The Country Bar Revisited

[The neon cowboy.]
The following is an excerpt from Noteworthy Dive Bars of South Minneapolis, a guide booklet available for sale in the online store.

[Excerpt begins.]

The Country Bar is the 
latest in a long line of 
late Lake Street dives.
 These marginal drunken 
ephemera — places like
 the Poodle Club or the
 Yukon Club (R.I.P.) —
lasted for a long time as
 liquor oases amidst the
 upright wasteland of
 gentility that forms Min
neapolis’ Southern half.
 And The Country Bar held out the longest, an Alamo of booze fighting off the moneyed ranks of good taste.

At least, until it didn’t.

So too, the origins of The County Bar seem a Western tale: a pair of roaming poultry purveyors named Shorty and Wags spent years frying around South Minneapolis making their name with their secret chicken recipe, like the cooks from a Cattle drive. Their legend was long as a sunset shadow in summertime, and the chicken craving people of the city flocked to their banner. Or so it was told.

At some point Shorty and Wags brought their fried fowl into the Country Bar, and the magic recipe of karaoke, cheap rail liquor, and barely-vented cooking oil holed up here, coalescing into a crevasse off Lyndale Avenue.

Lake Street is South Minneapolis’ great watershed, a ridge of density and diversity thrusting up like Grand Tetons on the plains of the single-family city. As such, it becomes both a border and a seam, dividing and connecting the relative chaos to the North from the placid neighborhoods stretching off alphabetically Southward. And the Lyndale corner rises a bit higher than the rest, a local peak of aging industry and commerce, now converted into a bourgeois utopia alongside the Midtown Greenway. It remains, with the solid detail-rich five-story edifices meeting at the corner (amplified today by the new, carnivalesque youth-oriented apartment boom), the closest approximation of a coastal cityscape you’ll find East of uptown. And in their midst, The Country Bar crouched like an alley bum.

A small confession: I once knew a couple who lived in one of the adjacent buildings. Stolen wi-fi from the County Bar was painfully slow, but there nonetheless. Their kitchen window opened up out onto its next-door rooftop, and we’d clamber out on autumnal evenings to traverse the grey pebbles like New Yorkers of old. The highlight was a cross-Country Bar trip to the building on the corner, topped with a large diagonal rooftop billboard facing towards the Lyn-Lake intersection. To sit before the 20-foot faces of the all-white KMSP news anchors or Edina realtors illuminated behind us, drink in hand, watching South Minneapolis bustle like a rapid creek below, was a high point. In the background, the short ventilation pipe of the Country Bar stuck like a straw through the rooftop, a periscope venting musky warmth of old grease into the air.

No Wild West cliché would be complete without music, and here too the Country Bar delivered. Instead of a haggard honky-tonk tickled by a nervous man in a bowtie, this was one of the top two most reliably intimate karaoke stages in the city. (The other being Northeast’s Otter Bar, a triangle of squeezed and improper song.) To sing at the Country was to get acquainted with strangers, the usual irony and distance crushed into something felt keenly, a vocal perspiration.

[The Country Bar on its last legs in 2013.]
By the time the official Dive Bar Tour sallied forth into South Minneapolis, the Country Bar had closed. I remember the tour riding by on our bicycles, and gazing at the cardboard that had sealed up the doorway like a tomb. Remembering the good and middling times I’d had at the bar over the years, it was poignant, like a funeral for an admired acquaintance.

But things have changed. The Country Bar has reopened under new management. And what’s more, it’s been completely remodeled, taken from dive territory and elevated firmly into the realm of hipster swank. A set of large red neon signs are mounted over the entrance, a simple animation of a cowboy on a horse. Inside,  gone are the crooked old wooden floors; in with the patterned tile. (Though if you stand by the entrance you can still feel underfoot the wild skew of the old bar floor.) Gone is the old beat-up bar; in with fresh copper top. The ceiling boasts a beautifully designed Wild West-themed mural. The heads of bison hang on the walls. The interior decorator budget was very well spent.

Craft beer taps are nestled amidst spare shelving, carefully adorned with quality bourbon and the like. solid dark wood booths have taken the place of the old awkward tables. This is no longer the dive of yore, the only “poors” inside appear on a pun above the kitchen window. They still have karaoke four nights a week, but it would not be the same, and I doubt we will see the old mixing of black and white, hip and disheveled, within these walls again.  Instead, this place, nodding to the past, positioned as an ironic commentary on the actual douche-ridden “cowboy” themed meat market down the street.

If a dive is to die, to be replaced, let it at least be tasteful. We can drink to that.

[Copper bar, flat screen TVs, a ceiling mural with vintage aesthetics.]

[Old Overholt, the last vestige of the hipster dive.]

[Buffalo on the bricks.]
[You'll find these same brass horses across town at Tracks.]


Public Character #4: Update on the Parking Lot Tree

Dogged readers of this site might remember Judith, the woman who pruned the tree in the surface parking lot in Lowertown just because she liked it.

