Public art designed to celebrate the contribution of immigrants and honor former St. Paul Mayor Larry Cohen, who championed their inclusion in Minnesota, soon will adorn the plaza in front of the St. Paul City Hall-Ramsey County Courthouse building.
A temporary, traveling art installation called “CarryOn Homes,” featuring a sculpture made of stacked suitcases, will be displayed first at the corner of Kellogg Boulevard and Wabasha Street in downtown St. Paul. It started Sunday and will run through Nov. 24. A permanent art installation honoring immigrants will be unveiled at the same location in fall 2020.
St. Paul artist Marjorie Pitz, who was selected by a panel of community members to create the public artwork, is developing three design concepts.
The CarryOn Homes installation, followed by the permanent art display, are projects of the Larry Cohen Recognition Project, a collaboration between St. Paul and Ramsey County to honor the only man ever to serve as St. Paul mayor, Ramsey County chief judge and chairman of the Ramsey County Board.
Cohen, who died in 2016 at age 83, was renowned for his support and work on behalf of communities of color and immigrants, including the arrival of Hmong refugees in the late 1970s and ’80s.
“He would see injustice, see something broken and say, ‘How do we fix this?’ ” said Cohen’s widow, Kathi Donnelly-Cohen. “He was an incredible man.”
As chairman of the County Board, Cohen helped pass the county’s first affirmative action policy in the early 1970s, Donnelly-Cohen said. He also worked to improve conditions and circumstances of American Indian families entangled in the foster care system, she said.
As a judge, Cohen set up a certification program for court interpreters after concluding that newer immigrant groups weren’t being properly served. He also established a program called Hmong Circles of Peace to help resolve disputes.
“Judge Cohen was right there from the beginning working with the Hmong community and helping them get connected,” said County Board Chairman Jim McDonough, who first met Cohen while door-knocking on the campaign trail years ago. “He was a strong leader engaging community — especially community voices not always heard.”
Cohen, a St. Paul native, was elected to the County Board in 1970. Two years later he was elected St. Paul mayor, serving two terms through 1976.
Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Cohen to the Ramsey County bench in 1988. Cohen retired in 2002 but continued to serve as a senior judge.
When members of the American Indian Movement went on trial in St. Paul for the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., then-Mayor Cohen brought together all the parties including police and protesters to ensure that no one’s First Amendment rights were violated and that no violence erupted.
Cohen also was influential in efforts to buy the old federal courthouse on Rice Park in downtown St. Paul and have it restored into what is now Landmark Center, a publicly owned cultural center listed on the National Historic Register that’s used for music, dance, theater and exhibitions.
Both Ramsey County and St. Paul have contributed $100,000 to the Cohen Recognition Project. Philanthropies including the Otto Bremer Trust, St. Paul Foundation and F.R. Bigelow Foundation, the Hmong community and the Cohen family also have contributed.