Sidewalk Poetry #35

A Swarm of Dawns, A Flock of Restless Noons

There's a lot to be written in the Book of Errors.
The elderly redactor is blind, for all practical purposes,

He has no imagination, and field mice have gnawed away
His source text for their nesting. I loved you first, I think,

When you stood in the kitchen sunlight and the laszy motes
Of summer dust while I sliced a nectarine for Moroccan salad

And the seven league boots of your private grief. Maybe
The syntax is a little haywire there. Left to itself,

Wire must act like Paul Klee with a pencil. Hay
is the Old English word for strike. You strike down

Grass, I guess, when it is moan. Mown. The field mice
Devasted the monastery garden. Maybe because it was summer

And the dusks were full of marsh hawks and the nights were soft
With owls, they couldn't leave the herbs alone: gnawing the roots

Of rosemary, nibbling at sage and oregano and lemon thyme.
it's too bad eglantine isn't an herb, because it's a word

I'd like to use here. Her coloring was a hybrid
Of rubbed amber and the little flare of down rose in the kernel

Of an almond. It's a wonder to me that I have fingertips.
The knife was very sharp. The scented rose-orange moons,

Quarter moons, of fruit fell to the cutting baord
So neatly it was as if two people lived in separate cities

And walked to their respective bakeries in the rain. Her bakery
Smelled better than his. The sour cloud of yeast from sourdough

Hung in the air like the odor of creation. They both bought
Sliced loaves, they both walked home, they both tripped

In the entry to their separate kitchens, and the spilled slices
Made the exact same pattern on the floor. The nectarines

Smelled like the Book of Luck. There was a little fog
Off the bay at sundown in which the waning moon swam laps.

The Miwoks called it the Moon of the Only Credit Card.
I would have given my fingertips to touch your cheekbone,

And I did. The night the old monk knocked off early. He was making it
All up anyway, and he'd had a bit of raisin wine at vespers.

[Robert Haas, 2002.]

[Sidewalk café in Berkeley, CA.]

Signs of the Times #71


[Sign. Somerville, MA.]

Will be

Thank You

[Door. South Loop, Chicago.]

And Chairs


[Window. South Loop, Chicago.]

Signs for Sale

Inquire within

[Window. South Loop, Chicago.]


[Post. South Loop, Chicago.]

[something about fiber optic cable buried within]

[Island in the Mississippi River. La Crosse, WI.]


[Ped bridge. Seward, Minneapolis.]


[Hotel pillar. Pasadena, CA.]


Details Uncovered from 1906 Minneapolis

Some time ago, I fell into a photograph. It happened on Twitter. Someone tweeted a high-resolution image of Minneapolis in 1906, taken from the top of the brand new city hall. I clicked the link, and zoomed in, and a lost world opened up all around me. How different Minneapolis used to be! A city of smoke and dirt, chaos and men, industry and elegance. Drop someone from today's Minneapolis into this hundred year world, and they'd be lost.

A few details of this city long left behind...

The industrial riverfront:

I always knew that the riverfront was more industrial. It's part of the city narrative, the railyard along the river, the mill buildings lining both sides of the waterfall. But actually seeing the landscape is another thing altogether. Northeast Minneapolis looks like Mordor: treeless, black, piled with coal and train tracks and smokestacks and vast wide spaces on which you could safely land a zepplin. Today, that same space is covered with trees. It's "natural," green, parklike. But today's nature is a re-creation, a re-birth. There were no trees along the river. Everything was dirt or coal or congealed smoke.  We imagine today's forest was always, that the trees tell tales of unborn factories. Here history and nature lie.

A bicycle:

There is a bicycle leaning on a stable. The transportation picture of 1906 includes riverboats, streetcars, horses and (for a brief time) bikes. The window for bicycles was maybe ten, maybe fifteen years, before they waned in popularity replaced by the motorcar and crowds. But I like to imagine walking out of the stable, smelling musty of manure and hay and the smoky city, and riding that bike along the rough streets down Washington Avenue to the North, weaving around the slowmoving horse-drawn wagons. What were the roads like? What were the tires like? What was the sunshine like? It must have been freedom felt to bike through the city, two or three miles to your small wooden house. Were there bike locks? Were the brakes effective? What did people shout at you as you went by? Did you tip your hat?

