Last Days of the Midway Pro-Bowl

Like many of the great mid-century pastimes, bowling is in trouble. Leagues are disappearing, lanes neglected, and almost nobody is building bowling alleys anymore.

The latest casualty of change is the Midway Pro-Bowl, the behemoth complex in basement of the bleak strip-mall at Snelling and University.

"Yeah, it's sad," the alley keeper told me the other day. "We're closing on the 15th [of September]. Auctioning off all the equipment, and that's it."

The already surly employees have reached new heights of indifference, and the pallor of the place is bleak.

"It's the best alley in Saint Paul," my almost-pro-bowler buddy told me a while back. "What's going to replace it?"

Of particular interest to me were the murals on either side of the massive 16-lane complex. They're gaudy bright neon depictions of each Twin City skyline, Saint Paul on the left and Minneapolis on the right. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the skylines have been updated, so that the Minneapolis landscape includes the new Vikings Stadium, for example. They are 90s cool!

"Yeah the artist is named Tony Stabke (sp?)," said the guy behind the counter. "He's great. He's always working. Someone just commissioned him to do some work in Fargo. We looked at keeping them, but they're attached to the sheet rock, right on the steel studs. There's no way..."

My Noteworthy Bowling Alleys of the Twin Cities Guide Booklet is sadly out of print, and I think I'm going to have to re-write it with updates before I make new copies. But in the meantime, here's the description of the Midway Pro-Bowl.

In the meantime, between now and the 15th, head over to the bleak Snelling and University parking lot and visit the Pro-Bowl one last time. You won't regret it.

Midway Pro-Bowl

Even looking straight at it, you can’t see Midway Pro Bowl. But it’s there, subterranean, a vast basement bowling alley camouflaged as absolutely nothing in a setting only noteworthy for its drab pathos. Midway Pro-Bowl lies smack in the middle of one of the ugliest strip malls in the city, just off the bus Snelling and University corner in the heart of Saint Paul.

 The strip mall and its unwhelming entrance is surrounded by a vast surface parking lot, almost always half empty, and to enter Midway Pro-Bowl you must first learn to see it, become one of the worthy few who can distinguish it from the vacant shops or the Walgreen’s on either side. Yet to open the thin door and descend down the stairs is to enter another world, an oasis in time and space that feels like bowling on Mars. 

Despite its inelegant trappings, the Midway Pro Bowl might be the alley most true to spirit of the Bowling Age. Here bowling is not kitsch, not hip, but quotidian. There are leagues and young people, bowlers speaking Korean, English, black and white. Here vast sets of lanes stretch out before you like a blank canvas underneath the asphalt. Here bowlers roll toward excellence in a characterless waste- land. 

And this is quality bowling. These are composite lanes backed by purple and orange 1980s decor, creating a timeless atmosphere that can feel liberating. During the day, men bowl alone, practicing shots. They are bowling away from Wal-Mart toward the freeway invisible through the mass of the earth. 
The massive expanse of the sixteen lanes are flanked on either side by a pair of satellite rooms, alcoves away from the incessant action. To the right, a well-lit pro shop hints of conspiracy. Old men murmur inside and, if you’re not in a league, you probably don’t feel welcome here.

On the other end the bar is tucked away. Everything seems carpeted, even the Grain Belt Premium, which by the way rests at dive bar prices. An inelegant haven, to be sure, but also one of the more colorful places to drink in the area, despite the drab orange surroundings.
Along the seemingly endless walls of the Midway you will find the usual bowling accoutrements embedded: the trophy cases, the vending machines, the racks of colorful balls, acres of unmoveable tables. This is where your league meets; pro bowl indeed. And rest assured there will be plenty of parking.


Can We Not with the "Most Livable City" Thing?

When you Google "Saint Paul", the results are clear. Immediately after the name, you see the tagline: "Most livable city in America."

Now, first understand that "official" city mottos are uniquely bad, almost universally so. Minneapolis' "City of Lakes" is about as good as it gets, and things go downhill fast.
  • Bellingham, WA: "Let us Surprise You"
  • Thomasville, NC: "Chair City"

So "Most livable city in America" isn't the worst motto in the world.

