Toward a better Saint Paul (5X8 – 4/4/13)

The Minnesota Idea Open, the lost art of sign painting, frac sand mining makes a well run dry, when should kids be allowed to roam, and mourning Neal Conan.


The St. Paul Foundation is going to make someone $1 million richer if their idea for improving life in Saint Paul is selected. The organization has been collecting ideas with its Minnesota Idea Open and the entry period is closed and the suggestions are now posted.

There are the usual sorts of entries — good, bad, and often typical — but there are also some that answered the call to let your imaginations run wild.

Renaming everything in one day:

“This fully embraces St. Paul’s reputation for being impossible to navigate and turns it into a one-day celebration of nobody knowing where anything is (unless they have the map!) Then, the next day, everything goes back to normal. Or, “normal.” The process would arguably be as enjoyable as the day itself. Citizens could name their streets after what is dear and relevant to them — not what was dear to a city planner who lived 200 years ago. People would enlist the help of their fellow St. Paulites to vote for their choices, thereby whipping up more involvement. And for one day, we would all live in a St. Paul 100% of our own making. Which is pretty awesome.”

High Bridge zip line

“A zip line across the river at the High Bridge (or the Wabasha Bridge to Harriet Island). I don’t know if this is feasible but it sure would be fun.”

Shop while your kids read

“How will this concept really work? Participating retail store will provide an area where parents drop off their kids prior to starting their shopping. Volunteers (high school kids and accredited others) will be available in these designated reading areas to “read along” award winning children’s books. To address the digital divide, working in unison with other corporate partners, we can provide a digital reading experience as well – either on a traditional desktop or on digital hand-held devices. This mentored reading experience will entice the kids to come back to the store while moms (potentially, dads too!) shop. We can offer educational games and other digital contents.”

St. Paul Fungal Gardens

“This grant would utilize marginal land that is not used for anything in residential areas and create fungal gardens that people can come to and pick edible mushrooms. Many common gourmet mushrooms such as shitake, enoki and maitake have anti-tumor, anti-viral, and anti-cancer properties as well as the ability to decrease cholesterol and increase immune function. This idea would create fungal gardens around the city especially in areas that are determined to be food deserts by utilizing the Food Access Research Atlas that the United States Department of Agriculture produces. These gardens would increase awareness of other food sources because many people are unaware of the benefits of eating mushrooms.”

A mini city to help people learn to drive

“Having a little space for teenagers to practice driving during there permit driver time will help them to get confidence on them before we us parents expose them and us by having them learn in the streets of St Paul. Having a mini city for drivers learners we would make St Paul a better and a safer City. This mini city can be as real as possible by adding more than just traffic signs; it could even have a small park, some stores, or a mini mall and make it part of the city but with the designation for driver learners.”

Bring back the weather ball

“From my childhood I remember the beloved weather ball on University Ave, blinking white in the gently falling snow. What a treasured icon of life in St. Paul, even memorialized in the History Museum. Weather is what we in St. Paul love and have in common. It’s a never ending topic of conversation and a bond that unites us all. I propose bringing back that much-loved symbol. In addition to using the million dollars for their construction, I believe corporate sponsorship could be found. The weather balls could be placed in points of interest around St. Paul. A nostalgic nod to the past! People would love it!”

Urban treehouse resort

“Let’s face it: despite its cultural amenities, St. Paul is not exactly known as a weekend getaway. One simple idea could change all that: an urban nature resort smack in the middle of the city. Providing a unique urban adventure, America’s first urban treehouse resort would welcome visitors and residents in the wooded areas at the shore of the Mississippi, just a stones’ throw away from all that St. Paul has to offer. Elevated one- or two bedroom cabins would not only provide a cozy home, but camp-like amenities would provide the kind of companionship and campfire romance that makes every trip special. Kids would have plenty of space to play (rope swings included!) and adults would get just the right mix of urban sophistication during the day, and time to unwind in nature at night.”

Find the entire list here. The idea will be winnowed and the public will be able to vote on them in three or four months. (H/T: @tom_gall)


Colleague Julia Schrenkler and I walked over to check out the renovations underway at the old Pioneer Press building in Saint Paul this week. It’s one of the most spectacular buildings in Minnesota that stands in sharp contrast to some of the suburban-style drywall-and-2×4 construction underway in other parts of downtown.