Here's what she told me last August, as the trimmed the branches:
I'm just trying to make sure the parking lot is happy, otherwise they'll cut down this tree. This is one of the the last two trees we have. When they re-built the Union Depot we lost about eight trees. Now there are only these two.

Well, a little over a year later, the tree has been chopped down. The parking lot is being developed, at long last, though I can't find an article about the proposal. And while I'm happy to see the death of another Saint Paul surface lot, it's worth pausing and remembering the plants that somehow survived in the asphalt landscape.

R.I.P., parking lot tree.

[The tree today.]

Twin City Shop Windows #14

[Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis.]

 [Lowertown, Saint Paul.]


[Snelling Avenue, Saint Paul.]

[University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

[Lake Street, Minneapolis.]

[Downtown, Saint Paul.]

[Cambridge, MA.]


"Possible Monument," Sidewalk Photo Book #1, Now On Sale!

[The book cover.]
It's buy stuff season, so I thought I'd finally get around to finishing my first book of photography. It's a collection called "Possible Monument," featuring over one hundred (100) pictures of "signs of the times" that I've taken over the last ten (10) years walking around Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and a dozen other American cities.

The photo book includes a short essay on urban public semiotics and the inter-relationship between the built environment and its people, continually reading and writing the surface of the city.

There are 12 categories of photos, including:
  • Humorous or Ironic Signs
  • Earnest Political Signs
  • Memorial Signs
  • Do-It-Yourself Official Signs
  • Mysterious Signs
  • Signs with Typographical Errors
  • And more!

The book is loosely based on this blogpost, a collection of my over one hundred (100) "signs of the times" posts. I put it together at the encouragement of a few friends and mentors.

I'm not a great photographer but that doesn't matter because these signs are so awesome. It's a great book to look at and explore sidewalks and cities vicariously through my digital camera. All photos have somewhat humorous and/or informative captions.

It's on sale now, just in time for the holiday consumer season! Thanks for considering purchasing this fine item. I am confident you will enjoy it!

[Four of the 30 pages.]


Safe Streets Still a Social Justice Issue in Saint Paul

Lost in the election noise was the death of Ker Par. Three weeks ago, Par was killed by a car driver who didn't see him. Par,  a 78-year-old man, was trying to walk across Arlington Street in Saint Paul's North End, my old neighborhood, and once again, the details are horrible. The Pioneer Press has a heartbreaking story on the incident:
Soon after Ker Par moved to St. Paul, he told his family about a dream he’d had. In it, an old man came to him and said he would have the opportunity to live in America for only two years, his grandson recalled Thursday.
Ker Par was one of Saint Paul's Karen refugees, the most recent group of people fleeing violence and persecution to seek refuge in Saint Paul. The driver of the car that killed him was named Choua Tong Yang, a Hmong-American and part of an earlier wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. Here's their description of the incident:
“I was driving along, I got close to the high school (Washington Technology Magnet), and then all of a sudden we heard a noise and realized we hit someone,” said Choua Tong Yang, 68, of St. Paul. “… I’m thinking he didn’t see me, and I didn’t see him.”

Yang doesn’t know why the crash happened. He says he was traveling 25 to 30 mph, has good vision and wasn’t distracted, adding that his cellphone was not with him at the time.

“I just feel bad that, all of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, this happened to this gentleman,” said Yang, who also lives near the crash site.

It was a tragedy all around.

[Police responding to Par's death.]
But while the Pioneer Press, quoting the Saint Paul Police spokesman, mentions that there were no streetlights at the corner -- a weird detail considering the crash occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon -- for some reason the issue of street design does not come up.

The oversight points to the vacuum at the center of our public conversations around our streets. And there's a lot we could be thinking about. For one thing, Arlington, like many of the arterial streets in Saint Paul's working class, immigrant rich neighborhoods, is too wide. (Why?) Another factor: the corner where this happened has a very generous turning radius, unnecessary and dangerous on a streetcorner directly next to a high school. This corner, which is a magnet for pedestrians young and old, is absolutely a corner that should have a permanent or temporary bumpout.

It would be nice if we could take care of these problems before tragedy strikes. But each time a tragedy like this happens, we owe it to the dead to turn our attention to street design. We have to make Saint Paul's streets and sidewalks safer for both 78-year-old men like Par and 68-year-old drivers like Yang, so that our citizens don't have to kill each other. Anything less is derelict.
[A wide turning radius, half-assed curb cut on Arlington Avenue, where Par was killed.]

The Bathroom Metaphor

Forgive me for this one, but here's a crude metaphor. American cities approach safe streets in the same way I approach cleaning my bachelor pad bathroom. Basically, when there's an obvious accident (I blame the cat), of course you clean up the mess. But in general, you spend as little time and energy as possible. Maybe if someone is coming to visit, you make sure the most visible parts are shiny.

But that's about it. The process is superficial. Shit still stinks, and you don't want to look in the corners. That's the recipe for safe streets, too. Cities are extremely cursory and it's not a priority.