But it's still bad. I want to focus specifically here on the word "livable", and what it might mean, deep down inside.

"Livable" is not as bad as some other choices -- e.g. "serene", "Minnesota nice", or anything that having to do with a "village" (!!!) -- but I still don't like it.

Technically "livable" means "fit to live in," but in practice it's more complicated than that.  The Oxford Dictionary lists a few examples of "livable" in context, and you quickly get a sense for how it's used in language.

In practice, the connotations of the word "livable" suggest domesticity, balance, and peace. There is a vague sense of scale, of a rejection of extremes.

Sounds good, but the latent meaning underneath worries me. I read the term "livable" as evolving directly out urban reactionary thinking. Take for example 19th century German social theorist Fredreich's Tönnies' concept of "gemeinschaft", meaning a rural sense of "community." That's a big part of what "livable" means to people, a sense of pastoral social connection that is contrasted against the autonomous anonymous atomization (Tönnies' contrasting concept of "gesellschaft") that comes from modern 19th c. urban life.

From a more contemporary perspective, "livable" is a term that fits right into the anti-urban narratives that were ascendant during post-war America, when so many government policies and cultural touchstones were predicated on a rejection of the old city. Drawing on these kinds of frameworks, suburbanization was tied directly to a latent denouncement of urban life, a turning away from the dirty cities with all their crowds, density and crime.

[A great example of one of these post-war "livability" narratives.]

By contrast, suburbs and small towns were "livable," places "fit" for women and families. Livable places where those where the nuclear family could exist in unthreatened peace, free from immorality in the best and worst senses of the term. (E.g. everything from gambling to booze to miscegenation and racism.)

In that sense, a "livable city" is something of an oxymoron.

(How can a city be livable? Robert Moses shudders at the very idea!)

To be a "livable city" means that you have crafted a balance between urban anonymity and the rural kinship. Again, it sounds good, but this is also the very definition and paradox of suburbia itself! In the end, the term "livable city" is basically a more sophisticated way of capturing the tension between the urban and rural that is synonymous with 20th century suburbia, a theoretical combination of "the best of both worlds" that in practice often has fatal social, economic, and environmental flaws.

This tension is probably one reason why the term "livable" is so confusing. For example, in Saint Paul itself (aka. American's most livable city™), the word "livable" appears in deeply contrasting ways. Witness last night's meeting on the future Ford site, where there were two "livable" groups.

[Everyone pictured here is a "livability" advocate.]
On one hand, you had there the erstwhile transit advocacy organization, Transit for Livable Communities, where "livable" is taken to mean transit-friendly, healthy, and/or environmentally sustainable.

Meanwhile, the grassroots NIMBY organization "Neighbors for Livable Saint Paul" wield the term "livable" to mean just the opposite.

For yet others that I have spoken to, "livable" is literally synonymous with "free parking." For others, it means a living wage and affordable housing. And personally, I would prefer if Saint Paul was the "most walkable city in America." Much of what I consider "livability" begins on the sidewalk.

In one sense, I suppose it's fine to have a city tied to a vague signifier like "livable."  Like the terms "community" or "freedom," it means everything and nothing at the same time, and is thus mostly harmless.

In another sense, however, I'd would prefer if Saint Paul had more meaningful sense of itself, a clearer sense of its values. I worry that the vaguely anti-urban connotations of the term "livable city" is too conservative, in the "looking backward" sense of the term conservative. In the end, "America's Most Livable City™" is too much of a Normal Rockwell Hallmark Card for me.

But that's not even the real problem...

[When people see the slogan on the front page, maybe this is how they read it.]

[I'm telling you, I was livable back in high school!]
No, the main problem with Saint Paul's motto is that it screams of podunk provincialism.

Declaring oneself "most livable city in America" at every opportunity because once someone somewhere named it that on a listicle, is basically admitting that the city of Saint Paul is not a major player in US affairs. It's like saying we're a city in desperate need of validation.

