A New Year’s suggestion for Minnesota’s Budget “Opportunity”

[I don't know what the hell a "gusset plate" is, but they look pretty damn sturdy to me.]

I have a feeling that 2009 is going to be a very interesting year for cities. I was listening to MPR a little while ago, and I happened to hear Gary “Milquetoast” Eichten interviewing GOP House minority leader Marty “The Paperweight” Seifert and DFL Sen Dick “Dick” Cohen discussing the terrifying budgetary chasm looming on the State of Minnesota’s fiscal horizon for the next session.

In case you hadn’t heard, the economy has affected the state’s shaky finances to the tune of an over 5 BILLION dollar shortfall for the next two years, which is a huge hole to fill. It’s even larger than that last huge shortfall from the Ventura years, and that one consisted of a combination of draconian cuts and various windfall cash, including the over billion dollar Ciresi tobacco settlement… needless to say, none of those easy money options are available this time around. Which is why I don’t see how they’re going to get out of this hole without a massive sell-off of state assets.

But my favorite part of the Seifert/Cohen discussion was the way that they largely agreed that the budget deficit was simply a matter of perspective. If you were a pessimist, you might see this HUGE hole in our government funding as a bad thing, something that might translate into slashing the state’s already underfunded education, healthcare, and infrastructure systems until we’re all living in Louisiana. But, if you’re an optimist like Seifert, you see this budget hole as an “opportunity”, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to innovate, renovate, and rethink how government is accomplished. And this is why the budget hole isn’t a bad thing at all, and why the Taxpayers League was “cheering” when Pawlenty announced this month that aid to cities, higher education, and healthcare services would be cut by almost half a billion dollars statewide.*

Well, I’m game. I started trying to think how the State of Minnesota could provide health care, transportation infrastructure, public education, and public safety for five million people without actually spending any money, and I think its possible.

If you think about it, the “state government” has thousands of people working for different “agencies”, where all they do is sit around and stare at computers all day. Do you know how many “government departments” the state of Minnesota has? Who knows what they’re doing… they’re certainly not producing anything, helping people, or accomplishing goals. We could probably get by with only a fraction of these “state employees”.

Go ahead, pick any “government agency” you like, and I bet you can find ways to cut and rethink how we deliver government services. Take for example, a random agency… Let me see… how about the “Department of Transportation”. Did you know they just hired eight new “bridge inspectors”? What the hell do these people do all day? Apparently they dangle around in cherry-pickers looking at “gusset plates” or something.

Well, I have no idea what that means, but we certainly don’t need to have that many “bureaucrats” dorking around on our highway bridges staring at their navels. We just need to rethink how we deliver government services, and I’m going to suggest that we get rid of the Department of Transportation’s Bridge Inspectors, and replace them with ... Hell, it doesn't matter.

God Forbid, if a bridge ever does fall down, it’s not like we couldn’t just get the Federal Government to pony up for a brand new replacement bridge. Presto!, you’ve got a whizzbang infrastructure investment program and hundreds of new construction jobs.

And I’m sure that the Department of Transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. We could see similar rethinking opportunities in healthcare and education. We could, for example, start a program “homeschooling” our young children in basic medical knowledge, like suturing gunshot wounds and treating chronic depression. Two birds, one stone, if you know what I mean. Or we could replace the state’s snowplows with a voluntary/mandatory interstate highway snowshoveling program that would build community while providing much needed cardiovascular exercise for our commuters. And those are just two ideas!

So, in the coming year, I’d like to see our legislators thinking outside the box. After all, as Condoleeza Rice once said, the Chinese character for “crisis” is the same as the character for “opportunity”.

[These bureaucrats are a golden opportunity for rethinking government waste.]

* The recent cuts will no doubt end in higher property taxes and worse city services for the poorest cities in the state:
Cities and counties will absorb the largest share of the cuts, a combined total of $110 million in state aids and tax credits. Small cities with populations under 1,000, and counties under 5,000, were exempt from the cuts. Pawlenty insists the cuts are manageable for local government and he repeated a warning to city leaders not to cut police and fire protection.


Aminals on Sidewalks

This terrible story about the dog frozen to the sidewalk in Sheboygan, Wisconsin got me to thinking about how animals and sidewalks interact. A friend of mine once told me that the sign of a good neighborhood is lots of people walking their dog, and I think that's just about right. Dogs serve wonderful functions in community building, mostly because they get their owners out of the house with great regularity, forcing them outside and walking around on the sidewalks where they can look around at neighbors' yards, experience the freshitude of Minnesota air, and maybe even meet a few people that live near them. Which is why anyplace where people walk dogs (AND pick up their poo) is probably a good neighborhood. Dog parks, vet clinics, sidewalk trash cans, and doggie-treat-wielding shops all form these little symbiotic nexuses of interaction, working together to create neighborhood interdependence.