One difference between our streets and my bathroom is the complexity. To continue the bad metaphor, it's often difficult to know who's responsible for any given situation. In a way, it's like living with bad roommates. Saint Paul is an insecure OCD neat freak, worried about the problem, but they're living with two or three oblivious frat-boys who feel entitled to leave their messes everywhere because they're chippin in on rent.

In other words, at the governance level, Saint Paul has been saying the right things, and has even talked about funding a position in Public Works focused pedestrian safety. But the other parts of the puzzle -- Mn-DOT and Ramsey County -- are another story.

(That's as far as the metaphor goes... Again, my apologies.)

As I pointed out after another older immigrant walking across the street in Saint Paul was killed by a driver, there's a straightforward trade-off between speed and safety. Saint Paul's engineers have barely begun making the necessary changes that will save lives, but safe streets begin with lowering speed, and halting the prioritization of traffic over people's lives.

This is easier said than done. Another huge problem with urban street conversations is that our local political culture skews in favor of cars. As a public, we are far too easily distracted by petty problems of automobility, while life-and-death design faults remain ignored. All you have to do is glance every two weeks at the Highland Villager editorials and letters to the editor to see how far Saint Paul has to go. When the #1 complaint that people seem to have is traffic and parking, it's easy to understand why local business leaders, elected officials, or neighborhood gadflies continue to ignore incidents like Per's death -- or the four other people killed this year, and hundreds more injured --  and focus instead on the trivialities of urban driving.

Safe Streets are a Social Justice Issue

The dominance of the windshield perspective masks deep issues of justice and privilege because Saint Paul's deadly streets reflect unequal access to power. It's no coincidence that all five of the the people who have been killed in Saint Paul crossing the street since October 2015 have been women and people of color.

[Clockwise from top left: Dunham, Kokesh, Kek, and Wangmo.]
While cars offer largely democratic refuge from social inequality -- provided you can afford one -- walking is another story. Our most vulnerable, least enfranchised people are the ones crossing the street. Shelby Kokesh was walking her elderly mother across Kellogg Boulevard. Elizabeth Dunham was helping her 13 and 9-year-old kids cross Maryland Avenue to reach the school bus. Channy Kek was a Cambodian-speaking interpreter trying to cross Cayuga Street after her shift at the health care clinic. And Kunlek Wangmo was an immigrant from Bhutan who walked with her husband every morning around her West 7th Street neighborhood.

Today's local political landscape -- the community meetings, business task forces, city surveys, media outlets, and public engagement strategies -- largely ignores vulnerable people. In the whole, our local structures amplify the voices of privileged drivers, and marginalize people like Wangmo, Par, Dunham, and thousands of others who use our streets in ways that put their lives at risk. And this public playing field, tilted heavily in favor of the car, combines with a half-century of traffic quasi-science that has transformed congestion into the dominant problem facing the city, and over a half century, has devoted billions of dollars worth of resources at the expense of those on the sidewalk.

We need to change the dynamic and it has to start at the bottom, with people in neighborhoods. Our urban communities need to begin standing up for safe streets and stop catering to those who would keep our cities overflowing with deadly speeding cars. For some of us facing the frustration of driving every day, this will involve small sacrifices. But learning to relax, slow down, and allow our long-dormant urban places to thrive, is critical for the future of our cities   
and our planet.

While national politics matters, let's not lose sight of what's in front of us. While we talk about defending the rights of immigrants, women, and others who may be targeted by a reactionary government, let's not ignore the issues that are closest to our doorstep. Let's not forget people like Ker Par, who survived decades of oppression in Myanmar only to be killed after two years of living and walking in Saint Paul.


On Cities and Trump

[From this excellent podcast on rural Conservative culture.]
Processing the electoral disaster and sleeplessly imagining dystopia, I think of our nation’s most vulnerable and historically screwed communities as scapegoats for deeply seeded violence, brutally destabilizing compromises struck between a hard-core right-wing congress and President Trump, and jaw-dropping governmental incompetence devolving into spirals of fascistic paranoia. And eventually my dark thoughts return to cities. How will the next years of unfettered Federal conservatism impact Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and the other urban places I care about?

It’s almost impossible to imagine anything good. I’ve spent the last few days reading through post-mortems, trying in particular to avoid the mainstream media that so badly missed the boat. I’m left with two key takeaways.

[One of Trump's only two endorsements, in the National Enquirer.]
The first is the national rejection of an almost universal centrist consensus. There has never before been an American election with such unanimous endorsement for one candidate over the other. Donald Trump received essentially zero support from newspapers, was disavowed by mainstream political figures ranging all the way from from Romney and the Bushes to the sidelined Bernie Sanders, and other than Scott Baio and the Duck Dynasty guy, no help from Hollywood.

