City Signs as a Conversation, the Introduction from my "Signs of the Times" Photo Book

Some years ago I was walking along a street in Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood, when a bit of paint on the asphalt caught my eye.

“POSSIBLE MONUMENT” it read, scrawled as if by an municipal official next to an otherwise mundane street corner. The nearby fire hydrant? I wondered. The curb? The lamp- post? Or the sign referring to itself?

But a monument to what, exactly? What was being remembered?

Signs like this appear all around the city, but most of the time people move too fast to see them. Noticing these small signs, left for the observant and contemplative, is one of the great opportunities of a life spent on the sidewalks, because the speed at which we move changes what we can see.

Moving faster, speeding along in a car or train, the world begins to blur and details disappear. Signs get bigger, elevating themselves to heights far beyond the stroller’s reach. Signs get brighter, flashing and blinking to attract the scattered focus of the digital gaze. Attention becomes a zero sum game, and many small signs fall through the cracks, seen only by slow and steady, a lost language of attention and observation, seeing the city at a pedestrian pace. 

These are not neon, not the storefront marquee, nor the billboard. For the most part, these are hand-written small notes jotted down for a specific purpose, part of a constant interaction between the non-human city -- the walls, doors, poles -- and the constant churn of people. Passers-by, shopkeepers, employees, rabble-rousers, artists, or neighbors putting up small signs for the choice few to notice, many handwritten and hand-placed with care. This unceasing back-and-forth, the remaking and re-writing of the city’s semiotic surface. Signs on signs on poles. Sometimes graffiti (though that’s not included here). Sometimes official signage, sometimes in a lawn, sometimes on a wall. Signs camouflaged or emblazoned like urban insignia on the margins of the sidewalk. Rarely permanent, these signs fade away or fall apart, are taken down or covered up by another. The changing city is the palimpsest that remains.

These days, we live in an era of scant signage. Compared to the pedestrian-paced days, when sidewalks were full of life, the signs inhabiting our cities have become scarce as streets have sped up and blurred. And the more people walking the streets, the more subtle the small signs; New York City and Chicago are full of these. Yet most of the signs in this volume were visible from the sidewalks of Minneapolis and Saint Paul over the last decade, from the period of about 2003 to 2016 (though there are a few notable exceptions from my various wanderings to other cities).

I sometimes dream that a renaissance of small signs is unfolding, as more signs make walking more interesting, and more walking makes signs more worthwhile. In that spirit, I hope you enjoy these signs of the times. On your journey, look for your own signs. Take notice and stock. Signs disappear when ignored. When seen, they acquire meaning and multiply, each, at that moment, a possible monument. 


Reading the Highland Villager #169

 [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: City unveils plan for redeveloping Ford site with businesses, multifamily housing, new parks and streets
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A city planning task force has come up with concrete ideas for the massive site that was once a old truck factory employing thousands of people. The plan envisions 4,000 housing units, 1,5000 jobs, and $20 million in new annual property tax revenue for the city. The plan includes a street grid, different zoning categories that range in height and density, decreasing as you go closer to the river [and things like stormwater features]. It will still be about 5 years until development is actually open for business. There will be a woonerf. Article includes a small map. [The plan is actually really good. It will be interes4ting to see what the developer proposal looks like once the property is actually sold in a year or two.]

Headline: City envisions over 40 acres for parks, recreation on Ford site
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Around the housing will be a "public realm" with trees, green space, water feature, and ballfields. They will not necessarily be in the official parks department. Quote from neighbor: "Are we assuming there'll be just senior citizens or millennials living there?" [[The lack of] Kids today.] There will be a "public square-type park" and a bike path.

Headline: Potential routes for Riverview transit narrowed
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A potential transit line between downtown and the airport is not going to be planned along the CP main line from downtown or Shepard Road. [Good because both these routes lacked a key ingredient for transit: people.] Neighbors are concerned about traffic and parking. Quote form planner: "[there is] a constituency that is very clearly against rail or a dedicated guideway." [This is true and also depressing. Hm, I wonder what people who actually take transit think? There are still lots of options on the table along W7th Street and the CP spur, in mixed traffic or dedicated ROW. Surprisingly, the "hybrid" mixed-traffic then CP-spur route has very competitive route timing with the dedicated ROW W7th route option, primarily because of the higher speed potential and clearer ROW on the CP spur past the Schmidt Brewery.] The route should go through or skip the Ford site, and might or might not have grade-separated rail connections through Minneapolis to the Blue Line. It will be either be light rail, a modern streetcar, or a bus. [The next step is to see what the ridership and cost estimates turn out to be, and then we can make an actually informed decision.]

Headline: Public hearings set on proposed 2017 property taxes in St. Paul; Tax increases vary across city with median at $93
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Taxes are going up by a margin that seems relatively small compared to other things.

Headline: BZA grants variance for luxury apartments near Union Depot
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Board of Zoning Appeals has approved a variance to build a six-story 70-unit building on a parking lot in Lowertown. There will be 54 parking spaces. The FAR is 5.7, whcih is slightly higher than the zoning limit without a variance. [I think this is the lot with the tree, but it might be the one across the street, but I don't think so.]

Headline: Developer drops plans for St. Clair-Snelling apartments
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A company wanted to build a six-story 155-unit apartment building on Snelling [which makes sense given that it's a major street with high-frequency transit service] on the site of a strip mall. There is a study to change the zoning on the site. Developer claims water table factors were an issue in the change in plans. [Weird that it would be a problem here but not for other large buildings along this street or in the area. Article does not mention that neighbors were concerned about traffic, parking, and height, but they certainly were.]

Headline: Federation favors Quarry Farm as name of new West End park
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Victoria Park development off West 7th street is park that might get the name Quarry Farm. [Lovely and charming name there... yikes! Glad they didn't go with Oil Spill Park, Enviornmentally Un-remediable Preserve, or Koch Tank Meadow.]

Headline:  Bennett's to close for spell due to lapse in insurance coverage
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A bar and steak house will have to close for ten days because they forgot to fill out paperwork and the City Council is imposing a penalty. There was debate on the council about how long the penalty should be and whether to have it be more flexible. [Whatever. Slap 'em on the wrist, I say. Don't let it happen again.]

Headline: Union Park receives city's blessing for first district plan
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A neighborhood group made a plan for things like walkability, bike lanes, development, growth, and neighborhood improvements. [Well done, I say.]

Note: This Highland Villager recap written to the dulcet tunes of Monteverdi's Orfeo.


Signs of the Times #121

Closed Monday
(August 1st)
Family Funeral

[Location forgotten.] 


[Pillowcase. Bottleneck, Minneapolis.]


[Door. University Avenue, Saint Paul.]


[Yard. Dayton.]

Standing Rock

[Guy sitting. Lowertown, Saint Paul.]


[Lowertown, Saint Paul.]


Atlas Staffing is a place of business. Please to NOT let your kids run around and be loud. It is NOT safe and also it is disruptive to the Atlas staff as well as other applicants applying. Please be consdierate and thank you in advance for cooperating.

*** We will ask you to leave and come back another time with the application should it be otherwise.


[Door. Downtown, Saint Paul.]


[Highland. Saint Paul.]


[Boulevard. Railroad Island, Saint Paul.]


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.]