So its sad when a dog gets left outside, and has to rely on its morbid obesity to save its doggie skin.* Firstly, let me say to all you winter dog walkers: Get doggie booties! Take precautions!

Secondly, it made me want to share some photos of dogs on sidewalks, so that we don't start thinking that dogs and sidewalks cannot peacefully coexist.

When I traveled to Berlin, Germany a few years ago I was amazed at how many well-behaved dogs I saw in public places in the city. It seemed everyone had a dog, but nobody had a leash. Dogs would follow their owners into little bars and cafes, and sit peacefully at the foot of the table waiting patiently for an occasional table scrap. Even the young vagabond-types had really well-behaved dogs with them. It made me less sad for 'city dogs' that can never run around and experience the true joy of chasing a porcupine overland through the thick brambled woods. It made me realize that sidewalks are for the dogs.

[A sidewalk dog waits out a shopping trip on a summer's day in Uptown, Minneapolis.]

[A sidewalk dog on a nice snowy day in St. Anthony Park, Saint Paul.]

[A sidewalk cow on the streets of Mumbai, India -- h/t thanks Kate!]

* The relevant part of the frozen dog story:
Police say Jiffy, a morbidly obese border collie mix, survived the single-digit temperatures Dec. 4 due only to insulation from layers of fat, officials have said.



In honor of the holiday spirit, here are five pictures of Santa on a bicycle. Have a nice break, everybody.


Kling-on Attack!

[Financial CEO Tad Piper and MPR CEO Bill Kling looking over their stock portfolio at the GlamourShots in New Hope -- img. fm. MPR.]

I will have more on this asinine story in the very near future, but for now I thought I'd pass along this public letter from former State Senator John Milton to MPR's CEO and local oligarch Bill Kling about the vain and solipsistic attempt to delay/kill the Central Corridor:

From: "John Milton"
Date: December 19, 2008 4:06:33 PM CST
To: "Bill Kling"
Subject: MPR vs Central Corridor

Bill --

I just heard your misleading appeal to listeners on KNOW, to join you in trying to derail the Central Corridor project. In this crusade you've chosen, you are not partially wrong -- you are entirely wrong. Keep reading . . .

1. I have read the relevant documents in this dispute, and to any impartial observer they do not support the conclusion that MPR must win this battle or move out of downtown St. Paul. That is just your way of throwing your weight around.

2. The documents clearly show that MPR, and everyone else who cares to read them, could and should have expected the alignment to pass down Cedar Street, as planned before you built your new palace.

3. In the rest of the world's cities, far larger and more advanced than St. Paul, radio/TV/network communications have thrived in close proximity to underground and street-level transit. Only MPR says that the line can't be built without disrupting your broadcasts.

4. So far on the Hiawatha Line, the complaint has been that the trains run so silently that people don't know they're coming. There goes your argument about "noise in the background" while you're broadcasting.

5. I find it despicable that you have fanned the fears of the church people alongside you in order to serve your interest.

6. I assume that since so few of your major donors are based in St. Paul, the delay or even killing of the Central Corridor project is not a big threat to most of them.

Rather than follow your advice (to help you pressure the Metro Council to bend over for King Kling), I will simply not contribute to your wholly-owned enterprise in the future, and I will urge my friends, one by one, to follow suit.

I hope you lose this one, Bill.. Arrogance shouldn't always prevail.

-- John W. Milton, Afton, MN


Other City Sidewalks: Livonia/Detroit, Michigan

[The lone bicyclist appears on the road like a dear in the gunsight.]

In what's becoming a theme in my travels, I found myself attending a friend's wedding this fall in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan. And it was an eye opening experience. I've long longed for a real visit to Detroit, and though I didn't get quite into the heart of the city this time, from the first moment to the last, I dwelt in a sidewalk-free zone. Yes, friends, Livonia, Michigan is the anti-sidewalk. It is the pure absence of pedestrianism, a manifestation of everything non-foot. Rather, it is the incarnation of the automotive, a land of pavement and absorbed promises, a land of detachment. Don't get me wrong, the people seem just fine. But never before have I seen such a public space wasteland.