What’s more, outside of the “basket of deplorables”, Clinton ran a good campaign, at least on her own terms. She did all the things that a neoliberal technocrat is supposed to do: stayed on message, soundly defeated Trump at each debate, had a well-run convention, raised a ton of money, hired all the “right” consultants, executed the "ground game", relied on polls, proffered memes and logos, consistently said smart things, wielded facts and policies, etc. etc. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign retained none of the conventional political apparatus, and seemingly placed strategy into the hands of the least competent group imaginable (e.g. his children, racist internet trolls).

And to half the country, none of it mattered. Half the voters could care less what the “establishment” says. Against the media, in particular, Trump displayed vitriolic disdain, singling out (usually female) journalists that criticized him, calling for his mobs to denounce the press, threatening lawsuits and restricting access in unprecedented ways.

And none of it mattered. The rejection of orthodoxy is a huge wake-up call signaling that, for huge parts of the country, these institutions — and especially the political class — are worse than irrelevant. The degree to which establishment institutions got it wrong is mind-boggling.

[The widening urban-rural divide.]
The second takeaway is that the election deepened the stark urban-rural divide, with both Trump and the state Republicans (especially) campaigning on an explicit anti-urban platform. “Urban liberal elite” was the demonic cabal against which the populist reaction was pit. Wealthier cities, synonymous with race and (doubly-so) class, became a central wedge, and the resulting national divide represents geography as much as anything else. The map is stark and relentless, with cities and suburbs on one side and everyone else on the other.

For urban liberals, that long-term trend might  bode well except for the repressive and anti-democratic structures in place that ensure that the voices of people in cities are steeply discounted. Both the Senate and the Electoral College are weighted against urban areas, as are many state governments such as, most famously, New York. State gerrymandering is relentless in its minimization of urban influence. And the dismantling of the Voter Rights Act of 1964 means that it is again open season for restrictive voting laws, reducing the voices of people of color and the young, in particular, and amplifying the votes of older rural America in the most callous possible way. None of these democratic structures are easy to reform, and when it comes to voter turnout, especially for congressional elections, the United States lies at the bottom of the list of Global North nations.

[Ronald Reagan surveying the South Bronx, 1980.]
To me, the sweeping anti-urban triumph means that American cities have to rethink the politics of Liberal federalism. And for the foreseeable political future, cities will have precious little help when it comes to basic social commitments, especially social safety nets, sensible policies around immigration, and urban transportation. Why would either Trump or the GOP congress go out of their way to do any favors for the one part of the country that overwhelmingly disapproves of them?

Expect instead a policy war on cities not seen since the likes of Gerald Ford and the nadir of New York. The consolidation of block grants, for example, giving states the ability to pillage basic social services. The de-funding of Universities, and particularly the social sciences. A war on people of color. The spatialization of inequality. Picture what's happening in Wisconsin and Milwaukee on a far larger scale. After all the Wisconsin right-wing  is basically running the country now.

[This didn't work.]
(Note that despite huge activist rallies and outcry by left-wing activists in Wisconsin, including taking over the State Capitol and trying just about every kind of traditional protest, have only made things worse in Wisconsin. Not optimistic for mapping out how to confront and resist the Trump age...)

The point is that the election reveals a broken system. President Eisenhower once told Walter Cronkite that “those who take the extreme positions in American political and economic life are always wrong.” Ever since, for the most part, the “liberal consensus" has ruled in its roller coaster way, albeit with ever decreasing stability. Trump's victory marks a severance of hopes for a grand Federal bargain, the kind of “bipartisan coalition" that Obama attempted to forge, coming into office with talk of compromise on the wings of a joyous Chicago. (One of his bipartisan appointments? James Comey… That went well.)

Well you can’t compromise anymore; instead, politics is bloodsport, far more ultimate fighting than chess.

[Watching election returns and ultimate fighting simultaneously at the World of Beer.]

The Midwest’s Last Liberal Kingdom

[Minnesota's 2016 presidential election map.]
The local example is illustrative, where Minnesota’s lingering efforts to erect an apparatus of state-wide urban/rural liberal policy are under severe strain. Back in 2010, the DFL dodged the Wisconsin bullet. And today, Governor Dayton is again the last bulwark of the 70s-era “Minnesota Miracle” that brought us things like local government aid, regional governance, and fiscal disparities. You can expect heavy efforts to win the trifecta for the right in 2018, and the left had better quickly learn to master its economic populist and extra-urban lessons, and rethink political landscape in light of the hollowing out of the liberal bargain. 

Glance at a map of state-wide results, or the Midwestern political climate, and it’s obvious that, without change, the DFL consensus will fall. As goes Itasca County, so goes the state. Eventually Wisconsin’s toxic anti-urban, white reactionary politics will arrive here too. (I can only imagine that Minnesota’s right-wing looks in envy at the rise to power of their Wisconsin counterparts, now literally running the country.) Minnesota’s fabled commitment to Humphrey School policy, regional governance, and large-scale redistribution, has been under assault for decades. Given the political power of the “anti-elite” jeremiads, and the ineffectual purchase of mainstream wonkery, it seems fated to end badly.

But what are the alternatives?

That’s where it gets interesting, at least for cities.