In other words, Saint Paul should follow the first rule of good writing: "show, don't tell." It's great for a think tank or cloying magazine to name you "America's Most Livable City™",  but if you put it in big letters on your homepage for the next ten years, that's a cry for help. It's almost as bad as declaring yourself a "city on the move."

Putting "Most Livable City in America™" on the homepage suggests that Saint Paul is so desperate for attention that it's clinging to a decade-old city ranking like Al Bundy to his high school football career or Minneapolis to its Mary Tyler Moore statue.  In other words, America's most livable city shouldn't have to say so. People should just know about it, feel it, and experience it.
In conclusion, here are some other "most livable cities in America." This is an incomplete list.

[Click images for links!]







Twin City Lamp Posts #9

[Rice Park, Saint Paul.]

[Lake Nokomis, Minneapolis.]

[West Saint Paul.]

[North Saint Paul.]

[Lake Street, Minneapolis.]

[Apple Valley.]

 [Apple Valley.]
[Nicollet Island, Minneapolis.]


New Guide Bookets in Stock -- Dive Bars of Payne and Arcade Now Available!

I just printed a whole bunch of new Guide Booklets! They are now available at the online store.

For months now, Guides #4 (Noteworthy Dive Bars of Old Fort Road), #5 (Noteworthy Parking Lots of Minneapolis) and #6 (Noteworthy Dive Bars of Outer Northeast) have been out of print for a few months.

But they are back IN STOCK and now 100% typo-free.*

Last but certainly not least, I am happy to introduce:

Guide Booklet #7: Noteworthy Dive Bars of Payne and Arcade

In this lovely 36-page booklet you will find a map, some useful information, grainy photos, quotations or hearsay, atmospheric speculation, daydream transcriptions, and historical trivia about noteworthy dive bars located on Payne Avenue and Arcade Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The featured establishments are six (6) past and present dive bars from the heart of Saint Paul's East Side. They are based on last year's popular walking tour:
  • Louies
  • Schweitz's/Brunson's
  • The Arcade Bar
  • Governor's
  • Vogel's
  • Porky's
The amazing full-color cover illustration is by Tom Q. Johnson. Get yours today!

In the meantime, I'm attaching an excerpt at the end of this post.

* probably

[The walking tour crowding the Arcade Bar.]
[Sample introduction follows.]

The Industrial East Side

When I was growing up, my family dentist had his office on Payne Avenue and, though I absolutely hated going there, about every six months we would venture up the old street. I didn’t notice at the time the ironic symbolism, a dentist’s office on a street named “pain.” What bright bulb thought that a good idea? It’s like opening a bar on Temperance Street, or a casino on Default Drive. Looking back, I suppose the odd locale was testament to the powerful draw of Payne Avenue, the way it transcended language itself in its role as the cultural heart of Saint Paul’s East Side. 

As the story is told, immigrants came to Saint Paul in great numbers during the late 19th century, and the poorest among them flowed into marginal nooks and crannies of the new city. These were places forgotten by topography or erased routinely by the rhythm of the river’s big floods, and of all the old squatting settlements, the most extreme was Swede Hollow.

Swede Hollow is thin creek canyon chiseled into the eastern river bluffs between old Trout Brook, downtown, and Dayton’s Bluff. The hollow formed the eastern border of Railroad Island, a triangle of land separated from the city by the railroad tracks that, beginning in the 1870s, knit the town crudely like the stitches of Frankenstein. Many stories are told about the old hollow. There were few pathways in and out, dozens of hand-built homes, and a constant churn of refugees that trod into and out of the social cracks. In the hollow, I imagine a world without privacy, brimming with opportunity, where collectivism and moxie mixed in equal measure. I picture men and women scavenging what they could from halted boxcars, gleaning from dumps and construction sites, bringing greasy treasures back to the hollow and making do. I have seen old pictures of outhouses opening up onto the creek that flowed through the middle of the ravine, a circumstance that does not sound appealing for the folks living at the bottom.

