Twin City Neon Signs #1

Wings & Ribs

[Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis]


[Clinton Hill, Brooklyn]


[Dinkytown, Minneapolis]

Applause ... Now

[Snelling Avenue, Saint Paul]

Chow Mein

[Maryland Avenue, Saint Paul]

Shirts Drapes

[Saint Clair Avenue, Saint Paul]


[Selby Avenue, Saint Paul]


A sidewalk lagniappe...

"Lightwriting" artists, Lichtfaktor performing time lapse sidewalk art with lights.

Light Rail and the University Decoder

The good folks at the Pioneer Press's City Hall Scoop blog recently posted some interesting legal documents about the political battle over the LRT route through the U of MN.

I wrote about this a while back, and each time I walk past the student union and around the mall area I become more convinced that the LRT/ transit / pedestrian option down Washington Avenue is a very good thing.

That's why these documents strike me as so wrong-headed. And that's why I'm going to present them to you, Decoder-style.

So, enjoy a decoding of the University's recent letter to Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council. As you can see from their response, they probably think these arguments are as stupid as I do...

Hi! I'm the University of Minnesota, and I'm important. Remember how I said I wanted a tunnel through my campus, so that those nice little college kids wouldn't have to step outside as they shuttle from East to West banks through their nice little tunnels like nice little gophers trapped in a lab experiment?

Yep. That was a good idea. Did you know we already have tunnels tunneling all over the damn place. Why can't your new train do that too?

Instead, you're thinking of doing what? A transit and pedestrian mall?

You know, that would displace our four lanes of traffic cutting through the heart of what was meant to be public space. Does that sound like a nice thing to do?

That should be "evaluated carefully." I have a feeling it might have "potentially adverse effects." It may result in "unsafe and dysfunctional traffic patterns"! Yes, that's right, I said dysfunctional.

(No, no, no. I'm not talking about the current state of the U of MN's streetlife, the way in which people shuttle from building to building in little tunnels, never seeing the light of day, or are forced to hold rallies, play frisbee, and be barraged with corporate giveaways in this little tiny square of grass next to a four lane road...)

I'm talking about damage to our "integrated transportation system." You know, all the cars that stream into and out of our many, many parking lots, and will soon, very soon, be heading to and from the new giant taxpayer-funded TCF Bank football stadium. Yes, yes! Go Gophers!

Oh did I say that a pedestrian and transit mall MAY have adverse effects. I had that wrong. It WILL have "significant adverse effects"! (Did you see what I did there? I make it more significant.)

Yes, "many tens of thousands of students, visitors, and patients" will be distressed by not having to dodge a constant stream of cars. You know, all the people going to and from the hospital because they were just run over by SUV's streaming off the Washington Avenue bridge? What will they do?

"In essence," it will mess up the very lives and souls of "hundreds of thousands of individuals who come to use the University's resources!" That includes all the people in Duluth, and Crookston, who will feel the pain of Gopher solidarity as our fellow rodents are forced onto the sidewalks, lawns, and streets to suffer the cruelty of the sun's rays.

OK, so the study to which I'm about to refer doesn't really apply to this situation, but trust me when I say there will be "serious adverse effects!"

In fact, the study was done ten years ago by an undergraduate, but it was for a senior paper and they used a computer and everything, and it clearly showed that there will be "adverse impact", especially to our "sensitive research equipment" which doesn't respond well to trains.

Did I mention that we're a university? And that we have scientists and stuff, with "sensitive research equipment"? Trust me, you wouldn't understand what that means.

OK. Now I'll explain in my scientific way about the "unsafe and dysfunctional traffic patterns" I mentioned earlier.

You see, a while back we used our sensitive scientific equipment and made a model. You know, like a toy train? Only it was on a computer. It's a very, very big computer, too. In fact, it's about the size of an SUV.

It turns out, when you have four lanes of traffic streaming across the Washington Avenue Bridge, AND you put a big train in the middle of all the traffic, "it will not work".

That's scientist speak for 'it'll be really bad.'

In other words, it'll have "potentially serious adverse effects!"

Got that?


You want to know what the effects are? Dammit, I told you a I'm a University, with scientists and stuff... I have "sensitive research equipment"!