Some buildings ooze history and class. So do some signs. This one, for example.


And this one…


Who did this fine work? Who did all the vanishing — and vanished — hand-painted signs?

“There was a time when every street sign, every billboard, and every window display was painted by hand,” Roman Mars writes on the blog, 99% Invisible. “This sounds unremarkable until you actually think about what that actually means.”

Some lived a nomadic life, traveling from town to town, just to paint the signs of the businesses.

It’s a craft that’s almost, but not quite, gone.

(H/T: Michael Wells. Photos by Julia Schrenkler)


Since 1900, the Jorgenson clan in Sparta (WI) has always had water when it went to the well to get it. That changed on the farm recently, the Winona Daily News reports.

Last week, the well ran dry for the second time in the last year.

“It’s because of the sand mining operation,” he said. “The more they pump, the less water there is.”

On Saturday, the nearby frac-sand mining outfit installed water tanks and agreed to provide water for the more than 100 cows.


How old should a kid be before being allowed to walk somewhere in a town alone? In Ohio, parents let a 6-year-old walk to the post office. They’ve been served by child protective services.


The New York Observer’s Joshua David Stein laments NPR’s decision to stop producing the Talk of the Nation talk show.

Mr. Conan also meant the world to me personally, and I’m not alone in this. Here’s one of the most touching exchanges on NPR I’ve ever heard. It comes from the program “Closing The Circle: Revisiting Stories from 2012.” This is from a farmer named Richard Vernon, in South Union, Kentucky. The exchange happened after Mr. Vernon called in to check up on the man. Their conversation was substantively over but Mr. Vernon didn’t want to get off the phone. You can read below but better to listen:

God bless you, Neal. If you only knew what your program, especially your voice, means to me every day. It reaches out to my heart and my mind and my soul and every one of the people who work for the radio. If it had not been for y’all the last several years, through this recession, there were times in my tractor when my cattle were bawling, hungry for something to eat, and the wind is blowing sideways, 35 mile an hour, snowing, and I don’t have enough feed to give them. And I want to get out of the tractor and give up and walk away and just be lost. But instead I stayed in the tractor and listened to you guys that I can get through this day. So thank you guys for being what you are to all of us, people like us that are just barely hanging on by a thread.

I listen to podcasts of Talk of the Nation as I bike to work, as rosy fingered dawn touches the Hudson, and when I bike home from work, the sun setting over the same. Actually, I alternate between podcasts of the Interdependence Project and Talk of the Nation but, aside from the particulars, they are, to me, one and the same: an hour or two of respect, openness, thoughtfulness, consciousness.

For the record, MPR has not decided what programming to provide in the TOTN space.

Bonus I: In conversations about race and media, Twitter’s limitations show (Poynter)

Bonus II: In Hudson, a group of restaurants is trying to make things a little easier for the family of the three girls who were killed by their father. He’s on trial now. (Patch)

Bonus III: The people who save puppies. (h/t: Jennifer Halgren)


Many employers complain they have difficulty filling jobs. Sometimes that’s because workers don’t have the right skills; other times wages and other factors are at play. Today’s Question: Do you have the skills you need to succeed in today’s job market?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour:Why are parents shying away from the HPV vaccine?

Second hour: The trouble with abusive coaches.

Third hour: The death penalty.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): A “Talk of the Stacks” lecture by John Robison. The author of “Look Me in the Eye” and “Being Different” talks about his new book “Raising Cubby” about being autistic and having a son who has autism.

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – What’s next at Gitmo? A hunger strike has been growing at Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners object to they way their cells are searched, how their Qurans are handled. But also to open-ended imprisonment with, for most, no charges, no trial and no prospect of release for men sometimes described as some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – In Cambodia, a pioneering bank is helping low-income people afford to move out of their shacks. The customers make little money and often have no financial documents. But the bank still helps them finance their dream homes and make a profit at the same time. NPR will report.

Sometimes there are jobs and there are people with skills but there’s no place for workers to live. Marvin Windows in Warroad and Polaris Industries in Roseau are increasingly struggling to attract qualified workers because there aren’t enough homes for new workers. Community leaders worry if more homes aren’t built, it will stifle economic growth and force companies to send jobs elsewhere. MPR’s Tom Robertson has the latest installment of the skills gap series.