Perhaps it’s nostalgia for life before the internet, but I love perusing public message boards. I’m old enough to remember when you discovered useful information by glancing at lampposts, and somehow the city seemed more alive. I knew I was in the right place when I spotted a flyer that caught my eye in the doorway of a coffee shop, on a library wall or tacked to a telephone pole.
That’s why I’ve been photographing these message boards for almost twenty years, beginning with a piece of fence in Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood. It was just a small bit of fencing between two neighborhood shops, but in 2005, it was a perfect spot for want ads, campaign flyers, lawn lawn mowing services, community meetings, roommates wanted — that kind of thing.
Today on certain corners, old-school message boards are still somehow thriving. If you glimpse one, it’s a sign you’re at an urban hotspot, part of a city alive with the footsteps of strangers.
Until a few years ago, the message board on the corner of Como and Carter was the best one in the city, its combination of design and vitality unbeaten in my Twin Cities wanderings. Its dynamic was a credit to the sense of community in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, itself a legacy of the area’s 19th century origins as a distinct suburb along the Northern Pacific railroad. Beginning in the 1880s, you could get from St. Anthony Park to either downtown in about 25 minutes, still a pretty good commute compared to today’s #3 bus.
The Como Avenue message board only dated back a few decades, the work of a local architect named Joe Michels. He worked with the surrounding business community to build and construct the kiosk and two distinct bus shelters that bracketed the street.
“They were almost orientalist,” said Pat Thompson, a long-time member of the St. Anthony Park Community Council, describing Michels’ designs. “They were sort of a cross between Japanese and Prairie-style influence, both the bus shelter and kiosk.”
I waited in those shelters many times, appreciating their ample benches and protection from the wind. But all of Michels’ work is gone now, victims of a city street reconstruction project three years ago (Fun fact; the contractor saved the bus shelters and gave them to community members; one is in a neighbor’s back yard, a few blocks from its original site.)
For the last two years, downtown St. Anthony Park lacked a public message board and, to me, the absence was palpable. From the vantage of the sidewalk café tables, something was missing, as if a cherished parlor painting had vanished.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
“We wanted to have the public art incorporate the kiosk back at this location,” explained Thompson. “At a board meeting in October, people came up with idea of referencing the St. Paul University of Minnesota campus.”
The campus focuses on agricultural work, and includes a bee lab. That’s where the idea for “the beehive” theme emerged.
The St. Anthony Park community is nothing if not diligent, and they quickly began communicating with the Public Works department. City street reconstructions have a “public art” budget, and resuscitating the message board seemed like the perfect opportunity.
In this case, the city relied on their artist-in-residence program, a grant-funded program from a nonprofit called Public Art Saint Paul, where one or two artists of different media are embedded within city departments. The goal is to find ways to collaborate and create public art, and to make artistic engagement
(You might be familiar with the sidewalk poetry project, the 2009 brainchild of artist-in-residence, Marcus Young.)
In this case, the city’s worked with a sculpture artist named Brad Kaspari. The result is the Langstroth kiosk, a playful, artistic structure that mimics a distinct kind of apiary (i.e. a housing complex for bees).
“It’s based on apiaries,” Thompson explained. “Even the color of it, they use leftover paint, and they paint the apiaries those colors because it helps the bees find the right one. The kiosk has brass bees on it.”
The end result is a relief for someone like me, a fan of dynamic public space. After it was installed in June, random community messages have returned to the corner of Como and Carter.
“The St. Anthony Park Council is in charge of maintaining it,” Thompson told me. “We take turns once a week, stopping by, to make sure things are taken down that are past date, to look and if it looks neat enough. It has a door on it so things won’t blow off. It’s really well designed!”
Indeed, visit the kiosk today and you’ll find: ads for a dog walkers, the holiday bazaar at a nearby church, a tea house, Christmas wreath sales, computer repair, a tribute show at the Cabooze bar; want ads for an “experienced carpenter”, a lawn raker, and a female roommate; and the news that local TV personality Ron Schara will be appearing at the bookstore across the street on December 4th to sign his latest work.
Maybe in 2021, a flyer for a band show or political protest isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. After all, a split-second Tweet is so much easier, and likely to be seen by just as many people. Why bother going to the trouble of printing leaflets, copying them at a Kinko’s, and trudging over the neighborhood to post them on telephone poles or in coffee shop foyers?
If you find a corporeal message board these days, it’s a good sign of thriving civic life, a barometer of the dynamic feedback loop that persists between a city and its people. At least along some well-trod sidewalks, where people still stroll with curious eyes, these little spots still have a purpose.
That’s why I’m happy to report that the message board in St. Anthony Park will live to see another day, revealing another generation of dog walkers and free yoga classes to local passers-by. Keep it coming, St. Paul. As long as there are lost cats to be found, I’ll be watching.