Fish of the Week: Halibut

[This content recycled from my now mothballed website, excitablemedia.com.]

Let us pretend for a moment that the coming election actually means something, that the political choice before us represents a valid ideological contrast. If so, the latest Pioneer Press poll again confirms what we had already known, that most people have their political minds made up. For the vast majority of the voting population, it seems their resolve is unshakably firm, and come hell or high water they're going to vote for or against George W. Bush.

[A smaller amount exist in the Bering Sea.]

Me, I'm well within that category. I can't think of a single thing that could possibly happen that would make me vote for the [then Republican] incumbent. And I've talked to my Republican opposition, and been struck by similar stubbornness. It seems that no amount argument could make a successful inroad. We are the un-swing voters, and I keep wondering from whence we come . . . Is obstinacy somewhere in our genetic code? Or are we conditioned from birth to be decisive? Do we simply vote the way our parents voted, so that politics becomes a sadistic form of Darwinism: which political party can pop out the most kids? Finally, we must ask: Is it nature or nurture that creates the modern fanatic?

To answer this rather complex question, I'd like to introduce a brand-new symbol for modern politics: the noble halibut. Perhaps you're familiar with the old saying "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." A wonderful saying, both pithy and profound, though I should point out that hardly anyone can understand it. A more modern rephrasing might read: "political paradigmata recapitulates halibuts."

Blind-sided: one halibut's tale

The halibut begins life as an egg, one of roughly three million eggs laid annually by each halibut mother, and our young halibut larva (let's just say he was born off the Alaskan coast, somewhere near Unalaska Bay) free-floats in the water, drifting along with the tides, displaying no sign of volition. Let's call him Harry.

Sometime during Harry's days as a carefree floater an unusual thing begins to happen. His fishy-face, which up to this point looked much like every other fishy-face in the sea, begins to move. One of his fishy-eyes starts to crawl slowly across his face, migrating across the top of his fishy-skull, until it sits right smack next to his other fishy-eye. This side of the fish, the side with the closely-grouped eyes, becomes colorful, eventually boasting a rich pallete of browns and reds while the other, eye-less side pales and drabs.

At this point our hero, Harry, becomes a bottom-feeder, and consumes copious quantities of anchovies while migrating in a clockwise direction through the Alaskan sea. He grows, over time, to the prodigious weight of 492 pounds, at which point he is caught by the longline of an Alaskan fishing trawler, the Partisanship, whereupon his head is solidly clubbed, removed, and his interior fletches are transported to a Red Lobster in Medford, Oregon.

The moral

Q: What does our story teach us?
A: Three things come to mind.

-This essay
As this essay said, our fish tale tells us three things. First, we learn that fish are delicious, and halibut even more so. They have minimal bones, they're rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and they can be baked, broiled, poached, pan-fried, or barbecued. Culinarily speaking, the halibut is most versatile.

Second, questions arise regarding ideology and vision. The halibut is, as I hope you have weened, a flatfish, and a member of the right-eye flounder family, and thus almost one-dimensional. Other members of this family include the plaice, turbot, sole and dab . . . but it is the halibut that stands out as the largest and most plentiful right-eye flounder in the sea. Its size withstanding, it is the flatness of this flatfish that carries profound peripheral consequences. You see, like Rush Limbaugh's audience, the halibut can only peer out of one side of its head, and thus tends to have a very deterministic opinions about which way is up. The world of halibut is definitely one-sided.

We should note that, though a member of the family of "right-eye flounder," many of the world's halibuts actually have two left eyes. At an early age the eyes of the young halibut move either to the left or right side of the fishy-skull, determining forever which side its head will achieve dominance. In fact, the way it breaks down the halibut schools are almost evenly-split between right and left, and were they to be mapped, there would be a distinct red-school / blue-school divide. Along Alaska's coast, Harry's home turf, roughly 70% are right-eyed whereas the "starry flounder" halibut are equally left-eyed. While the California halibut are evenly split, the Japanese halibut are uniformly left-eyed. Truly, the halibut live in a world of stark contrast.

[The secret to successful halibut cookery is to not overcook.]

Our third lesson is more difficult, harsh, almost unexpected: Through halibut, we learn of the innate viciousness of the media-political complex. You see, in our complex conceit, the fisherman represent the hybrid monster that is media-driven politics crossed with politically-driven journalism. These well-equipped titans sail the seafood-rich seas with aplomb and derring-do, ruthlessly harvesting partisan fish to the yearly tune of 25,000 tons. And as recently as 1995 the halibut fishing season was brief, allowing only four short 48-hour windows of halibut opportunity. Fisherman hoping to maximize their halibut catch would take outrageous risks, and halibut fishery became a ruthless competition. The closest analogy would be political campaigning during the weeks leading up to election day.

Now, thanks to the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), halibut are caught according to an individual quota system. Needless to say, the influence of Canadian common sense means that things have gotten a bit more relaxed for halibut fisherman, though they still go to great lengths to plumb the deep.


Signs of the Times #24


[Sidewalk, Falcon Heights.]

$$$ FOR

[Yard. North End, Saint Paul.]

Jimmy Biglow
of Capitol City Meats
is here
At Kamp's

[Lightpost. North End, Saint Paul.]

Eat My Fish 4 Miles Y

[Near Ellsworth, WI.]

To our valued customers.
We regret to inform you that we have had to close down.
We appreciate and thank you
for your business and friendship.

[Door. Prescott, WI.]


[Roadside. Elmwood, WI.]


[Parking garage. Downtown, Saint Paul.]

Side Door -->

[Door. West Side, Saint Paul.]

Please. Do
Not Take
We Are Still Sorting.

[Parking lot. West Bank, Minneapolis.]

Cask or Check

[Door. Stadium Village, Minneapolis.]


Sidewalk of the Week: Stryker Avenue

In a great many ways, Saint Paul just can't compete with Minneapolis. It'll never have the kinds of street life, the large number of young people, the entertainment districts, diversity of theaters, fancy architecture and art scene, the downtown economy, or the razzle dazzle image, etc,. etc. of its larger sibling. Saint Paul is destined to be the red headed stepchild of the relationship, hopping up and down and tugging on the Twin Cities' shirtsleeves just to get its share of attention.