OK. OK. OK. Here are the terrible, terrible effects. Prepare for total "dysfunction"!!!

Yes, yes. There will be gridlock! Even more gridlock than we already have!

You won't be able to drive to the clinic because of the gridlock!

All the roads will have gridlock! Other roads, too, will be filled with cars. Even more filled with cars then they already are!

(Yes, I know the roads are already filled with cars... I drive to work every day, you know. God! It takes frikkin' forever to get to my sweet parking spot. All these goddam students keep crossing the street in front of me! There's like thousands of them! They keep coming, and crossing, and crossing and coming, and crossing, They're like little rats... like little gopherrats... And they keep giving me funny looks. Like, "Dude, What's your problem?" or "I'm trying to cross the street." Well, I'm just trying to drive! What is their problem? Maybe Randy Moss was right! I gotta get outta here. Where's my damn Valium? ........ Oh. Excuse me. Where was I?)

And these cars, when they're not stopped still for hours, will be running over pedestrians because we're going to take all the sidewalks away. Yes, that's right. We're going to remove all the sidewalks! And then these cars will have no choice but to drive directly on college students. They deserve it. Did you know they like to lie down in the street. Cars everywhere, driving on those bastards! What do think of your Hockey Riot now, you little drunken peon. I went to Yale!

"Electromagnetic fluctuations!" "Sensitive Scientific Equipment and Research!"

Decreased bus ridership! There will be fewer buses with riders because the buses won't be able to move because of the gridlock and all the people will have been run over by gridlocked cars anyway! (Oh yeah, buses. Thanks for paying for those by the way, Met Council.)

Oh, what the hell.

OK. You got me.

Though our scientific study was in fact performed on sensitive research equipment, yes, I admit that, as I briefly mentioned, it was not at all a study of a pedestrian mall and is therefore completely irrelevant.

Aren't you smart, you little transportation engineer dweeb. Does MN-DOT have a football team? I don't think so.

Go Gophers!

God this sucks.

All right, Met Council. Here's the deal.

If you go over my head, and ignore all the serious findings of our sensitive research equipment, we're going to have to ask -- nay, DEMAND -- some "mitigation costs".

Yes, that's right.

All these "potentially serous averse impacts" and "unsafe and dysfunctional" disruptions of our "integrated transportation system" do not come cheaply.

We're going to have to demand One Million Dollars (!) in "mitigation costs". Yes! That's right.


Oh. My advisors have just told me that that's not very much money.

Well, I'll look into that. But let's just say I'm gonna be asking for a lot. You see, there are "potentially serious adverse impacts". It will mean...

[dramatic pause]

It might mean the "relocation of the University Medical Center Loading Dock from its location on East River Road"!!!

(What? That's the best you guys can come up with? I'm trying to sound dire, here. I'm in a letter to the Met Council, and we're trying to shake down some money! This is the best you can do? One lousy loading dock? Come on! What do I pay you for?)

Oh, yeah. That's right! Before I forget!

Our Northrop Mall is a historical district! One of the top ten most historical districts in the Big Ten!

And it has "historical attributes." A history professor just told me that! Yeah, this book says it has "possessing integrity of location, design, setting, materials and blah blah blah" God this is boring. What the hell does that mean?

Anyway, it's old. And it has "historical attributes," and let me tell you that having a goddamn train running through the middle of it does not, I repeat, NOT "comport with the District's historical attributes."

Did you know it was designed by Cass Gilbert? It's true! I just looked it up. It says here he designed it to be impressive and classical and, here I'm quoting, "proved that the University was coming into its own as a world-class institution of higher learning."! (That's me! A world-class institution of higher learning? Did you know I'm going to be the top three research university in the world?)

And I'm telling you, buster, a top three research institute in the world isn't going to like having Cass Gilbert's magnificent design ruined by a train running through the middle, especially a stupid little yellow one with a stupid little horn that will "create visible and auditory interferences", and that "does not comport with the District's historical attributes!"

What's that?

Cass Gilbert didn't design his glorious Northrup Mall to have a four lane freeway going through the middle of it, especially one with a giant trench filled with cars separated by a concrete wall adorned with a pointy black fence bearing a sign showing a person crossed out by a red line?

