Thursday, November 29, 2007

Twin Cities Design Guide

Thanks to Anne for pointing out Design*Sponge's great city guide to the the Twin Cities. Check it out here.


Catch the Holiday Train and more opportunities to buy local

Does the idea of a freight train all decked out in Christmas lights and packed with holiday performers and Santa Claus get you--or perhaps younger members of your household --excited? Well you should plan on checking out the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train. The train travels across Canada and the U.S. collecting food for the hungry and spreading holiday cheer. This year it will be stopping in the Twin Cities on Tuesday, December 11th. Specific locations and times below:

St. Paul: 7-8PM--Upper level of Central Parking System ramp at Broadway and Kellogg under the Lafayette Freeway Bridge and East end of old post office. Food and cash donations will benefit Second Harvest Heartland.

Minneapolis: 9-10PM--Canadian Pacific Railway's Shoreham Yard, 2800 Central Avenue, NE. Donations will benefit Eastside Neighborhood Services.

Also, if you're ready to delve into your gift shopping this weekend, there are two great local events:

The No Coast Craft Show and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Art Sale. Follow the links to get the details.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Garrison Keillor on Twin Cities Preservation, History, and Urbanism

Thanks to the wonders of the internet age, all of us can listen to the poignant, lucid, and oft-times hilarious keynote address that Garrison Keillor delivered at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in St. Paul last month. If you've got 50-minutes or so, this is really worth a listen. I promise that you'll learn something, laugh out loud, and wonder how Mr. Keillor so successfully blends a history lesson, a call to action, and humor in such a seamless manner. Listen at MPR.

Image: MPR Photo, Bo Hakala

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Travel the World Without Leaving St. Paul

I posted an entry on Explore Minnesota's "My Favorite Minnesota" website today. If you go to the Arts and Culture tab and look for "Mary Kay's 9 Favorite Ways to Travel the World Without Leaving Saint Paul." Tell me what you think.

Art and the City

Thanks to the Rake's 10,000 Arts magazine, I've become acquainted with Gladys Beltran's artwork. She paints these wonderful cityscapes of Minneapolis and St. Paul. With their skewed perspective, they've got an almost childlike quality to them--but when you look at the composition as a whole, with its details and orientation, it's clear that this is the work of a talented artist.

All images: Gladys Beltran, view them at

The new North East

Last night a friend and I had dinner at the newly opened, LEED-certified Red Stag Supper Club. After we were finished eating, I made him drive me around this "close-in" part of Northeast Minneapolis, [across the river from downtown and sandwiched between 1st and Central Avenues(map)] because it seemed so foreign to me. Back in 1995, I briefly lived with some friends in "the stucco palace"--a rental home on 8th Street SE, just a block off of Hennepin. With the exception of Whitey's and the Aveda Institute and Nyes further down on Hennepin, there was nothing going on in this neighborhood. Amazing what a decade-plus will do to a place! In addition to the old standbys, there's a whole new (well at least new to me) cast of restaurants, shops, condos, and adaptively reused office space.

If there is one constant about city living, it is change. It's organic. It's necessary. Sometimes it is prosperous, sometimes ruinous. It is what keeps the city living and is what brings people back--whether to celebrate or resuscitate--or simply eat.

Image: Cobalt Condiminiums

Monday, November 26, 2007

"When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race."

If H.G. Wells were here in the Twin Cities today, he would be full of hope. Much has been made of the recent Census Bureau stats that ranked Minneapolis second in the nation for bicycle commuting--beat only by the perennial favorite, Portland, OR. [Check out this recent New York Times article that shows how Portland's penchant for pedalling isn't just good for the environment and health, it's good for the economy too.)

While our hearty stock and willingness to embrace the whims of Mother Nature has something to do with all of this cycling--there is much to be said for the wonderful bike infrastructure in the Twin Cities. Some of my favorite examples include:

1) The Grand Rounds (with shout outs to the Stone Arch Bridge and the amazing parkways around the Lakes and Mississippi)


2) The Midtown Greenway


3) The "Bike Freeway"(a.k.a The Cedar Lake Trail)


4) and a personal favorite, The U of M Transitway--the fastest way to get between the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses!