But there's one thing that Saint Paul has in spades that Minneapolis can never, ever hope to attain. And that thing is topography.

Minneapolis is flat as a pancake. Its one of the things that makes it so good for bicycling. But Saint Paul, thanks to the geologic fact-ness of the Minnesota/Mississippi River valley, has tons of hills and valleys and bluffs. The Mississippi Valley and the Trout Brook valley each cut a great swath through St Paul, leaving the town filled with steep climbs and impressive hills and vistas.

One of the consequences of this is that biking in Saint Paul will really give your calves a workout. Another consequence is that neighborhoods in the capital city are a lot more isolated from each other, seprated not just by a freeway or a coffee cafe allegiance, but by a large ravine or hill or bluff or cliff or body of moving water.

Align Center
[Any visit to the West Side should include the striking sidewalk outside Jerabek's New Bohemian Bakery.]

[The streets on Saint Paul's West Side bluffs seem to just disappear off a cliff.]

And the most extreme example of this has to be Saint Paul's West Side, located high atop (and below) the bluffs South of Downtown. To my mind, the best place to see how impressive the West Side can be is to head down to Stryker Avenue as it nears the edge of the bluff.

The sidewalks on the West Side are filled with surprises. There is a kind of wildness to the west side that comes with topography. Yards are surprisingly hilly, and the sidewalks will often slant downwards or upwards against them, making a kind of 'step' motion against the horizontal homes. The yards extend downward into funny little sidewalk walls, often made of limestone or sandstone or some sort of other ancient sedimentary stone that nobody uses any more. These old retaining walls turn the sidewalks into a kind of historical layer cake, where you can literally reach out and feel the age of the city.

[The houses along Stryker Avenue jut out magnificently, and have the kind of rich detail that only comes with Victorian age.]

If you're close enough to a larger hill, the streets will just seem to disappear, as they extend out over a cliff like a Segway entrepreneur, only to fall to Saint Paul's river valley below.

And then you happen across these outstanding views of the city, and the vast Mississippi valley that curves through the city, and you get to see downtown Saint Paul from its good angle, buildings climbing the banks of the river almost as they were part of the cliff .

[The view of the river valley from Stryker and Cherokee Boulevard is amazing.]

[One example of a Saint Paul sedimentary sidewalk retaining wall.]

But the most surprising thing of all on the West Side is the hidden secret staircases. Saint Paul has a bunch of these secret sidewalks, tucked into the trees and bushes and climbing up the hills and bluffs, and they make for delightful little adventures for strolls. You'll be walking down a West Side hill, and all of a sudden there poking out of the trees is a staircase adventure waiting to happen. Where do the stairs lead? Where will they take you?

Oh, do not ask what is it. Let us go and make our visit.

[Where does this staircase lead?]


TCS interviews Viv Corringham, local international sound artist [Part One]

[International sound artist, Viv Corringham, recording Lake Calhoun.]



[The Minneapolis skyway system. Midsummer. Midday. Office workers rush past through the marbled corridors, going to and from their workplaces. TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS sits at a coffee shop cafe table and fumbles with a microphone. VIV CORRINGHAM, a thin woman with short hair, sits across the table.]

Viv Corringham: [With a friendly smile and an English accent.] My name is Viv Corringham. I’m British but I live in Minneapolis now. I guess I define myself as a sound artist though I always cringe because it sounds so pretentious. My background is in visual art and also as a musician.

Twin City Sidewalks: First let’s just say where we are. We’re in the skyway system in downtown Minneapolis. I came across your work at a coffee shop in Saint Paul, you had a sound installation where people could listen to work that was about the skyways in Minneapolis.

VC: The Skyways Project started about 2 years ago and I spent 2 or 3 months walking around the skyways listening and recording. I still don’t know my way around here. What a maze it is. Then I worked on the project for quite a long time and it’s had quite a few outcomes. I made the piece that you heard, and I’m delighted it was working the day you went in. I’ve had a few technical problems switching it on and off.

TCS: It’s not always up and running?

VC: No it isn’t, no. I also made a video of it as well using photos I took in the skyways. It’s more like a moving slideshow really, with fades, than a true video. And I’ve used it as a basis for a solo performance and I’ve also given examples of sounds that I recorded to the group Zeitgeist, in Saint Paul. Do you know them at all? They’re a new music group.

TCS: I think I might have run across them before.

VC: Well they invited me to do a sort of guest composer thing with them. So I just brought these little sound worlds, very different because the sound in here has so many different facets. It can be very big and echo-y or it can be kind of small and all very staccato where in, you’re in this sort of small narrow tunnels with very bright surfaces. And there are all sorts of different areas. There was also a wonderful heater that was a bit broken, and rattled and kind of made this great sound and I gave them that as well. And they used them as sound worlds to improvise and develop sound stuff. So it’s had a lot of outings which is nice.

TCS: Let’s just talk about the skyways for a second. They’re kind of the most controversial thing that I deal with in some ways. I really have a strong opinion of them, and it seems that a lot of people who come here and who work here, it seems to be really divisive.

Urban critics who come here, there was a famous committee who came into town of famous urban designers from Europe, and they looked at the skyways and immediately id’ them as one of the reasons why the street life in Minneapolis is so terrible, having a negative architectural function. But a lot of people who use them all the time really really like them. What intrigued you about the skyways? Is it cause they’re so unique? They’ve been tried in a lot of cities, and haven’t worked everywhere. But they seem to work here in a certain way?

VC: I suppose being from England I’d never come across them in my life before, and they stunned me. On several levels. [Short pause.] Why am I interested in the skyways?

Because, they struck me first of all, I noticed the lack of a street life, or the limitation of the street life. So that downtown Minneapolis felt very dead compared to the size of the population, and I couldn’t’ figure out where anybody was. And I actually asked someone, because I couldn’t’ find a coffee shop. And they brought me in here and walked me around to somewhere like this. And I was just amazed because the street life was brought in doors.

