Last Saturday some neighbors, local business owners and I put on a Better Block event, and for one glorious day a pretty darn good commercial corner of Minneapolis was made a much better place with trees, an on-street bike rack, a PARKlet, live music, a Ping-Pong table, and most of all, people enjoying themselves in our public space. There were even bubbles.
Here is what we did (above). A few rolls of sod, table and chairs, a bookshelf with books and games and bench for reading. Hay bales demarcate the bike rack and flowers to form the edge of the PARKlet. We borrowed four trees and placed them on the boulevard where we thought permanent trees should be. The result was an instantly transformed place. That first cup of coffee and game of checkers at 7:30 was wonderful.
Soon more people began to show up. By 9AM people were congregating in spaces never used before. Above you see a guy sitting on the bench reading, a kid playing himself in chess, people heading to the Angry Catfish and A Baker’s Wife for their morning java and pastry, and kids sitting in the grass and the mats reading and playing games. I was pretty happy that so many parents were willing to let their kids be so close to moving traffic. Keep in mind that we strategically placed the PARKlet (AKA “The 28th Avenue Terrace”) and bike racks in front of existing businesses A Baker’s Wife, Busters and Angry Catfish not only to capture energy from their customers but to enhance those customers’ experience. Time and again during the day this relationship produced wonderful synergies with how people used the public space.
Now look at the above photo. Not only are people sitting on the curb with their feet on the PARKlet grass, but perhaps more impressive are the people next to them who sitting on the curb with their feet in the regular old street with the dirt and cigarette butts. They’d never have done this if the space next to them wasn’t comfortable for people. I find this very fascinating and quite heartening.
Continually through the day people sought out the precious shade provided by these little maples. I saw people of all ages sitting or standing, doing a variety of activities, and they instinctually found shade. And kids just sat down on the sidewalk and played games…imagine that!
One of the many goals of Better Block is to attract attention to a vacant commercial property, which may one day lead to a new business. Across the street Randy’s lot and building at 4201 28th Avenue has sat vacant for years, and one of the rumors that has swirled about is that an ice cream shop would go in there. So we activated the gravel lot for a day with table and chairs, Ping-Pong, and beanbag toss. Hoodstarter showed up to crowdsource neighbors’ votes for what should go in to the space. See the results here. And for one day only…
…we listened to the crowd and opened a pop-up ice cream store.
And there was music on the 28th Avenue Terrace, including a jazz quartet from South High. The “terrace” was strategically located within earshot of the Busters and Catfish patios, but people of all ages also gathered close to listen. Kids naturally sought out mats to sit on, and folks again migrated to the shade. One person remarked to me that he hadn’t even noticed that the trees were in pots; they seemed so natural, it was as if they had always been there.
By late morning the bike racks were full, kids (and Busters) had drawings all over the sidewalk in chalk, books and games were strewn about, people took the liberty of jaywalking between the PARKlet and Ping-Pong, and the Police showed up (thankfully to chat with neighbors, not to see my obstruction permit!), and the band played on.
At high noon Ward 12 Councilmember Andrew Johnson read a book to the kids. Take this image in for a moment. Johnson is sitting on a bench on the grass in the street and the kids are sitting on mats on the sidewalk right next to the curb, some of them in the shade. This would never happen without the provision of a few simple things like a tree and bench, etc., in other words, a reason to be there! On any other day a car would be parked in this very spot. Just imagine how much better our public spaces could be with a few simple permanent additions.
In the early afternoon Busters was open and people sat on the patio drinking beer and listening to the Family Three play a barefoot set on the 28th Avenue Terrace. Shortly thereafter Friends of Roosevelt Library showed up with more books and to lobby for longer library hours. The librarian read yet another book, and once again, they naturally selected a spot in the shade. We need these trees! As well, all day I noticed a drastic reduction in the speed of cars passing by. Time and again, people, flowers and music caught drivers’ attention and they slowed down. It’s true, rock ‘n’ roll stops the traffic! Actually, our intention was never to shut the street down or stop the traffic entirely, but simply to have traffic move slower, making it safer and more pleasant for all.
In one sense Better Block is a one-day demonstration of all that is possible in our cities. In another, it is simply providing a little extra incentive for people to stick around and enjoy themselves in our public spaces. What if every day there were trees, a bike rack, a PARKlet, a bench, and chess? And what if some of it was indeed in the street? And maybe a new business at 4201 28th Avenue. Imagine that. As Better Block showed, this is all possible.
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