Public Character #7: Mark, who hosts a Beanbag League in his Yard off West 7th Street

[Mark, left, and his friend, the chef of the low country boil.]
During certain summer afternoons, just past Skarda's Bar along West 7th Street, you might find a big group gathered along the sidewalks hanging out, drinking beer, and tossing beanbags in a grassy lot along the Bay Street sidewalk.

That's the work of Mark, who has been hosting the league for almost a decade, ever since the 35W bridge fell down.

I was lucky enough to meet Mark and see the league last week!

Mark: Well when the 35 bridge come down we were all playing horseshoes over here at [the] Palace [rec center]. And we’re in the middle of league night and we heard this and we were like, “what the F just happened?” you know. And so we went through that experience playing the horse shoes that night and went home and watched the news and it was not good.

So that was 10 years ago, August. We’re all playing the horseshoe league, and then the same year the City of Saint Paul decided they were going to pull the horseshoes out of Palace and put a refrigerated hockey rink over there.

And so the horseshoes are gone and we got nowhere to go, so I had this yard over here and I sez we’ll go from horseshoes to bean bags. We had a women’s and a men's league over there so we kinda combined the women’s and the men’s league because everybody can play bean bags.

Se we started that and this is our 9-year finale.

So we brought all the folks over here and we play for 9 weeks, the first week of June to the first week in August. Last Thursday was just terrible, it was 50 degrees we got rained out.

And then we have the low country boil dinner that I was talking about. I’m gonna tell you again it’s a damn… First thing you put in there is your baby red potatoes, then you put in your an-dou-ille sausage, and then you put in your shrimp and you gotta spice it up just right. I was serving in the military down in Savannah and we called it “low country boil” down there.

There’s ten boards. We’ve got 38 people in the league, normally this is a lot fuller but U don’t know evidently they got scared away by my low country boil.

My name is Mark. You got that thing F’ing rolling or what? [referring to my iPhone]

Now you got a story.


Four of my Favorite Urban Drawings

Cartoons, drawings, and illustrations have always been central to architecture and design, both ways of knowing based on observing the urban landscape and reducing it to basic principles. Nothing does that better than a great drawing or illustration.

So here are some of my all-time favorites, along with brief explanations of why I think they're so keen!

#1: The "road space" cutaway (by "Todorovic")

I love this drawing because it captures the inequality inherent in our street design priorities. Cars are climate controlled, hermetically sealed bubbles of private space. In general, we give over a huge percentage of our streets to people traveling in relative luxury, while forcing everyone else to share the street's table scraps.

Whenever our cities equivocate between bike lanes, transit, and sidewalks... Whenever we fail to prioritize shared or active mobility, we're propping up privilege. This illustration perfectly shows that fundamental dynamic.

#2. The LOS bulldozer (by Andy Singer)

Saint Paul-based cartoonist and my friend, Andy Singer, is one of this world's car cartoon geniuses -- a small group, to be sure -- and there are so many great Singer cartoons to choose from. If I had to choose just one, my favorite is probably this one, because it connects the dots in a very specific and important way.

(DOTs... get it?)

It's not often that cartoons can capture a structural problem so elegantly, including specific nerdy data like average annual daily traffic (AADT) and level of service (LOS) to prove a point.

For more on how this works, check out my podcast with Andy Singer about his book, Why We Drive.

#3. Daily "suburban mortar-fire" (by Leon Krier)

Architect, urban philosopher, famous Luxembourgian, and overall design gadfly Leon Krier's books are chock full of excellent illustrations that skewer modernist architecture and planning. This one is my favorite, though, because it elegantly captures the violence of sub-urban car priorities and how damaging they are to older, walkable cities.

In a way, suburbs and cities are literally at war with each other, and speeding cars are the weapons of choice. As long as cars are around, no walkable city is safe.

#4. City streets as cliffs (artist unknown by Karl Jilg)

I don't know who made this amazing drawing of a city street as a giant canyon, but it perfectly captures the *feeling* of walking through a car-dominated city.