But I guess I have so many things to say about the skyways I’m not sure where to start. Just on the most basic visceral level, I found them ugly, alienating, banal, you know decoration completely banal, except for these beautiful bridges that go over the road. You know, steel and glass, and yet they just float over the road and you see the traffic but you don’t hear it and I think at that point they’re very beautiful.

And there are some photographs. You must know the photographs by Catherine Opie?

TCS: I don’t.

VC: Oh you must look at those. She was artist in residence some years ago at The Walker. She made some photographs, first of all she made them of the ice houses on the lake.

TCS: I love those too.

VC: Sort of mind boggling. But she did some photos of the skyways, only from the outside. And only as they crossed the road, and they’re very beautiful. So there’s this weird. Its all contradictions to me so that’s why I’m fascinated. They’re ugly they're banal they’re beautiful they’re futuristic in a rather old fashioned way… That kind of 70s Star Trek or something. You’ve got this futurism that isn’t quite, and yet when you come its like you’re in any shopping mall. There are so many contradictions. They’ve brought the street life indoors, so the dominant sound... You know, as a sound artist I’m always listening … The dominant sound is human rather than traffic, which is nice…

TCS: Traffic is human too, right?

VC: Traffic is human, but traffic unfortunately takes up such a lot of the wavelength that it tends to dominate. That’s my problem with traffic. You know I try to be non-judgmental about sound, because it all interests me but unfortunately with traffic its just such a kind of thick block of sound very loud that it does dominate that’s what most streets… Unfortunately, that’s the strongest sound on most streets unless they’re pedestrianized. So that’s nice. We brought it indoors, so you've got human sound, except that human sound in this quantity doesn’t really work in this kind of space. You know even now, its kind of quite hard to hear you.

TCS: It’s a bit echo-y, yeah.

VC: It's echo-y, very trapped in small and you know, just the space, the architectural space, a lot like most architectural space, has had no consideration for sound in it whatsoever. So it can feel a bit abrasive or swimmy or overwhelming.

TCS: People don’t think about sound very much. It's constantly around us, it makes up a huge portion of how we experience the world around us but we don’t think about it.

VC: Well, we’re a very visually dominant culture, so I guess that’s why. That’s for sure, I mean I do. For me, it's very important. So that is something that bothers me.

TCS: It's something you notice when you’re having a dinner party and the music you had on in the background stops or whatever… And even though everyone is acting the exact same way in the exact same spaces everything is different without that ambient noise, without that bed on which conversations can take place.

VC: Yeah, that’s right. You know the tendency for restaurants is to be very acoustically unfriendly now, because everyone wants to be stark and modernist in design, its had a very unfortunate effect on the sounds. It's actually quite physically uncomfortable after a while to spend a long time in one of those very big warehousey restaurants. There’s quite a lot here. There’s fewer in London because we haven’t got the space, so people are much more crammed in. So people are soaking up the sound more, but here sometimes it's kinda, yeah, very disturbing.

TCS: Well, I’d like to talk to you about sound in general, and the difference between the UK and the US. But before you do that, I want you to tell me a little about your methods for the Skyway Project.

You said you spent two months in the skyways. I hope you’re exaggerating?

VC: I’m exaggerating a little, but it was over a two months period, and I did spend an awfully long time in and the reason I don’t know my way around is that I wasn’t looking, I was just walking and listening.

TCS: Your eyes to the ground?

VC: Not entirely. That leads me… before I answer that can I go off on another diversion, because one of the other things about bringing the street indoors is that that’s not what you’ve done. Because this is private space.

TCS: Exactly.

VC: That’s the point. And this is the whole problem. Or its half private half public, very ill defined there’s a heavy security presence. And I have to say that, walking around, because I’m you know I’m a middle aged woman so I’m very safe. So I don’t get a second glance. But I noticed that anybody who behaves like me who’s male and young, and maybe looks a bit like they might be homeless … They’re noticed pretty quickly by security. And because in a way I was behaving like a homeless person. I was purposeless. I was walking that way. I would stop, look out the window. I would stop. I would walk back...

TCS: And you’re probably moving at a different speed than most other people.

VC: I was, yes, that’s all a part of it. There’s unwritten codes of behavior in the skyways that I found very interesting, and I began to learn them. People walk at a regular speed. They don’t actually overtake. There are certain places they don’t overtake, like they don’t seem to overtake on these bridges across the road. They have certain places that they overtake. And I’m sure no one knows that they’re doing that, they just are. People don’t look out the windows. They don’t stop. They don’t turn round and go the other way.

TCS: Is that because there aren’t any places for people to stop? Or because no one else is stopping? Or because people are in a hurry?

VC: I guess they are in a hurry. They know where they’re going. Why would they stop? They’ve seen it a hundred times. They’re not shopping there or working as far as I can see. People in winter are often not carrying coats. And I was walking in January and February, and I assume that people without coats … I suppose they left them in their cars, which is possible, but they all seemed like they were going to their offices or their places of work. So there’s that, yes, they’re in a hurry. They don’t want to look because they’ve looked before.

But, I think that this code of behavior thing is built in. And there’s something about this design that makes that happen, which I find very interesting. I think that I became very aware that when I stopped and look out the window I was interrupting the traffic. You know, the people were going very nicely and they’d have to go around me. So I was very aware often that I was an interruption. And I would suddenly have a thought that I wanted to write down about it, so I would just kind of stop and write. And that was a really annoying thing to do, because the flow has to go on either side. And I notice that if there were any people who were just kind of hanging around, they became very visible.

If you break the codes, then you are really an outsider. And everything I did showed me as an outsider. And as I say, I think I got away with it because of being female and not particularly suspicious looking. [Laughs.] But you know, when I started taking photographs in here, then I became much more aware of how many security people there are, and I was very cautions. I was cautious. Because I had been told that someone had been stopped.

TCS: I had that experience, too, taking pictures in here for my own curiosities.

VC: And were you stopped?

TCS: No, but people give you funny looks.

VC: Yeah they do, and I thought well I get away with it because of the accent. I’ll just be, you know, British tourist, "look at your skyway system!"

TCS: Do it up with some big sunglasses and a straw hat.

VC: [Laughs.] Yeah, I should. Get an ascot or something. Sorry, that was nothing to do with what you asked me. You asked me about your physical process.

