There's an intersection I frequent where traffic moves through like a turtle swimming in congealed lard, so I take this little dogleg street. It used to have a laundry whose sign had two clocks — one with the current time, one showing when your shirts would be ready if you dropped them off now. Handy! You could rip off your shirt as you drove past, wrap it around a rock and throw it through the window without stopping to hear when it would be done.
We have so few imaginative signs these days. Old pictures of downtown show buildings bristling with neon, signs hanging perpendicular to the street, glowing in the twilight. A trip to Seven Corners meant viewing the great Hagen Appliances Cowboy, lasso blinking as he rounded up Values.
Good signs are landmarks, things that set a place apart. But I couldn't help thinking "nice as that helpful laundry clock looks, I wish they'd tear it down and put up a parking ramp."
Well, imagine my delight upon reading that's exactly what the city of Edina wants to do. Small hitch: The owners of the Hooten Cleaners building didn't want to sell. I mean, the gall. So the City Council did the only thing it could and voted 3-2 to force them to sell it, because yeah, yeah, it's a free country, whatever, but come on.
When the city comes around and says, "Alas, you stand athwart the march of progress — well, the slow roll of progress trolling the ramp for an open space — and we need your place," you could say:
"Nah. Sorry. I like the way the sun comes in the window in the late afternoon in December, and the taillights of the cars are like red counterpoints to the twinkling white of the lights on the trees. Also, I buried a hobo in the basement. It's a long story. Kidding about the hobo! But I'll tell you what: Let's be partners. I'll take half the receipts from whatever you want to build. No? There's the door."
Sometimes it's necessary; I can understand using eminent domain to buy a house where a baseball stadium's planned. You can't have a free-standing dwelling by third base, where someone can run up to the second floor, lean out a window and catch a ball.
But "we want to build something else" is not enough.
Perhaps Edina could use artists to change people's minds about this. This week the city of Minneapolis sent out a Mobile Engagement Theater unit to Dinkytown to help people envision the future of that storied neighborhood. It sounds like a SWAT team — Special Writers and Thespians — rolled up in a black van, sprang out the back and barked orders for everyone to ENGAGE. You there, citizen — hands on the wall! Feel the history contained in the rough bricks! Translate it into an action plan!
Well, let's see what the website says they do: "engage artists in critical thinking and art making around city and urban issues, and to increase artists' and planners' ability to facilitate community change."
You wonder how urban planners might have different ideas than artists about facilitating change. Not change itself, mind you, but the facilitating of it.
Planners: We need to tear this small old building down for a parking ramp. Let us use the blunt sword of the law to make it happen.
Artists: Perhaps the owners would sell if we developed a rich multimedia experience that used interpretive dance to show how the plot of land has had many uses over time, from Native American settlements to farming to marvelous restaurants where you can get this turkey burger? With a sriracha aioli? It's amazing.
Planners: (several seconds of strained silence) OK, let's start drawing up the paperwork for the court challenge.
Artists: Have someone read it in a town crier outfit!
The art of the streets was once entirely commercial and not intended to be "art" in the modern sense. But the effect of the signs, the jumble of individual voices competing for your pocketbook, the elegant script on the office windows — it was inadvertent art, a boastful gallery of enticements and aspirations.
Nicollet Mall, for example, may end up a model for urban design. New pavement, fresh trees selected for their ability to breath bus fumes and carefully placed art chosen by a committee whose mission statement includes the phrase "vibrant engagement" or possibly "engaging vibrancy."
But the old messy commercial districts were more vibrant than anything we build today. It's probably an eminent-domain-league move to force Nicollet Mall storefronts to have the old signs that hang from the building, but it would create a visual buffet.
It's not art in the generally accepted sense of something "funded by grants." True. But you can buy prints of the way we used to look from the Historical Society. They're suitable for framing.
Then it's art. When it's old. When it's something we wish we'd saved.