Maybe it was my rental car. Immediately, the second the Hertz agent said "zoom zoom" to me with a wink, I was intoxicated with the love of speed, delighted by the rigid, asphalt uniformity. All the Michigan isolation, the Detroit alienation, the way that each house was a world unto itself... it all fell by the wayside as my engine revved. I became drunk with my ability to move, and I found myself under the spell of my car (a "manual" Mazda 3) that let me zip around the city like a deadly taser, over highways and byways with magnificent ease, so rarely going less than 50 mph that I became a NASCAR champion. Could I make it to the church on time, to deliver my friend to his wedding? Of course! The freeway would not lead me astray. My only regret was that there were so many freeways, so many six lane roads, so many green stoplights, and so little time.

[The average neighborhood in Detroit suburbs looks like this.]

Or maybe it was my accomodation. I was staying in a Marriott that was literally connected to a giant mall in the middle of a vast big box parking-lot-moated complex of chain retail. My one attempt to go to the bar nearby involved walking through the adjoining endless mall where everything was closed, a common experience in Livonia, and probably the only walking environment most people experience there.

[The view from my hotel room was of the mall parking lot.]

In Livonia, everything is built for cars. At one point, I was hell bent on getting a sandwich from the Jimmy John's across the four lane street from my hotel/mall complex. The trip was perhaps a quarter mile, but needless to say, it involved driving. The endlessness of the parking lots, the lack of walkable spaces, the four and six lane barriers, the speeding motorways. Needless to say, we drove to get the sandwiches. In fact, I have rarely felt so ridiculous as driving across the street, but you need to understand that the motorcar was the natural way to move around. The parking lots were conveniently placed in front of the doors, and it seemed to quick and easy. The alternative, walking down the empty, deserted, and alienating sidewalks, was simply not an option.

[The view of the mall/hotel from the Jimmy Johns across the street in Livonia.]

This is not to say that the place was devoid of sidewalks, though. I don't want to give the wrong impression. They do exist. It's only that they're completely isolated, and miles from anything interesting or walkable. Rather, they run alongside major motorways like yellow snow next to a snowmobile trail, marginal and despondent.

[The world's least interesting sidewalk is in Livona, Michigan.]

Part of the problem with Detroit (especially its suburbs) is that everything is so wide and big, designed for speed and safety. Every little street is a big, space-sprawling street (especially the main roads: 8 Mile Road, 7 Mile Road, 6 Mile Road, etc.), and the intersections are huge. And all the roads lead to driveways that lead to houses awash in giant lots in the "forest". All the homes seem to be separated by acres of green lawn, surrounded by fences. It's so strange to be in a place that's so rural-seeming, in the middle of a big city. You get the sense that Livonia is the land of misanthropy.

[A typical Detroit suburb neighborhood.]

In fact, Detroit, Michigan is so auto-oriented that they've literally broken new ground in auto-centric transportation practices. They have something so pernicious and great for driving that I'll have to describe in some detail...

It's called the "Michigan Left," and it keeps traffic going incredibly interruption free at 50 mph like nothing you've ever seen. It involves an absolute ban on left turns, to be replaced by right turns and then U-turns through large, grassy medians. It's a design feature (not a bug) that allows green lights along major roads to stay green for a long, long time, and supposedly decreases accidents by large margins.

But, at the same time, it's incredibly space-consumptive. As the wikipedia article on the Michigan Left describes:
There are several reasons why other states have yet to adopt the Michigan Left as a normal intersection geometry:

Confusion. Since the scheme is rare outside of Michigan, it can be confusing to visitors expecting to be able to turn left from the left lane.[2].

Extra Land. Depending on the width of the existing median, extra land may be needed for large vehicles to make the U-turn because their minimum turning radius is greater than the width of the median; essentially the larger vehicle must cross both oncoming lanes to get to the extra roadway added for this purpose.

Access to business. It may be harder to access local businesses.[2]

Sure it may make driving a piece of absolute auto-cake, but it also makes you really want NOT to walk across the street to get a sandwich. And it means that Livonia sidewalks are emptier than Rod Blagojevich's ethics manual.

The point this: Livonia, Michigan was designed to make life incredibly simple for cars. When your car finally blows its tranny, dies, and goes to heaven, heaven looks a lot like suburban Detroit. The streets are paved with pavement, and you can drive anywhere you want at a minimum of 50 miles per. All other things -- public space, businesses, culture, nature -- take a back seat to the auto driver, and the entire community is built on the promise of instant speed.

I really have not idea what might happen to a place like Livonia should gas prices return to their stratospheric heights. People here really have no choice but to drive every time they leave their houses. I feel really sorry for Jehovaha's Witnesses in Livonia, and I'd rather cut of my patella than try to go door-to-door or start a petition drive in this fair burg. The whole place was designed to make Detroit happy, and it's one reason why I have very little sympathy for the plight of the auto-makers in today's rotten economy.