At some point in the 20th century, the hollow crossed the thin line into a slum. The essence of the place itself probably didn’t change very much, but the problem was that Saint Paul changed around it. Or perhaps the stories the city told itself transformed as the Italians and churches moved up the hill, perhaps reflections changed as Mexicans moved in and the post-war boom exploded around the rickety homes, as businessmen through the country began planning modern destinies. Somewhere the hollow became a black sheep, an unredeemable sign of the past suited only for the scrapbook of history, and in 1956 the city set fire to the last of the hollow houses while hundreds of people vanished. Sixty years later there are almost no traces of the old tight-knit neighborhood: a scrap of metal, an old foundation, an empty glen. 
The other big pillar of the East Side was the factory, the logical twin to the railroad. The East Side factories put thousands of workers to work at all hours of the day and night. The Hamm’s brewery sat at the top of the hollow, with old man Hamm’s mansion glooming across the hillside. The big Seeger refrigerator factory was over on Arcade, there was a complex of 3M factory buildings huddled around the tracks, and a healthy handful of machine shops, warehouses, and more scattered in between. These days, globalization, automation, and consolidation have made mincemeat of urban industry, leaving huge holes in Saint Paul’s fabric, and the East Side has become a miniature rust belt. One old factory is a strip mall; the assembly line, a parking lot; and the industrial products lab is but a patch of grass waiting for an angel investor. Sometimes the neighborhood too seems on hold, waiting for a past or future self to appear.

Yet the streets bear proudly the traces of the past. Payne and Arcade, where the workers built their kingdoms, run north out of view from downtown to rise up the hills towards the suburbs. All along you see the signs of the old days - faded paint on an empty building or a black-and-white photo nailed to a wall - and everywhere, as always, the eternal youth of immigration. These streets brim with generations, a multi-layered mash-up of centuries. A hundred-year- old Swedish shoe store sits alongside a Salvadorean bodega, the betta fishmonger beside a room full of Catholic uniforms, the linoleum dealer lingering by the Hmong radio station. Today they seem to hold the idea of America: Payne and Arcade, the country’s crux, past and future suspended in time.

[An old Payne Avenue print shop.]


Limited Space Available - Obscure Museums Tour #2: Old Bikes to Old Streetcars

Everyone knows about the big museums, but what about the small museums? What about the museums that aren't even museums?

Following up on the successful Obscure Museums Tour #1 (thank you Annette for opening up the Terminal!), I have obscure museum bike ride planned for September. 

We'll be starting at a very obscure museum indeed, the (latent/underground) Cycling Museum of Minnesota, where there's an intriguing collection of old bicycles awaiting your perusal.

From there, we'll bike south to the Lyndale Park Rose Garden, to stop and smell the flowers and also look at the Heffelfinger fountain and learn a bit about its provenance. 

Finally, a trip to the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, an actual museum that is an actual streetcar that you can ride (but it goes nowhere).
  • When: Saturday 9/23 at 2:30 pm (estimate about 2.5 hours total for the trip)
  • Where: at the southwest corner of Lorin Park
  • Price: low low price of $6

Ticket includes streetcar fare and a 2-for-1 drink coupon for the Lakes and Legends Brewery.

The bike ride will be approximately four (4) miles long and proceed at a relaxed pace. Space is limited!
Here's the agenda:

The Cycling Museum of Minnesota
The Minnesota Streetcar Museum
The Lyndale Park Rose Garden (and historic fountain)

Bike ride is approximately 4 miles. Tour is approximately 2.5 hours.

Hope to see you there! Reserve your space today.

[Dedication of the Heffelfinger fountain in 1947.]

Re-blog: The Sidewalks of Dan Patch Avenue

[I love the smell of Dan Patch Avenue in the morning.]

So much has been written about the state fair. Every year, everyone goes down there to experience whatever it is that makes the event special. Every year, journalists and storytellers and everyone around the water cooler comes up with their own explanations of why they go, what draws them there, trying to put their finger on that je ne sais quois something.