Stock Food:

On the Northeast riverbank sits the opulent “international stock food factory,” like something out of Willy Wonka.  Nobody in their right mind would build such a factory these days. Today they're low concrete bunkers, spartan, functional, and grey. This one has an eight-story turret, Mansard roof, elaborate cornice, arched windows, columns in relief. Today on that same bit of earth, there is no trace of that grand structure. It is completely forgotten. 

Depot top:

The old Milwaukee Road Depot. The Milwaukee Road has a fascinating history. Today, the depot is on ice. The clocktower is flat, its top was circumcised. Someone should try and put this back. Kickstarter turret top? Nearby, the top of the Northstar Blanket building advertises “slightly damaged” blankets for a one-third discount.

Nicollet Island:
Another of nature's falsities is this: Nicollet island is amazingly dense! Just a few of the things on the East end of the island: a coffin factory, something called “stock tonic”, a boiler works, “miracle pressure stove co.” The economic diversity is off any charts we might still have laying around. This was really the center of the center of the city, the center of the river. The river was the city. There were more people per square foot on this island than anywhere else in Minneapolis.

The rest of the island was the same way. We have such changing concepts of density. Anyone who says that Minneapolis is dense now hasn’t seen this history. Anyone who thinks Nicollet Island is a “city” today has a different definition of city than this. Every square inch of the place was covered in
bricks. Today it’s a park.

White men:

In the large railyard, men in white overalls sit half inside train cars. They seem to be hanging out, waiting for something to happen. My old uncle told me about a job he once had as a young man, working for a brewery in Saint Paul. Railcars would appear full of grain and a team of men with shovels would empty the car as fast as possible, working furiously to move the grain into the factory. When they were done, they'd get all the beer they could drink. Then they'd do it again. I imagine these men in white, sitting around talking about weather or houses or women in a language other than English, the huge railyard taking up the entire riverfront, filled with little clumps and pockets of these white men.


Amongst the large factories, the warehouses, and ornate civic buildings, slapdash shacks clutter themselves. These are obviously from an earlier era, about to be displaced by some brick mass. But there must have been many blocks like this, alleys and mud filled with small wooden structures connected to other wooden structures. It's amazing that even here, in the very heart of the city, you still get these small shacks. If there are so many here, imagine what Bohemian flats was like, or the North side. Imagine walking down this alley. Outhouses. Someone appearing out of a tiny hut, people lurking and living in cracks. In this alley, a lone horse hanging out.



A sidewalk covered in signs, wooden bits announcing grand things. The sidewalks are really wide. A lot must happen on them, people gathering, chatting, dealing, trading, strolling five wide. On this sidewalk, a guy selling something out of a donkey cart on the sidewalk. What is in there? Food or something else?

See the horses and wagons hanging out by the train station. This was how you delivered anything, very slowly. Near to it, streetcar tracks curving along the roadways. I don't see any overhead electric wires...  Who would I become if I lived here?


Sidewalk Poetry #34

Personal Poem

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but no I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's where I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, and LeRoi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don't give her one we
don't like terrible diseases, then
we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats

I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

[Frank O'Hara, 1959.]

[Broadway in New York City, 1959.]

Sidewalk Poetry #33

Walking To Work

It's going to be the sunny side
from now
                on. Get out, all of you.

This is my traffic over the night
and how
              should I range my pride

each oceanic morning like a cutter
if I
      confuse the dark world is round
round who
          in my eyes at morning saves

nothing from nobody? I'm becoming
the street.
                Who are you in love with?
       Straight against the light I cross.

[Frank O'Hara, 1952.]

[Washington Street Market in New York City, 1952.]

Just How Horrible is a Buffalo Wild Wings?

[The MOA Gator's. Now defunct.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the worst bar in modern Twin Cities' history was Gators at the Mall of America. Their combination of depressed people, mediocre food, garish ambiance, and a uniquely soul-rending location on the deserted Mall of America 4th floor set a lofty standard which few extant establishments can ever hope to reach. (The Shout House at Block E is the current worst bar in the Twin Cities, but many more things will have to go wrong to equal Gators metro area record.)

On the other hand, there is general agreement that the best bar in modern Twin Cities' history is Nye's Polonaise Room. Nye's laudable accomplishments are frequently discussed, and there is little need to repeat them here. It suffices to say that Nye's is the anti-Gators.