Cities Go It Alone on Transportation

[Scott Dibble wearing a pink tie.]
This need for a new approach for urban governance is most obvious in Transportation, where years worth of efforts to forge a grand bargain between urban and rural interests, transit and road spending, seems hopeless. Transportation and urban transit has long been the easiest of scapegoats for the rural right, despite the facts on the ground about taxes and road spending, and tho is not going to change anytime soon. The conventional wisdom in the center-left had been that increased turnout during presidential wave years might give the DFL a governing trifecta and allow the passage of a state-wide transportation bill. Well, the opposite happened, and barring a off-year political miracle, the metro area transit system will have to wait four years for such dreams to come true. And even then, there's no guarantee...

Instead, would it be possible to decentralize transportation and transit spending? I have no idea.

At a recent meeting, I watched two presentations describing the ridership of two bus rapid transit lines. The first, the proposed Red Rock Corridor, would go from downtown Saint Paul through Washington County and end in Hastings, in Dakota County. It would cost well over $40 million and serve less than 2,500 people per day. Meanwhile, the Metro Transit aBRT route plan remains unfunded, even while the A-line is already serving twice as many people as the potential future suburban BRT at a fraction of the cost. There are plans for aBRT routes like this all over the metro area that would serve thousands of new riders every day, and a fraction of the cost of the Southwest Light Rail, now teetering on the existential brink.

At what point do Hennepin and Ramsey Counties go it alone, and forget trying to put light rail lipstick on the sprawling suburban pig? What’s the future of the Met Council, already under assault? (Or will it be stronger than ever, as the metro region consolidates around it?)

And that’s just the state level. What happens if the Federal transit program gets defunded or sabotaged by whatever anti-urban crony Trump is bound to appoint? Imagine a Metro area transit policy without Federal funding. How would that change the dynamics of urban and regional transit policy? Metro Transit would have to become far more selective about where they choose to invest their money. Would transit systems focus more resources on core ridership instead of broadening the geographic coverage area of the system?

Right now, these are thought experiments, but it’s not difficult to come up with political scenarios where this kind of urban triage takes place.

Go It Alone on Inequality and Policing

https://twitter.com/richneumeister/status/797868600770068481First off, this kind of dynamic is already happening on issues like drug enforcement, where states legalize marijuana but the Federal government decides not to enforce its own drug laws. On immigration it’s another story, and the long-standing practice of city police forces refusing to consider immigration status, a practice necessary for solving crimes, not to mention basic humanity, will likely come under intense pressure from a Trump White House.  The concept of the “sanctuary city” sets up a radical jurisdictional battle lines and one that will be at leading edge of activism should Trump follow through on his draconian promises about immigrants or Muslims. Cities will become the front lines of the conversation, and city police forces (and mayors trying to control them) will likely be under a lot of strain as they balance loyalties. There are all sorts of draconian possibilities here.

[Summit Avenue, outside the Governor's mansion, this summer.]
If cities end up resisting Federal registration or deportation mandates, it might make it easier to continue the work that’s been done on reforming police practices in urban areas around race and profiling. Decoupled from the militarized police state apparatus, and with a rift opening up between urban areas and their exurban fringes, it’s conceivable to imagine cities that are better able to radically rethink policing. Should city-states replace the broad liberal state in some senses, it’s possible to imagine political leaders on the left becoming more focused on urban racial justice issues. Cities like Minneapolis might literally become sanctuaries for people of color or Muslims seeking religious tolerance, particularly when compared to smaller cities like Saint Cloud or Willmar, where racial animosity may become much more common under a Trump Presidency.

The notion of cities dealing with inequality on a municipal rather than regional or statewide basis comes with a lot of problems. For example, if there’s a $15 an hour minimum wage in Minneapolis, as seems likely, but lower wages in neighboring cities, this would have a negative affect on parts of Minneapolis’ economy. Political organizing would have to focus city-by-city on these edge spaces, and you might end up with a situation where policies aimed at equity form a haphazard patchwork across the state and metro areas. This is nobody’s idea of a perfect solution, but without the possibility of larger-scale consensus-driven action, this would be better than nothing. Place and politics would be increasingly fused, with city governments at the center of social change.

[Swastikas on the Hamm's Brewery after election day.]

Go it alone on Climate Change

[Andy Singer's latest.]
First, it’s worth saying that this isn’t even possible. Climate change is an inherently global problem and policy decisions at city scales are inherently limited. With control of both the EPA and other regulatory apparatuses, the Executive Branch wields tremendous unchecked power over environmental policy. And this is going to be the area where a President Trump will likely encounter the least resistance, for example, in deregulating coal, approving oil pipelines, or tossing out CAFE standards. This is not to mention the dashing of whatever faint hopes the US had of forging any international agreements to limit CO2 emissions. 