You think you know everything, don't you...

Did I mention that we have sensitive research equipment?

Maybe I should add that our equipment is "highly sensitive". Will that convince you?

We're dealing with "unknown costs" here!

Dear Met Council.

Suck it.

Haha. J/K BFF!

Sincerely Yours,

University of Minnesota


Bill here again. I'm not the University any more.

I just wanted to mention that today the University of Minnesota is having a "forum" on the current plan for the Light Rail and whether or not a possible pedestrian mall running through campus is a good thing. Hooray! (Don't be swayed by what you've just read.)

The current plan for the Central Corridor light rail line would create a
pedestrian mall along Washington Avenue on the University of Minnesota. What
might this mean for the campus?

Come hear a panel of experts, including Transit for Livable Communities
co-founder John DeWitt, speak at this upcoming forum:

Campus 2014: What will U of M campus transportation look like?
EcoWatch presents a multimedia forum on how the Central Corridor Light
Rail Line Will Transform Campus Transportation

Tuesday, April 29th: 6:30 PMWest Bank Auditorium (basement of Willey Hall)

On Tuesday April 29th the student organization EcoWatch will be hosting a Light Rail Forum in the West Bank Auditorium at 6:30PM. University transportation engineers, city planners, and other experts will be on hand to discuss how the Central Corridor light rail plan will change the campus layout and how it will affect students' daily lives. Could the U really turn into a campus without cars? Come find out!

Speakers include:

John Dewitt-co-founder of Transit for Livable Communities
Nancy Homans-City of St. Paul
David Levinson-U of M Civil Engineering Professor
Jan Morlock-Liaison with University and surrounding neighborhoods
Bill Stahlmann-U of M Parking and Transportation Services-Transit Manager
Peter Wagenius-Senior Policy Aid, City of Minneapolis


Sidewalk of the Week: 14th Street S

The corner of 14th Street and 10th Street shouldn't exist. In a perfect world, parallel lines do not cross, and street grids carry on in endless right angles, stretching from sea to sea in infinite speculation. But somehow, this Sidewalk of the Week is where the Downtown Minneapolis grid goes a wild and gets a little screwy, as the sidewalks drift off into weird angles trying correct for the Mississippi's crooked ways. Here, somehow parallel lines meet and create a the tiniest of whorls, a little backwards eddy where the smudged sterility of Downtown rubs up against the dirty grit of Minneapolis's mostly-forgotten past.

The neighborhood is called Elliot Park, and it forms a liminal space wedged between two freeways, the HHH, and parking lot moats surrounding skyscrapers. It's where strange bedfellows bump elbows. For example, two friends of mine used to live here in a giant old house with beautiful woodwork and plenty of space, but their driveway was often full of strange strangers and they were a block from the constant din of cars on Interstate 94.

Once I had a picnic in the Elliot Park after work, and it was all very pleasant until an intoxicated and rather grubby individual wandered over and started lurking nearby, orbiting in smaller and smaller concentric circles until he finally converged, informing us that we were at "his spot" and could we please vacate the premises so that he could continue his commercial activities (not his exact words).

And there's a institution of higher education called North Central University where all the students are quite religious and have political views perhaps to the right of my own, and the school's two guards form a strange sight as they circle the infinitesimal campus through the night, walking in tandem with their white shirts and ties and leather bandoliers.

[This building, called “Troy”, houses the white bars of the Elliot Park Market]

Here there are giant old mansions with faded Victorian wallpaper all boarded up and abandoned, subsidized housing, new mixed-use developments across the street from strange and empty shops, old apartment houses with fancy names surrounded by vacant lots next to brand new twenty-story condominiums. It's the border zone surrounding a patch of pleasant parkland, where Minneapolis mixes itself up like a schitzophrenic, all a tumble with people and pasts and ideas for what's to come.

[The way these streets all come together forms a very cozy corner of sidewalkspace, slowing cars and letting the people go their wary way.]