TCS: You’re walking around and listening. Are you recording the whole time?

VC: I’m recording pretty much the whole time. There are sometimes when I don’t. If I’m just walked through Macy’s three times then I’m probably not going to record it again. But sometimes it’s just better to switch it on and leave it. The one thing I really liked about the recordings was the little snippets of people's lives that came out. I don’t know if you noticed.

TCS: Yeah. There’s lots of little voyeuristic things that people say.

VC: And you really want to know what they said next or what they said before, and often they’re very poignant. You know. “My week hasn’t gone good.” Someone says. “My week hasn’t gone good”. You think, “Why? What’s wrong?”

TCS: Have you ever seen the website Overheard in Minneapolis? They’re precisely people who overhear conversations, just snippets, and post them on the internet. The most interesting ones get read the most.

VC: Oh, fantastic. That’s nice to know. I’ll check that one out. Well I certainly overheard some amazing things. People saying, "in our youths we were brave", or something. Just little bits of people’s lives.

TCS: But it’s hard to hear in these spaces, right? Because they’re echoing?

VC: Well, yeah, in the echo-y spaces it’s hard, but a lot of the skyways is not echo-y. A lot of the skyways is a bit empty, and it’s spooky. You can walk…

Obviously I can’t tell you where, because I obviously don’t know my directions. But I would find my chance, in these empty corridors with one person walking by, maybe talking on a mobile. And, actually, this is without out word of a lie, the moment I switched on my recorder for the first time, someone walked past me, on a cell phone saying “I’m in the skyways of Minneapolis.”

TCS: And that made it to your final piece, right? Wow, good luck for you.

VC: Isn’t that lucky? Yeah. Oh, I hope I hope I pressed record properly! He said, “I needed a break, I’ve gone to get an espresso”, and its actually kind of a banal sentence but at the beginning of the thing it's amazing.

TCS: So you walked around and got a lot of audio of different spots in the skyways, and then what happened?

VC: Well, I had hours and hours and hours and I was using mini disks at the time, hi def mini disks, and I just had piles of them. And that’s what took me, you know, so long. I just listened through them all and just decided which bits I wanted. And I have a software editing program and I put them all into that

TCS: Which one do you use?

VC: I use Wavelab. And I there’s also another very important element for me is the singing. And I tried to sing in the skyways, and some of the singing you hear is recorded in the skyways but I must say I got a bit too self-conscious.

TCS: Singing is a big part of your work, and so that’s how you got started in thinking about walking and sound collage art? From singing while walking? And it seemed to me that one of the things that’s easy to sing and walk in the outside. And nobody can hear you. But the acoustics are very different up here.

VC: Yeah they are. I use binaural microphones, which means, there’s two microphones and they sit just near my ears. So…

TCS: Does it make you look like an alien?

VC: No, they’re tiny. It makes me look like I’m listening to music. It’s the best thing. They’re very very discreet. If you looked at me you wouldn’t have any idea I was recording. So they’re very close to my mouth. So I don’t’ sing very loud. What I tended to do here was to hold a mobile phone. [Laughs.] And even singing, I’m quieter than most people on their phones. So that was a very good way of doing it. But it didn’t work everywhere. Because sometimes it was just very obvious that I was singing and I was just embarrassed frankly. So some of it was added later in the studio. I don’t normally do that, but I had to here. [Laughs.]

TCS: So you edit it all together, and there’s some singing, and some post-production singing too. What is it supposed to invoke for the listener?

VC: I don’t know if it’s supposed to invoke anything. Because I’m the one singing and I’m the one making all the decision in the editorial process, it’s impossible not to put my stamp on it.

[YOUNG KID approaches with a box full of candy bars.]

Young Kid: Wanna buy a candy bar for a [indecipherable charity]?

TCS: Sure. How much is it?

YK: One dollar.

TCS: OK. Do you have change at all? I only have a five. [To Viv.] Does this happen to you? This is a very unique skyway experience, right here.

VC: Huh. This is an unfamiliar one.

YK: I have three dollars

TCS: I’ll get two then. Thanks. Did you give me the change? [YOUNG KID exchanges a pair Twix bars for money.] Anyway, we just were visited by a candy vendor.

VC: I haven’t seen that before.

TCS: Me neither actually. And I’m sure it’s against the rules.

VC: Wildly against the rules. Enterprising children.

So you were asking me what its meant to evoke. I suppose if it's meant to evoke anything it’s the contradictions about it. I don’t normally sing in such a sweet way, I have to say. It was a kind of an idea of the angel of the skyways. There was a kind of presence there. What I feel here is the presence of so many people having passed through, you know. Not passed on, but passed through.

And there’s something like… I’m not a spiritual person or a superstitious person in any way, but that feeling that there is a kind of essence of the skyway, I guess, is what I was thinking when I was singing.

And the poignancy of it, you get these little glimpses, and most of the things that jump out at you kind of seem to be a bit sad for some reason. People weren’t saying wildly happy things. And that wasn’t particularly my selection, there was a lot of very banal stuff that I could have used but the things that struck me were a little bit poignant.

TCS: I really liked the end where you go out onto the street, and it seems really clear to people from the acoustical changes and from the light rail train that you had on the audio, which is familiar to anyone who lives in Minneapolis or spends time downtown. That now we’re outside, and its like you’ve gone and there’s a change in pressure of some kind, all of a sudden you’re released into a space that’s radically different, and you get fresh air in your ear, you know. Although it’s only at the very end. I don’t know. There’s a kind of containment or a different sort of atmosphere on the skyways than on the street.

VC: Very much so. In fact, I’m glad you noticed that. In the original piece, I ended it within the skyway, so it never went out, so it was like its own world. And there was a feeling that I wanted to keep it there, I didn’t’ necessarily want to leave it. I wanted to leave you inside it.
But I go to this composers group and it was particularly unanimous among them, the wanted the closure, they wanted to get out. [Laughs.]

TCS: I like that little touch. [Dramatic pause.] So what is the difference between street space and skyway space? I think you hit on a few things, but …

VC: Its regimented. The sounds are completely different.

TCS: Just talk about sound I guess. I take a lot of pictures, but I don’t record.

