The urban alternative to the State Fair

Out-of-towners are awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of Chicago.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Out-of-towners are awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of Chicago.

Most Minnesotans hover in a suburbanized world, a kind of compromise between city and country. If we need a farm fix, the State Fair offers an idyllic trip into rural Midwestern life, with all its earthy aromas, fatty delights and aw-shucks charms.
 
But what if we need a city fix? The idyllic urban counterpart is harder to find, although I stumbled across it while walking last week in Chicago.

After dinner with friends we decided to stroll rather than head back to our hotel. Our route took us down the Magnificent Mile just to the point where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River. It was past 11 on a beautiful August night, and nearly all of the stores were closed. Yet, the sidewalks were jammed with people like us — out-of-towners awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of this extraordinary urban place.

That’s when it hit me. This new Chicago is for us Midwesterners the urban equivalent of the State Fair. People were mingling and lingering not for any pragmatic purpose, but just to be in this exceptional place because there’s nothing like it back home. This exquisite stretch of urban form exists almost nowhere nowadays.

Here are lively sidewalks lined with actual stores, restaurants, hotels and office buildings with no big parking lots dominating the scene. Here is the city in its traditional sense, not the shopping mall, not the office park, not the drive-through bank. Here is a pedestrian paradise with lighted flowerbeds lovelier than anything you’ve ever seen in a public place. Here are tall buildings, their lights reflecting on the glassy river, their styles celebrating the breadth of American architecture, more perhaps here than in any city. Here is the idealized Midwestern urban experience.

Over dinner, our friends had fretted at the possibility of having to leave this magnificent setting. Both had lost their corporate jobs and were working from project to project, no longer making the steady money needed to support their restaurant and theater habits. Sheboygan or Racine might be in their future and they were bummed about it.

But Chicago will be here. Like the rest of us, they can occasionally return as pilgrims for a dose of idyllic city life — like a trip to the State Fair in reverse, but with better food.

Constant comments

• The much-talked-about high-speed rail link would put Chicago just four hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul. On this last trip it struck me how significant that might be for those of us who need a city fix now and then.

• Overheard at a conference on branding: “Here’s the essential message Macy’s puts across: ‘We hate you, you hate us, it’s on sale.’ “

• Check out the new approach the Met Council proposes for funding MSP highways.

With less money in the pipeline, it looks like more emphasis will be placed on maximizing the freeway capacity we already have. How? More tolls for single drivers in HOV lanes, more shoulder lanes for express buses, greater priority for maintenance than for expansion. Sounds good. Now the trick will be to make sure it actually happens. Changes were based on a joint Met Council-MnDOT study.

Public hearings begin on Sept. 27 (See schedule).
 
This week’s reading sampler:

• Sandy Ikeda’s piece in the libertarian magazine The Freeman. Turns out libertarians are split on sprawl.

On one side, Randal O’Toole sees it as a free-market expression of consumer demand; on the other. the author sees sprawl as “greatly abetted by government intervention.”

Ikeda lists these examples: The Interstate highway system, “which made…living in the less-expensive fringes of cities cheaper for urban commuters — not to mention federal subsidies for the construction of water mains, sewers, telecommunication lines, and, as we all should be well aware of today, direct and indirect subsidies to single-family home ownership via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and a slew of federal policies intended to promote single-family home ownership, dating back to the Great Depression, including the income-tax deduction for mortgage interest. The bottom line is that the law of demand still holds…The cheaper you make something the more of it people will want to buy, and that includes low-density development.”

• Ian White’s piece in the Aug. 23 Wall Street Journal about America’s 10 left-for-dead cities.

“The economy has evolved so much since the middle of the 20th century that many cities that were among the largest and most vibrant in America have collapsed. Some have lost more than half of their residents. Others have lost the businesses that made them important centers of finance, manufacturing and commerce.” White’s 10 deadest cities: Buffalo, N.Y., Flint, Mich., Hartford, Conn., Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit, Albany, N.Y., Allentown, Pa., Atlantic City, N.J., and Galveston, Texas.

• A new book by Myron Orfield and Thomas F. Luce Jr. called “Region: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities.” The book is a follow up on Orfield’s previous looks at the socio-economic forces that have reconfigured the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro in recent decades. Its intent is to reinvigorate metropolitan planning in this region and to offer MSP as a national case study on how racial, ethnic and income disparities can reshape a home town — and not for the better.

