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.
• 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.