Gussying up the city for the GOP: Why not all the time?

A gardener tends to flowers near the entrance of the St. Paul Hotel.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
A gardener tends to flowers near the entrance of the St. Paul Hotel.

It’s a no-brainer, really. Before company comes, you clean up the house. You wash dishes, vacuum floors, dust furniture, buy flowers, prepare dinner. You want to make a good impression and, frankly, your guests expect a certain measure of hospitality.

It’s like that for cities, too. To prepare for the Republican National Convention — and for the flood of media attention that comes with it — the Twin Cities metro is busy sprucing up roadways, sidewalks and other public spaces, hoping to show off its best side during the first week of September.

Minneapolis, for example, is washing skyway windows, doing extra street-sweeping and litter pickup, and repainting kiosks and repairing pavers on Nicollet Mall. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has rescheduled timely grass trimming and trash pickup along metro freeways, and will paint two giant U.S. flags on newly clipped grass near the airport. Metro transit is replacing damaged glass at some of its bus stops and train stations.

St. Paul, where most of the official festivities will take place, has a particularly ambitious to-do list that includes filling vacant retail spaces and adding thousands of flowering plants to an already lovely downtown.

“We want downtown St. Paul to be really beautiful,” said Mark Grandlund, gardens coordinator for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

St. Paul’s Euro-flavor to die for

The city, noted for its hanging flower baskets, would excel in a beauty contest in any case. Rice and Mears parks are among the prettiest public squares anywhere, and stately buildings like Landmark Center, the Public Library, the St. Paul Hotel and others give the city a Euro-flavor to die for. The problem for St. Paul, if any, is that the city core may come off looking and feeling like a too-perfect stage set on which conventioneers, media reps and their servers become mere actors rather than participants in an authentic city experience.

But no matter. Because St. Paul has so few hotel rooms, nearly all convention visitors will be staying along the Bloomington strip or elsewhere in the suburbs or, especially, in downtown Minneapolis where “authenticity” is seldom a problem. Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, whose ward covers downtown, reported that the police would take no extraordinary action to sweep the streets of drug dealers, panhandlers or loiterers during the convention. “We already do what can be legally done in that regard,” she said.

(In my experience, cities never acknowledge such sweeps, even if they do happen to occur.)

Meanwhile, Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention arm, has urged downtown property owners to keep sidewalks extra clean and green, and to adopt nearby neglected public spaces. Property owners already are installing 20 extra flower planters along Hennepin Avenue, and they hope to install 60 hanging flower baskets on side streets if the Public Works Department decides to allow it.

“Our intention was to be ready well before the RNC and to have the effects linger long after,” said Sarah Harris, CEO of Walking Minneapolis, which advocates for greener, more active sidewalks. Harris said she hopes residents, as well as visitors, come to expect added beauty and insist that it become permanent.

St. Paul’s extensive enhancements are designed to become “a legacy,” said Erin Dady, Mayor Chris Coleman’s director of convention planning. New skyway signs and kiosks, a reduced-rent program to draw retailers into vacant storefronts and the expansion of the city’s greenhouse, allowing the growing of 10,000 more plants a year, are among the convention’s lasting benefits, she said.

Trying to raise the national profile

The broader aim is to raise St. Paul’s (and the metro’s) national profile. Dady said that Atlanta’s hosting of the 1988 Democratic Convention led to a civic rebirth and the landing of the Olympics. Chicago boomed, she noted, after hosting the Democrats in 1996. “We want to move up in the rankings to compete in the tier of cities that include Denver and Seattle,” she said. “That’s where we belong.”

I have no quarrel with our city putting its best foot forward, or trying to sharpen its competitive edge. One good thing can lead to another. It’s especially noble for a solidly blue city like ours to roll out the red carpet for the red team.

But what about us? What about those of us who live here and work here? Shouldn’t the city put on its best face all the time?

Visiting Republicans should know our dirty little secret: We don’t always look this good. The sides of our freeways are often shaggy and strewn with trash. Many of our sidewalks are often barren and littered. Our bus stops are a mess. In winter, especially in downtown Minneapolis, dirty snow and ice gets piled up alongside streets so high that it covers parking meters. It’s not that we want to be so primitive. It’s that our public budgets lack money for beauty and maintenance, and that private partners are often unwilling to help take up the slack.

Beverly Farraher, MnDOT’s metro maintenance engineer, said the agency would like to have planted flowers along the freeways but decided not to because it couldn’t afford the upkeep. Instead, it trimmed out dead plants on the Interstate 35E Parkway in St. Paul, for example, hoping to make the roadway look a bit better. It does.

Farraher didn’t complain, but she emphasized repeatedly that MnDOT was not spending extra money on the convention or on frills like flowers, but merely rescheduling trash pickup and grass trimming to make things look better at the right time. The painted flag and another art project are being done on a shoestring. “I’m extremely proud of our people,” she said.

I think we’ll look pretty good for visitors — almost as good as our city looked 20 years ago when the parks were mowed and littering was less in fashion. My fear is that we’ll drift back again to our slacker ways and hardly notice the difference.

Disclosure: Among Steve Berg’s urban-design consulting clients is the city of Minneapolis.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Phillip Koski on 07/24/2008 - 01:37 pm.

    I agree with Steve Berg that Twin Citizens deserve better from our public domain, not just when visitors are expected, but everyday. But there is another compelling reason to keep things neat and tidy – money. Oh, the waste! I have participated in several street reconstruction projects in Minneapolis, and in every case watched in prolonged dismay as significant investments in streetscape enhancements withered under the blazing sun of neglect and poor financial planning. Why plant a shade tree that costs $5,000-$10,000 a pop, just to watch them die for lack of regular wattering and pruning that runs about $200-$300 a year. Expensive new sidewalks are laid down only to be stained by gum, grease and vomit – yet never power washed, bus shelters are vandalized and never cleaned, bike racks run over by cars and never fixed, lamps in specialty lighting predictably burn out but are not replaced. Neglect breeds more vandalism, vandalism breed avoidance, pretty soon you’ve got another poster child for urban blight. It’s like buying a brand new car and then never changing the oil, washing it, tossing out the trash, rotating the tires, or rolling up the windows when it rains. After a couple of years it not only looks like junk, it is junk. Dirty, stinking, broken down car junk that only squirrels and raccoons want to spend time in.

    In my opinion, our urban streets would be better places if we made half the improvements, and put the other half of our money into a maintenance endowment. What is the maintenance budget for each of the new artist designed water fountains, dare we ask? But now I’m just rambling…

  2. Submitted by B Maginnis on 08/06/2008 - 03:05 pm.

    The criminals we imported by the busload during the Bouza / welfare bonanza years do not share your ardor for horticulture.

    Why, just the other day your old paper was admonishing the “private sector” to clean up the mess those same imports have made of downtown…

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