[The concrete lies in the green green grass, unmarred by footsteps, wear, or tear. It lies like a precious, alabaster turd in the midst of automotive heaven.]


Sidewalk of the Week: Lawson Avenue and Bradley Street

[Two views of the sidewalk from the top of the Bradley Street staircase.]

I spent election day exploring the forgotten corners of my city, hopping over and about the vast gap between political rhetoric and urban reality. See, the DFL sent me over to Saint Paul's East Side, the most neglected part of Capitol City, and there I wandered around the streets and sidewalks knocking on doors and talking to people for a few hours in the cool sunshine. Following orders, I found myself just downslope from Payne Avenue at the corner of Case and Burr, not too far from where Swede Hollow used to be. It's a fascinating neighborhood with almost magical sidewalks, and I feel lucky to have had the chance to be a part of it for a few hours.

The East Side is rich in both topography and history, from its roots as an immigrant haven, to the mysterious Hamm mansion, to the way that Trout Brook was covered up to make way for the interstate. And in many ways, it hasn't changed much, though those old jobs are gone. What's left is the city's most diverse and interesting sidewalks, with the most wildly woodliness you'll ever see in these Twin Cities...

[The beauty of disorder is the last thing you expect to see in the middle of a neighborhood.]

The sidewalks kind of wander around the slapdash old homes, and start and stop all willy nilly. Bradley Street is the most interesting of these sidewalks, with bits that just come to a halt next to a house on a ledge with a built-together deck, for example.

[An elm tree eats up the vanishing Lawson Avenue sidewalk.]

It is so close to my home, yet seemed so far away. The old Hmong man raking his yard didn't speak any english. Doors leading to dark corridors stood ajar. The only large apartment building was completely filled with Latinas. And the neighborhood almost revolved around two poles: the little corner store that had a built-in deli counter selling catfish and "gangster burgers" on the one hand, and the elementary school with its large adjoining park on the other. The neighborhood had a really contained feeling, so that walking down the street felt like lounging on an old and threadbare couch.

The little divots along some of the streets meant that there were entire houses that had no paved roads, only little paths running through little hollows that enclosed space like a forest cave. These places feel like the end of the world, but the sidewalks are flexible, and bend and waver to meet the needs of feet. Stairs pop up like wildflowers, and sidewalks carry on.

[The sidewalk adapts to fill a niche, the quiet of an East Side hollow laying in wait below.]

I went door to door asking people to go to the polls, but I felt a bit bad about it. I'm not sure that any new president will be doing much to radically change the lives of people in this neighborhood. A place like this will always be underfunded and neglected, and will likely remain a long way away from power. But for an afternoon at least, there was magic in the air, and helter-skelter sidewalks carried me along with an energy all their own, far from the city planner's straight-edged lines. These were sidewalks that made their own way in the world. These were nothing but bootstraps. Sure I'm an idealist, but some streets are sheer practicality. Somehow we met in the middle in the East Side's tangled Election Day crannies.

[The great sign and graffiti debate takes an extreme turn along the bluffs of Saint Paul.]


Book Report: Historic Photos of Saint Paul

This is a great photo book that came out a year or so ago, that I thought I'd share with you. It bears the simple title, "Historic Photos of Saint Paul," and features exactly that.

Many many pages of Saint Paul back in the day, when people and streetcars ruled the day. It's a great book if you're incredibly nostalgia prone like myself.

The thing that capitivates me about these photos are how many more people you see out in the public and private spaces. Social life must have been far more dense, charged, and dynamic. The book is just filled with scenes of crowds and large groups. I imagine that every day was like the state fair, you were always in collectivity with other people, for better or worse.

The book had great images ranging from the first days of riverboat Saint Paul, all the way to the construction of the freeways in the 1960s. If you're looking for a good coffee table book, you could do a lot worse than this. There's a Minneapolis one, out there too.

(Of course, my favorite such book remains this one, from the New Press.)

[Macalester, a private liberal arts college, was several decades old when this 1923 photograph was taken. Students are engaged in pushball, a game played with a six-foot rubber sphere. Each side treid to shove teh sphere across the opponent's goal line. The gradition ended after 20 years, when the ball burst, but was recently revived for an alumni gathering.]

[The Oppenheim Building at 392 Minnesota was rental property. Dr William J Hurd who claimed 'teeth extracted without pain' must have been a favored tenant with his large electric sign on the building's corner. Above him was the Santa Maria Development Company, self-described rubber growers, and a fourth-floor law office. The building's street-level foor appears empty, its windows plastered with 'For Rent' signs and 1917 Liberty Bond posters.]