In many downtowns, and certainly most other urban places too, the danger of the street is everywhere. Technically the street might be "safe" according to modern engineering standards, but being anywhere near a street with cars going at 40 miles per hour just a few feet away feels terrifying. The streets might as well be cliffs, and your kid tugging on your arm might as well be about to fall into a bottomless pit. Crosswalks feel like the bridge in an Indiana Jones movie, and your dog is always in peril.

I love how this drawing captures that feeling so perfectly. This is probably my favorite sidewalk illustration of all time!

That's it. Those are my top four.

But just for kicks, here are some extras that didn't quite make the cut.

Honorable Mention

[A good illustration from Victor Gruen, father of the indoor shopping mall.]
[Another Andy Singer cartoon that is all-too-true.]

[A Tom Toles masterpiece on white flight, including an all-time-great pun.]

[This speaks for itself.]

[Great illustration of bike politics from my friend, Ken Avidor.]

[An excellent New Yorker piece.]
[And what list would be complete without the worst cartoon ever?]


Signs of the Times #129


[Sidewalk. West Bank, Minneapolis.]

[Window. West Side, Saint Paul.]

[Door. West 7th Street, Saint Paul.]


[Sidewalk. New Orleans, LA.]


[Telephone pole. New Orleans, LA.]


[Pole. New Orleans, LA.]


[Pole. New Orleans, LA.]


[Window. New Orleans, LA.]


Reading the Highland Villager #187

[A Highland Villager hits the spot.]
[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: Commission gives its blessing to Ford plan with changes; Commissioners seek increased density on river road, removal of private recreational space
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Planning Commission unanimously approved a plan for the site of the former Ford truck factory. It was uncontroversial. The only discussion involved whether or not to add greater density along the Mississippi River Road. The increased density passed on a 14-2 vote, and was also uncontroversial. Some public comments were in an email inbox for a while longer than City staff would have liked, and were delayed in making it into the final City report on public comments. The City Council is going to vote on the plan now [likely in late September sometime].

Headline: Corps reconsiders use of river's locks and dams; Future of hydro power and boat traffic on Mississippi may rest in results of study
Author: Roger Barr

Short short version: Old locks and dams in the Twin Cities area might or might not be changed or removed. The Army Corps would like to not own the infrastructure any more, apparently. [Dammit.] Lots of people are interested in the river though, including the National Park service, who would like to see "natural" rapids brought back to the river. [Before the dams were put in, the Mississippi had very volatile water levels!]

Headline: St. Paul has several balls in air as soccer stadium rises; Port Authority is 'hopeful everything will come together in right timeline'
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A soccer team is building a new stadium in the Midway where a strip mall is currently located. Some leases were "approved" but not "finalized." A developer might be on board but maybe not. The Port Authority guy says that they are "hopeful" about the situation. Existing leases will be honored. [What about the Rainbow Foods and the bowling alley?] There might be a "community benefits agreement" between the team and the City but nobody knows what would be in it yet. There are workers on the site collection taking soil away. Pile driving is complete. A crane will arrive soon. Quote from developer: "once the structural steel arrives you'll see the stadium pop out of the ground." Neighbors are concerned about traffic and parking. [Pretty classic Saint Paul right here.]

Headline: Split City Council OKs $900,000 in TIF for stadium cleanup
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Council approved more tax increment financing for cleaning up pollution at the stadium site, which was formerly a streetcar factory and vacant lot for storing transit buses. The Port Authority is applying for cleanup grants but not getting very many. [Um, try harder? This is the thing you do that you are good at.] The total pollution cleanup cost is $7M maybe. [What is the alternative? Just leave the pollution there? Maybe market it as "ToxicLot Park"?] CMs Noecker and Prince voted against the TIF shift. Quote from CM Prince: "This is the Met Council's site that the Met Council has been polluting." [Good point, right there.]