Most bars are somewhere in between. They contain happy and sad people, good and bad appetizers, decor to abhor and appreciate. Some places clash with their surroundings, others seem like they've always been there. A wide range of locale sits between Gators and Nye's, and exploring this vast ecosystem of libation is a life long journey.

[A bit from the facebook page.]
My curiosity was piqued earlier this year when a bar called Buffalo Wild Wings announced they would be remodeling a mediocre strip mall on Saint Paul's Snelling Avenue, opening up a bar there. Quickly, neighbors denounced the plan. Buffalo Wild Wings was a nightmare. Its yellow and black logo was inherently ugly. Its promise of drink, food, and sports would mesmerize young people, causing them to walk the streets at night. It would fail to be "family friendly." Allegations mounted like my aunt's horny Cocker Spaniel.

The whole thing intrigued me. The problem was that I'd never been to a Buffalo Wild Wings. I had no idea what the fuss was about. How bad could it be? I wondered. What is this suburban nightmare? How does it rank on the Gator's/Nye's spectrum?

So I laced up my boots, adopted my best jock attitude, and ventured forth to my nearest Buffalo Wild Wings (on the University of Minnesota campus) to research the matter for myself. Here is what I discovered...

[The UMN BWW.]
The first thing that happens when you enter a Buffalo Wild Wings? You are greeted at a counter by three young identically clothed bored chipper young people. Two girls and one guy. Some wear headsets. One girl will be twirling her ponytail around her finger like Sarah Jessica Parker in that Steve Martin movie (LA Story?), then she'll smile too widely and say "Wow, I love your jacket!"  These people seem to have nothing to do. Because of the headset, one might assume that they're "the brains" of the operation, but after talking to them, it seems unlikely.

Beyond the entrancing counter, a grand canyon of sports bardom opens up before you. It's a bit awe inspiring. The University of Minnesota's Buffalo Wild Wings is in an old fire house, and has tall ceilings and large walls roughly half covered in flat screen TVs. From my barstool, I can see twenty-nine televisions, none of them particularly small. I'm sure I'm missing a few.

The rest of the walls are bedecked in jerzee paraphernalia of different Gopher alumni: Flip Saunders, Neil Broten, Tony Dungy, Gary Steinbeck, others I haven't heard of.

The third thing you notice are the gender dynamics. This is a brotopia. Men rule here, and all the servers are women, gliding like bees in matching black and yellow jerzees with the number 84 on the back. (Why 84? That was the year Buffalo Wild Wings was founded, according to the cloying narrative on the plastic menu. You also learn that Buffalo Wild Wings was fittingly born in Ohio, our most average state.) The gender roles aren't just about the waitstaff, either. Here, with few exceptions, men stare intently, high-five each other, and use nicknames. Girls come to flutter eyelashes and are happy to be excluded in clusters. I've always disliked this aspect of sports. (E.g., despite the fact that seemingly 80% of the staff are women, I'd bet that every Buffalo Wild Wings "manager" is a guy.)

On the other hand, sports is the real saving grace of a Buffalo Wild Wings. Televised sports are inherently corporate, mass marketed, difficult to reconcile with a yearning for the authentic. In a way, Buffalo Wild Wings's pure devotion to sports makes it more honest than an Applebee's, which has to rely on vague notions of "neighborhood."

[The wild wings (actually honey BBQ)]
The food is fast, and slightly above average I suppose. Honestly, its difficult to screw up chicken wings. There are a million flavors, but the most popular is Honey Barbeque.

There's little left to say. If you like watching sports on TV and drinking beer, Buffalo Wild Wings is satisfying. You can watch eight different events at the same time: a golf tournament, a Premiere League match, two different baseball games, and hockey highlights. I'm sure that during a live event, a Vikings-Packers game or a Gopher playoff, this place is an electric zoo. Most of the time, it's relatively relaxing, better than some, good if you want to stay anonymous.

I suppose the key thing is that Buffalo Wild Wings is a "corporate bar." This place has the same relationship to the classic sports bars of the U of MN campus -- Sally's, Stub and Herbs, Big 10 -- that Starbucks has to a local coffee shop. It takes all the markers of authenticity and reproduces them according to a formula. I suppose it fools some, others are unconvinced. 

The new Saint Paul Buffalo Wild Wings is like a watered down version of Billy's on Grand (sadly, without the patio). I doubt it will be as obnoxious. It will likely be more boring.