[One of the early open-air streetcars that were used in the summer is seen here, at the junction of Wabasha and Fourth streets, in 1910. On the tracks approachgin the photographer is one of the new enclosed cars built locally, using a design meant to hold up well during Minnesota's harsh winter weather.]

[Montgomery Ward was one of the first businesses to build a large shopping store outside downtown. The recently built retail sales and mail order shipping center towers over University Avenue around 1925. Streetcars have been provided with a convenient spur to load and unload passengers.]


To Heck in a Handbasket

Sorry about the long absence, but I told myself I wouldn't blog until my grad paper revision was complete, and I finally finished my draft last night. I missed all the anti-Hecker schadenfreude!

But I'm back now. And there are sidewalks to walk on.

In the meantime, here's Johnny Cash singing about the sleeping city Sunday Morning sidewalks:


***Newsflash Friday *** #21

Sidewalk Rating: Dynamic

Falltime is the right time to walk on sidewalks, ladies and gentlemen. There is a lot going on. Sunsets and sunrises fall at convenient times, hydrology creates beauty like the morning mist on Como Lake, and you finally get to wear that great not-summer, not-winder jacket you bought just for temperatures like this. As the weather changes, so do our hearts and minds. You'll find joy and melancholy on the sidewalks of Minneapolis this week.

*** [WSP: The Musical] ***

This is the greatest song about where I grew up that I've ever heard ...

... I esp. like the shout-out to the remnants of the Signal Hills Mall.

*** [Shelbyville] ***

This piece on downtown Saint Paul's interminable woes came out during all the RNC hullabaloo. Their take is to outline a debate over how residential the downtown area should be, and what the role of minority-owned businesses should be in any retail revitalization. They have this quote from Mayor Coleman:

Unsurprisingly, Coleman feels that things are only going to get better, what with the coming of light rail and potential mixed-use developments such as a project on the riverfront property where the former West Publishing complex and vacant county jail currently sit (this project was stalled at press time). But what about slumping downtown retail?

“Downtowns are different than they used to be,” says Coleman. “That trend started in the ’50s when Southdale opened and started the out-migration of retail [from downtown]. Can retail come back? Absolutely. But it took 60 years to go in one direction. The question is what do you lead with? I think you lead with jobs, you lead with housing, you lead with entertainment, and those traditional shopping things will come.”

I think this is pretty much right on. You cannot try to create retail in an area with no pedestrians, shoppers, or residents. There is a lot of unused space in downtown Saint Paul right now, and you're not going to fill that space with new office workers or shopping. Finding new ways to make downtown residential living appealing is the way to go. and for that, Saint Paul has a lot of sidewalk assets that could be developed. It'd be nice to see self-sustaining streetlife in downtown Saint Paul again someday.

*** [The Mayor formerly known as Mayor Mayor] ***

Speaking of which, I just rec'd this email from Mayor Colemans' office in Saint Paul. Apparently, I signed some sort of petition or statement about the RNC protest situation downtown. I don't rembmer.

But he's gotten back to me with the strangest email.

Firstly, it's from someone named "Mayor Mayor":

Secondly, it's signed with this cryptic Artist-formerly-known-as-like symbol:

I don't know what to say. I guess the StP has a way to go before they master the art of the electronic mail.

*** [Real Life Sim City] ***

This is a cool little program that's kind like SimCity for real life, a 3-d visual simulation of entire cities complete with surface textured modeling of buildings. It's certainly pretty, and they have a swatch of lower Manhattan modeled.

I am not so convinced, though, that it very accurately reflects what these streets are really like on the ground level. For example, this is one of my favorite corners in New York's Chinatown, and it doesn't really look like this at all. I get no sense at all of claustrophobia, density, and vitality that really exists on this corner, next to the Chinese coffee shops and groceries, where there's barely room for a single lane of traffic and the sidewalks are filled with fish vendors and fruitsellers.

Sidewalk imulations have a long way to go before they mean anything. Meanwhile, this just creates a too-abstract auto-oriented image... which problably won't help anything.

[Elizabeth and Hester Streets in Chinatown -- fm. GoogleStreetView.]

*** [Sidewalk Photo Rights] ***

This story of a guy getting harassed for taking pictures on the sidewalk abugs me. OF course this is something I do all the time.