In the middle of this jumble, though, the two streets form a little triangle of old buildings, and at the very center like an oyster pearl sits the Band Box Diner, a forgotten remnant of Minneapolis past, somehow still serving burgers to the whole neighborhood. This little red diner is the last of a long line of like joints that once dotted old Minneapolis like measles, serving tiny White Castle-size burgers to working men under the memorable slogan "Three for a Dime, All the Time."

Now, the Band Box is the only one left, their slogan has changed to "grease for peace", and you can still walk in and sit on the red stools at the counter to watch the short order cook mix up an omelet, or plunk down at the windowside table where you can enjoy your meal and gaze at the mostly empty 14th Street sidewalks (while some jerk takes your picture and puts it on the internets).

[The buildings in the distance ... they are so high, they scrape the sky.]

The diner itself is designed to encourage this kind of people watching, with a bumped out bit of sidewalk space forming the triangular bit where the two parallel streets come together... a lovely piece of pavement with little red concrete bits and little thin trees. The streets narrow enough so that the cars can only crawl, and this little spot in the shadow of skyscrapers feels like a cozy nook, an oases in the midst of surface parking and Metrodomes and medical centers and interstate highway systems.

[In front of the Band Box there lies a little sidewalk bump, the vanishing point for the Minneapolis street grid. ]

The sidewalks around here too have a wonderful walkability, running along old buildings whose windows once boasted unimagineable contents. The old brick buildings all have names, like "Troy" or "Cooper" or "Elliot East Condominiums", and bear their delicate brickwork with a faded dignity that would make Faulkner proud. And the sidewalks are almost always eerily empty, quiet and still yet faintly breathing, like in a fairy tale with a princess. These sidewalks are laying in wait, locked and trapped by a magic spell.

[As far as I know, these streets have no name.]

Somehow, 14th Street is the kind of space that every city needs, places where the kinds of people that aren't welcome are welcome. If cities didn't have places like Elliot Park, places where you walk on the edge of your seat, where your heart beats a bit faster, places of magic and mystery, then cities would be insufferably boring and all-to-perfect.

Instead, 14th Street is the kind of place where you never know what you'll find peeking around a corner ... it might be nothing, or it might be an ancient factory smokestack, or it might be a ghost in an alley bedecked with porches. It may be a forgotten building covered in vines, or it may be the Band Box Diner dressed all in red from foot to head, beckoning you over inside its radiant light with a perfect burger and magical bottomless coffeecup.

[The alley lies in the midst of it all, home to an abandoned factory that used to make horseshoes, ice skate blades, and pocketwatch chains .]


<<< News Flash! >>> #13

Sidewalk Rating: Wet

Just when you think the glory days of Twin City sidewalks are here, along comes three days of rain.

Maybe its just me, but I actually love days like yesterday, where everything is slightly rainy all day long. They're long slow placid days and the fresh green feeling in the air feels so nice against your cheek. All you need is an iPod with some Miles Davis playing on it, and everything around you becomes a film noir movie ... every little detail of a car splashing water onto the sidewalk, or a the ripples in a curbpuddle becomes poetry in black and white and grey. With your trusty umbrella by your side, you dash and splash your way from awning to awning, little oases of sidewalkspace that only get truly appreciated on days like these.

Yes, please do go out for a walk and admire the moss that forms on trees, the occasional tulip. Find yourself some galoshes and make some waves!


If you love or hate critical mass, get a load of this video of bikers riding on LA freeways:

I don't know what to say about that.


Whenever I read something like this recent strib article, I don't really buy it. It seems like demand for gas transcends its price, that no matter what it costs people end up buying it simply because cars are such an inherent part of our everyday life.

In other words, people don't have a choice whether or not to drive. Almost everything in modern America is designed for cars, and therefore gas is a necessity, not a luxury. As much as I like the concept of a tipping point, it'll take a lot more than $3.50 / gallon to change the very fabric of the American Dream

While this is correct...

The anti-oil crowd says hybrid vehicles, tougher mileage standards, alternative fuels and, eventually, plug-in electric cars will deliver a gradual reduction in U.S. oil consumption.

... change is going to happen slowly for quite a while. The tipping point is still a long way away.

On the other hand, this story is nice. It makes me think: perhaps now is a good time to cut transit funding?


