Mpls. fountains flow, but few drink

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2011 - 10:54 AM

Mayor R.T. Rybak's water promotion effort was cut back, but at the four installed fountains the water itself gets mixed reviews.

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Mayor R.T. Rybak championed the installation of artistic drinking fountains at a cost of nearly $50,000 apiece. This one is at SE. Main Street and SE. 3rd Avenue.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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We've been staking out the four fabled city-financed artistic drinking fountains in Minneapolis recently. We wanted to see what the nearly $50,000 per fountain from our property taxes and water fees buys. You can judge for yourself from the photos.

We were also curious how much use they get. With one exception, the answer is not much.

We posted ourselves on E. Lake Street next to the Midtown YWCA. We discovered that the fountain there may be more successful from an artistic standpoint than as a watering hole. It's in a nicely landscaped corner of the Y, but it's not handy to either of the Y's entrances and is a good distance from the closest bus stop. Only eight pedestrians and a lone biker wandered by during our observation on an early evening warm enough to encourage taking a good slug of city water.

Intrigued, we finally flagged down one walker, Charles Anderson of Minneapolis, to ask him if he ever partook of the free city water.

"I never really knew it was a water fountain," responded Anderson, who said he mistook for a piece of sculpture the fountain designed by artists Gita Ghei, Sara Hanson and Jan Louise Kusske. It's the largest of the four fountains, and there's clearly a lot going on in the design. "Maybe that's why a lot of people don't use it," said Anderson, who suggested that adding a simple sign offering fresh water might attract more drinkers.

"I've walked by here a number of times thirsty," Anderson lamented.

The newest fountain on SE. Main Street is the only one that got steady use when we observed it. Maybe that's because it's near the St. Anthony Main entertainment complex, and we were there late on a Friday afternoon, as folks flocked to nearby trails and bars. But the reaction was mixed.

Kristen Smith of Minneapolis loves the simple polished metal fountain by artist Seitu Jones -- but not for herself. Her American Eskimo dog Sunny makes use of a separate low-level drinking bowl for the canine set. Smith usually carries filtered tap water for herself when she's walking the dog.

The artistic drinking fountains are the brainchildren of Mayor R.T. Rybak, who proposed them as half public art project and half promotion of city water. The city long has earmarked a tiny proportion of its capital spending projects for public art, as has the state. The impetus for this specific project was the declining consumption of city water, a trend attributed to less heavy industry in the city, water conservation by both businesses and individuals, and the popularization of bottled drinking water, which Rybak has campaigned against as expensive and wasteful.

Rybak married the public art and water promotion ideas into a proposal for 10 artist-designed fountains intended to promote city water. Only four were funded, at an average cost expected to come in just under $47,000. The reduction was billed as an economy move but in the minds of some of his blogosphere critics, any of the fountains was one too many.

If convincing visitors of the glories of city tap water was the goal, the city fell flat on Main Street with two visitors from Roseville, still thirsty despite a tour on the Pedal Pub. They took a sip from the Jones fountain.

"It's disgusting! It's gross!" proclaimed Josef Ntim, meaning the water, not the design. "I would never drink from it," added Paul Crary.

The problem was the water temperature. On sunny days, the fountain sits all afternoon in the heat of the sun, and the appeal of its contents plummets. "Can't this water be cold?" asked passerby Akshya Saxena of Minneapolis. "It doesn't taste the greatest but it's wet," was the summary of Mic Wright, who stopped by with Colleen Healey for a sip. "Nice and hydrated" was Healey's verdict after a few sips.

The placement of fountains is dictated both by who's willing to take on the responsibility to care for them, and where the closest water line runs. Absent those factors, a case arguably could be made for putting the Main Street fountain on the shadier river side of the street used by joggers and bikers.

The fountain in front of the Ancient Traders Market on Franklin Avenue East also sits in the sun for half a day, but it's in the shade when the day is hottest. The water quality gets no complaints from FedEx driver Phil Allen, who makes deliveries to the building frequently and samples fountains around the city. "It's probably one of the better-tasting ones -- better than a lot of office buildings," he said.

This granite fountain by Peter Morales incorporates American Indian creation stories with a fish, a crow and a turtle that spouts water from its mouth.

Another fountain is used even less when its location is taken into consideration. It's in a pocket park downtown on 2nd Avenue S. At midday, almost 500 pedestrians passed by during our observation. Residents from the next-door Exodus Residence populated the park, some reading or smoking on a bench close by the tree-shaded fountain. But no one drank, despite an appealing design by Lisa Elias incorporating frond-like grass blades of steel.

With the exception of the Lake Street fountain, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of that Y's opening, the fountains opened quietly, with no fanfare. Mary Altman, the city's public arts administrator, said that's not because the city is gunshy of the fountain critics. Rather, the city had multiple public art projects finish within a concentrated period. "We decided we can't do 12 dedications. We'd be saturating the audience too much."

Some fountain users asked that the artists involved be identified. Altman said more information is coming. Minnesota Public Radio has been working with the city to interview artists, she said, and excerpts will be made available to cell or smartphone users eventually, along with an opportunity for the user to leave a comment about the artwork.

Sewage overflow ahead?

"Drink beer, it's now Minneapolis law," Mayor R.T. Rybak tweeted last month after signing the ordinance designed to allow local micro-brewers to serve pints where they brew.

Gosh, we thought we were supposed to be patriotic by heeding the mayor's previous exhortation to drink as much Minneapolis water as we could to help the city out of its consumption problem.

There's only so much a middle-aged bladder can take.

Quote ... unquote

"Bier und brot macht die wangen rot." (Beer and bread make the cheeks red)

-- Inscription in the basement hospitality room of the city-owned Grain Belt office building.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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