VC: Usually in the street you hear a lot of traffic. You hear a kind of ebb and flow, the traffic will stop, and then it will get very thick. Even on a busy road, there will be an ebb and flow. People’s voices will kind of pop up above that. there will be other sounds. There’s an airiness about it. They kind of float out into the air.

Here, everything is contained. There’s no traffic noise. There’s machine noise, there’s quite a lot of things going on.

TCS: There are these hums in buildings you hear which you don’t ever notice, like air conditioner hums or different refrigerators…

VC: Yeah, I’m really interested in those. So I was deliberately recording by some of them. Everything you pass. I can hear a hum here coming from out there. Different lows. Its cool. There must be an awful lot of machinery working.

So there’s all those mechanical sounds that go on in here, they’re not as dominant as traffic. I mean, maybe they are in another way, a subliminal way, sort of taking in all these drones without noticing or hearing them.

What else about sound? I think that’s probably the main thing.

TCS: Well some of the other differences that jump to mind are the street musicians. You don’t find them up here, they’re on the street level.

One other consequence of moving all this activity up in to the interior space is that the street level becomes a place for car parks or garages or that ‘caution car approaching’ sound. There’s some intriguing person on the internet who went around recording all those ‘car approaching’ sounds all over downtown Minneapolis. I found this a fascinating project too. You walked around listening to the sounds of downtown.

Acoustically speaking where are the most interesting spots in Minneapolis?

VC: I suppose I always head for water. That’s a human thing, isn’t it?

TCS: We don’t’ have any oceans, though?

VC: But the river is pretty noisy.

TCS: By the waterfall?

VC: By the stone arch. There’s a lot of noise going on there.

TCS: That’s’ a wonderful spot. And not just the sound but the spray and the smell, there’s just a all the sense are engaged there.

VC: And I think we humans like space, don’t we? That’s probably why we like the water so much. That there’s nothing in between us and ‘over there’ and we kind of like that feeling. So, I like the lakes as well for that. They do have quite a lot of sound about them.

TCS: Do they?

VC: Well, not coming from the water itself, apart from ducks and geese and things, but, you know, you hear sound in a different way when you’re walking by the lakes. Water is a very good conductor of sound, so you hear people talking much more than you usually would. Down on the street.

There’s also a similar thing, I’m actually planning on doing some recording walking around Lake Calhoun because I live near there, and again you get this stream of unconnected sentences that almost make sense. And just a snippet of people’s life and then they’re gone.

TCS: I go around a lake, Como Lake, and they often will have a neighborhood big band that plays in a pavilion on one side of it. And as you’re going around it, the sound echoes across the water in ways that change really dramatically as the sound echoes across the water and you get nearer and farther away. And it’s precisely what you’re talking about. Sound traveling in space. I’m intrigued by it.

You’re from the UK. It’s kind of obvious. What was it like to come from a place like… Are you from London?

VC: Not originally, but I’ve spent more of my life in London than anywhere else.

TCS: Well, that’s one of the great walking cities in the world, and Minneapolis is not known for its pedestrian friendliness.

VC: No.

TCS: So, how was that for you? You still don’t own a car, is that right?

VC: I don’t have a car, no. It’s not as bad as it could be, I suppose. The bus system is not too bad. It's pretty cold waiting for buses in the winter. I’m so glad some of these stops have heaters. [Laughs.] It’s not easy. It’s not easy. I kind of walk around feeling irritated a lot of the time. It seems like everything is biased towards the car and not the pedestrian, and you feel like cars are doing you a favor just in letting you cross the road. Always glaring at you like you’re some kind of madwoman, you know. But because…

TCS: It makes you feel kinda crazy. You were comparing yourself to a homeless person earlier, and that’s not… That’s something I feel, too, walking or biking around. You feel a little bit like you are the crazy person for not driving.

VC: Yes, you do. And you see people doing corners and they’re talking on their phone and they look about twelve to me. [Laughs.] Everyone looks twelve to me. And they’re going a really awkward maneuver and you know they haven’t seen you, and you develop this sort of bloody mindedness, and you’re just going to cross because its my turn. And then I’m probably going to die, so I’d better let them go. And at the end of the day all these things just kind of build up, and I’m often feeling really anti car drivers.

TCS: So do you have ‘pedestrian rage’?

VC: I think I do, yes. I have my own road rage… [laughs] But the cars are long gone, so they don’t get their…

TCS: They’re faster.

VC: Yeah. Its not an easy place, I think, some parts of America are on the coasts, New York is a very pedestrian easy place, and San Francisco is very easy. But this, this in the middle, this is the first time I’ve been here and lived here, and its not. It definitely isn’t, it's not designed for a pedestrian. Places are too far apart. There’s all these kind of weird wastelands, and you kind of wonder, what they were thinking of when they …

TCS: Big parking lots,

VC: Big parking lots.

TCS: But the UK is getting more like that, right? The Tesco phenomenon.

VC: Yeah, they’re trying. But they can’t do it. It’s so much more dense. They’ll never do it. Because even if they find a big lot there’s someone who will buy a corner of it, and someone else who will buy another part of it. Land is at such a premium, there no one can afford to buy a car park that’s that big.

[Finally, at 30:05, TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS is overwhelmed by a the task of transcribing. He looks out the window at the rain, and eats his oatmeal. INTERVIEW PART II continues here.]


Reading the Highland Villager #24 (September 15 - 28 Edition)

[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]

Total # of articles about sidewalks: 7
Total # of articles about sidewalks written by Jane McClure*: 7

Headline: Frequent target of vandals, vacant Island Station plant is fined by city
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Whoever owns the isolated brick antique abandoned power plant down by the river on the down-side of Shepard Road is having some real trouble keeping people [urban explorers? people who like to drink? graffiti taggers? the homeless? those guys who hang out down by the river?] out of it. Lots of great and desperate quotes from both property-owner "Paul Breckner" and City Councilmember Kathy Lantry. Article includes some history of the plant, which was shut off in 1943 and decommissioned in 1975. Fine was only $800. [Bonus: mention of "would-be developer T.J. Hammerstrom". -Ed.]

