I was honored to join the Summit Hill Association, one of Saint Paul's 13 District Councils, the other day to talk about walkability and the future of Grand Avenue. It's always a treat to chat about my favorite topic, and especially when meeting people who live in a part of St. Paul I know very well. I did my best to discuss walkabilty, the history of Grand Avenue and Cathedral Hill, and what the future might hold for the street in a changing urban environment.
A few days later, SHA invited local planning guru Merritt Clapp-Smith on to talk about the history of zoning on Grand Avenue as well. If you want to dive into the details of why Grand Avenue looks the way it does, and how city's legal framework shapes development, you will also enjoy that chat.
Thanks to SHA for doing the important work of hosting community conversations about the details of urban design.
Via Kottke, I happened across this lovely Bayeux Tapestry meme generator. The Bayeux Tapestry is a thousand-year-old illustration of the Norman conquest that was lost and found in England, and offers a charming recounting of historical events.
Anyway, here are my attempts. Check out the Bayeux meme generator and make one for yourself!
[Hamline-Midway, St. Paul.]
|Jon's COVID-19 Preparedness Plan|
[Hamline-Midway, St. Paul.]
TO ENTER THE
[Door. West 7th, St. Paul.]
|Don't panic if your|
items are not
[Wall. Merriam Park, St. Paul.]
[Door. Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis.]
Due to Fast
Growing COVID 19
|[The existing conditions.]|
Dear Council Member:
I’m writing to urge you to support the appeal of the development proposal at 411 and 417 Lexington Parkway North. There are three reasons why the City Council should let this project go forward.
#1. legal issues
Simply put, the proposal meets every finding in the zoning code. This is a site plan application, which puts the highest possible burden on the City if it wants to legally deny the development. In my opinion, there are no legal findings to support such a denial.
To make matters worse, the Planning Commission did not follow proper procedures in denying this site plan application. Multiple Commissioners, both at the ZC and in the full Commission meetings, cited affordability as grounds for voting against the application, despite the fact that the City Attorney informed the group that affordability is not a legal finding in this case. Furthermore, when making their decisions, many Commissioners cited public comments received outside of the legal public comment period, either in personal communication, via email after public comments were closed, or over phone calls made to members of the Commission. (I also received these calls and emails, though I tried hard to ignore them
I do not think that the discussions at the Planning Commission took place according to the legal findings set in the St. Paul Zoning Code or by the Planning Commission bylaws. I hope that the City Council is more careful about the city’s legal obligations.
#2. market-rate housing
In spite of the legal issues in this case, the Planning Commission discussion centered on the issue of affordability. Specifically, there was a disagreement over the impact market-rate housing has on housing affordability in St. Paul. This is a important discussion about a difficult issue that can be counterintuitive
Recent housing studies show that market-rate projects like this, at worse, have a neutral impact on surrounding housing. In most cases, projects like the one proposed alleviate pressure on the housing market and lower prices, especially when lots of new market-rate housing is built. For this reason, market-rate projects like this one can actually help affordability.
For decades, we have been failing to build enough housing in St. Paul to keep up with increasing demand. There has been no market-rate housing built on University Avenue between South St. Anthony Park and downtown in my lifetime. This shortage is true in may parts of the city, leading to across-the-board pressure on the existing housing stock and raising prices for everyone.
Without massive changes to how we fund and regulate housing in US cities, we need to build market-rate housing in order to keep prices down. Failing to do this will make housing affordability worse for everyone in the city, rich and poor alike. This is why, in my opinion, this market-rate proposal will help affordability in St. Paul and in Frogtown, not harm it.
This vacant lot has been for sale for over ten years, right next to a light-rail station. If the city had approved this project when it was first brought forward — with a grant from the Met Council — it would have provided greater community amenities, and have been built in time to house hundreds of people during a deadly pandemic. The longer we wait to approve market-rate projects on sites like this, the more we turn our backs on people in St. Paul who are looking for decent places to live.
#3 city needs clarity
In my opinion, the worst outcome of this debate was the negativity of the community conversation. Part of the problem is that the city does not have affordable housing or Inclusionary Zoning guidelines on the books that would help guide these kinds of discussions. If we had completed our Inclusionary Zoning study, it would have helped Commissioners and members of the public evaluate these kinds of market-rate proposals with a eye toward what levels of affordability are possible in the current environment.
Striking the balance of regulation is not easy. For example, if St. Paul had Minneapolis’s ordinance, with over half of its units at or below 60% AMI, this project would easily meet its requirements. As the struggles of Portland, Oregon have shown, it’s hard to correctly set requirements for a Inclusionary Zoning policy that increases the overall supply of homes in a city. This is why St. Paul should complete its market study, to ensure that any Inclusionary Zoning and affordable housing discussions take place with everyone having the best information available. I urge the Council to fund this study as soon as you can.
