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Year-end wrap: Faux realtors on bus benches, ex-garages …

In the absence of stellar holiday window displays: a guerrilla art project replicates bus-stop-bench ads, former garages find new life, and more.

The myth that the holiday season is typically marked by an uptick in reported cases of depression seems to have been disproven by science, but anecdotally, you probably still know quite a few people who find Christmas time to be kind of a bummer. I’m usually not one of them, but sometimes the cold, the darkness, and the general demands of the social and work calendar can be a little alienating.

Again, I self-identify as a reasonably merry guy. I walk around whistling “Silver Bells” to myself with the best of them. I’ll tell kids I’m related to Santa if they point at my beard and ask. But I was walking down Nicollet Mall the other night, with the idea that I might write about some of the holiday-themed window decorations I encountered, and I was just coming up with nothing that made me feel merry at all. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong stores, but they all seemed exceptionally lackluster and, actually, kind of gloomy. Nicollet Mall can be beautiful in the winter, with lights and wreaths strung up all over, but after 8 p.m., it can also be pretty deserted, and the window-shopping just isn’t what it used to be. Display after display just failed to hit the mark.

One display in particular, in the window of a national casualwear chain store, is maybe the saddest I have ever seen. It’s two headless, light gray mannequins, standing atop a couple of half-hearted silver gift boxes against a blank background, wearing the most dismal-looking, neon-colored sportswear imaginable. Not even flashy, space-age form-fitting sportswear. Just formless, cheap-looking swaths of blank one-color fabric loosely shaped into a human form. The mannequins just seem to be shrugging and saying, “Well, here’s some dumpy exercise clothes. They’re purple, which is cool, I guess.” If an art school student had created the exact same display as a statement about bland corporate consumerism, they would have been taken to task for being too strident. 

Not very inspiring at all. I fled Nicollet Mall on foot.

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I ended up outside an art deco auto-body garage on the edge of downtown, with beautiful glass block windows and a very old, very imaginative sign outside. Through the window, I saw someone had assembled a little historical display on the office wall. A man, who appeared to be a manager, was sitting at a desk going through receipts. Perfect! A little historical display, right under my nose and exactly my kind of thing, probably with some great stories! Maybe I’ll write about this! I knocked on the glass.

He looked up at me and gave me the universal sign of “sorry, we’re closed.” I pointed to my camera and mouthed, “Do you have a second?” He looked baffled and shook his head again.

Has it come to this? I thought. Standing outside in zero degree weather in pitch darkness, trying to convince the manager of an auto shop that’s been closed for an hour to let me in so I can take photos of the black-and-white photos on his wall? 

The guy was right to be baffled: The whole scene looked nuts. When opportunities like this come up and work out, they can seem magical. (And I am sure there’s a good story with this auto shop I’ll tell another time, but this clearly wasn’t the time.) When they fall flat, though, they just seem kind of dumb.

So, having utterly failed in both my strolling duties this particular evening, and in my reporting on the holiday magic in downtown Minneapolis, I think maybe it’s time for a vacation to recharge. I’ll be off the next two weeks, but being the last column of the year, I want to leave with a few interesting tidbits related to public spaces, art and design, and the Twin Cities. These wouldn’t necessarily fit into a regular column, but may be of interest to you, and serve as a neat send-off to 2013.


This may have already passed over your social-media transom, but if not, it’s worth a look. Back in August, I wrote a column about real estate agent bus bench advertising, and some of the familiar faces you meet in that world. Designer Phil Jones seems to have a similar fascination with these faces – he calls it “a deep respect for anyone who is willing to put their face on a bus stop bench knowing what people do to them.” In a guerrilla art project called “Faces of Real Estate,” he took that fascination and deep respect with those faces to an extreme conclusion.

real estate bench
Courtesy of Phil Jones
Designer Phil Jones recreated real-estate ad photographs using himself as the model, matching the hairstyle, clothing, and poses with impressive accuracy.

Selecting some of the more notable ads around Uptown, Jones recreated the photographs using himself as the model, matching the hairstyle, clothing, and poses with impressive accuracy. He then posted his altered image over the original as seamlessly as possible. They only read as jokes if you look closely – something about those strained smiles and not-quite-right wigs seem to tip his hand – but they’re subtle enough that many of them could probably have remained in place for months before anyone really noticed that they looked a little off. Scott Parkin, the “urban luxury specialist” whose face is all over bus stop benches in Uptown, is probably one of the most recognizable around. But how long would it take you to really notice his appearance had changed ever so slightly?


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A British organization called Situations released a sort of manifesto this month called “The New Rules of Public Art,” and it’s pretty inspired. Public art is a regular subject of The Stroll, and a lot of that is more traditional forms – excellent pieces of artwork such as the Zapata statue in Powderhorn, or the ’80s-era manhole covers downtown. But I’ve also written about Erik Brandt’s “Ficciones Typografika,” and Stephanie Rogers’ “Urban/Environment,” projects that exist in the public realm and engage the public in novel and unexpected ways, but don’t necessarily conform to traditional ideas about what public art is.

Part of “Everything You Need to Build a Town Is Here” by Wrights & Sites.

Those traditional ideas are too rigid and outdated, and Situations’ new rules are exciting for how much they resonate with so much artwork that’s being made in Minneapolis-St. Paul right now. I’m particularly struck by rule 6: DEMAND MORE THAN FIREWORKS. “Believe in the quiet, unexpected encounter as much as the magic of the mass spectacle,” it reads. “It’s often in the silence of a solitary moment, or in a shared moment of recognition, rather than the exhilaration of whizzes and bangs, that transformation occurs.” That’s the principle that guides nearly everything I write about, whether it’s public stairways, river beaches, cemeteries, neighborhood bars, ghost towns, or cornerstones. Some of the best artists’ work keeps that idea in the forefront; not in the extravagant gesture, but in the small moment.


Lastly is one of my favorite blogs of the year, created by one Helmut Sporgersi, a Twin Citian with an exceptionally discerning eye. It Used to be a Garage is exactly what it sounds like, a collection of images of doorways, walls, and other architectural elements on buildings that were, at one time, garages. The range is remarkable – garages converted into all sorts of non-garages, both professionally and (often hilariously) by amateurs. Many of the structures featured are industrial spaces repurposed as commercial or retail spaces, but there are a fair amount of private homes in there, with driveways leading to blank walls. Some try to hide the transformation, and others embrace it. It’s a testament to the infinite adaptability of buildings, but also to the thousands of Twin Citians and Minnesotans out there with an eye on their surroundings, documenting and celebrating the quiet, unexpected encounter.

It Used to be a Garage is exactly what it sounds like, a collection of images of doorways, walls, and other architectural elements on buildings that were, at one time, garages.

You’re probably one of them, if the emails I receive from readers pointing me in the direction of the interesting, arcane, inexplicable and underappreciated corners of the Twin Cities are any indication. Keep them coming, and thanks for strolling and looking with me in 2013.