Loaded with data, the book begins: “People and jobs are steadily decentralizing into the suburbs of the Twin Cities and most other U.S. metropolitan areas. This trend threatens to undermine a host of regional policy objectives, including controlling sprawl; increasing opportunities for disadvantaged populations; implementing transit; decreasing racial, ethnic and economic segregation; and conserving natural assets and open space. These trends are especially detrimental to low-income households and people of color, who are often concentrated in lower-opportunity inner-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs. Because these policy problems transcend municipal boundaries, regional approaches are required to ensure a more equitable and sustainable arrangement of opportunities in metropolitan areas.”

CITYSCAPE will give more attention to this important book in the comng weeks.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/27/2010 - 10:39 am.

    People and jobs are steadily decentralizing into the suburbs of the Twin Cities and most other U.S. metropolitan areas. This trend threatens to undermine a host of regional policy objectives …”

    Dang. If there’s one thing social engineers can’t stand it’s populations who insist on being free men.

    “These trends are especially detrimental to low-income households and people of color, who are often concentrated in lower-opportunity inner-city neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.”

    I think the 30,000 Somalis who reside in Burnsville were actually placed there by government.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/27/2010 - 11:18 am.

    Can’t say that I know anything about the placement of Somali immigrants, though Mr. Tester’s comment doesn’t exactly sound “Minnesota nice.”

    Be that as it may, Mr. Tester wouldn’t recognize social engineering if it hit him upside ‘de head. Most of what constitutes modern industrial society is “social engineering,” and an egregiously obvious example is the home mortgage tax deduction.

    Do away with just that one piece of “social engineering,” and let’s see how “free” suburbanites manage to be. Sandy Iketa’s libertarian take on suburban sprawl is at least as plausible as Randall O’Toole’s – and Dennis Tester’s.

  3. Submitted by Charles Senkler on 08/27/2010 - 11:50 am.

    Check out The Great Reset by Richard Florida. If he’s right the change will be bigger then the response to a tax deduction.

  4. Submitted by Dave Thompson on 08/27/2010 - 12:07 pm.

    If by “city” you mean concrete and steel, by all means go to Chicago. I never understood the appeal. I ride my bike down the Greenway to the train, bring my bike aboard the train, ride to Bloomington to work. On my way home I get off the train at Minnehaha Falls, ride my bike down Minnehaha Parkway to the lakes, around the lakes to home. Now THAT’s a daily commute. I could never do that in Chicago.

    P.S. You know WHY they call it the Greenway? Because there are green plants, trees, flowers everywhere you look. Try finding THAT in Chicago.

  5. Submitted by Michael Jensvold on 08/31/2010 - 01:23 pm.

    Actually Chicago has gone pretty crazy with street beautification, tree planting, landscaping in the last several years. And, it makes a real difference.

    But, it’s no substitute for the lovely rolling glacial terrain of the Twin Cities, sliced through by the mighty Mississippi.

    MSP has plenty of urbanity. A weekend trip to Chicago is fun for a change, but I don’t think that Twin Citians are missing much if they don’t visit. Except maybe Second City and the Field Museum. The funky reflective bean is cool.

    Richard Florida is an idiot.

  6. Submitted by Michael Jensvold on 08/31/2010 - 04:31 pm.

    i·dyl·lic

    –adjective
    1.
    suitable for or suggestive of an idyll; charmingly simple or rustic: his idyllic life in Tahiti.
    2.
    of, pertaining to, or characteristic of an idyll.

    Neither Chicago nor the Minnesota State Fair can seriously be called “idyllic” ..this article is an assault on the English language.

  7. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 09/01/2010 - 05:18 pm.

    “Dang. If there’s one thing social engineers can’t stand it’s populations who insist on being free men.”

    Dang if there’s one thing Dennis can’t stand is the fact that suburbs are the result of social engineering, as argued (by a Libertarian!) in the very article above.

  8. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/03/2010 - 09:31 am.

    But Theo, the point is that free men are those able to choose WHICH form of social engineering they prefer!

    Perhaps most amusing is the defense of the ‘freedom’ of suburbs, which all look pretty much the same, whether in Portland, Maine or Tempe, Arizona. I just wanna be free, man. Meet me at Applebee’s for a neighborhood drink.

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