Five links to elsewhere:


TC Streets for People links to this recent story on slowing down traffic in streets:

Minnesota's statutory speed limit on most city streets is 30 miles per hour. But that's too fast for some residents in Edina and St. Paul, where the cities get asked all the time to lower local speeds to 25 mph.

25 mph is about the point at which cars become lethal to most pedestrians, so it's a great sort of threshold to think about. With pedestrians, bicycles, electric cars, motorcycles and scooters all becoming more common as gas prices rise, gradually streets will start to slow down all by themselves. Of course, road engineers can always help it along if they're given a little guidance from concerned citizens in Edina. Trust me, they need a good kick in the ass.

A fun game is to actually spend a whole day where you don't drive more than 30 mph. Try it and see if it's a more or less relaxing? Can you stand being tailgated?

It's kind of like psychogeography of the automobile.

In a related note, it pisses me off that the Minneapolis Zoning Code states outright that one of the main city goals is decreasing density, promoting "efficient circulation", and the "avoidance of congestion".

All of these principles work against creating pedestrian-friendly streets.

(7) To prevent the overcrowding of land and the undue concentration of population.
(8) To provide for the safe and efficient circulation of all modes of transportation, including transit, pedestrian and bicycle traffic, with particular regard to the avoidance of congestion in the streets and highways.

Boo. Fix it, R.T.!


I just have to mention that I love this website! Armitage Heights is the new Edina.

This page, too, is too good to be true.


Here's another sidewalk blog, with a rather more 'sleep on the sidewalk' kind of perspective.

It's called View from the Sidewalk and its a well-written blog about life in the hills of North Carolina. It's pretty rare to find this kind of frank discussion of class in this country, but this is just another way that sidewalks serve as public space.

After my last post in 2007, I plunged headlong into the dual business of keeping a roof over our heads (no small feat) and discharging my duties at work without landing in jail (an even larger feat).


I seem to have fared worst of all of us. Although the nightmares of being homeless finally stopped, the Beast hasn't been idle. In fact, after reading a book on the subject, I'm convinced that I have full-blown clinical depression, but that's a downer for another time ("Yes, I'll have the Prozac with a Zoloft chaser, please." Brrr!) Somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, he's cackling to himself and rubbing his claws together with glee... Money is still tight and nowhere near the level I enjoyed in 2000-2002, and the job? Well, the less said the better (some future employer might be reading this, so I have to keep it wound tight.)

For some people, the sidewalk is a living room. (Hopefully not a bathroom...) This dude isn't one of those people, but rightly raises the spectre of homelessness. And that's an issue that's all too easy to forget about.


It seems like there have been a ton of terrible auto-related incidents in the Twin Cities lately.

For example:

Four die in three accidents around Twin Cities

The accidents Thursday killed residents of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and Bloomington. Eight others were injured.

But, really, these kinds of things happen all the time, and we've become fairly numb to it. The wonderful Streetsblog out of NYC has a feature called "Weekly Carnage" where they link to all the stories of people getting injured or killed by cars during a given week, and I've often kicked around the idea of doing something similar for the TC.

There'd be a lot to choose from, especially considering our rather bad habit of drinking and driving during the cold cold winters.


A friend of mine write this story on the graffiti wall over at the old Riverside Market in Seward. It's a neat take on a cool story, and Schell argues quite forcefully that graffiti and street art is a valid form of aesthetic expression. He also quotes from my favorite council member, Cam Gordon:

Given incidents like this and, more generally, a systematic intolerance of graffiti, legal or otherwise, in the Twin Cities (as well as nationally), Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon's take on the situation was especially nuanced and thoughtful. Soon after the paintings went up, Gordon wrote in his blog: “Public art, even if in a ‘graffiti’ style, is not graffiti unless it is unauthorized. The City should not be an arbiter of aesthetics. Therefore, those who control the site may allow people—even people known as destructive taggers, if that's their whim—to do public art without City intervention.”

I agree, to a degree. The unfortunate thing is we perceive all kinds of graffiti as blight, and because we see it this way it brings down property values. But these property values are always socially constructed, made up of how we all as individuals value the land around us. And as such, we can construct them how we wish. For example, I think of a place like the Mission District in San Francisco, where "graffiti" becomes murals as communities start to look at them differently.