Headline: City to review plan for 34 units of senior housing on Selby Ave.
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A land trust non-profit is building apartments for old people on lots that have been vacant a long time. The parking lot might be too small. [About time!]

Headline: Organized trash effort proceeds with hopes of lowering fees
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council voted to continue getting the city's garbage companies to work together. The vote was uncontroversial. Neighbors are concerned about freedom [to be trashy]. Quote from Highland neighbor: "I want free choice." Some Council Members want lower fees and/or more recycling. Quote from pro-organized garbage woman: "I would greatly appreciate organized collection." Some people think the organization will reduce dumping. [This all makes a great deal of sense and it's dumb that we're even having this conversation in the first place. See also my recent article on it.]

Headline: Heads-up for The Capp at 46th & Hiawatha; Residents await reveal of grocery store tenant
Author: Bill Wagner

Short short version: Minneapolis is getting a big mixed-use apartment building with retail and a grocery store next to a light rail station, over there in Minneapolis, the city to the west of Saint Paul. It looks good but it is not in Saint Paul at all. [I am assuming there will be property taxes generated from this project that will help the City of Minneapolis pay for things that people living in Minneapolis might want.] Neighbors are apparently unconcerned, depending on what grocery is chosen. [So like, if it's an Aldi everyone will riot but if it's a Trader Joe's that's cool?]

Headline: Mpls. raises concerns about Riverview line; Connecting streetcar to light-rail Blue Line may be problematic
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: [Woah, two Minneapolis stories in a single Villager? Something weird is going on here.] There might be transit down 46th Street [which is a godawful hell-street made from concrete that has San Andreas-like fissures and also connects horribly -- horribly! -- to the Ford Bridge over the river, and to nearby Minnehaha Park, and is generally a pretty terrible street to be near even though it has a median]. Neighbors are concerned about potential tunnels, other disruption, and getting to the park. Quote from neighbor: "we haven't gotten a lot of the answers we need yet."[I had assumed the concerns were about traffic and parking, but apparently they are not. Oh that Minneapolis... always throwing me for a loop.]

Headline: Rondo plaza takes two steps forward
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A small plaza in a formerly vacant lot will be built to commemorate the old African-American neighborhood that used to exist where the freeway exists today [so that people can drive through Saint Paul as fast as possible without stopping and also ignore the city around them]. The plaza will have a column, a "sculpted hill" exhibits, lights and seats. Quote from city guy: "the plaza will create a vibrant space and enhance the character of the neighborhood." A non-profit is raising money for the plaza, and the site used to have a grocery store / barber shop. Quote from the Rondo organizer: "this site was the epicenter of the community."


Signs of the Times #128


[Tree. New Orleans, LA.]


[Building. New Orleans, LA.]


[Door. Lafayette, LA.]



[Wall. Lafayette, LA.]


[Doorway. New Orleans, LA.]


[No Parking sign. New Orleans, LA.]


[Levee wall. New Orleans, LA.]


[Building. New Orleans, LA.]


Limited Space Available - Obscure Museums of Minneapolis Bike Tour Next Saturday

[Hennepin History Museum.]
Everyone knows about the big museums, but what about the small museums? What about the museums that aren't even museums?

We will be going to visit four such "obscure museums" of Minneapolis. Hopefully this is the first of many such tours.

NOTE: Because museums are smallish, space is limited. You must buy a ticket to reserve your space.

Here's the agenda:

Bike ride is approximately 5 miles, non-strenuous, and relaxed paced. Tour is approximately 2.5 hours.

What: Guided bike ride to 3-4 obscure "museums in Minneapolis
When: Saturday 8/12 2:30 - 5:00
Where: Meet at the Hennepin History Museum
Why: Why not?
Who: Anyone who buys a ticket and is willing to ride a bike

Get your ticket today! If this works, I will get another one in planned. I have a long list of strange museum-ish spaces that would be interesting to explore.

[One wing of the Flem museum.]
[The hall of Minneapolis City Council members, past and present.]