Image: (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)

If you really want to wonk out, check out a University of Minnesota--Humphrey Institute study looking at how new bicycle facilities impact bicycle commuting--they found that in every instance, "all individual facilities showed statistically significant increases in bicycle mode share." (Barnes, Thompson, Krizek: 2005.)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Native Son

With Jim Walsh's new book on The Replacements, Twin Citians of a certain age are bound to reminisce of Minneapolis' glory days as an alt/punk/rock capital. I remember cutting something out of a music magazine back in high school that said something like "Not Athens, not Los Angeles, not Minneapolis? Then so what." We were part of the musical triumvarite of the age. At this very moment I am watching (well listening) to former Husker Du front-man Bob Mould's Circle of Friends DVD. What I am loving about this collection is not just the memories that the Husker Du, Sugar, and Bob Mould solo songs are bringing back to me, but the fact that Bob Mould and his compatriots (including Brendan Canty (Fugazi) on drums) are definitely aging--nay aged-- rockers. What I also love about both Canty and Mould is that they symbolize a time, an energy, and a movement that is grounded deeply in a specific place (DC and Minneapolis respectively.)

Bob Mould currently lives in Washington, DC. I just moved back to MN after living in DC for the past 8 years. While I was there, I was an avid reader of Boblog--Bob Mould's totally personal and somewhat quotidien blog. It was such a hoot to have insight into the daily life of this rock icon--and to know that he lived just a mile or so away. I still check in on his goings-on, but now that I'm less likely to run into him on 14th Street NW, I've become a little bit less of a fanatic. You may still catch me reading his "Ask Bob"column in the Washington City Paper (DC's City Pages equivalent) because I love how this Minneapolis icon has been wholly adopted by his new city.

So many books, so little time

The Twin Cities has an amazing collection of libraries. Both the downtown libraries are architectural gems. St. Paul's refurbished Central Library harkens back to the days of classic civic architecture--think Grand Central Station for instance. The best way to describe the relatively new Cesar Pelli designed Minneapolis Public Library is airy. The glass exterior bathes the rooms in light and the open interior is quite the opposite from libraries past. The two libraries are wonderful complements. I'm more familiar with the St. Paul libraries since I live here. While I love being able to walk to the Hamline-Midway branch, I also like to visit the grand St. Anthony Park library. It's so charming it could be on a Christmas card. The Merriam Park library, while less architecturally handsome, has a wonderful children's area where the littlest ones can be entertained with ample crawling space. In this day and age, having a free place to spend time, explore new worlds, and leave with something in your bag is quite remarkable.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Saint Paul Almanac

If you are looking for something local to get your friends in St. Paul, check out the 2008 St. Paul Almanac. This calendar/storybook/guidebook is chock-full of local insights about our fair city.
Buy it online here.
Check out the reviews here.

Made in Minnesota

As we approach the national holiday of "Black Friday" one organization is urging us to shop local. Minnesota 2020 issued a report today noting the environmental and economic benefits of buying Minnesota-made goods:
  • When you spend $1 at a local independent business, an average of 68 cents is re-circulated into the local economy. In contrast, when you spend $1 at a national chain, only about 43 cents stays at home.
  • Minnesota small business owners say they can create more jobs if sales increase this holiday season.
  • Buying local reduces packaging and transportation costs.
Looking for that unique local gift? Check out MN2020's Made in Minnesota Gift Guide.

Image: Paul Gill

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Twin Cities Modernism

Many Twin Cities neighborhoods are graced with charming bungalows, sturdy four squares, the occasional Queen Anne, and lots of 3-4 story brick commercial buildings. Yet interspersed within this traditional post-war fare are a surprising number of modernist buildings in a bunch of different neighborhoods. While some may disagree, I love having an incongruent building pop up in a neighborhood. Especially one that makes liberal use of smooth limestone and concrete, geometric forms, and cool fonts. Here in Hamline-Midway, we have the AMAZING Church of St. Columba. With its minaret-like belltower, its mix of curving and angular masonry, and yes, the excellent font used to identify the building--it is an arresting site in the middle of the neighborhood.