[A mural of a street on a street in San Fransisco's Mission area.]

At the very least, some of this street art can makes the sidewalks more interesting, opening up spaces of debate and engagement with walls and cultures alike.


There have been a few awesome stories in the Strib recently about bust developments out in the far out burbs.

But the boom has unraveled as quickly as it began. While many established Wright County neighborhoods have avoided the worst of the housing market collapse, the county ranks as one of the state's worst areas hit by foreclosures. Pockets of this county, about 30 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, have seen home prices fall 30 percent or more in the past year.

It reminds me of the story I linked to a while back about Texas. These places must be a trip to hang out in, totally depressing and alien. One of these days, I'm gonna go see what their sidewalks look like. (I doubt they have any.)

I'd report on what the PiPress has been doing, only their website is impossible to deal with.

I do like their Political Animal blog, though! And Nelson's City Hall Scoop! These are pretty much the only places to get the real good dirt on city and state politics.

Correction: Hoppin and Orrick now run the City Hall Scoop Blog.


KFAI's Truth to Tell had a show this week on Instant Runoff Voting, where Elizabeth Glidden and Steve Simon came on to discuss how this excellent democratic idea should really be called "Ranked Choice Voting" so that it becomes more difficult to demonize.

The heart of the argument for IRV/RCV is this: 1) no spoiler effect, 2) it's simpler than our convoluted primary system, and 3) negative campaigning no longer makes much sense for politicians.

Those are actually really, really good reasons. There are other things too, like 4) cost or 5) easier access to the ballot.

Get on board with the Better Ballot. You know you want to rank.


Three photos:

1) Art project featuring chalkshoes that literally trace the paths of people as they walk -- courtesy of Gregory Siff.

2) Another walking art project, this time in Tampa FL, where people -- coursety of Megan Voeller.

3) Courtesy of fffound.

Lucky Strike Extra: Pedro Almodovar helps his mom tend to her knitting -- courtesy of Tom Sulpen.


Classic Sidewalks of the Silver Screen #5

The final sidewalk scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

R.T. Rybak's Minneapolis Great City Initiative

In honor of R.T. "Rootin Tootin" Rybak's well deserved accolade, I want to tell you about an event I happened across a few days ago: the (lengthily titled) Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Minneapolis Great City Design Teams / American Institute of Architects Minneapolis gala event at the Riverview Theater.

Honestly, I went there hoping to see a movie, but was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of displays showing ideas for streetcorners (neighborhoods) in Minneapolis. The mayor had, some time ago, initiated a project to work with architects developing ideas about how to "vision" certain key streetcorners (neighborhoods) in Minneapolis, including a bunch on the South and East sides of downtown, in Northeast Minneapolis, along the Southern edge of the city, and one or two in North Minneapolis. Plus, the most extensive redesign vision was along Washington Avenue, which the mayor wants to see turned into a "boulevard" linking Cedar Riverside, Downtown, and the Near Northside areas. (The ├╝ber-extensive powerpoint for that is here.)

[The future Washington Avenue Boulevard, with labels and red dots.]

The projects looked good, in that architect-y fantasy world kind of way with all the pretty full-grown trees and people and color. More importantly, they show that the city is symbolically invested in thinking about how neighborhoods are groomed and incubated.

One of the things I remember them talking about was the North Minneapolis location, pointing to how the park by the corner of Penn and Lowry Avenues was really separated from much of the neighborhood. They proposed a series of buildings that allowed pedestrian access through to the park, kind of like the "East Village" development in Elliot Park.

Of course, the rest of the projects looked nice, too, even though some seemed a little vague. But then, talk is cheap. And an architectural sketch is cheap AND expensive. What's not cheap is actually building any of these projects, and with the economy in the crapper that's going to take a long time.

More importantly, though, the Great City project shows that the mayor has a good sense of priorities. He gave the keynote speech of the evening, an impassioned talk of the longterm history of Minneapolis that began with a story about riding the bus down 38th Street as a kid to see movies at the Riverview, the crush he had on a girl who worked at the corner joint, and how Minneapolis is lucky enough to have small neighborhood centers that stemmed from the streetcar days. Today, he argued, what we need is a "fine grained urban fabric" that doesn't depend on cars.