Ten Years Later: 35W Bridge Collapse and the Sudden Visibility of Infrastructure

[Hurdling the guardrail.]
Ten years ago, this blog was in purgatory. I'd unplugged from writing very much about anything about Twin Cities' urban design, and had just begun graduate school in Geography to study seriously some of the fundamental dynamics of cities and street life.  I wasn't really that interested in continuing to blab on the internet, and for good reason, because blogging is probably not the best use of anyone's time.

But then some gusset plates snapped, and the bridge fell into the river down the street.

The fantastic failure of a basic piece of Minneapolis' built environment re-captured my attention, focusing it particularly on how we take our infrastructure for granted. That something so massive and seemingly permanent could disappear in an instant -- and also that life and traffic would go on -- illustrated how temporary and fragile our cities really are.

Here's my blogpost from ten years ago, reprinted. Oddly, moments like this are both unforgettable and they aren't. In a way, we must forget incidents like this, where the regular order of the city fails spectacular. We go on as if nothing like this had ever happened, resuming our frenetic lives.

But it's worth pausing and remembering that all the infrastructure around us is material, fallible, and human. At least for a day or two, don't take your bridges for granted.

Interstate Bridge of the Week: 35W Mississippi River Bridge

[The view from the River Road, biking toward the collapse on 8/1/07]
This week's Interstate Bridge of the Week is the 35W Mississippi River Bridge near the West Bank/U of M/Metrodome area of downtown Minneapolis. It collapsed today into the river, and obviously it's a terrible tragedy in which many people lost lives or were horribly injured. My friend called me from the area five minutes after it happened, and I biked down to the U of MN campus to see what was happening.

I was living in Brooklyn during 9/11, and what happened in the Twin Cities today was a lot like New York six years ago: so many people stopped what they were doing, people called their friends and family on the phone, and crowds gathered around television sets to watch, comment on, and share the experience.

But at the same time it strikes me that there are a host of differences between the two events. The most important is that, unlike 9/11 or the San Francisco earthquake, there was nothing in particular that caused this collapse. It just happened, like entropy, or spontaneous combustion. The bridge reached a tipping point where it could no longer support the collective weight of steel, concrete, and cars, and its commuters suffered the consequences.

We should all be truly shocked that this was just a case of bad engineering. From what I've heard on MPR tonight (in a great bit of internet research by someone named Aarsanden Totten (?)), this bridge was a unique bit of engineering lacking the structural 'redundancy' that serves as a crucial backup in case the primary support fails. It might have been rust, or even one too many potholes on the bridge's surface, but in all likelihood this is a case of cutting one too many corners, either in the bridge's construction or its later maintenance. (Let me point out that the WTC collapse was in no small part due to the unique structural supports of the building. The outside of the building held it up, allowing more office space to occupy the interior, just as this bridge was uniquely built to allow an uninterrupted span to cross the Mississippi. Is this technological progress? Ingenuity?)

It makes you think about all the common infrastructure that we share, all the freeways, power lines, satellites, buildings, and sewers... all the the police, firefighters, and hospitals that we all count on whether we know it or not. This is not to mention the flows from farms and factories that provide everything we eat and use. We even rely on the media -- those bastardized televisions, radios, and cell phones that we use every day -- to let us know what's happening in our cities and countries, and throughout the world. So much relies on so much steel, sand, and stone.

But of course we forget. People think when they slam shut their car door, flip on the A/C, and crank up KS95 that they're invulnerable. We think that our walls are solid, and that homes are ours and ours alone. We believe that bootstraps are the only things holding us up, but we forget that cars are just as reliant on public infrastructure as everything else, as trains or buses or electric sockets. In fact, this country has pumped trillions of dollars during the last 50 years into building a vast, vast network of highways, bridges, and concrete overpasses. We've spent more money on highways in this country than on any other public works project (unless you call the military budget a public work), but it's the kind of thing that's easy to forget about until something reminds us that somewhere, at some point, some guy under a fluorescent light designed everything we take for granted.

