Notable Quotes #25: Melvin Carter Jr. Describes Riding Bikes in Saint Paul c. 1959

Time to raid, forage, and plunder! Fight with the new guys down on the corner. Race with Charles, Bernie Brooks, and them other guys on bikes. I'd jump on the handlebars with Skeeter pedaling. Bike out of control, we plowed into a fire hydrant at full speed. I rolled around on hard sidewalk pavement in excruciating agony (later in life to learn of broken ribs). But other than that one time, we always won the race.

Bernie Brooks' big baloon-tire Hawthorne bicycle was almost identical to mine, except his was more brownish, mine more reddish. He could ride -- ride fast-fast-fast. Nobody but nobody could ride like Bernie! But the last time I rode on his handlebars, something made me promise myself never to ride with him ever again.


We played hard like river otters, worked like army ants at having fun, rode bicycles better than cowboys rode horses, built clubhouses and forts in backyards and vacant lots, then spent the nights in them. We made "chugs," commonly known as go-carts, and skateboards(using roller skate wheels)... A routine heavy-duty day consisted of biking, running, building clubhouses and tree houses, and wrestling.


That day the sun was shining as it rained at the same time, almost like an omen. My sister Terrie said that always means that the devil is being his wife. When Momma came home, something special was in her eyes as she looked at me.

She sat down, pulling offer her shoes. "Bernie Brooks was riding his bike and was run over by a truck."

"What hospital is he in?... Momma, let's go see 'em."

Mom sat still stoically, eyes watering. "he's not in the hospital Melvin."

"Then he's at home?"

She sat looking the truth into me, shaking her head.

The word slowly kindled up, whispering from somewhere deep in my throat. "Killed? Bernie's dead?"

Mom nodded.

Bernie and I were nine years old.

I was devastated. He got killed on the exact same bike I used to ride with him, directly in front of the house I had just moved from, right where he and I used to play together. Plus the fact that 'Brooks" just happened to be the name of the only Black funeral home in St. Paul, which just happened to be a couple houses away from where the accident happened. Something had told me never to ride with him again, and I never again did.

For whatever reason, his death earmarked the time, the totality of the year, for me. It was the death of Rondo.

[From Diesel Heart, Melvin Carter Jr.'s lovely autobiography.]

[Rice Street and Rondo Avenue, c. 1954.]



Signs of the Times #173



[Door. University Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[Boulevard. Summit-University, Saint Paul.]


[Freeway bridge. Rondo, Saint Paul.]

Open FOR takeout

[Window. University Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[Door. Grand Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[Wall. Rondo, Saint Paul.]


[Hydrant. Saint Paul.]

to be

[Pole. Larpenteur Avenue, Roseville.]


Notable Quotes #24: Oliver Towne describes Downtown Saint Paul traffic c. 1956

The city is a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, a dual personality -- routine, brusque, common as an old shoe during the daylight.

Then the shadows lengthen through the forest of loop buildings, the offices empty one by one, the streets swarm with traffic, and the long lines of pedestrians string out toward the parking lots on the fringes. 

Up from the bowels of the First National Bank, the Pioneer building, the Minnesota and Commerce buildings, the City Hall, Lowry Medical Arts — come the cleaning women and men. 

The surge at the ramp ends, the choking glut of cars flow like thick grease at the near-loop intersections, out Seventh — east and west; down Shepard road, up and down Wabasha, out Como and Rice, into the glens and vales of the residential sections, the rivers of humanity branch off into streams, trickles, ending at last at the front doors. 

And the air is rancid from the exhaust fumes following in their wake.

[from Once Upon a Towne, by Oliver Towne (a.k.a. Gareth Hiebert), "Night Shadows in the City."]

[Seven Corners, Saint Paul, c. 1954.]


Sidewalk Poetry #66: City Number

City Number

The soiled city oblongs stand sprawling.
The blocks and house numbers go miles.
Trucks howl rushing the early morning editions.
Night-club dancers have done their main floor show.
Tavern trios improvise "Show me the way to go home."
Soldiers and sailors look for street corners, house
Night watchmen figure halfway between midnight and 
Look out the window now late after the evening that
    On a sough sky of pigeon-egg blue
    Long clouds float in a silver moonbath.

[Carl Sandburg, from Honey and Salt.]

[Chicago's State Street, early 1960s.]


