Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Field Trips With Ellis

Dateline: 10:37 pm September 19, 2006 Filed under:

Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

It seems as though a piece of mail from the Urban Land Institute intended for me was returned to ULI by our friendly US Postal Service with the message “Cannot Deliver – Deceased.” The membership department of ULI had to call our Minnesota coordinator to sort the whole mess out. She in turn had to call me to verify my whereabouts, so you can imagine the relief when she heard my voice!

I’m not dead yet, but I have been a bit AWOL lately. I suppose that has something to do with parenthood. Actually, I have been on a series of field trips with my son Ellis. He’s three months old now, the perfect age for sleeping in a Baby Bjorn as his dad takes him all over the city.

One such field trip was to St. Paul. You may have heard of St. Paul. It is due east of Minneapolis. In all seriousness, I seem to spend all my time in my beloved Minneapolis, so it is somewhat of a relief to escape to St. Paul once in a while. It’s just across the river, but it feels like a vacation.

Ellis and I took a recent trip to the Science Museum to see Bodyworks, a fantastic display of human bodies without skin, revealing either bones, tendons, blood vessels, organs, muscles, or combinations thereof. Some people are made quite queasy by it all, but I was enthralled. Ellis seemed to enjoy himself as well.

Afterward we wandered across Kellogg Boulevard to see the recently renovated historic St. Paul central library. Minneapolis has a shiny new library designed by Cesar Pelli, but St. Paul’s main library has been lovingly restored; a true landmark. It even has contemplative views of Rice Park out the window, something Minneapolis cannot boast.

We next wandered though Rice Park, gazing up at Landmark Center and the St. Paul Hotel. Together with the library, these three historic buildings flanking Rice Park seem like more history than in all of downtown Minneapolis. That’s why I love St. Paul.

The Mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, is seeking to “re-weave” the city. I believe he could learn from St. Paul. Rice Park is one example. Four significant buildings face it, the Ordway performing arts center being the fourth. All four buildings would be lovely on their own – Rice Park “weaves” them together.

To “weave” is to interlace in order to create a fabric. Thus, Rice Park is a very good example. So is the area between the new Xcel Center arena and the stretch of West 7th Street immediately to its west. The street itself weaves downtown and neighborhoods to the west with a busy mix of shops and restaurants and an attractive streetscape.

Minneapolis has some good examples of weaving. The trails and parkways weave our lakes and rivers together. Light rail weaves together numerous locations and neighborhoods in the city, including Minnehaha Park.

On another field trip with Ellis, we visited Minnehaha Park for a stroll. There is something truly genteel about arriving by train rather than car or even bicycle. Indeed, that is how countless folks used to arrive. The old Minnehaha Depot is still standing next to the original tracks, no longer used but preserved as a reminder of how life used to be. 

Luckily, the park is still a wonderful place to spend part of your day. The centerpiece of the park is Minnehaha Falls, a 50-plus foot high waterfall. It never ceases to amaze me that this fantastic falls is right in the middle of an urban area.

The rest of the park is a combination of picnic areas, trails, gazebos, statues, and a big pavilion that now has a restaurant that serves very good food and even has a license for beer and wine. During our warmer months one can rent jitneys for a leisurely pedal through the park.  

For his “re-weaving” effort, I hope Mayor Rybak remembers that life is about the journey, not the destination. You are where you are, and while we need great buildings, we need well designed spaces in between them. Think about that on your next field trip to St. Paul or Minnehaha Park. 

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