Its a cliché to say so, but the line between unique local business and corporate franchise is more blurry than ever. (Though more fiercely guarded, for that reason.) Even a great local Saint Paul bar like the Groveland Tap is undermined by its reproductive owners (the "Blue Plate Group"). Lucés spread through the burbs. Blue Door Pubs split like amoeba to cover both sides of the river. Bulldogs reproduce. What is a chain any more? Does it still matter?

In the end, Buffalo Wild Wings. It ranks somewhere in the middle of the Nye's -- Gator's spectrum, about average with a strong taste of corporate schlock. It's much better than an Applebee's, about equal to a Chili's, and this central location will likely keep it from becoming exceedingly average.

[The schlocky "story" of Buffalo Wild Wings.]


Reading the Highland Villager #82

[The Villager... still waiting for spring.]
[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.]

Headline: CVA action abandons effort to save art school; College of Visual Arts trustees give group two weeks to raise $3 million
Reporter: Kevin Driscoll

Short short version: The group of people trying to save the soon to be closing CVA in St Paul have given up. There seemed to be wrinkles over whther or not to have students in the coming calendar year. There seem to be a lot of castigations of the board of trustees. [The word “trustee” seems sorely misapplied here. It implies someone who keeps something safe and secure.] Article has very little hope.

Headline: Bill calls for vote on forming child care providers union
Reporter: Roger Barr
Short short version: [I’m not aware of having done this?]

Headline: Exercise clubs must be quieter, can add group fitness rooms
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: People dropping barbells are annoying other people in St Paul, and the city is now requiring mats on floors. Also, some rules for how to build group exercise rooms. Hot spot is the Mississippi Flats buildings along the river under the High Bridge. Qutoe from a neighbor: “Our ceilings shake. It shifts the pictures on the walls.”

Headline: Survey shows how to make Central Corridor more walkable
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The District Councils Collaborative [a group of nonprofits and neighborhood groups, like one of those supergroups from the 70s] did a study that said we need better sidewalks with trees and benches. They looked at all the sidewalks around there and identified places where they suck. Problem area is around I-94, especially the Snelling Avenue bridge. the problem is: who will pay for it? [Another problem is the city’s reluctance to do any real traffic calming, such as a 4-3 conversion on Hamline Avenue. –Ed.]

Headline: Long-range plan for riverfront OK’d
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city approved the Great River Passage [already much discussed in the Villager and on this website]. The images will be labeled “conceptual.” Article includes lots of gladhanding.

Headline: Union Park rejects restrictions for Buffalo Wild Wings’ liquor license
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The neighborhood group rejected a proposal to restrict the liquor license for the sports bar proposed for the former Cheapo Records site in a strip mall on Snelling Avenue. Varios reasons include discomfort.  Much wrangling over the closing time: 10, 11, 1, or 2 AM? Best anti Wild Wing comment: “Their clientele is going to be a lot of young people.” [OMG not young people! I hate young people, especially the horrible laughter of children.] Number of uses of the word “liveable”: 2

Headline: Council expands permit parking district on Finn Street near UST
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Parking around Finn Street and Grand Avenue will now require a residential permit. Best quote from neighbor: “We’ve got construction workers coming out of our ears.”

Headline: Qdoba is denied variance for new Highalnd Village restaurant; Mexican Grill appeals matter to City Council
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: A fast-food burrito joint is unable to build a new building on Ford Parkway because their proposed building is too small. Only 6 parking spaces are required, but Qdoba wants to build 16.

Headline: St. Paul releases redevelopment guidelines to protect West End
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: A city study was released to control redevelopment along the west end of Grand Avenue. [All prompted by a student-oriented apartment building near the St Thomas campus.] According to the plan [which will surely be passed, regardless] new development “should have the same scale, proportion, colors, open spaces, and character of adjacent buildings.” Article doesn’t include actual zoning specifics. [I read this and can’t really comment on it because it’ll come to the Planning Commission again. Link to details here.]

Headline: St. Paul sees increase in requests for Neighborhood STAR funding
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: City Sales Tax Revitalization money (STAR) is in hot demand. Article consists mainly of details of requests.