Notable Quotes #23: Samuel Delany Predicts the Future of Downtown Minneapolis c. 1999

A friend clued me in to sci-fi writer and New York City social critic Samuel Delany dismissal of Downtown Minneapolis the other day, as it appears in his Jane Jacobs'-fueled memoir, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Here's the part where he plunks Minneapolis next to Springfield:

Business are supposed to move in when vice is at its peak -- not ten years after the wave has crested and is a decade into its ebb. What this may just sign is that those four planned office towers, if not the rest of the brave new mall, could suffer the fate of so many of the country's artificially built-=up downtown areas over the last decade or two -- Minneapolis, Minnesota; Springfield, Massachusetts -- where no one wants to live or work, so that, as Jane Jacobs warned in her 1961 volume The Death and Life of Great American Cities, because there's not enough intertwined commercial and residential variety to create a vial and lively street life, the neighborhood becomes a glass and aluminum graveyard, on its way to a postmodern superslum, without even going through the process of overcrowding -- abandoned before it's ever really used.

Seems a bit bleak, but you can't argue with it. That said, downtown has improved thanks to more people living there.


Notable Quotes #22: Henry Ford Scopes out Highland c. 1923

Enamored with the location, Henry Ford personally came to Saint Paul in 1923 to triumphantly visit after having wheeled and dealed his way into gaining control over the hydroelectric dam on the Mississippi River. He brought his son Edsel with him, then President of Ford Motor Company, as well as a retinue of hangers-on to survey the terrain for the new factory. (Fun fact: Ford Parkway was originally named "Edsel Road.")

Here's the fascinating description from a reporter who was there, describing what Highland Park and the Ford Site looked like back then. It's from Brian McMahon's wonderful book, The Ford Century in Minnesota:

It didn't look very industrial then. In fact there wasn't a wisp of smoke to be seen -- nothing but thickly wooded hills and moist dales, open patches of grasses beginning to grow green with the life of a new season, ravines running with spring's hastening water, and beyond the cleft waterway of the Mississippi, one of the most beautiful pictures in Minnesota's abundant gallery. Henry Fold pulled his heel out of the soft earth and swept his eye over the whole semi-circle. The expression in his serene face quickened with imagination. He heard the drum of steam exhausts, the detonations of dynamite, the straining of cables, the musketry of riveters, making a giant new plant for him, while to most folks living in the chosen city the whole project seemed like the circus giraffe to the farmer -- "There isn't no such thing."

Kind of fascinating to think about the changes that have happened since then. [See also, The Origin of Highland.]


Signs of the Times #172



[Yard. Saint Paul.]


[Boulevard. Frogtown, Saint Paul.]


We want you

[Door. Saint Paul.]


[Driveway. West End, Saint Paul.]

We rise by

[Bike trail. Railroad Island, Saint Paul.]

stop seeing:
-political strips
-skin color
see Humanity

[Yard. West Side, Saint Paul.]

At Play

[Boulevard. Location forgotten.]

Wear a mask for your health
And the health of our barteders 

[Door. West End, Saint Paul.]


Obscure Local History #4: Saint Paul Gangster Defends the Parking Spot in Front of his House c. 1932

[Dutch Sawyer, after he was nabbed.]
Most people know about Saint Paul's gangster history, when the city served as a haven for gangsters, mobsters, bank robbers, and cons on the lam thanks to its extremely corrupt police department. I've been reading Paul Maccabee's John Dillinger Slept Here, researching my forthcoming book on Saint Paul history from the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Along the way, I discovered this anecdote about Saint Paul's local crime boss, Harry "Dutch" Sawyer, who ran the notorious Green Lantern bar for years in the early 1930s. In addition to masterminding criminal protections and countless crimes, he was also and acolyte of one of Saint Paul's firm "unwritten rules": people are entitled to the parking spot in front of their house.

His Saint Paul HQ was a house on Jefferson Avenue, and if someone parked in front of it, he would wreak havoc. Here's the story from Maccabee's book:

The local children were fascinated by Sawyer. [Next door neighbor Jane] Resler recalled how [fellow gangster Alvin "Creepy"] Karpis' girlfriend, Delores Delaney, would park her Buick in front of Sawyer's home, usually in Sawyers's personal spot. Sawyer would arrive later, spy Delaney's car parked in his space, and cheerfully ram her automobile, inspiring a wave of obscenities from Delaney. The neighborhood youngsters sat eagerly on their front porches awaiting the spectacle, Resler said.

Some things never change!

[The parking spot in question, on Jefferson Avenue, as it looks today.]


Detailed Explanation from a Socialist Engineer on the 35W Bridge Collapse

One of my guilty pleasures is a snarky, lefty podcast called Well There's Your Problem, about engineering disasters. It's certainly an acquired taste. The hosts have a lot of in jokes and out jokes and the whole idea of talking about making jokes while talking about Lac Megantique or Bhopal is not going to be to everyone's liking, even if they are coming at these events from a critical, leftist perspective.