In short, you should support this appeal because it’s a legal application that meets every requirement in the zoning code. On top of that, this project will help affordability in St. Paul and in the surrounding community. The proposed building fills a vacant lot next to a light rail station, meeting long-standing community goals around affordable housing and transit-oriented development. Finally, this situation points to the work we have to do as a city to find solutions to the ongoing housing crisis. To solve this crisis, we need to build more subsidized and market-rate housing in all parts of St. Paul.
Supporting this appeal, and completing the Inclusionary Zoning study, are a good start toward reaching our housing goals. I urge your support.
The pandemic has really eviscerated my urban lifestyle and I miss the sounds of the city. I also miss the last trip I took before the pandemic, to many different cities in Japan. Instead of tooling about the city, enjoying the sounds of people, I've been holed in my house.
Luckily, I happened across some ambient cityscapes on Youtube and have been playing them in the background of my day through the long COVID winter.
I'm still looking for a good ambient background that captures the feeling of multiple trains traveling through it constantly, like the scene out of my hotel room in Kyoto (pictured above). I haven't found one!
But here are some of my favorites, if you'd like to pretend you're in a city for a little while.
Cool cyberpunk market street in the rain with sounds of conversation, sirens, dogs
Cool cyberpunk apartment with city street sounds in the background
Cool unintelligible cafe sounds with crickets
Cool sounds of a lots of people chatting in a public square with traffic noise
Cool NYC street sounds from a high-rise apartment window (actual recording)
Cool old city sounds clopping horses, footsteps, fire, crows, and clock tower bells
Cool sounds of the sea, seagulls, vague voices, wood ships, and bouy bells
The Hexagon Bar was unique, a small weird oasis on the concrete streets of the Seward neighborhood. Its loss marks another minor absence for the city’s music scene, and the disappearance of small weird venues like the nearby Triple Rock and the 400 Bar.
For music, the Hexagon Bar was always cover-free. It was the kind of place you could just pop your head into as you were passing through South Minneapolis, to see who was playing, with little commitment, and whether it sucked or not. There was often a flock of hipsters, crusty punks, U students, and/or random South Minneapolis bozos hanging around outside the door. Late at night, the fenced-in patio was like a petting zoo where people fed each other American Spirit cigarettes.
At other times, the Hexagon Bar was a classic dive, if there wasn’t a show, you’d find a maybe a dozen regulars drinking out of plastic cups, staring blankly at the claw machine, passing time in a place that slowly changed around them.
I wrote of the place's mercurial nature, back in the 2nd Guide Booklet:
The gritty wedding of dives and music is perfectly suited to another dive characteristic, the daily pattern of regulars, drunks, workers, and the late-night young. Any good dive in an urban area will have a distinct rhythm to the day, a stride and pace of alcoholic progression that mirrors its social reach and the neighborhood around it. In a way, this is like how Jane Jacobs described the “urban ballet,” the passage of a New York sidewalk through the hours, of streets through the day and night. Some dives begin their days in old age, with the retired or hopeless, weary men escaping loneliness, reading the paper, complaining. As the night wears on, years fall off the faces, a time-lapse in reverse. The old man in the olive jacket is replaced by a 30-something in plaid, then again by a black shirted groupie straight out of college. Midnight is for the young and restless and the music takes over the bar, pouring out of the adjacent room like a spilled Grain Belt, impossible to ignore. If you’re here, why would you want to?
The Hub of Hell, also known as Hell’s Half-Acre, was its own special place, where the Puffer-Hubbard gang (from the nearby foundry) was just as likely to police social norms as the actual Minneapolis police.
The Hexagon Bar sat on the seam that separated the factories and warehouses of Seward from the working-class homes to the north and east. In those days, there were a lot of industrial facilities in the area, like the Milwaukee Road rail yards, which employed hundreds of working stiffs; Minneapolis-Moline, a farm implement factory; or Flour City Ornamental Iron Works Company, a foundry that crafted large, decorative railings, gates, and doorways. The railroad tracks through the neighborhood were lined with smokestacks and the streets full of men roving around and looking for work and fun.
Heck I’ve been writing odes to the Hexagon Bar for almost ten years now. I think the second ever dive bar bike tour wound up there, back in 2013. Since then, I wrote about the Hexagon Bar in my South Minneapolis Dive guide booklet, researched it as part of work I did on the history of the Seward Neighborhood, and then again included it in my book Closing Time.