There's plenty of modern residential architecture in the Twin Cities too. Frank Lloyd Wright makes a couple of appearances in Minneapolis with the Willey House in Prospect Park and the Neils house on Cedar Lake. Then there is the whole University Grove neighborhood just outside of St. Paul in Falcon Heights, with dozens of modernist homes, many designed by prominent Minnesotan architects. The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota recently commissioned a map entitled "Minnesota Modernism" that features select buildings from around the state built between 1945 and 1970. If you can get your hands on one, this map is a great way to scout out that venerable mid-century modern aesthetic.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Urban Adventure

In my mind, a great city gives its residents ample opportunity to experience the outdoors within its borders. We are certainly blessed in this regard--having some of the nation's highest percentages of bike trails and parkland per capita. We even do an amazing job at sponsoring organized, outdoor adventures. This year for the first time, both St. Paul and Minneapolis hosted car-free, city bike tours. 6,654 people participated in the 2007 Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour and in its inaugural year, the Minneapolis Bike Tour logged more than 4,500 people. Minneapolis also has the amazing City of Lakes Loppet--a weekend of cross-country skiing races and events including the gorgeous "Luminary Loppet" that takes casual skiers around a candlelit tour of the Chain of Lakes. And let's not forget that people and their canines can skijor through Minneapolis neighborhoods. How cool is that?!?! Then of course there is the less athletic, but nonetheless adventurous, Medallion Hunt at the Saint Paul Winter Carnival. For 12 glorious days, urban adventurers read the clues in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and head to a local park in an attempt to find the medallion. With a $10,000 prize, even below-zero temperatures don't keep scavengers away! Ahhh, Minnesota, land of 10,000 Lakes and 10,000 adventures.

Image: Jason Bain

The Retro Loop

Here in St. Paul, a collection of 5 indy businesses that sell vintage "retro" furniture, clothing, and household goods have banded together to market their wares. I think this is genius. They aren't bound by a single neighborhood, but they've recognized that there is power in being part of group that shares a similar customer base. In an era of national chain domination, it is great to see new models of independent business promotion. Check out St. Paul's Retro Loop.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

All the Live-Long Day

On a whim today, we checked out the Jackson Street Roundhouse. It couldn't be cooler--and I think I can speak for the 14-month old too! Loads of locomotives, rail passenger cars, street cars, buses--contained at the home of the Great Northern Railroad's 1907 roundhouse. What a great thing to find tucked into a St. Paul city neighborhood.

An ode to University Avenue-Part 1

I like to think of University Avenue as the Twin Cities own "El Camino Real." Rather than linking missions, presidios, and peublos, it connects Hmong and Somali neighbors; African-Americans and old school St. Paul Irish; the State Capitol and the Turf Club; the U of M and the Love Doctor.

At first glance there's not a lot to love about University Avenue. It's a wide city street, there's lots of surface parking, a fair amount of vacant or underutilized buildings, big box retail, and no street trees. But looking closer, this workhorse of an arterial is full of gems. Making its way west from the State Capitol, University Avenue is the backbone of Frogtown complete with the best Asian food in the city. Saigon, Little Szechuan, Trung Nam bakery...who needs San Francisco?!?

Into the Midway, you're confronted with the corridor's past as an auto sales haven--lots of emply car lots and showrooms just screaming to be converted into some kind of arts space. University also takes you past some honest-to-goodness, still functioning, industrial areas--a rare commodity in so many cities--that manages to fit in well even as it abuts the Carleton Artist Lofts. The street and its environs aren't pretending to be something that they're not --they're an eclectic, messy, adaptive, hodgepodge of old and new, smelly and shiny, tacky and lovely.

Since this is the first of what will be many odes to University Avenue, I'll stop here. Go out and have a bahn mi sandwich and a Summit ale somewhere on the corridor and tell me that this isn't the King's Highway.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It's Christmastime in the City

When it comes to holiday dazzle, cities definitely do it right. I mean I love a good suburban street all decked out "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" style, but well-lit tract homes can't compare with lavishly decorated department store windows, city lampposts festooned with ornament, or downtown parks transformed by the presence of a massive Christmas tree. Urbanity becomes a fairy tale between Thanksgiving and New Years--and while the cynic in me can see visions of "trite" and "corporate" dancing in my head--99.5% of me sees joy and wonder. And frankly, bringing people to downtowns--to shop, to ponder, to recognize the grandeur of the skylines-- is generally a good thing.

I've always been a fan of public displays of holiday decorating, but now that I'm a parent, I think I love it even more. I can't wait to take our daughter to a Holidazzle parade, to visit the Christmas Tree at Rice Park, and check out the lights on St. Paul's westside. Joy to the world, indeed!