And yet, cities can still be the crux and spearhead of the climate conversation. At one level, they are already doing this with programs like Minneapolis’ sustainability indicators or “energy options” program. Given the lack of electoral traction of the climate change issue (it didn’t come up during the debates even once), it might be the only thing we have: a city-by-city “compact of mayors” approach to reducing CO2 footprints. As climate change gets worse and worse, and storms and seas mount, existing half-assed climate change mitigation solutions might pull their built environmental pants up. Picture the whole bike lane, transit, efficiency, and windmill thing and multiply it by five and you start to see what a municipally-focused sustainability approach might look like. I’m not saying this would save the planet, mind you, but it might be all we have for a long time.

For a real-world vision of how this might work out politically, look no farther than the Transition Towns movement, where groups of people, already today, are drafting actually-ambitious goals and visions for a low-carbon future at the community scale. If the election portends anything, it’s the fact that these are the scales at which political change and political conversations are going to happen.

Toward a Localization of Politics

[A Pennsylvania house divided against itself, still standing for now.]
For an urban policy wonk, none of this is easy to contemplate. If it continues, and it seems more likely than not, the dissolution of the liberal state will come with a lot of negative consequences, especially for people of color and the poor. As Saint Paul's quasi-legal attempts to fund street maintenance prove, cities simply cannot adequately fund their infrastructure without help from other levels of government. A world of libertarian disinvestment and urban abandonment is grim.

One unpleasant dynamic will be the increase in inequality and privatization. As happens in the Global South, cities desperate for dollars will turn to on public/private schemes that will wind up deepening and re-inscribing landscapes of inequality. (For example, imagine the skyway system, but with the pretense of public access removed.) As cities move away from public investment and toward neoliberal architecture, expect more corporate branding, gated communities, private/public spaces, security-for-hire, and the city-by-city level devolution of the rule of law.

And yet there are some ways that this kind of adjustment of horizons might offer improvements, especially for people who have already been left out of the meritocracy. The best case scenario is the kind of decentralization that Chuck Marohn has been describing at Strong Towns for years now, where cities are almost forced to sink or swim according to more libertarian investment models. For example, in his post-election podcast, Chuck makes a revealing critique of Federal transportation approach, and specifically the Safe Routes to Schools program. The whole podcast, which includes a history lesson about past celebrity politicians like Jesse Ventura and Al Franken, is worth listening to. But here’s the relevant passage:

[rough transcript follows]

When we start to go through the things that I think need to be done… If you look at just the infrastructure issue, I think a party that is for devolving power rather than one that is for centralizing it, is more in line with, at the federal level in particular, where we should be in terms of at least our capital investments. … I’m not here saying that this is a great outcome. Whatever the outcome of the campaign was, it wasn’t going to go well. But I think it wasn’t going to go well not because […]

Look, we’re debating issues at the wrong place, in the wrong way, in the wrong context. I’ll go back to a really popular program, Safe Routes to Schools.  Safe Routes to Schools. How can anybody be against Safe Routes to Schools? It’s a tiny little pittance of money. It’s to help kids get to schools safely. How can you be against that Chuck? What is wrong with that?

And I think it is a terrible program; I think it is a terrible program. And I think it’s a terrible program, not because I’m against walking. I’m not! I’m a huge advocate for walking. I think walking infrastructure is the #1 thing we need in this country.

I’m against it because it’s the wrong place to be having the conversation. It’s the wrong place. I know people will say, “if we don’t have it there, where we going to have it? It’s not happening in my city. If Washington doesn’t push it, who’s going to push it?”

You know what? Washington pushing it actually discredits it. It makes it further away from you. It makes it something of the elites instead of… I’m telling you, these Strong Towns conversations we have around the country, something that we are doing for ourselves, something that we are doing because it makes sense for us.

[There were plenty of Trump voters at Shadey's Bar on election night.]
Chuck's argument is deeply politically pragmatic, and it's worth listening to because, over the last years, he has spent tremendous amount of time — months and months and months — crossing the “red state-blue state” divide, taking his traveling STROAD-show to hundreds of towns and cities, small and large, in just about every state in the country. More than anyone I know, Chuck seems able to transgress the deepening urban-rural divide with a message that focuses on local control and fiscal accountability. Believe it or not, his perspective is one of the few that I’ve found in recent days that offers noticeable glimmers of hope.

(Others might be those voices on the radical left, such as third-party, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, or climate activists for whom Clinton really was “as bad as Trump” in meaningful ways. If you viewed the existing system as already broken, Trump can't break it again. Again, of course he can, and this is not to minimize the damage he will do...)

[1946 rendering of a freeway through downtown Saint Paul.]
The current infrastructure system -- urban budgets buoyed by pools of Federal funds with a great many strings attached -- has helped cities in many ways. But in many other ways, it has hurt and destroyed cities. And either way you view the situation, it has made cities less important, so much so that urban elections have become abysmally marginal exercises. The landscape of centralized Federal power has reconfigured politics away from local relationships into a world where decisions and power are mediated and shaped by broadcast and (increasingly and problematically) social media, conversations impossibly distant from face-to-face relationships. As the election shows, this kind of politics is extremely vulnerable and geographically contingent. Last week revealed how frayed the centered and centrist state apparatus has become, and  how close our country has come to losing its pretense of democracy.

