This past Saturday, Stephanie Rogers, a Minneapolis photographer, was giving a guided tour of her Urban/Environment project along the Chicago Avenue corridor between 32nd and 42nd Streets. She’s dressed for the part, wearing a wide-brimmed forest ranger hat and a backpack filled with binoculars and – lucky for me – sunscreen.
The Urban/Environment project began with Rogers walking around the neighborhood with a camera and shooting photographs of aspects of the natural landscape. She’s then created state-park-style signage that is posted on the site the photo was taken, with an image of the photo itself, and explanatory text in English, Spanish, and Somali. They are posted in public gardens, private residences, businesses, parks, front lawns, just about anywhere there’s something green. There are 38 of the signs, attached to fences or green posts stuck in the ground. The signs identify everything from spiders, earthworms and ducks to mulberries, Virginia creeper and zucchini, all found within the ecosystem of South Minneapolis. The tour last Saturday was the fifth of seven over the course of June and July.
By the middle of the tour, I am feeling a little embarrassed because I don’t know any of this. I can’t tell a mulberry from a hackberry. Cities aren’t places where you really come into contact with nature, right? You come into contact with low-flying 737s, and bus advertisements, and brutalist office buildings, and billboards, and Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Sure, there are parks with a few trees and lakes, but a city park doesn’t really have the same natural complexity as a state park. Right?
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The built environment is just one small aspect of the urban landscape. That built environment exists over, under, around and beneath a whole host of natural systems, as complex as any wide swath of untouched forest or prairie. It’s how exactly these systems interact with one another that’s focal point of Rogers’ work. With assistance from biogeographers Jacob Richards and Megan Buchanan, she has documented these systems, and told their stories in such a way that weaves together biology, history and photography.
When artists work with signage and didactics, it can be easy to slip into jokiness or retro Wes Anderson-style miniaturism, in such a way that the signage itself becomes the focal point – “hey, look it’s art, it’s supposed to be like an old state park sign, get it?” Like that. Rogers sidesteps this entirely by avoiding any bucolic timberlodge-like design elements, and making the signs subtle and unintrusive. They’re designed well but they’re not over-designed. Dark gray boxes with high-quality reproductions of Rogers’ photos and white text in three columns, the signs look right in place in their habitats. You have to go looking for them, unless you’re a sort of person who pays close attention to what’s going on around you.
Taking the tour, you quickly realize the distinctions between the natural and human-made are not so cleanly delineated. The neighborhood is home to a large number of urban gardens, first of all, which blurs the lines between natural habitat and human intervention. The gardens serve a variety of purposes – neighborhood projects developed around food sustainability, community gathering places, and in some cases, purely as landscaping. On the tour, we come across a few people tending their front-yard gardens. The signage is not only located on city land and small businesses, but in many private residences.
Outside the gardens, too, Rogers finds evidence of that human-nature interplay all over. Zucchini plants coil around wire; trees grow around and slowly absorb chain-link fences. Ducks wander around, eating Cheetos off the pavement. Earthworms till the soil, which seems natural enough, until you read that earthworms are not in fact native to North America, and were introduced by Europeans not more than 200 years ago. One of my favorite photos, a melon resting across the top of a fence half-eaten, far from any melon plants, tells an interesting narrative: How did it get there? The gardener moved it to attract away hungry squirrels? One of those hungry animals dragged it away? The way it sits on the fence against a bed of green, it looks like it should be documentation of some intentional intervention on the part of an artist.
The wetlands between Park and Chicago at 37th are home to a few signs that speak eloquently to human-natural interaction. Once occupied by old-stock houses and apartments, the area was so prone to flooding that the structures were removed in the 1970s and ’80s, and replaced with a pond that’s home to a few varieties of ducks. There is also a sort of porous hollow that people in the neighborhood use as a soccer field with two sets of rocks denoting goalposts, but that can also accept runoff and excess rainwater. Nearby are two willows – one weeping, one not (Rogers tells me a nearby neighbor claims that the non-weeping willow lacks the characteristic droopiness because of over-eager kids climbing all over it). The sign by the willow points out not just natural facts about the tree – willows can absorb at least 80 gallons of water a day, I learned – but point out where human interaction has altered the landscape. In this case, the sign notes that the area underneath the tree is well-trampled, meaning neighborhood kids have used it enthusiastically for many, many years.
You can get a map of the project at the Arts in Chicago website, or from some of the businesses (including Wing Young Huie’s great Third Place Gallery, where Rogers works). But you can also head out there and find them yourself. Rogers’ signage asks you to carefully observe the city around you, but not simply those aspects you think of us being part of “the city” – not just the concrete and brick and paint and metal, but the plants and animals that co-exist with those elements, as well.
Rogers will lead tours on two more upcoming Saturdays, July 13 and July 27, at 2 p.m., beginning at the Artstop Garden at 32nd and Chicago, across from the Modern Times Café. Learn more here.