successful stories, ones that I look back on and, to me, they just glow. Others were much less effective. That's the way it goes.
In fact, what worked and what didn't seemed a bit unpredictable. Judging strictly from readership and popularity, the most successful Cityscape columns cut across a broad mix of topics, including skate parks, snakes, bad neighborhood Facebook groups, pink flamingo parties, the water bar (!), historic preservation issues, bike issues (OMG BIKES), and public safety in general. (That’s kind of a lot of different things!)
The ones that stick out in my mind as being my personal favorites were the pigeon one, the predatory lending sign one, the street harassment one, the shortcut one, the “libertarian alley” one, the “view” one, the bars without TVs one, the weird parks one, the fallout shelter one, the "numerological twilight zone" one, and the one about the lost dog signs.
(Also, I really love the wonky pieces, i.e. the LOS one, the concrete mix one, the FAR one, the detour planning one, or the curb radii one. I mean, where else will you read about porkchop islands?)
Anyway, writing the column was really fun and challenging. I'm glad to have had the experience. Having ideas has never been a problem for me, but finding the time and energy to transform those ideas into a 1,400-word story was often arduous, increasingly so. I’m looking forward to moving onto other writing projects in 2017.
In the meantime, here is my list of Cityscape ideas that never became reality. Much like my mythical “Marlys Harris notebook” from back in 2013, here are:
19 Cityscape Columns We’ll Never Get To Read
- COMPLEAT Mall of America history — a piece on all the detailed ways that the Mall has changed, and not changed, since it opened, done with a friend who has obsessively tracked these things
- A column I was working on about how new “whiter” LED lights installed in certain Saint Paul neighborhoods with historic vintage lanterns are driving some people crazy
- The last payphones in the city — I know where some of them are!
- Part II of the lost bikes story — what happens when bikes are donated to different places?
- The challenges International Students face when taking drivers tests in the US (I had started work on this a while ago)
- Saint Paul “permit parking” and the need for its reform (the cost of a permit has not increased since 1980 — the way that the city does this is nuts!)
- Those letter slots in skyscrapers: do they actually work?
- Steel utility covers: where do they come from? (The Neenah Foundry, that’s where.)
- Dive bar floors and ceilings (Obvs I will still write this one.)
- A whole column on bridge expansion joints
- A whole column on leading pedestrian intervals
- Funeral homes: their architecture and urban design explained
- Largest late-spring snow piles in TC history: where are they and what years were they there?
- The gentrification debate deconstructed — Picking apart the CURA report that came out a while back
- Old car spots — places where the “old car” crowds have migrated now that Porky’s is closed
- Everything you never wanted to know about church parking lots, or Why are there surface parking lots on Summit Avenue?
- Saint Paul “downtown ambassadors” debate
- Q: Does Minnesota have deadly or safe streets anyway? (The answer is “yes”.)
- Hot-take on the SWLRT / OMU Hopkins parking debate! (If you have to ask…)