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.]