When you wish upon a city

If you could wave your magic wand and make one improvement to the Twin Cities, what would it be?

We know, we know: The end of the year--the century, the millennium--has always occasioned a bit of fantasizing. I'll start exercising! I'll change my oil every 3,000 miles! By God, I will return my library books on time! And by all means, we second the wish for self-improvement. But there must be life beyond fabulous abs, a clean engine, and a clear conscience. What if our fantasies and hopes were concerned not with personal betterment but with the public good?

Blink your eyes. Do your magic. If you could change one thing about the Twin Cities in order to make life better here, what would it be? We invited dozens of local architects, lawyers, artists, restaurateurs, teachers, ministers, organizers, business owners, even Lake Harriet's resident elf, to spend some time imagining a single enhancement that would improve, in some small or sweeping measure, their hometown. Forget all the reasons it couldn't come true, we said--the money, the politics, the laws of gravity. All we asked was that answers be specific. So, for instance, merely installing more parkland would be too vague, but proposing that Lakewood Cemetery be opened for live recreation--that's more like it. Similarly, saying you'd make it easier to get around town doesn't solve much, whereas resurrecting the streetcar, patching up potholes, installing metrowide light rail, doubling the bus fleet, blazing new bike paths, and flogging sluggish motorists--well, you get the idea.

They mused. They fretted. They weighed in, thought better, called back. While we'd envisioned brainstorms that were concrete (an environmentally friendly alternative to those annoying corrugated sleeves that keep your carry-out coffee cup from burning your fingers would be nice, for instance), hardly anyone we asked could resist dreaming up the Big Fix--which often had to do with social justice. But then, that should have come as no surprise, given our citizenry's optimistic mien and penchant for populist crusading (the downside of which may be a few blind spots when it comes to less lofty matters, like coffee cups).

In the end our participants' collective reverie gave rise to a vision of the Twin Cities that we hope--and why not?--even the most jaded among us would be proud to call home.

 

JEANNE WEIGUM
community activist

Get rid of the clutter! I would love to see the billboards gone so we could see the beautiful skyline in St. Paul. There are about 630 billboards in St. Paul and about 400 in Minneapolis right now. They've been around a long time, but the early ones were very small. Think of the Burma Shave signs you could read from your car at 25 mph. They weren't lighted; they were more like lawn signs. Now when you whip by at 80, the billboards are so enormous you can read the fine print! Many of them now are lit up, which is a real downer if you happen to live in an apartment near one. Plus, national research shows that there are many more billboards in inner-city neighborhoods, and that these are more likely to advertise alcohol and gambling. That's just wrong.

This is just a simple thing--but hey, we ought to be able to see the river and the capitol without all these billboards all over the place. Driving down University Avenue ought to be more interesting than looking through the yellow pages.

 

RICHARD FLOOD
chief curator, Walker Art Center

The ongoing dumbing-down of the city's skyline and the Mississippi's shoreline is one thing I would love to see change. The absence of architectural vision and innovation is progressively turning our vertical city into a cluster of undifferentiated high-rises with rental-information banners as their only distinguishing features. Similarly, the cookie-cutter housing which is spreading along the banks of America's most legendary river is a serious misunderstanding of that river's power as a destination.

I hope that in the new millennium, those people with the money to build and those who issue their permits will stop and think more about what makes a great city and less about what it costs per square foot.

 

JEREMIAH CREEDON
senior editor, Utne Reader

I mean no disrespect to the dearly departed, but I'd like to see the gorgeous piece of land that is Lakewood Cemetery swept of the dead and given back to the living. I'd rather watch kids booting a Hacky Sack and making out under the willows by the pond than bow my head before all the somber stones in rows, each etched with a few quietly desperate words whispering to me like the ads in the personals. (I find them oddly similar and equally depressing.)

True, when it comes to guarding green space from urban growth, the dead fare better than the living. You may remember the open space where the north half of the Walker's sculpture garden now sprawls like an airplane graveyard in the desert. The Guthrie, we know, would do much the same to the nearby baseball diamonds if given the chance. I've seen displays of exquisite grace and beauty at both the museum and the theater, but none more sublime than a girl running or a dog leaping for a Frisbee. Would the city's creative life really be served by taking a stage from so many performing artists and giving it to a few? I have my doubts.

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