Jay Walljasper has been my urban muse.
Both of us loved cities intensely, but he understood them better, saw them in much deeper layers and wrote about them more intuitively than I, or anyone else, ever could.
Over decades Jay wrote volumes of stories about the world's great cities; extraordinary buildings, grand boulevards, and especially the places people gather. But Jay was neither an architecture critic nor a travel guide. For him it never was about the place but, instead, about how people animate the place.
It was about finding what Jay called "the commons" — those magic parts of cities where we all belong. The places where we find all that we share and all that not one of us has in isolation.
Jay and I got to know each other as young journalists who wrote about cities; me for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jay for Utne Reader, which he built to become one of the more influential publications in the country. I could have felt competitive but from the start I knew I'd met a greater talent and was grateful for the proximity.
In 1989, Jay and I volunteered together on Rip Rapson's campaign for mayor of Minneapolis. It was a broad-based campaign where so many people spent so much time debating what we believed. Jay was the common thread. He would quietly observe another endless policy meeting, then finally speak up with the phrase that brought it all together on a higher level. All these disparate people realized: "Yep, that's exactly what we're talking about … only a lot better."
Years later, when I was starting my own run for mayor, Jay and his wife, Julie Ristau, hosted an early fundraiser. After Jay's introduction about how Minneapolis was a great city that could be so much more than we had settled for, I realized I had the theme of my campaign.
Over the years my wife, Megan, and I came to know Jay and Julie well. Absolutely no one was better to ride bikes with around Minneapolis than Jay. I have lived in this city for more than six decades and door-knocked the place three times over, but Jay always saw something I'd passed without noticing.
Fun as it was to be with Jay, it was even better to watch him from a distance. I would be driving by Jay on his bike, or me on my bike and him swimming in Lake Harriet: He got this expression on his face that showed he was totally open to the experience in a way few can be. I would see his slightly head-in-the-clouds expression and wonder: What does he see that I can't, because I know it's good?
When I said goodbye to Jay for the last time last month, he had already slipped away. A face that had always been so full of life was now at peace. My mind flooded with gratitude for all the inspiration Jay had given me over so many years. The only thing I could get out of my mouth was a very deeply felt: "Thank you."
After he died, a few of us came together around a fire pit in Jay's and Julie's backyard. On the second longest, darkest night of the year, masked and socially distanced, we couldn't hug and struggled to even recognize each other. But those people in that place began to talk about what Jay meant to us, and a very sad, cold night got a whole lot warmer as we found "the commons."
R.T. Rybak is CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation and former mayor of Minneapolis.