R.T. also mentioned that the kinds of architectural exercises developed by the AIA can be really useful, even if they never get past the page. He gave the example of the repositioned 35-W on-ramps that they're going to include in the new interstate bridge, which are being moved away from Washington Avenue and help catalyze the connection between Downtown and the Seven Corners area. That change, he said, would have never happened if not for the results from the Washington Avenue Boulevard charette.

It was really a great speech on public life and public space, and hizzoner threw the note-laden pages into the air after he read each one, clearly in his element and relishing the moment. And he ended with a defense of planning, saying that people often asked him why he spent so much time thinking about little details like sidewalks and parks when there were so many larger, more pressing problems at hand ... things like the war in Iraq, climate change, or deepening economic inequalities. He said that he tells those people to "connect the dots", that we're fighting a war for oil for our cars, that climate change is going to demand walkable streets and less intensive lifestyles, and that economic growth starts with strong neighborhoods. You could tell he really meant it when he said, "together, we're going to rebuild the American city."

[The post-applause gladhanding in the Riverview lobby, with the mayor at far right talking to the people through the teevee.]


Signs of the Times

Only Two Jr. High
Students Allowed
in the store at a Time

Thanks MGNT

[A door somewhere in Duluth]



[A steetcorner in West Saint Paul]



[Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis]

Need Ride to

[A street somewhere in the Midwest]


[sign obscured by snow]

[A planter on Maryland Avenue in Saint Paul]


Twin City New Urban Condos

[The sunny sidewalks of Boston. Also, sorry about the crappy images later here, but my photos got messed up somehow.]

I spent all last week in beautiful Boston, Mass., attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. It's a huge gathering of about 7,000 academics who discuss a great variety of spatial structures and systems, including cities, social groups, forests, and regional economic and political development. Anyone who wants to can give a twenty minute talk there, and the result is a huge mass of "sessions", dozens of which go on simultaneously for eight hours for five straight days. Meanwhile, I had stepped from the last Minnesota snowstorm (I hope!) into the sunny springtime of Boston's Back Bay / Copley Square neighborhood, and it felt great to drink a beer on a sun drenched patio within sight of Fenway Park.

My part of the game was called "Marketing Community: Re-introducing Social Capital and New Urbanism in Minneapolis Greenfield Developments", and was a vague attempt to think about the how marketing and consumption of "new urbanist" developments in the Twin Cities differ so starkly from the theoretical debates surrounding new urbanism. In particularly, there is a large gap between consumers' and architects' ability to discuss social capital and infrastructure, the idea that social networks can be fostered or created by adding things like sidewalks, shops, parks, gazebos, or "community centers". (The paper was written for a class on suburbia taught by John Archer in Cultural Studies.)

[The view of the brand new street from one of the balconies in Burnsville's Heart of the City development.]

First, I toured a bunch of new condo developments in the Twin Cities last fall during the Parade of Homes, including a few places in the above development in Burnsville, two places in Maple Grove (Arbor Lakes, and a new development to the West), the CityWalk development in Woodbury, and the slightly-older Liberty on the Lake complex out West of Stillwater. They were all fascinating examples of the way that new urbanism is being adopted, to varying degrees, within the Twin Cities' suburbs, and each of them had different levels of community infrastructure.

The most extensively decked out burb-neighborhood was the one in Woodbury, where the "CityClub" community center had an indoor gym, club room, alcohol-free sports bar, pool tables, basketball court, “glass enclosed kids corner”, video rentals, outdoor patio, and a room in which one can play virtual golf.

[One part of the CityWalk. Note the sign that says "Bleeker Street PVT" ... no contradiction there!]

I began by looking at how these places marketed themselves to consumers, particularly the way that they seemed to closely tie their collective infrastructural amenities to the idea of "urban lifestyle" and "developing community". For example, here's a typical bit of copy:
… an entirely new condominium experience… [with] all the conveniences for easy living … carefully designed to provide the resident with a complete array of recreation, restaurants, services, retail shops and office space,… [and] pulsing with the sophisticated integration of complete lifestyle choices. All right out your front door.