I was out taking some photos for a personal project in downtown today, handheld with no tripod, at 100 South 5th Street(also known as the Fifth Street Towers), taking pictures of the "Jersey barriers" outside the building. About 6 minutes after I got there, the private security guard for the Fifth Street Towers approached me and said that Carter Management, the owner of the building, also owns 20 ft of the surrounding sidewalk space and that there was a rule that no pictures could be taken anywhere near the premises. I stepped about 20 feet back to the edge of the road, but the guard insisted that I leave immediately.

I am going to make a point of conspiculously taking photos of this building every time I walk past it. Maybe you should too?

*** [Mystery Bike Mob] ***

Check out this cool bike ride at the new Gold Medal Park.

*** [Social congestion] ***

[An illustrated page from Johnson's Emergence, showing a human brain and the city of Manchester, England.]

One of my favorite writers is Steven Johnson, author of Emergence, Interface Culture, and The Ghost Map (among others: terrific books, all). He's also the former CEO of the neat outside.in spatial web aggregation project, which is a great idea. His blog is also interesting, for example this description of the "social traffic jams" that happen on sidewalks and in cities, where you constantly run into people you know:

Yesterday morning, coming back from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket with breakfast (green tomatoes!), I ran into one of my best friends from college out walking his dog. This morning, picking up pastries for the family at Colson Patisserie, I saw my college girlfriend with her two kids sitting outside in front of the bakery. So both days, I showed up fifteen minutes late with breakfast to a household of ravenous boys.

I've started thinking of these little incidents as social traffic jams -- you're trying to get from point x to point y, but your social network gets in the way. I think they're probably pretty rare, at least in most environments that Americans now call home. They don't happen in car-centric cities and suburbs, for obvious reasons; you need public space and pedestrian speed of sidewalks to stop and have a chat with your neighbor.

This kind of encounter is so important to me, and happens all the time in the Twin Cities. t's the kind of thing that guarantees a large network of 'weak ties', allows you to find out important nonmedia information, and creates the spatial idea of neighborhood in a very concrete way for people. It's precisely this kind of thing (Putnam's "social capital") that is lost in so many US landscapes today.

*** [A tryptich] ***

Three photos:

  • (What I initially thought was a dead bird but is actually) a Jack Russel Terrier on a sidewalk somewhere in the T.C. -- fm. phantom readings


Minnesota's "personality"

Apart from the Twin Cities, the only places I've ever lived have been on the East coast. And according to this recent British psychological study, the "personalities" of Minnesota and states along the Boston-DC corridor are very different. According to this study, East Coast-types are more stressed, neurotic, and unfriendly. Minnesotans, on the other hand, are "extraverted" (#5), "agreeable" (#2), but not very "neurotic" (#41) or "open" (#40).

The one that might surprise you is "extraversion". According to the study, that means that people:

tend to seek out socially stimulating environments, whereas people high in N [lack of extraversion] tend to avoid highly stimulating environments.

I wonder if they're talking about the State Fair?

Garrison Keillor aside, I think that regional difference has less to do with ethnicity and far more to do with the economy, levels of regional in- and out-migration, and patterns of urban form. And in my opinion, the Twin Cities has a pretty unique culture simply because of its distance from other large metro areas. Much like Denver, Colorado, we're a long way from anywhere else.

[Chart from Renfrow, P. et. al., A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics. Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume 3, Issue 5, Pages 339 - 369. -- Click to em-biggen.]

Of course, my octogenarian uncle is convinced that weather causes dramatic differences in behavior, and that long winters discourage violent behavior, creating peaceful societies and social democracy. I keep telling him about ragnarök.


Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #13

The sidewalks are the star in post-WWII Vienna ...

... hiding The Third Man (1949) again and again.


Sidewalk of the Week: Canal Park, Duluth

[Duluth is long, dense, and skinny. It's perfect for transit.]

I am in love with Duluth. It's always been a magical place for me, ever since I was a kid growing up in a Twin Cities suburb. Summers can get awful long, particularly when you're stuck in the middle of a continent as big as this one. Land all starts to look the same: trees ground flat house tree flat tree farm cow farm corn tree ground sky tree flat flat corn... &c.

It gets mighty old, and sometimes, to break the tedium, my folks would drive us up to visit my Aunt and Uncle in Duluth, back when Gino's Pizza Rolls were all the rage and Duluth was still an industrial mecca. And it seemed like a magic place, to get on the Freeway, drive until you got bored, stop at Tobie's (back before it became terrible) and drive North. The land gets hillier and hillier, and billboards become more and more frequent, and you go up a rise and down a valley and you feel like any minute you'll disappear and vanish and find yourself over a rainbow in some faraway land.