No, the real story today is that we've been reminded that we're all in this together. The reporter on MPR right now is explaining that she's most surprised by all the people, and their collective response to the crisis. "The people the just keep coming and coming and coming", she says, "trying to see if for themselves" and "standing in groups, talking to each other." Yes, its a shock in the U.S.A. to share a collective experience, to join a group of your neighbors and witness the world around you. We demand a spectacle, like fireworks, football, or a good war parade.

When I went past the old bicycle bridge at the University of Minnesota (just South of the scene) I found it covered with people, and most of them were there because they knew they were part of a community. It could have been them in those cars, and if there had been any way to help out, somehow, they would have. For a moment, we were all in this together, and it reminded me of Manhattan in 2001 where, just like today, I was able to stop and talk to complete strangers about the world around me. (Hell, Channel 4 just interviewed a Hispanic family who was involved in the accident. It's probably the first time they've interviewed a Hispanic family all year. "They drive cars too?")

It's a cliche to say so, but it is times like this we pull together as Minnesotans, as Americans, and as people. Only it's sad that it takes a fucking tragedy to realize that we're not all atomized individuals, and that we all depend on each other all of the time. For some reason when something like this happens, I only wish that we could muster one tenth of this kind of engagement during our everyday lives. I wish that the radios, televisions, and newspapers would carry more stories about cuts to the transportation budget or layoffs at the Hennepin County Medical Center, and more importantly, I wish people would read and care about these stories. I wish that people all over the state, no matter where they live, would realize that the schools in Minneapolis or Baghdad matter just as much as the price of gas or property taxes, and that democracy might be more important than Kevin Garnett. Today we've seen the news doing what it does best, and really making a difference. But maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but someday, soon, and for the rest of our lives we'll go back to reading about Paris Hilton above the fold and caring about our checkbook more than our neighbor. And that, as much as the obvious destruction, is why I find times like today so sad... so sad, and at the same time, strangely hopeful.

[Traffic next to the 35W bridge collapse.]


Saint Paul Flags #1

[MN United Game, Minneapolis.]

[Saints game. Lowertown.]


[West 7th Street.]

[West End.]

 [West End.]
 [West End.]
 [West Side.]
 [Location unknown.]
[West Side.]


I, For One, Would Like to Welcome our Garbage Overlords

[Two trucks, one corner.]
I'm tickled that Saint Paul is finally moving forward with organized trash collection, especially in the face of an organized (how ironic!) opposition movement that is trying to derail the city's efforts.

(Props to the Council, the Mayor's Office, and the Mac-Grove neighborhood group for working so hard on this.)

There are a lot of great reasons why organizing the city's garbage pickup is long overdue, and I go into them quite a bit in my original Minnpost article on this topic.

Here are the punchlines from that December, 2015 article:
The main benefits of organizing involve cost, energy and efficiency of geography. The Mac-Grove proposal would replace the current unorganized system with a geographically balanced “consortium.” Each of the city’s current 19 garbage haulers would be allocated a geographic “share” of the city, and instead of serving houses scattered through the city, each existing hauler would get a geographically limited area. Each hauler would be assigned a specific neighborhood, and instead of three or five trucks traveling down neighborhood’s streets and alleys each week, you would only have one.
Beyond the energy and cost benefits, the current system masks some more hidden consequences of the free market. For example, because alleys are all privately constructed, they don’t meet uniform standards, and are rarely designed to withstand the pressure of large trucks. Yet the existing system drastically increases the number of trucks that run down alleys, and garbage trucks are particularly hard on asphalt.
The average truck weighs 32 tons and gets 3 miles to the gallon. While there’s a complicated relationship between weight, vehicle design and road wear, studies suggest that each truck is the “wear and tear” equivalent of 1,125 automobile trips. 
The case is pretty solid, and if you're still not convinced, let Ed Kohler explain it to you.

But now that we're on the precipice of organized garbage, there are two other big reasons why I love the city's plan to move forward with garbage organization. And they're less straightforward.