Headline: Cheeky Monkey is granted entertainment, patio licenses
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: New Selby Ave sandwich shop will soon have beer and wine outside, "entertainment" inside.

Headline: Rebuilt St. Paul generates debate on downtown units
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Councilmember Stark is upset that the Housing and Redvelopment Authority's new construction do not have enough affordable housing. Includes quote of official planning goal (30% affordable) v. the amount in the current 'Rebuild St. Paul' plans (<10%). [Good point, Mr Stark. Unfortunately, nobody seems to care. -Ed.]

Headline: Hearing set on assessments for West End street repaving
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The streets near West 7th and Douglas are gonna be repaved unless folks in those neighborhoods raise some serious hell before October 6th. Currently, homeowners pay 1/4 of the costs of such things. [The city pays the rest. -Ed.]

Headline: St. Paul marks reopening of improved Sam Morgan Trail
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The new and improved bike trail along Shepard Road West of Downtown is now open for business.

Headline: U of M, Met Council finally come to agreement on Central Corridor
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Story, covered extensively elsewhere, about the end of the lawsuit threats b/w the U and the LRT.

Headline: Upper Landing permit parking OK'd
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The streets in the "Upper Landing neighborhood" [located by Chestnut and Spring and Walnut streets... I don't know where this is? -Ed.] will now have permit parking, presumably to keep out people who park there but don't live there.

* The hardest working woman in local journalism.


*** Sidewalk Weekend! *** #44

Sidewalk Rating: Better than you think

I'd like to welcome you aboard the Northstar line
Relaxing transportation you will find
This service is for you, your friends and your kin
Glad you're aboard, hope you ride it again
City to city, you will see
Gonna get you there very quick and safely
I hope this ride will help brighten your day
Now I'll tell you the stops that are 'long the way
We've got Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, too
Elk River, Big Lake, but we're not through
Gotta go to St. Cloud? There's really no fuss
Hop off at Big Lake, catch the Northstar bus
So park your car, then board the train
Once you ride the Northstar, you'll wanna do it again

*** [Click on Photos for Links] ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

By the time I read White’s essay “Here Is New York,” I was a city-side reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and beginning to suspect what he meant by the city’s capacity to bestow “queer prizes,” among them “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” that place the inhabitant in “the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.” The meaning of the remark came clear on a cloudy afternoon in Central Park when I came across two men seated on a bench, each with a fanciful parrot resting on his shoulder, engaged in intense discussion accompanied by decisive gestures and rapid changes of expression. The parrots were identical; the two men were as unlike one another as a ferret and a panda—on the near end of the bench a small and heavily damaged white man in a threadbare raincoat, early seventies, not many teeth, sunken chest, furtive demeanor; at the far end of the bench a handsome and handsomely tailored black man, gold jewelry, stylish hat and brocade vest, broad-gauged grin, majestic presence.

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***

*** ***


Park(ing) Day Twin Cities is Tomorrow!

To be perfectly honest, Park(ing) Day is my favorite sidewalk/street related political event.*

You might have seen photos of this before, people sitting in chairs in a parking space and (pretending to be) having a good time.

I like it so much because, short of a NASCAR race or The Shout House in Block E, parking spaces and parking lots are pretty much the worst places I can imagine to sit and hang out. Asphalt looks, feels, and smells dirty and gross. Parking spaces endure a constant barrage of cars, circling like vultures, threatening to invade, strike, and pick at your body parts with their sharp front fenders. You're low down the the ground, surrounded by cars and dirt and muck and smog and why the hell would anyone want to sit and hang out and enjoy relaxing in a parking space?

But, somehow they do. Each year, all throughout America, interesting, artsy, architect-y, hipster-y, fun people set up parks within parking spaces.

Why do they do it?

More than anything else, this little act calls attention to the HUGE amount of space in the public realm that is given over to cars. Cars aren't just large isolating, polluting, deadly shiny objects... on top of that, they also require tremendous amounts of geographic space in order for people to store them near their homes, offices, shopping places, and in order to drive them really quickly. Acres of parking in front of every store, along every street, in every driveway in every house in America... most of the time, most of this space is unused, as cars behave according to distinct daily patterns. And when we devote all of this space to cars, we automatically make it unusuable for people, animals, plants, rainwater that seeps into the ground, and a whole lot of other things that might occur on the planet.

[At one time the largest parking garage in the world, Euclid Square Garage c. 1930 shows how early parking garages became a prime concern for cities. Img. the Nat'l Building Museum's recent exhibit on the history of Parking Garages.]

[Located at Broadway and Main St, NE, The Northeast Bank Parking Lot Park is one of the most unique spots in Minneapolis: an early, innovative and ultimately futile attempt to merge the city park and the parking lot.]

Over the years, we've gotten to the point where we take parking spaces for granted. We just assume that every street will have as much space as possible reserved for the automobile. And, as every transportation project in the history of the late 20th century has proven, nothing gets business owners more pissed off than messing with their nearby parking spaces.**

Much like the price of a gallon of gas, there's no feeling quite as palpably helpless as trying to park a car in a crowded situation. More than in any other situation, here we're directly competing with each other. The animal instincts bubble up, and we 'fight' almost irrationally to get an extra ten feet closer to the store entrance. Parking the car somehow taps into an emotional nerve center, and most drivers feel very strongly that there can never be enough parking.

Well, all this has consequences, and it means that our streets look like ass-phalt. Public space is continually eroded, paradise is paved, our cities heat up, sidewalks disappear, and because of the cyclic dynamics of auto demand, even more people end up driving even more cars and fighting even more intensely over parking spaces.

And that's why I love Park(ing) Day.

Park(ing) Day demonstrates the range of possibilities that can take place in our public space and on our streets. There's no reason that we can't have wider sidewalks where people can hang out. There's no reason why Snelling Avenue, or Broadway Avenue NE cannot have space for people, cannot have trees and benches and plenty of room in front of stores for sandwich board signs and flower pots. There's no reason why Downtown Minneapolis near Marquette has to feel cramped, sun-less, and desolate. In an alternate world with fewer cars, we'd have way more spaces to relax and enjoy living together in the city.