Headline: Local housing market is showing signs of stabilization
Reporter: Larry Englund

Short short version: House prices are not going down any more. Few houses are for sale, and fewer houses are being sold while "distressed." The changes in price are specific to certain neighborhoods. Longfellow and St Paul-West End have seen prices rise while Mendota Heights and Summit Hill [e.g. the wealthier areas] continue decline slightly.

Headline: BZA grants parking variance for Ethiopian restaurant on West 7th
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Ras restaurant [on the far West end of West 7th] can stay open even though its parking lot is not large enough for the city's minimum parking regulations. [Minimum parking regulations are such a horrorshow. This restaurant, where a lot of clientele are on foot from the surrounding neighborhoods, is a great example of why that is. -Ed.]  


Signs of the Times #70

This is a sacred space
for prayer & meditation
Thank you
for your keeping
it quiet and clean.

[Fence. Renssalaer, NY.]


[Window. Renssalaer, NY.]

Ice And

[Protest Sign. Downtown Boston.]


[Concrete riverbank. Milwaukee, WI.]


Fine Art Too

[Doorway. Newburyport, MA.]

I had to step out
I will be back at 2:00
I apologize for any

[Doorway. Newburyport, MA.]

Corned Beef
Come on in

[Diner wall. Somerville, MA.]

Do Not Use
Mobile Phone
In The

[Doorway. Boston, MA.]

is still

[Sandwich board. Boston, MA.]


Reading the Highland Villager #81

[A Villager waits for spring.]

[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.]

Headline: Feeling pinched for parking, folks in Lowertown ask city to reconsider plans for ballpark
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: "A growing number" of people want free convenient parking in downtown / Lowertown. [Just as an aside, anything can be a "growing number" if it is on the way to becoming something slightly larger.] Report on a meeting about the Saints stadium design, gives POV of the 'Save the Gillette' folks. Real hodgepodge of every possible type of urban project here, including "indoor farmers market, artists' center, sports bar, Model Railroad museum, velodrome, and  ice rink. [Is there anything they left out? Maybe artificial ski slope / unicyle mountain biking center, artisanal pogo stick factory, jai-alia fronton, and kosho court...] Article includes details of the Gillette building, quote from CM Thune, who wants to "study" the idea. End of article focuses on people concerned about parking. Best quote: "twenty-five years ago we needed parking in Lowertown, and now we need it even more."

Headline: Episcopal Homes to break ground on new senior housing; Seven-story building ot rise at University and Lynnhurst
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Article on the expansion of the old folks home by the Iris Park LRT. 174 units, done by September 2014. It will include a "pub and café" [which as someone who knows a lot of aging Episcopalians, should be highly non-raucous]. Part of the project involves a complete street set of traffic calming and ped amenities along Lynnhurst [which makes a great deal of sense].

Headline: District councils release their priorities for capital projects; Proposed improvements are in the running for city funds
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: More on competition for the Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) money, as neighborhood groups ranked their projects, hoping for money. Some of them include intersection improvements on W 7th Street, sidewalks in the Highland Village, rec center funding, and the Ayd Mill Road study.

Headline: Summit Hill prepares to break ground on community garden
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Someone is trying to get money for a community garden on by the rec center on St Clair overlooking the river.

Headline: Century-old Fort Snelling buildings will be renovated as veterans housing
Author: Kevin Driscoll

Short short version: Buildings that were part of the super old Army fort and have been abandoned for as long as I've been alive will be restored and used for a much needed purpose: reducing veteran homelessness. [This is awesome in may ways.]

Headline: St. Paul approves more sidewalks to get people to light-rail stations
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Streets that don't have sidewalks in an industrial / residential area of town by the Raymond LRT are going to get some. Article includes CM Stark talking about some compromise with local businesses, who will be partially assessed for them.

Headline: Rapid bus route planned for Snelling
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Met Council is planning a rapid bus route for Snelling that may be up and running by Spring 2015. [Soooo far from now!] Snelling is the #1 spot for this service, according to a Met Council study. The system would have 10 minute frequency have fewer stops, off-bus fare paying, lower floor, and better signal timing.

Headline: Prepare for detours as work begins on new Hamline Ave. bridge
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is replacing the bridge over Ayd Mill at Hamline, which has terrible sidewalks. It will take a long time. The new bridge will have wider sidewalks.

Headline: Villager to roll out 60 years of memories
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Wow. An especially nostalgic section of the Villager coming May 15th.