I didn’t know it when I was going to shows, but music at the Hexagon Bar was part of a long tradition. Researching the bar book, I dug into an audio history archive from the 1990s that included a colorful interview with the bar’s long-time owner, Aurelea Hupp. Her story is fascinating, but includes this description of the bar in mid-century:
It was mostly truck drivers. . . . There would be fights in the bar, because we had a hexagon-shaped bar and there only was the one room. We had the oom-pa band there in the corner, three fellas playing, and they’d be four deep at the bar on a Friday or Saturday. The fellas would be arguing, you know, and my husband, who was a friendly guy, he and Jack Reilly would have to stop these fights.
Hupp’s husband inherited the place from his stepdad, who had opened it up after prohibition in 1935. She passed it along to her kids, and apart from losing the original hexagonal shaped bar, it didn’t change all that much. (I put an extended rough transcription of the Hupp interview below.)
The bar was torched during the unrest this summer. The demolition of the ruins this week mark the end of the real Hub of Hell bars that once defined the Seward neighborhood.. Most of them were demolished intentionally through city-led projects, aimed at changing the area, reducing crime, and getting rid of the old bars. While the bowling alley and the Eagles club remain, and though I love them both, neither is really a traditional bar. It’s a bit sad to see the Hex go this way, because I think it had made it through the hardest years of the 1990s and early 2000s.
RIP Hexagon Bar. You had a good run.
The band would be on 20 minutes and the girl would be on 20 minutes, and the girl only lasted two weeks.
|[Illustration from 1917 Aronovici housing report about St. Paul.]|
The St. Paul City Council is soon voting on whether or not to cut "definition of family" rules from the City Code.
Here is my letter to the Council on that topic:
I've been studying the history of planning in St. Paul and US cities for many years. I wanted to share my thoughts with you about the use of the "definition of family" in City Code as a policy and zoning tool.
The definition of family policy comes from the intersection of two problematic historical social realities. The first is a set of patriarchal assumptions about gender norms and how people should live. Victorian-era thinkers created powerful ideological constraints around gender and families. Through a set of religious, class-based, and moralistic social codes, influential people created expectations about how and where families should live, including that women should remain in the home, and that good “Christian” people required these kinds of heteronormative environments in order to avoid immorality.
The flip side of this ideology was that people who lived in diverse, complex urban spaces were morally inferior. Meanwhile, many forms of social castigation applied to women who resisted the confines of this value system. Many early assumptions about city life, in particular the supposed superiority of single-family neighborhoods, stemmed from this oppressive cultural tradition, which was baked into the zoning code in numerous ways. The definition of family — which for decades excluded domestic servants — was the most explicit expression of this moralistic zoning .
The other historical origin of this rule is even worse: anti-immigrant racism. Typically, people who arrived in cities like St. Paul brought with them cultures and traditions that relied on complex family and community ties for many different forms of mutual support. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and acquaintances often formed larger communities of solidarity, or these ties were forged in diverse communities in their new country. Together, as a “family,” people would pitch in to purchase property, take care of chores or improvement projects, help with child care, provide cultural connections, and many other things besides.
You can trace family definition policies directly to the racist worldview that saw immigrant communities and traditions as problematic and inferior. Anti-immigrant racism, which was quite prevalent throughout the 20th century, led to the widespread adoption of the definition of family as a way to limit the options of immigrants, people of color, and other groups. In fact, in St. Paul, keeping immigrants out of the certain neighborhoods, and away from the city as a whole, was an explicit goal stated openly in city planning documents as recently as the late 1950s. While that language has thankfully been exorcised from city documents, the definition of family, which comes from many of the same motives, is still on the books.
Moralistic assumptions about what constitutes a “family” have no place in our City Code. There is no excuse for a city like St. Paul, that purports to be working toward building an anti-racist society, to keep these kinds of rules on the books. Please get rid of it.
|[Invocation of "family" in an early 20th c. St. Paul housing study.]|
Again, I ask myself the question: how does that statement feel if you replace one group of people with another? What happens if you put in a racial or religious category there, instead of “non-homestead” or “student rentals”?This isn’t to say that these claims or comments are incorrect, misguided, racist, or anything like that. In fact, these claims might be factually accurate and may be sound in many ways.But I still think it’s important to put things in an historical perspective. I try hard to remember that the history of United States housing policy is extremely racist. For example, it used to be commonplace to put into one’s mortgage racially restrictive covenants about who could purchase homes. Similarly, historical claims about impacts of groups of people on property values, or troubling assumptions about behavior, led to huge problems around race and housing.