And, for one day a year, that's just what Park(ing) Day tries to do. Tomorrow, keep your eyes open. There will be anywhere from 5 to 20 parking spots in Saint Paul and Minneapolis that are temporary converted into spaces for people. This will probably happen in lots of creative ways. Thanks to the good folks over at Works Progress, who organize this event and a few other cool events in the Twin Cities, Park(ing) Day is celebrating its 4th year in Minnesota. And its not too late to join in. As I've written about before, it doesn't take much to take back a street from the automobile.

So, between 10:30 and 2:00, feel free to set up a chair in a parking space near you. Mark it down on the Park(ing) Day website, and experience world the full range of the world's possibilties. Let Park(ing) Day commence!

[Manhattan's recent Broadway re-design shows what happens when you take Park(ing) Day to the next level.]

* This is true even though (or perhaps because) I've never participated in it in any way. Conceptually, though, its a knockout.

** This is very very true. Probably nothing. Maybe catastrophic apocalypse, or returning to the 90% upper-bracket tax rates of the 50s and 60s. But, short of that, there's no button so hot as a curbside parking spot.


Tom Emmer is Completely Wrong about Sidewalk Poetry

[Tom Emmer leading the war against Sidewalks, Poetry, Beauty ... (… poor people, brown people, the sound of children's laughter, rainbows, &c.). Img. via TheAwl.]

Now, mostly this blog is about sidewalks and cities and planning and the art of moving and feelings of wonder at living and an extended ode to environments that help you surprise yourself and things like that. Mostly.

Every once in a while, not too often, I become publicly upset about the doings of our Republican Governor, Pothole Pawlenty. Not too often. Just every time an interstate bridge falls in the Mississippi, or health care for the absolute poorest people in the state gets axed, vetoing light rail projects, raising property taxes by cutting state aid for cities over and over and over again, or, well, you get the idea.

Well, somehow, the MN GOP decided to put forward the one man in the state that I actually dislike more than Governor BridgeFAIL: Grade-A fascist, Tom "Denny Hecker" Emmer.

When I worked as a Republican page over at the legislature, I watched him give speeches about trickle-down economics and how we needed more 'freedom' from government. I read about his support of castration for sex offenders*, and I watched him push again and again to tighten state voting requirements**, and basically I was viscerally, pit-of-the-stomach repulsed by Tom "Hecker" Emmer and his status as the #1 cheerleader for moving Minnesota away from a state of tolerance and acceptance and liberty and moving toward Minnesota as a state designed to serve only white property owners and run by and for people like Denny Hecker.

So, Emmer has a great great many detestable policy positions, and represents to me just about everything I loathe about American politics and culture. So, there's that.

[Another great example of government waste from the mind of Tom "Denny Hecker" Emmer.]

But, never did I think he'd actually go so far as to attack sidewalks themselves! Apparently, the other day, Emmer went out of his way to attack St Paul's innovative sidewalk poetry program:

"LGA should be applied to what it was intended for," he said. "It should pay for essential services defined as police and fire service and sewer and water infrastructure. That's should what it should be going for, not to etch poetry in sidewalks in St. Paul."

This statement is an affront in so many ways:

1)A personal affront: I'm on a personal crusade to make city sidewalks more and more interesting places for people, to think about how to improve cities and make them rewarding and diverse places for people to live.

To some extent, there's a politics to this. Old school white dude culture is based on the pickup truck, and all its ties. On the other hand, sidewalks represent the domain of the bicycle, of the elderly and the 'inner city' and those hippie kids with piercings, and basically everyone 'other'.

So, by attacking sidewalk art, Emmer is attempting to define and delineate a politics of transportation, to set out an 'us vs. them' situation between "those crazy hippie people" who use feet for some reason and live in cities and do nothing but waste your taxpayer money with their “poetry” and their “sidewalks” and their long hair and strange food vs. the kind of fence-building, suburb-dwelling, McMansion-lusting, big-ass-pickup-driving, gun-totin', kid-yellin'-at, Norman-Rockwell-dreaming, angry-at-the-world-for-stripping-him-of-his-50s-patriarchy A-hole "hockey dad" that drives everywhere and who lives a dozen miles from the nearest sidewalk and couldn't even name (let alone recite) a poem if his life depended on it kind of person.

2) An artistic affront: Poetry is the art of language. Poetry displays an intense commitment to metaphor and creation. Poetry is largely forgotten today, drowned in a sea of images. Poetry has few defenders. Poetry is the domain of artists and homosexuals and lefty liberals with fancy college degrees like Garrison Keillor and is the perfect target for a hick-trick bully like Emmer.

3)An affront to GOP principles: The irony here is that the sidewalk poetry program costs almost nothing, and is a textbook example of 'making government smarter', something that the GOP talks about absolutely non-stop as if every government program is populated by the cast from Idiocracy who sit around on their hands all day long and all we need to do is get some airport book business consultant to think really hard about the Department of Health and voilĂ  presto you've saved 6 Billion taxpayer dollars (as if corporate consultants ever did much more than fire a bunch of people, or "re-brand", and if you've ever worked for a corporation, you know what I'm talking about).

Well, luckily, I got to talk to the director of Public Art Saint Paul this summer. She told me all about the program in question, the non-profit's Artist-in-Residence program, and it's a truly great and heartwarming and wonderful story. If this is not an 'efficient government' wet dream, then I don't know what is:

[Begin interview transcript.]

Twin City Sidewalks: So tell me about the city artist position. The artist in residence position? Do you have an artist every year?

Christine Podas-Larson, director of Public Art Saint Paul: No. It’s not a fellowship. We fussed with the name of it a lot. When we began this program in 2005 our initial idea was that someone would be there for 18 months, but after the first experience … we started with two artists. We hired two, and the wonderful Stephen Woodward, he used up 18 months of time in less than a year because there was so much demand for his time.

TCS: What kind of stuff?

CP-L: We have had for a long time a very good relationship w/ the public works dept. there is an openness and an interest in what artists are thinking, maybe b/c of the engineering background, these people really like the way things work, and the way people work that through in their mind who knows? They’re not threatened by it. Sometimes planning departments are threatened by it, or landscape architects are threatened by it. But in public works there’s just always been this big open door that says, we’re game for what you wanted to talk to us about.