1. Addressing Inequality

[No Dumping sign off West 7th Street.]
Saint Paul is a deeply unequal city. Ride a bicycle from the East Side to St. Anthony Park, from Frogtown to Highland, or anywhere around the downtown poverty periphery, and Saint Paul's big contrasts become visible. In some parts of town, quiet well-kept fancy houses; in other parts, still-pretty-quiet-but-not-always-quiet more-unkempt homes and apartments. The city's gaps break down pretty cleanly along age, class, race, and ethnic lines, and it's always crucial to think about the city as a whole.

The biggest problem with the old garbage system is that it "worked well" for the wealthy parts of town, and left the poor parts of the city behind. For example, "dumping" is a big issue in many parts of the city, like Frogtown, the North End, or the West Side. In these places, people with few resources simply left all kinds of crap out in alleys, boulevards, bluffs, or ubiquitous vacant lots.

Having an organized system will do a lot to make sure our struggling parts of the city don't look like trash half the time. It's a problem that's really not visible from the landscaped yards of the wealthy parts of town, but for a big chunk of Saint Paul, cleaning up the dumping problem is a big deal.

2. Demonstrate Collective Freedom

[City of Minneapolis trash bins in North Minneapolis.]
The second big thing about the coming trash revolution is that it proves that Saint Paul can actually do stuff. Now more than ever, we need our cities to step up and fill the governance void left behind the wake of the dysfunctional Federal level and fragile State.

In many ways, I think doing things at the city level is a good shift because I like governance that is smaller scale, and "closer" to the citizenry. (See also my post-Trump post...)

In other ways, increasing reliance on city level government is a bad thing because of the fractured and fragmented municipal landscape, which allows wealth to flee to exclusionary low-tax enclaves and leaves concentrated poverty behind in core cities and (increasingly) first-ring suburbs. There's also the problem of low engagement and turnout in our city governments...

So it's important to find things that cities can actually do without stretching their budgets to the breaking point. We need concrete steps that allow cities to move toward ambitious sustainability and equity goals.

To put it another way, we don't just need "freedom from government", we also need the "freedom to act collectively." Organizing garbage is a great example of this larger kind of freedom. I am confident that, once it starts to work, once we have an effective organized garbage system in place, it'll be a shining example of what Saint Paul can accomplish if it gets its act together.

Swelling Blue Bin Pride

[Recycling is up about 30% since the city replaced the old system.]
In fact, I only began thinking about this as the city finally "rolled out" its new recycling bin program back in January.

If you live in Saint Paul, you probably recall the initial hiccups, but after a long time lobbying the city, the city's contracted recycling non-profit, Eureka, got the funding from the city to start using modern recycling bins back in the winter. Prior to that, there had been a more haphazard "tub" recycling system in place where individual citizens would have to pick up their own recycling tubs from local neighborhood groups and them put them out once per week. The trucks would then (using two people) go around and pick up all the recycling which was placed along the curb once per week.

There were a bunch of problems with the old system including the lack of tubs, or the way that they would fall apart, but the biggest one was the problem with storage. Because you only put out the tub once per week, you couldn't "store" your recycling all through the week. With the new big bin system, you can toss your recycling out whenever you like. For me, that makes a big difference. I can carry down my recycling whenever I am heading out the door, instead of only being able to put it out there on Monday evenings.

More than that, I just love seeing all the blue bins lined up in alleys and along the streets. It's a great sign of things to come, and a symbol of Saint Paul's actually-existing civic competence.  When I spend time in Minneapolis, you glance into the alleys or driveways of people and see three bins lined up behind every home: a trash bin, a recycling bin, and a compost bin. It's amazing, and the city has a great public engagement program aimed at minimizing all of these waste streams. This is what city's should be doing in the 21st century.

And when I see Saint Paul's new blue recycling bins all along the alleys, I get a glimpse of Saint Paul's bright future.

[Soon these blue bins in a Frogtown alley will have a trash-filled friend to hang out with.]