"First one to see Lake Superior gets a quarter", was the rule of the road, and we'd crane our necks over every rise to try and get a glimpse of the big blue lake stretching off into the horizon. And finally, you'd find that final rise and there it was, Duluth and the Lake! Some sort of industrial Minnesota fantasy of bridges and smokestacks and ships and a big old downtown and giant piles of something or other. And somehow in this flat, flat state you'd find yourself on a giant ridge, with hills straight out of San Francisco, cliffs of old houses and dilapidated Victorians, and Superior Street and the Train Station and the library that looked to my young eyes like a spaceship.

[The place to be was in front of the coffee shop. Cars were lined up around the block just to let people out at this corner.]

Still, though Canal Park was where you went when you got to Duluth. It was this little isthmus in the middle of the lake, the first place you get to where you can actually touch the water.* And it's got that crazy lift bridge, still going up and down each time the smallest and biggest ships shipped along. I've found myself there a few weeks ago, kind of randomly. It happened to be the week that the "tall ships" were visiting the harbor, and Canal Park was insanely packed. I have never seen a place so many cars and people jammed onto such a tiny spit of land...

[There was more jaywalking here than on Leno's show.]

Whenever I've spent a little time in the Duluth (a few days here or there, on- and off-season) I've come away thinking that it could be a great city. At the very least, it could be an ideal college town. The geography of the Duluth site makes it a really compact and dense place, almost perfectly designed for walkability and transit. It's long and narrow, located in a kind of boomerang shape along the harbor. It's a joy to walk around, and has a ton of historical building stock and mixed-use infrastructure. Plus, its situated on a truly unique landscape, probably one of the Earth's most incredible inland waterfronts.

Some of my favorite places include:
  • The Nor-Shor theater**
  • The Chinese restaurant that has the story about the bear
  • The bookstore with the tons and tons of books
  • The other smaller bookstore run by the really nice lady
  • The Budd car
  • The main street in West Duluth
  • Morgan Park
  • Park Point beach
  • The Train Depot,
  • Fitger's brewpub
  • The Electric Fetus where I purchased the two most life-changing albums of my life***
  • The awesome hippie britpub across the street from Fitger's
  • The wonder that is The Duluth Family Sauna****.

[Some of Canal Park's many, many parking lots. They should rename it Canal Parking.]

That said, as its currently structured, Duluth has a long way to go to capitalize on its natural strengths. For some reason, the city built an interstate right through the middle of town (the last few miles of I-35, before it ends in Two Harbors). The freeway, even though its in a semi-tunnel, really starkly separates the lakefront from the downtown, making the large investments like the DECC convention center and the aquarium into underpopulated boondoggles. The downtown has a bunch of skyways, which I cannot believe get much use. Sure it's cold there, but because they split the city's pedestrian population in two, they really make it that much more difficult to revive the economy downtown.

[People scurry across the crosswalk near the Canal Park clock.]

What the city really needs is a way to connect itself more closely with the Twin Cities, and a way to connect the downtown area more closely to Canal Park. It needs to be a place where people can stroll around and wander. It has more unused sidewalk potential than any other place in Minnesota, including downtown Saint Paul. Some transit investment would be a great move, and politicians have been talking for a long time about re-creating a train line that would run to and from the Cities. Bike lanes wouldn't hurt, either. There's certainly plenty of space for them.

I'm not sure how to go about reinvigorating Duluth's sidewalks. What I saw when I was there last month was a tragic misallocation of automobiles. I'd bet that the percentage of the Canal Park ground cover that is devoted to surface parking lots is way over half. Cars were coming out of every corner of the city, and all so that people could stroll around the lift bridge and enjoy the experience of being on a teensy patch of lakeshore. Did they know that there is far more to Duluth than just the Shipping Museum? Give me 4th Street any day over Canal Park.

I realize, of course, that it's a vacation town, and that during the 9-month off-season, Duluth is deader than the late Jerry Garcia. And the terrible, terrible state of the Duluth city budget means that none of these ideas will come to pass anytime soon. They're literally selling the city out from under the people, and laying off half the civic employees to try and fill a huge budget deficit. They are really missing their Local Government Aid.

It makes me sad. I love you, Duluth! I hope you feel better someday.


* What I mean is, it seems like all the waterfront in Duluth is actually used,
as a waterfront! Like, they have ships and stuff that ship things using water for buoyancy, and the shorelines are devoted to things that actually use water for practical purposes. As an avid Minneapolis waterfront fan, this is a bit hard for me to figure out.
** Now a "gentleman's club".
*** Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, and Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations (the second one), still my favorite albums after almost 20 years of near-constant listening.
**** I have never patronized this establishment, but I have taken a tour.