We started the program in 2005 and we got funding initially from, of all places, St. Paul building owners and managers. They gave us the startup funding about $60K for the first period of time, and then the McKnight foundation stepped up big time after the first year, then we have other grants as well to support it. But the idea was that the artist would either contract or work for Public Art Saint Paul. And would be chosen by a group of people representing both the arts community with the Public Works Director and the Parks Director on it as well, with the idea that the artist would be there as part of the way that the city thinks.

TCS: So how has this had an effect?

CP-L: Well, it depends on the artist. In the case of Marcus Young, who it would be pretty unusual most people acknowledged that for an artist who is a conceptual artists to be hired for a job like that… so he even said in his interview “I don’t make anything”… and [CP-L laughs.] bureaucratic people were like “What does that mean exactly”… but he described a project that he did in China, and it was performed again in California and New York, called ‘slow walking’ where he would go out into a very very very busy street and observe it for a couple of weeks in advance with the idea of, how are people behaving and how fast are they walking? And in Beijing he wound up with about a 7 minute walk. It started with people moving very fast, they covered this kind of ground in 7 minutes, they didn’t pay any attention to anyone else walking by, lots of people on their cell phones, not paying any attention, just a purposeful fast walk…

TCS: You’re kind of on autopilot in a lot of places.

CP-L: So then on Day One of what became a month-long performance, he would start out every single day and he has very distinctive appearance when he does this. He’s Chinese American, and he has on this (I call it his) judo suit, it looks kind of like what people wear in martial arts studios only a little softer than that (he’ll kill me for saying that), and then he has an umbrella over his head, and he walks. And that same 7 minute walk he takes half a day to do it. And he walks slowly and silently and smiling.

And you know the first few days people are astonished and it makes them... they think he’s weird. In both China and New York they tried to arrest him, but after a while people get used to it and he’s there day after day doing the same thing. Walking slowly silently smiling. And at the end of all of this, then he goes back and looks and times how people are walking. The whole population is walking more slowly. There’s less cell phone use.

And to present that project... Other artists interviewing for this job are showing their sculptures, and Marcus shows this. And you get the Public Works Director looking at this, and finally the Public Works Director said, …

All of us were going “Oh please please, can’t we hire him? We like him the best”...

And he said, the reason I’m saying OK is that he’s doing the same thing we’re trying to do. He’s trying to calm traffic. Only look at the money we’re spending to do it. We’re putting up stop signs and jersey barriers and flashing lights that say "this is your speed" and all this. This guy is just walking out the door silently every morning and he’s having the same effect. The bottom line is that we need this kind of creative thinking. We always tell our employees we want them to think outside the box in problem solving, but we will definitely up the ante by putting somebody like this in the middle of our city discussion. At the table of planning and decision-making.

So his charge is not necessarily to make anything. His charge is to be a part of the creative discussion of how the city is built and functions. And we did have at the beginning some money for him to develop a demonstration project. And that’s where the poetry thing came from.

So he was assigned at one point to have his cubicle in the sidewalk maintenance division. And he’s sitting there in the middle of the city’s annual sidewalk replacement and you know, he pops his head over the top, “What do you do?”, and they describe it and they all went walking with him so he could see. And every year this is one of the biggest contracts that the city lets, because you know we have how many thousands of miles of sidewalk in the city, we replace ten miles of sidewalk every single year.

And the cost is anywhere from a half a million to $900K, depending on the extent of the program and the bids, so it’s a big deal. As he was walking along he saw… he’s always had this idea of what he calls, "the city as a book". That was his artistic idea and he wasn’t always sure how that would play out here. And all of a sudden he sees stamped in the corner of the sidewalk panel a little logo. You know, sometimes it’s a number, or the name of the contractor so they can tell what it is. He thought, well they’ve got the technology to do this. They know how to stamp stuff. What if the words that we’re stamping isn’t ‘Knutson Construction’, what if it’s a poem?

And so he proposed that and everybody figured that would be worth a try and got on board with it, and now we’ve just finished the third year of the contest. And there are 200 and some stampings of poems out there. And we have big stamps, they’re almost as big as that bookshelf, and they’re lightweight.

TCS: What are they made out of?

CP-L: Well there’s the wood framework, and then plastic kind of fiberglass kind of stuff, and it’s just like an old fashioned printing press, but it carries a poem on it. And our crew goes hand in hand with the contractor, whoever gets the bid for this, and written into the RFP for the city is, you know, you have to work with these people and at least 100 times during the process you have to take one of these stamps from the people at Public Arts Saint Paul and stamp it in the sidewalk.

So our crew goes along and picks out the stamp and hands it over to the contractor, because we don’t want to mess up the warranty and that kind of stuff, and on we go. So they have to give a cost for that every year in their bid, and this year its $10. [CP-L gets excited.] Ten bucks a stamping! Oh my god, this is great!

TCS: That’s about the best deal you can find in any government anywhere in the world probably.

CP-L: And this can go on forever. Think about this. If we’re doing 100 of these every year, in 10 years, 20 years, the costs of this really… There was some start-up cost, but I think by Year Four our costs are going to be the 10 to 20 bucks each year that we do. … The 20 original poems that we used, we added 5 more last year and 5 more this year, so we have 30 stamps.

And it’s being written about all over the world. Part of our problem now is we’re getting calls and people are asking, how did you do it. [CP-L laughs.] This is not rocket science, you guys. You hold the contest pick the poems, get someone to make the stamps, and there you go.

[End interview.]

[St Paul Artist-in-Residence Marcus Young with his innovate sidewalk poetry.]

* Yeah, because snipping it down there will really stop them from turning into sociopath creeps!

** Which is basically an old school, repression-of-democracy poll tax, stripping rights from people like my step-grandmother who has lived in this state for 85 years and doesn't have a birth certificate, or anyone who might be older or might be poorer and thus might not have a solid paper trail, or anyone who because of moving a lot switching apartments for whatever reason moves so that their address doesn't match their license, and is in truth a blatant attempt to intimidate and repress the (highly Democratic) vote of people who might not have the security and means of someone like Tom "Hecker" Emmer.