Headline: Craft beer brewers will have easier time opening tap rooms
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council passed a change in zoning to allow for brewpubs in places people actually will want to go to them.

Headline: French Meadow needs permit, parking before Grand opening
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The bakery going into the Coffee News Café site on Grand by Macalester will need a conditional use permit (CUP) and to expand the parking lo, apparently.

Headline: Plan in the works to complete Marshal Ave. improvements
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is having a meeting [Oops: had a meeting, my bad] to talk about continuing the bike lane / median / traffic calming treatments all along Marshall to the cathedral. [It currently stops at Snelling.]

Headline: Committee supports plans for art-inspired mini-golf course
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Schmidt Brewery development will have mini-golf, as long as its historic preservation approved.

Headline: BZA nixed request for 10-unit apartment on Marshall Ave.
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A man wanted to tear down a building on Marshall and build more density, but he won't now.


Why You Should Show Up at Tuesday's Minneapolis Precinct Caucses

A while back I wrote about working on the Saint Paul Planning Commission, and how rare "public comments" become influential in the city planning process. Sending in a brief comment is an example of how to actually create change in city policies. A rare case of effective and easy politics. People can spend hours complaining, meeting, or arguing about land use, development, or transportation, but it will can little difference. On the other hand, sometimes small gestures have large effects. Sometimes a few people sending letters to the city can change an outcome.

The same exact principle holds for the notoriously catty Minneapolis DFL endorsement process, which starts next week. I was talking to a Minneapolis City Council candidate the other day, and he made the following sales pitch for attending the city caucses:
Be one of the few hundred people that will decide the election for the 11,000 people who live in your Ward.

That about sums it up. Precinct caucuses and the DFL nomination can have a large impact on the outcome of a race. For better or worse, DFL endorsements sway fundraising, tilting the scales for local elections with microscopic turnouts. Most of the time, a DFL endorsement decides the race. And only the people who show up to all the painstaking, petty, and tedious caucus rigamarole get to vote for the endorsement. In short, this is a rare times when your lonely voice will be heard.

At least that was my experience during the last Saint Paul city election. In my ward (between Como Park and Rice Street), there was a contested race between an untested challenger, Amy Brendmoen, and an incumbent, Lee Helgen. During the campaign, I ended up liking what Brendmoen was saying and I went to my precinct caucus. My old neighborhood in the North End is working class, and only two or three people ever show up to these kinds of things. So I easily became a delegate, and ended up at the Ward Convention, organizing a few folks to support Brendmoen.

As the evening went on through a few rounds of balloting, the tension mounted in the room. The vote was exceedingly close. Helgen was just a few votes shy of the 60% nomination threshold. There was a bit of contention about the voting process, how exactly you should write the names on the slips of paper. The acoustics in the room were terrible, and hardly anyone could hear the speakers. It seemed like nobody knew what was going on, and the evening quickly became a bit petty. It reminded me of high school, which wasn't helped the fact that it was in a high school cafeteria.

But in the end, democracy was served. Neither candidate achieved the 60% nomination threshold, and Brendmoen went on to narrowly win the election. She's now the City Councilmember in Ward 5, and making decisions for the city. If the DFL nomination had gone the other way, it might have made the difference. At the very least, it would have made defeating an incumbent much more difficult.

The point is that every vote counts in these races. Unless your name is Chad and you're hanging from a Florida ballot, the City Council caucuses are one of the only opportunities where your vote will really count. So few people participate! If you like or hate your City Councilmember, if you support a one of the many great candidates, show it. Go to your caucus next week, and be one of the few voices that will change Minneapolis.

[Click for info...]


Ignorant Thoughts on Bicycling in Boston

[One-way "No Bikes" street near Harvard Square.]
OK, first of all, I have never ridden a bicycle in Boston. That said, I was just in Boston / Cambridge / Somerville /Newton for a week, and want to make some ignorant statements about the opportunities and challenges of bicycling in one of America’s most dense and walkable cities. Obviously, this is going to be shooting in the dark, displaying a complete lack of rigor. I'm just making wild guesses about one of my favorite places.