Some alternatives to the seemingly failing liberal state are better than others. At least for transportation decisions, Federal and state-level systems are extremely personally frustrating. State Aid Standards that mandate higher speed limits or deadly road designs in urban areas, or programs that tie funding to infrastructure that literally demolishes urban communities, might be an apt metaphor for how centralized politics works in other ways too. Maybe the rural outcry about DC government isn’t entirely misplaced? Maybe both rural and urban areas would be better off, in some ways, with decentralized fiscal and decision-making structures, and a politics that was more accountable at local levels?

(Of course, given the massive dependence of Conservative areas — rural, Southern, exurban terrain — on government subsidies like military spending, geographically re-distributive road spending, Medicare spending, etc. etc., calling the “red-state bluff” of decentralized government would likely end very badly for those at the bottom. And let’s not forget who has all the guns.)

The problem with dreaming thorough the lens of the city-state is that outcomes seem far less certain than what has been the status quo. What becomes of “universal values”? How might racism re-inscribe itself in a world where Federal power no longer attempts to guarantee rights? What happens to GLBT rights? What happens to reproductive rights? And a hundred more questions…

My guess is that whatever the answer is, cities might end up being a huge part of it. So if you find yourself feeling blue, my remaining advice: go for a long walk, you'll feel better.

[A bald eagle soaring over Saint Paul late last week.]


Reading the Highland Villager #168

[A Villager stoops.]
[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. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.] 

Headline: St. Paul lays out its hopes for old Ford Plant prior to sale; Master redevelopment plan unveiled on Nov. 14
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The place where the truck factory used to be is going to have buildings on it. There will be [was] a meeting where the city will tell everyone about the plans. [Via Twitter, over 35% of the building space will be used for parking and there will be parking minimums. So much for sustainability.] There will be buildings, streets, sidewalks, etc.  Neighbors are concerned about traffic. [See article on this in today's paper.]

Headline: Mayor finds another $1M to keep Palace renovation on schedule
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: [Man the couch in the Mayor’s office is huge. Lotsa cushions. You probably don’t wanna sit on it if you’re wearing pants with pockets.] The theater downtown is being remodeled [using “8-80” money for some reason]. It’s over budget and the Mayor’s office found money to keep the project going. CM Stark is quoted complaining about the lack of oversight from the Council. The money is coming from a fund from the Victoria Park redevelopment, a residential project on an old “oil tank farm.” Council Members were upset that they didn’t know about the extra money. CMs Prince and Tolbert were upset too. The theater already has a show booked for March. There was a dispute about how the bar and green rooms should be designed. Article includes pictures. [There’s a photo showing the marquee with the words “Welcome To The Palace” on display. Spending extra money on palaces is kind of a famous mistake for royalty, no?]

Headline: Objections raised about St. Paul police body camera policy; changes are also sought for city commission that reviews police misconduct
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City is contemplating changes to its body camera and civilian oversight policies. The City Attorney says that the City Council has no authority over the issues. Lots of groups are involved in providing comments on the policies. [See this Minnpost article on it.] Neighbors are concerned about police shootings and accountability.

Headline: City’s right-of-way maintenance fee is beset on all sides; Council addresses property owners’ appeals as lawsuit threatens $30-plus million per year in assessments
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: For a long time the city has taxed people for street maintenance calling it a fee. Some people argued that they were paying too much and received a small rebate. Meanwhile there is a lawsuit in Ramsey District Court about whether churches “are paying for more city services than they are actually benefiting from.” [This sounds impossibly difficult to prove. How could you prove that? What is the value of a street or a snowplow anyway? Like for me, who rides a bicycle and takes the bus, a ton of the money spent on streets has minimal value.] It’s a lot of money, over $30 million per year. One neighbor is quoted saying that a potential lawsuit “is going to bankrupt the entire city” and “all we’re asking for is basic fairness.” [I’m of the opinion that a fee for use structure is basically fair. What is a more fair way? Property taxes? People don't seem to like those either IIRC.] Neighbors are concerned about high fees and crappy streets. One is quoted “comparing Highland Parkway to a washboard.” [How do people propose that city streets get paid for? Parking meters?] One neighbor says the city is wasting money on the Palace Theater and Jackson Street.