My Brother's Cognitive Mapping

[The hand drawn Twin Cities, penned by my brother.]

Somehow, my brother scored a frontpage piece (below-the-fold) in the Strib's Variety section yesterday. In what has to be the unlikeliest newspaper column of my lifetime, my shy MN-expat sibling gained some notoriety for posting some of his many "hand drawn maps" onto the website of the Hand Drawn Map Association, a new and wonderful internet compendium. Here's the piece:

On the East Coast, where people "don't have a good idea of what the rest of the country looks like," it's helpful, in conversation, to have a map.

So Glen Lindeke drew one.

Now his maps (two, in fact) are on display with nearly 60 others at the Hand Drawn Map Association (HDMA) website, www.handmaps.org.

Lindeke, a 27-year-old analytical chemist from Mendota Heights, moved to Groton, Conn., where he doodled a map of the Midwest with special attention paid to Minnesota, including the Boundary Waters and the northernmost point in the continental United States, the Northwest Angle.

"Every once in a while I just want to draw from memory and freehand it," Lindeke said.

The piece goes on, but not for much longer. It even includes a shout out to me! ("His low-fi cartography flows from personal interest and his brother's study of geography, cities and sidewalks at the University of Minnesota.") Apparently, the piece was penned by an intern at the Strib, looking to fill some space in the fluff section.

[Senate candiate and all-around mensch Al Franken hand drawing the USA.]

It made me think, though of something we occasionally talk about in Geography called "cognitive mapping." Here, people draw the city as they remember it, piecing together how they perceive space. Particularly when thinking about urban planning, and what makes a good landmark, avenue, or "legible" space, these kinds of maps can be really interesting. What are the landmarks in your life? When you give directions, what do you remember?Do you think the distance from Saint Paul to Minneapolis is really far, or really close? Is Saint Anthony falls next to the Guthrie in your mind?

(For example, judging from these two hand drawn maps: my brother is clearly from Saint Paul and doesn't spend a lot of time in the SW suburbs, doesn't think much of Iowa, and has a thing for Lake Michigan and Chicago. Al Franken, meanwhile, is a crazy genius who doesn't think much of the Rocky Mountain West.)

Next time you doodle a direction map on a bar napkin, why not put it in your pocket and send it to the Hand Drawn Map Association? We might learn a thing or two about how we perceive the world.

[Minnesota lopsidedly towering over a too-square Iowa in a Glen Lindeke original hand drawn map.]

* Never in a million years did I think I'd see a map of the awesome indoor mini-golf course my bro made in his Norwich, CT apartment published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

He always won on the course. He rigged the tees around the furniture to benefit right-handed mini-golfers. The cat was in play, too. For better or for worse, she would sometimes attack the ball.



Like A Troubled Bridge over Water

Here at Twin City Sidewalks, I promise to bring you all the latest in Minnesota faulty bridge news, as it happens.

For example, here is the latest on the faulty Washington Avenue Bridge connecting the two campuses of the University of Minnesota. Tonight's email from Kathleen O'Sullivan:

This is to update you on the latest developments regarding the Washington Avenue Pedestrian Bridge.

Based on the recommendations of engineering consultants,
Hennepin County officials have closed the outside
portions of the Washington Avenue Pedestrian Bridge.
While other scenarios were considered as fencing was
constructed, county officials decided that use of the
pedestrian level must be limited until the deck is
strengthened. As of this afternoon, all pedestrians
and bicyclists must use the middle area inside the
covered enclosure.

To keep everyone safe, bicyclists should dismount and
walk their bikes across the bridge. The solution is
certainly not ideal and the congestion on the bridge
will be significant. Please continue to be considerate
and cooperative to other members of the University

I understand the University community's concern over
the bridge closure and the frustration with the changing
plans. I have stressed to Hennepin County officials the
vital role the bridge plays in the daily life of the
University and will continue to work closely with County
officials to protect the safety of our community and ensure
adequate pedestrian and bicycle movement across the
Mississippi River. Hennepin County is working to fast
track the project and work is expected to be completed
in the spring. We will continue to provide updates
throughout the project.

Looks like we're going to have to let the bridges fall where they may, and U students will be walking their bikes across the Mississippi River this year. That'll be quite the pain in the ass.

Personally, I'm going to miss looking down from the Washington Avenue Bridge's pedestrian path onto the twisted, fallen steel remnants of the I-35W bridge, still sitting on the banks of Bohemian Flats.

I guess it beats the alternative, though...

[The thought of the Washington Avenue Bridge collapsing onto the twisted remains of the 35W Bridge makes my head spin. -- Img. fm. Jeremy Boyder.]