Image: Paul Gill

Thursday, November 15, 2007

When Your Home is Your Office

According to Microtrends, the new book by Democratic pollster Mark Penn--and as reported by Matt Bai in the 11/4/07 edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, 4.2 million Americans work exclusively from home and around 20 million do it part time. For the first time in my life I am working from home--as a part-time, freelance consultant and a full-time mom (with 12 hours of babysitting per week.) It is liberating and freakishly productive. The flexible schedule gives me the freedom to check out neighborhood haunts mid-day, during the week--no crowds, no rush. Before, on the days that I had an appointment out of the office, I used to wonder who all of those people were sitting in a cafe at 2PM on Wednesday. With 4.2 million folks working from home, I'm starting to get a better picture.

For all of the benefits of being self-employed and working at home, there are some serious economic annoyances. As Bai reports, "self-employed workers pay more than 15% of there incomes to Social Security, while traditional workers pay half that rate." Having to pay my own income tax, plus payroll tax, plus healthcare, plus having no 401K with some kind of company match does make the choice to be self-employed bittersweet. I join Matt Bai in calling for the redefinition of the relationships between business, workers and government--ideas like portable family health insurance and tax credits for offsetting childcare costs (that are currently only available through an employer)--ideas that can make self-employment an easier option.

Read some interesting posts about workplace design, neighborhoods, and third places at the CoolTown Studios website.

Image: Matthew Pillsbury.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Change the World, Start at Home

There's a story in today's Star Tribune about three projects on the East side of St. Paul being considered for HGTV's new campaign"Change the World, Start at Home." First, the Change the World program is really cool--HGTV has partnered with three non-profits (who at first blush don't seem to have a lot in common), the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Rebuilding Together--all of whom recognize that community revitalization is important for individuals, the environment, the larger community, and to preserve history.

One of the St. Paul projects featured is the restoration of the Nelson home in historic Dayton's Bluff. Kris Nelson and her boys were kind enough host a large group of us who were on a St. Paul historic revitalization tour during a conference last month. Here we learned about the amazing work of our own local "Change the World" program. The Restore Saint Paul Loan program offered by Historic Saint Paul, helps property owners in Dayton's Bluff, Frogtown, and Payne-Phalen bring back the historic character of their homes. The program recognizes that the exteriors of buildings can shape a neighborhood, change its fortunes, and garner community pride. Look around these neighborhoods and you will see Historic Saint Paul signs in a number of yards--building community and pride along the way!

So if you want to see St. Paul on HGTV, get out and vote! They're choosing from a number of different cities and the one that gets the popular vote, wins.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What do you think about when you hear Midway?

As the queen of list-making, it was no surprise that when my husband, daughter and I were planning a move to the Twin Cities from Washington, DC, that we had a list of the features that we wanted in our new neighborhood:
  • the ability to walk to a coffee shop, nice park, library, a couple of restaurants, and necessary (rather than boutique) retail (e.g. pharmacy, hardware);
  • mature trees and turn-of-the century homes;
  • good public transit service, and;
  • the ability to still squeeze additional value out of the home we were purchasing.
Our search took us to a lot of the neighborhoods that I was more familiar with--like St. Anthony Village, Merriam Park, Mac-Groveland in St. Paul; Linden Hills, Prospect Park, and Fulton in Minneapolis. Lovely neighborhoods all. But I didn't feel the "potential" in these neighborhoods--they didn't have or need potential, for they had already "arrived." To eke out any additional value in a home there would mean renovations that we had neither the skill, time, or money to undertake.

The Hamline-Midway neighborhood simply never occurred to me. Midway conjured up images of big box retail, the State Fair and Hamline University. I had never considered that there was a residential neighborhood there. Well all I can say is thank goodness for friends who knew!

Not that I really know all that much about real estate markets, but my uninformed opinion says that the Hamline-Midway neighborhood is seriously undervalued. We've got the lovely Newell Park, 2 great coffee shops, the city's first Turkish restaurant, an historic library, great bus service, loads of turn-of-the-century homes, proximity to all of the retail on University Avenue, and easy access to both downtowns. And homes are remarkably affordable here.

We're very happy to be here now and we're very excited about the future. The arrival of light rail and the potential for more investment along Snelling and University will likely bring many exciting changes to the neighborhood. We'll keep you posted.
--The Gingko photo is from Joe Hoover's website: Check out all of his great St. Paul neighborhood photos!