Charles Wolfe, a Seattle land-use lawyer, writing in Atlantic Cities today, itemizes qualities that every city should have. He doesn’t focus on impressive monuments like the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower that make city fathers beam with pride. Instead he notes the “impressionistic and, essentially more ethereal ‘bookmarks’ of experiences in cities around the world.” Usually, he adds, those bookmarks evoke aspects of traditional urban life.
I don’t agree with all his choices. Some of them seem a little weird, for example, “spontaneous competition in simple places,” an example of which is an image of varicolored signs advertising different glass companies on an empty storefront. The signs are decorative, but I don’t know whether they would generate any customers these days since most of us go to the Yellow Pages or the Internet to find such services. What Wolfe likes about the signs is that they avoid “rigid regularity.” That I can get behind. Walking down a street of cookie-cutter houses or cookie-cutter parking lots can flatten anybody’s spirit.
In any case, I think it’s worthwhile to look at some of Wolfe’s suggestions to see how or whether our Twin Cities measure up. Here’s a look:
No. 1: Wood-framed storefronts and proud displays.
“Natural building materials give an organic sense of invitation to an otherwise ordinary world of metal and cement,” writes Wolfe. Of course, our wretched winters aren’t easy on wood, but one store that Wolfe would approve of and I would like to see more retailers emulate is Heimie’s Haberdashery at the corner of 6th & St. Peter Street in the Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul. There’s no wood that I can spot, but the building’s terra-cotta ornamentation and metal squares work to frame Heimie’s windows which show incredible arrays of spiffy menswear that remind one of the days when guys dressed to impress. Walking by Heimie’s is a treat for anybody visiting St. Paul.
Our grade: Needs improvement. There should be more stores like Heimie’s.
No. 2: Commercial porches with color and vantage points to the streets.
What Wolfe seems to like are what I would call decks, either on the street level or higher. You can find them throughout the Caribbean and in Mexico. They’re reminiscent of the plank sidewalks on the sets of old Western movies, but more often these days, they provide outdoor seating for restaurants. Why do people like them? Those on deck have a view of the scenery from high up as well as the passing crowd, which is usually interesting as in, “Look at that guy with the green hair!” Passers-by can gawk at the drinkers/diners and feel as though they’re in a place where there’s something going on.
One example in Minneapolis is on Main Street, a short stretch along the river that includes several restaurants — Vic’s, Tug’s, the Aster Cafe, Pracna on Main and the Wilde Roast Cafe. Stroll past them on a Friday afternoon in the spring or summer, and the brick streets, the view of the Mississippi and the crowds sipping wine make you feel almost as though you were in the south of France. Maybe a couple of clothing stores could add to the liveliness. Entertainment areas on Hennepin, in Uptown and in Lyn-Lake could profit by this type of arrangement. Some restaurants have put outdoor dining on their rooftops. That provides customers with a view, but, because those areas don’t connect with the street, they don’t add to its energy — unless somebody throws something off the top.
Our grade: Needs improvement.
No. 3: Water features that emulate nature.
Obviously, the Twin Cities have water features, and they don’t just emulate nature — they are nature. Lakes, rivers and ponds abound. And, city planners and architects have not been stingy with artificial water features either. Parks all over the place can boast of decorative fountains, with the most spectacular perhaps in Rice Park in downtown St. Paul, although Peavey Plaza’s water display is not exactly chopped liver. Plenty of office buildings have reflecting pools, ponds or fountains, and a few, like the Hennepin County Government Center, have water inside and out. We’ve even got a pool with a giant spoon and a cherry in it. The only place perhaps that could use a watery addition: Nicollet Mall. I suppose installing one would interfere with bus and taxi traffic, but it’s questionable whether the street should carry any motor vehicles at all.
Our grade: A+++. We’ve got this covered.
No. 4: Spectacular examples of shopping tradition.
To illustrate this idea, Wolfe shows an image of an unidentified European street, possibly in Italy or France, jammed with pedestrians and flanked by four- and five-story 18th- and 19th-century buildings. The scene looks charming, if a bit congested. I can’t think of any comparable shopping venue in the Twin Cities except maybe the State Fair. Unlike Nicollet Mall, sad to say, the fair draws crowds and offers intense (if not always healthful) local shopping and eating experiences. Then too, there’s the Mall of America. While the structure isn’t the most beautiful on earth, it is definitely consistent with our local tradition — and weather. After all, Southdale was the first indoor shopping mall in the nation.
Our grade: Fair. It would be wonderful if our downtowns could approximate the experience of the State Fair, at least once in a while.
No. 5: Culturally indigenous engravings built into the environment.
Wolfe shows an anonymous plaza whose tiles form waves, important, he says, “to a historically seafaring people.” I get a different message from that plaza, that our streets and sidewalks would be more interesting if they aimed to look more visually arresting than concrete slabs. Visit Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo in Brazil and you find sidewalks and squares with waves and geometric patterns formed of Portuguese black and white stones. Even on a boring street, walkers have something interesting to look at.
Our grade: Needs improvement (as does every other U.S. city). It don’t know what designs would reflect “cultural aspects,” as Wolfe calls them. Maybe we could draw from Native American design. I leave that to the artists among us.
No. 6: Children in public squares.
When I was raising my elder son in Manhattan years ago, I used to ask friends, “When can I safely let him outside to play on his own — when he’s 32?” Wolfe rightly equates parents’ ability to let a toddler wander more than an arm’s length away with the public’s sense of safety. While Twin Cities parents do seem able to allow young children to get a few feet further when in playgrounds and on beaches, they no longer allow or encourage their children to walk or bike to school. Nationally, the share of children not traveling to school by bus or car has dropped from 42 percent in 1969 to about 13 percent in 2009. Parents say they fear kidnapping, even though the odds of a child getting abducted by a stranger are about 1 in 17,000.
Our grade: Unsatisfactory, not necessarily because the Twin Cities are crime-ridden but because we believe they are. Without a sense of security, people will stay locked in their cars, and city streets will remain corridors for transport, not places to amble and enjoy.