Most of what I know about bicycling in Boston comes from having walked around a lot there for many years, observing people on the streets, on bicycles, and chatting with folks. Also, Boston is mentioned in bicycle literature and online as being a place that aggressively promotes “vehicular cycling” (VC), or the theory that bicyclists should always act like vehicles (i.e. cars) on the roads and streets. For example, Epperson’s History of Vehicular Cycling talks about the role that well-known advocate John Allen played in adopting those principles in Boston. And in Pucher and Buehler’s recent excellent book, City Cycling, they write:
In many cases, bicycle planners hired by state and local government have been VC adherents who used their influence to prevent rather than promote bikeways. Two examples are Boston and Dallas…” (115)
Boston seems like the case study of a city that has gone about as far as you can go with the vehicular cycling approach. Here are a few reasons why...

The Good Things: Traffic Calming, Density, Demographics

[One of Somerville's many excellent sidewalks / crosswalks.]
The future of bicycling in Boston has a lot going for it. First of all, there are tons of young college students in the city, relatively more than anywhere else in the US. College students are an ideal bicycling population because they’re young, adventurous, and broke. The bicycle potential of this group is huge.

Boston also already has the most difficult land use pieces of the puzzle in place. Almost everywhere, you have lots of mixed-use density, land uses that support short trips of a few miles. It's almost impossible to "retrofit" this kind of urban fabric into a previously zoned city, but Boston has this great legacy of walkable urban fabric.

Finally, Boston has already done a lot of the traffic calming work that is so difficult in other cities. Almost everywhere, car drivers will stop for pedestrians to cross the street. (It’s an eerie feeling, coming from anywhere else in the US.) Traffic doesn’t go that fast. There aren’t a ton of STROADS.

The key point here is that driving in Boston completely sucks! It’s a routine experience to be stuck in traffic, and to look out the window to see an old lady with a walker pass you by. (A la Office Space.) Boston has done a lot of the difficult political work restricting cars, potentially improving the quality of life for non-motorized modes.   

The Bad Things: Narrow Roads, Few Options, Very Little Dedicated Infrastructure

[A lonely "share the road sign" does not a bike lane make.]
Boston’s blessing is also its curse. Because of the older street plan, there’s no grid. If you want to get from Point A to Point B, there is often only one main street that will take you there, and it’s going to be completely congested, full of cars stuck in traffic. Space is at a huge premium. There aren’t really any alternate routes. The street map places stark limits on bicycling solutions.

This space constraint is a big reason why vehicular cycling has been the main approach for Boston bike planners. Almost everywhere, the only way to ride a bike is to be out in the middle of a busy street filled with aggravated Boston drivers.

That’s why almost all the people I talked to about bicycling had nothing but horror stories. Everyone wanted to tell me about their friend who had a bad accident. Granted, I’m sure there are many people who ride and enjoy it. I saw a ton of bicyclists there, despite the crappy March weather. But vehicular cycling on busy streets is going to limit the potential of bicycling in Boston. And there's no alternative.

[A ghost bike in Allston.]

[One of the few cycletracks, stretching for a few blocks near MIT.]

My final guess about Boston’s bicycling situation has to do with the town/gown tensions that run rampant in the city. Boston and its neighboring cities are very split between locals and non-locals (e.g. students). Any café or pub you go to, people will probably be talking about gentrificaiton, and glowering at the Universities and students that are making life more expensive and difficult for the longer term residents.

[Mostly useless PSA posters aimed at drivers.]
I’d bet that this dynamic makes bike advocacy in Boston into a challenge. As long as bicycles are associated only with students, I’d imagine that the politically connected, older “local groups” (who drive more often) would be resistant to new bike infrastructure. (E.g. this project in Somerville.) The advocacy approach there seems to be, "blame the bikers." For example, the much-derided safety campaign or these PSA posters I saw at a Cambridge bike shop.

Bicycling in Boston has a lot of potential, and illustrates pretty well the limits of the vehicular cycling approach. With their large group of young riders, good land use patterns, and traffic calmed streets, cities in the Boston area have taken the VC approach about as far as it can go. In my opinion, increasing beyond this point won't happen without changing the streets, making better separated bike routes on the city’s main arteries. And that seems to me to be a real political challenge that won't be solved easily.

[A VC sign on a congested street in Newton.]

[Almost all sidewalks are "No Bikes" sidewalks, which makes sense b/c of the huge number of walkers.]

[Hanging out at Shays, talking about how neighborhoods have changed thanks to Harvard's housing policy.]
[A decrepit sharrow: your typical Boston bike infrastructure.]