Goodbye Golden Boy

Baby Boomers and Block E. Preservation and parks. Urban history and virtual reality. Outgoing city planning director Paul Farmer on the politics and passions that got him fired.

Urban planning, as a discipline, must breed a kind of fatalism in its disciples--outgoing Minneapolis Planning director Paul Farmer among them. According to the Farmer bible, planners can't expect results in a few weeks. Or months. Or years. All that waiting around for an idea to pan out--to turn into a building, a road, a neighborhood--makes planners an exceedingly patient bunch. There's a sense among Farmer's colleagues, locally and elsewhere, that when all of today's planners are gone and their plans turned to dust, cities will remember their efforts long after cities' residents forget. For a distinguished urban planner like Farmer, that means there's no point in worrying about leaving work for a week, even in the heat of crisis. It's unlikely that the city will change much while you're away. So when Farmer ducked out of the Planning Department office in mid-May to volunteer at a YMCA camp in the Adirondacks--just as his stint as director comes to an embattled close--he didn't give much thought to taking the week off. Minneapolis would be there when he got back, as would the political snarl that led to his dismissal. Though his champions in Minneapolis would have liked to change the fact that Farmer will be out the door on July 5--after watching the City Council's Executive Committee refuse to renew his contract this spring--even that ending hadn't been altered by the time he returned. Farmer, the "visionary" who rode into town three years ago with the assignment of restoring Minneapolis to some of its former glory, has been, simply put, fired. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the historical inability of the Planning Department to keep out of the political crossfire. Perhaps it was fate. Oh well, he says--a certain fatalism apparent in the shrug of his shoulders. "It's out of my hands."

Paul Farmer is not the man one might expect to meet, given his reputation of late. Council member Steve Minn calls Farmer a poor manager who couldn't get things done, and blames him for driving away 11 staff members. From that, one might anticipate finding the Planning office demoralized and more chaotic than it was late last month. One might expect papers piled up and spilling off desks. Overwhelmed underlings scurrying to make sense of the imminent change in leadership. But the department is, as it has been with Farmer at the helm, in order. The crushed velvet chairs in the reception room are shipshape. The coffee table is free of dust. On a typical afternoon a couple of weeks ago, staffers were gathered casually around the front desk, engaged in a lively debate about zoning with a neighborhood resident who'd just stopped in. As Farmer emerged from his office, they watched him protectively, as if looking upon a revered statesman.

Farmer comes across as part Harvard scholar, part old-fashioned Southern gentleman. The cool hand he offers in greeting likens to a physician's touch--professional, except for the playful smile that pulls up the corners of his mouth and makes his Newman-blue eyes sparkle. His hair is curly, salt and pepper, and his soothing baritone voice registers with the richness of polished mahogany. It's a warm spring day as we exit City Hall and head toward one of the Planning director's favorite lunch spots, a deli hidden at the back of the Grain Exchange building. Farmer, who stands well over 6 feet tall, propels himself down the city's sidewalks with an easy stride. Others on the street tend to move out of his path, craning their necks to meet his face as one might gaze up to glimpse the crown of a skyscraper.

Mark Wojahn

When Farmer speaks, he speaks with an expertise that transcends the here and now. The impression is that he possesses a permanent bird's-eye view of the city, as if someone had tattooed an aerial photograph of the urban landscape on his brain. He peers up at the tops of the old milling buildings and, suddenly inspired, proclaims, "You can tell that the grain and flour exchanges were more lucrative than the lumber exchange because of the architecture." His mind holds a seemingly innate grasp of the big picture, gathering in the minutiae of location, design, material, mass, and economics to tell an epic story of the city's history--and its unfolding future. All in one take. Flash.

Yet for all his forward thinking, Farmer is very much rooted in the past. Brought up in Shreveport, Louisiana, he looks every bit the part of a Dixie native in his off-white summer suit. He still watches a woman's step, timing his gestures before holding open a door. As he sits down to lunch, his deep drawl turns to a running commentary on Minneapolis, the city's neighborhoods, his academic past, a recent trip to Boston. He delivers his oration, somewhere between sermon and lecture, complete with introduction, body, and conclusion to every point--sharp essays that convey his appreciation for the complex forces shaping this city. His manner remains mellow no matter how sticky the subject before him--his dismissal, say, or his prospects for the future--broken only by a rare smile when it comes to historical preservation or the cleanup of contaminated urban land, two of his favorite topics.

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