Everyone has their own reason: "Tradition"... The food... The rides... The bandstand shows... Seed art... Butterhead sculptures... Half-ton pigs... Crazy looking chickens... The horse show... The fireworks... The sock monkey dress... Ye Olde Mill... The butterfly tent... Seeing "faces for radio" at the booths...

[Princess Kay of the Milky Way freezes in her buttery chamber as a dairy artist toils.]

[Reminds me of Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back.]

[The joy of the Pronto Pup, the original food on a stick.]

[Sittin' and watchin' the marchin'.]

All of those reasons are wrong. What really makes the state fair special is the sidewalks. Its one of the only truly car-free (carefree) experiences you'll really have in Minnesota. When you get to the State Fair, however you get there, however much of a pain in the ass it is to drive and park and walk for a mile, take the complicated bus, or bike through the density and chaos, once you walk through the gate and find your way to Dan Patch Avenue, you're free from worrying about cars. You've reached a pedestrian paradise, where you and 100,000 of your closest friends can wander around a truly fascinating urban scene on foot. And that's why people go to the the fair.

There are all ages and varieties of walkers. Somehow, fanny packs begin to make sense. Walking sticks and canes and motor scooters are everywhere. Old people, young people, parents pushing strollers, kids and teenagers fill the fairgrounds and wander down interesting lively street after interesting lively street.

You have so many choices for walking! You can walk on the sidewalk, down the middle of the car-frees street, wander into the many beautiful plazas surrounded by benches and ledges and tables and bandstands.

You can wander into and out of the many open buildings. In some ways, there's no difference between inside and outside. Meandering into the Ag building or the Dairy Barn is just like being outside. Those are sidewalks too, bazaars and booths and things to see and do around every corner. And every street is lined with booths and stands and vendors selling you terribly unhealthy pleasures, every permutation of street food imaginable (except for the world of Asian seafood, somehow... no squid on a stick?).

[An elderly gent contemplates whether or not to quit smoking while wheeling a motorized chair past be-shorted petooties.]

[Old folks and young whippersnappers over by the 4-H building.]

[The Thinker shares space with a well-dressed wooden bear.]

And I haven't even mentioned the people watching. This ancient art is probably the most interesting and rewarding pastime in the history of the human race. Watching other people, looking at them, seeing the great wide variety of types of clothes, hair, hats, and habits that Minnesota has to offer. Seeing farm folks and families and all the kinds of people you don't generally find in your neighborhood, and seeing all these people out and about on the street, walking past all around you, sitting and eating and playing and talking on the phone and yelling at their kids and the two ladies who spent the whole day looking for the “Gin Sue knives” and couldn't find them, and the guy who grew up in South Saint Paul and really wants to tell you about it, and everyone (for once) kind of willing to talk to strangers about the weather and the music and the crazy contraptions and concoctions and cuisine.

[Young Republican pursued by parents with strollers down Judson Avenue.]

[Sidewalk scene outside the Dairy Building.]

People watching is the currency of sidewalk life, and the State Fair is an annual gold mine. The State Fair makes Nicollet Mall during lunch hour look like a cold day in downtown Mandan.

You'll not find sidewalks of this caliber this side of Manhattan. For most people, the State Fair is the absolute epitome of urban life (if bad for your cholesterol). You get home and your feet are sore and your brain is overloaded and you just saw 100,000 people stroll past you in a blur and you feel like you are part of something.

You're part of a state that has community, a state with some sort of common identity, a state with a common place and common sidewalks that we all share, once a year, that we all turn to to walk past with each other, one big, fat, exhausted, overwhelmed, and finally quasi-vaguely-happy family (of sorts). Even when we don't agree (e.g. the liberalism is a mental disorder pig guy, anything having anything to do with Tom Emmer, or any of the old truck-driving farmers that I talked to about biking in the city while I worked at the Kick Gas booth that wouldn't touch Minneapolis with a 100 mile pole), at least we have the State Fair in common.

At least we walk down the same street once a year and enjoy being together. At least we have the sidewalks of Dan Patch Avenue.

[But where is Waldo?]