That said, the group recently did an episode about the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse, and the detailed explanation of the bridge's design and history is riveting. [haha] Plus it's also fun to hear outsiders try and describe Minneapolis. As an added bonus at the end of the episode, if you make it that far, one of the hosts, a Philadelphia Eagles fan, goes on an epic anti-Vikings rant. 

Check it out if you're truly bored and/or interested in bridge engineering. [Discussion starts about 10:00 in.]


Three Things the Media Misses about the Charter Commission Debate

[Yesterday's Strib headline.]
The goal of good journalism is to, first, say what happened and, second, provide context for understanding it. I've been frustrated lately with how accounts of the referendum debate have described the situation in Minneapolis. I'm going to use two Star Tribune articles about the Charter Commission debate to explain why.

First off, I am a Star Tribune subscriber and will continue to be one. Despite my disagreements with their Editorial Page, I think everyone who values journalism in the Twin Cities should subscribe. It's one of the best newspapers in the country and, especially at a moment when journalism is in crisis, we're lucky to have it in Minneapolis. 

That said, I've been disappointed with the paper's coverage of the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, protests, and debate about police reform. The latest examples have been the coverage of the Charter Commission debate. I'll use two stories -- one from July 28th and one from yesterday, August 5th -- to illustrate. 

Here are three things newspaper accounts are missing about the debate:

1. Reporters are ignoring the 12-0 unanimous vote

This is an big omission. Neither of the Star Tribune articles mentions the unanimous resolution by the Minneapolis City Council to put the ordinance on the ballot. Instead, both articles mention the “five council members” when describing the ballot question. 

In a "weak mayor" city like Minneapolis, a unanimous vote by the City Council is a big deal, and that kind of support is a key piece of context. While every Council Member might not have supported the ballot question, they all supported getting it on the ballot. Readers of these articles would not even know that the ballot question passed unanimously.

2. The term “controversial" 

Both Star Tribune articles describe the ballot question as "controversial", even putting the term in yesterday's headline. 

That loaded term begs the questions: Controversial in what way? Who or what is controversial here? Controversial for  whom? 

There's certainly a lot of controversy to go around in Minneapolis these days! In my opinion, the most controversial thing in Minneapolis this summer has been the Minneapolis Police Department as a whole, and their police union and head Bob Kroll, in particular. The existing department is so controversial, it incited some of the largest demonstrations and worst public violence in city history. In fact, the Minneapolis Police Department is so controversial, people protested their actions in dozens of countries  around the world for weeks. 

It's certainly debatable whether a ballot measure that received the unanimous support of the City Council is controversial. My reading of the situation is that the only reason the ordinance is "controversial" is that the Mayor and his appointed Police Chief are opposing it. A better framing of this issue would be to describe the rift between the Council and the Mayor's Office, which are on opposite sites of this debate. That's the controversy, and its a political one.  

Beyond that, whether or not the ordinance is controversial seems a matter of opinion. Needless to say, there's a very high bar for what is deemed controversial these days. 

3. The pieces do not accurately sum up the public comment

Both articles take a "both sides" approach to the public comment received by the Charter Commission, which is fine to a degree. But accounts should also make clear the overwhelming support for the ballot question they received during their public hearings. 

John, at Wedge Live, has been keeping close track of the public engagement and testimony, and if we are to give any weight to the public engagement that occurred over the last few weeks, accounts should make note of the strong support for putting the Council's proposal on the ballot.

[IMO, the AP does a better job of framing the story, but still leaves out key context.]

I certainly have other gripes with the reporting, in both the Star Tribune and elsewhere. I'd like more information about the Charter Commission, particularly about its theoretical and de facto roles in Minneapolis politics. I'd like to see more context about ongoing structural problems between the Minneapolis Police Department, their union, and City Hall. I'd also like to see all these debates placed within the larger framework of George Floyd's murder and ongoing police killings [e.g. the AP tweet at right]. I think this context is critical to understanding the story.

To be sure, this issue is complex, wide-ranging, and abundant with in-the-weeds details. Covering this the political debate around the Minneapolis Police Department is a challenging task. 

But at the very least, it's obligation of our journalists to put this debate in the context of structural issues around controlling and changing the Minneapolis Police Department. I wish we could turn to journalists and more easily learn the full story of what's going on, and the fact that the best coverage of this story has been from the Wedge Times-Picayune is both frustrating and delightful. 

It sure would be nice to have an election that allowed people to decide for themselves the future direction of the Minneapolis Police Department. The real controversy here is that a unanimous vote by the city's highest elected body was filibustered by a group of unaccountable volunteer commissioners.