Headline: St. Paul Public Works unveils five-year plan for road work; Completion of residential street-paving program is pushed back to 2037 [Innocent question: didn’t the Soviet Union have “five year plans”?]
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: For a long time the city has been trying to pave all the residential streets in the city but it’s taking a long time and much of the money has been shifted to heavily used arterial streets so it’s going to take even longer. The city has $12.5 million per year that they spend on paving.Just reconstruction the Summit Avenue Bridge over Ayd Mill Road is going to cost over $7 million. [I'm starting to think that streets are really expensive and we should try not to build so many of them.] In 2021 the city is planning on spending $3 million to mill and overlay Ayd Mill Road. [A far better use of money would be to not have this be a freeway in the first place. It serves suburban commuters far more than residents of Saint Paul. Spending city money on Ayd Mill Road is just subsidizing people who live in Mendota Heights and Eagan, in my opinion. “de-paving” or “parkifying” or “parkwaying” Ayd Mill Road would generate money for the city by raising property values along the corridor. Additionally, maybe some of the land could be developed at major streets. People who are really concerned about Saint Paul’s budget and fiscal future should consider this option instead of continued wasteful subsidization of suburbia with city tax dollars. In general, we waste a lot of tax money chasing the illusion of congestion-free streets.] Best line: “no major projects are planned int eh Villager’s distribution area in 2017.” [They will have trouble filling up the pages!] Article includes details lists of upcoming projects from the proposed plan.

Headline: Model museum; volunteers keep the love of trains alive on a scale kids can appreciate
Author: Bill Stieger

Short short version: Adorable article on the Twin City Model Railroad Museum, now located on Transfer Road.

Headline: With big projects on the horizon, city is reducing its use of TIF some
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Article on the status of Saint Paul’s tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, of which there are seven (7). For example, the Macy’s store, the Ford plant, and the Schmidt Brewery. Article explains TIF [which is hard to do]. CM Brendmoen says the city is “conservative” with TIF. CM Tolbert is “less hawkish” about TIF than he used to be. New TIF districts include Hamline Station, the Custom House, and something on the West Side Flats.

Headline: Committee waylays effort to preserve historic Tangletown
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A neighborhood group group had a mixed vote on the idea of a “conservation district” for a single-family home neighborhood in Mac-Groveland. “Conservation districts are a way for residential neighborhoods or commercial districts to establish specific zoning regulation to protect and preserve their character.” [“Neighborhood character” is an insufferably vague term to me. Just say smaller or older houses if that's what you mean.] Neighbors are concerned about teardowns and would like control over “specific parameters for lot coverage, roof and sidewall heights, exterior construction materials, window space, garages, stormwater runoff and tree preservation.” [This all sounds impossibly complicated.] One attorney does not think that the design standards passed last year are doing anything. [Saint Paul is a whirlwind of contradiction.]

Headline: City grants extension for West End theater
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A couple of people who are trying to restore an old theater can keep trying. [Same article as the last three issues of the Villager. In fact, it might even be the same article as the one about the Palace earlier in this issue. My memory is fuzzy.] Article includes picture and some history of the building.

Headline: St. Paul to study railroad spur leading to former Ford plan
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The old railroad to the truck factory is just sitting there. It could be used for all kinds of things like transit or other stuff.

Headline: Gambling license delayed for RAS Restaurant in Highland
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: An East African restaurant would like to have pull tabs but the neighborhood group has shot it down. Neighbors are concerned about parking, trash, noise, and fights. [Aah the good ol' days when this was a Steelers bar. I wonder what the skin color of the people complaining is? Genuinely curious!]

Headline: After nearly two years, work finishes on Highway 5 bridge
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Road construction on the bridge over the river by the fort is done. It cost $13.8 million. [Roads and freeways are really expensive. Good thing our gas taxes cover all the costs. That was sarcasm. They don’t.]

Headline: The return of a legend; Yoeerg beer is being borught back to honor its long history in St. Paul
Author: Lisa Heinrich

Short short version: [Another brewery is opening up next to my house. Expect a decline in productivity.] The beer and brewery name date back to 1848 and was Saint Paul’s first brewery. Article includes lots of history.

Headline: BZA approves variances for lot split on Highland Pkwy
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A zoning appeals committee says a family can build another home on their large lot so her elderly mother can live in it. One neighbor was concerned, saying “you have to be careful not to take away from the character of the area.” [See? “Neighborhood character” literally means whatever you want it to mean. For example, the “neighborhood character of the Midway parking lot is broken glass and soul-sucking emptiness, and I know a guy who is mourning the loss of the character of even that.]

Headline: Some neighbors make racket over tennis club’s plan for rooftop deck [Oof da pun alert!]
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A “club” for people to play tennis is planning on having a rooftop deck when they reconstruct their pool. Neighbors are concerned about noise and people looking into windows. The Planning Commission approved the plans. [Rooftop pool. What could go wrong? This is the ultimate symbol of Saint Paul's inequality in some ways.]


*** 25 Weekend Sidewalk LInks! ***

Sidewalk Rating: Impending

The modernist city took shape through massive state intervention and centralized coordination, and it imposed a new set of values predicated upon progress, order, and efficiency. These values found powerful expression in their own mythology, designed in part to take the edge off the bulldozers and their brutal work. This myth, what anthropologist James Holston calls "the myth of the concrete," found powerful expression in postwar American culture, even in the technocratic discourse of highway policy, which invoked the sacred ideals of professional expertise and scientific objectivity. It turns out that these ideals were myths themselves, ruses for public policies tangled within local webs of material interest and mythic ideology.

[Sidewalk in downtown Saint Paul.]

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