[The Park Crest development in Burnsville features a wine bar and coffee shop on the first floor, and faces a new city park and under-construction Performing Arts Center. Also, the realtor told me that the mayor lives there.]

For some some reason, while consumers find it easy to think about how these sorts of amenities foster strong ties, many of the academic, popular, and theoretical debates over whether or not new urbanism is good or bad seems to hinge on a discussions over aesthetics, social justice, or cultural signification. For example, in his recent book, Sprawl: A Compact History, Robert Bruegmann doesn't spend any time discussing the decline of social capital and how it might be tied to our urban landscapes (as Robert Putnam forcefully argues in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone). At the same time, Putnam doesn't really dwell on the urban landscape in his later work, nor does the Congress for New Urbanism make a point of talking about fostering social networks.

Anyway, my point was that it seems odd to me that social capital isn't more a part of the argument about why we might want to build certain kinds of neighborhoods. While the suburbs are littered with empty sidewalks that don't lead anywhere, the goal of developments like this should be to foster pedestrianism.

My guess is that one reason the new urbanist debate so often leads to people talking past each other about the color of paint on porches or "social engineering" might stem from architecture's long modernist legacy of treating form as art, rather than something that shapes human behavior. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk suggest as much in their famous 2000 book, Suburban Nation, making the odd declaration that:

Design affects behavior. Disputing this truism may seem silly, yet for some reason it is still a topic of heated debate at architecture schools. […] One does not have to believe that the front porches encourage sociability to accept that unwalkable streets discourage it.

It's weird to me that Duany and Plater-Zyberk have to make such a show of saying something seemingly so obvious. But, as I argued in the talk, once planners and citizens start to think about how social capital operates within communities, we can maybe start discussing the distinctions Putnam introduces between "bridging capital" and "bonding capital". The difference between these two types as Putnam more recently explains, is that one “bonds” similar groups members while the other “bridges” between dissimilar groups, and one of the problems with some of these neighborhoods is that while they might encourage bonding within members of the same (class-based) development / community, they really make forming bridging capital difficult.

[Main Street in Maple Grove. Surely better than Southdale ... but who gets to walk here?]

For example, when I visited the CityWalk building in Woodbury, I found two signs posted adjacent to each other on the wall: one promoting a community-wide Halloween trick-or-treat event, the other warning residents to be wary of permitting outsiders to access the grounds. In a way, shared facilities within a development serve to reinforce identity boundaries, simultaneously including and excluding certain people along culturally determined lines.

In other words, the important thing to think about in these developements might not be whether or not they look or act a certain way (they are, after all delightfully easy to mock), but what kinds of connections they foster within and between different kinds of communities. And along those lines, the new Burnsville Heart of the City area struck me as by far the best. Instead of being controlled by one developer, it had a bunch of different styles of condo buildings, some of which were rental, and a little strip mall in the midst of the development that hosted a whole bunch of stuff people will actually use, like a chinese place, a Caribou, a cleaners, a food market, etc. That kind of mixed-use depends on having connections between different groups, which is anathema to many of these tightly controlled and often-isolated sidewalks.

Anyway, that's kind of the idea behind my talk in Boston, and when I get the audio file of my presentation maybe I'll put it up. Meanwhile, apparently summer has arrived! (stormsnall)

[The strip mall next to one of the condo buildings, which was having a "We've gone bankrupt! Everything must go!" sale on their condos.]


Twin City Lampposts #1

Saint Paul has really fine lampposts. Here are some of them:

[The gunmetal grey lamppost with pointed top, on a grass-buffered sidewalk.]

[Gunmetal with weathered limegreen top and two back-facing signs attached.]

[A basic gunmetal with matching top, perpendicular green streetsign, perched on a curb facing a yellow stoplight.]

[A combination streetlamp / stoplight / streetsign hybrid with yellow body and pewter-grey top. The "swiss army knife" of Saint Paul lampposts.]

[A double lamppost with triple points and crosspiece.]

[A bright semi-olive green lamppost with matching pointed top.]

[A lovely gunmetal lamppost bearing a green top with opaque 'large pane' glass, and sign.]

[A turquoise lamppost with black top and point.]


The lampposts of London: