To me, mass transit is all about creating opportunities for connections between people and their communities. Beyond the very literal connection of traveling from one place to another, our transit lines have the potential to help people explore their surroundings in new ways and make unexpected discoveries. I think a lot about this. How do people interact when using transit? How can we create meaningful connections between communities by using or improving infrastructure? How can we use mass transit as a tool to foster greater exploration and new understanding in our communities?
A couple weeks ago I stumbled across many copies of a little book called “The Other Green Line” sitting in a basket at the Textile Center of Minnesota on University Avenue. According to its website, The Other Green Line (TOGL) was conceived as “a public art experience designed to get people off the Green Line, into businesses and enjoying nature in the neighborhood.” TOGL is a pocket “field book” created by artist Sarah J. Nassif with the support of Irrigate Arts; it’s essentially a mini public art project based around the Green Line of the light rail that encourages us to explore the idea of connections with our surroundings, with a focus on nature and natural history of the Twin Cities.
My interest was piqued! I grabbed my field book and my bike and hopped on the Green Line heading East for some natural history and transit exploration.
TOGL encourages us as users of transit to view the city as naturalists (observers of the natural world) and really focuses on the acts of looking, recording, and sharing discoveries. I was interested to see if the simple act of seeing nature more mindfully would change the way I thought about the city and how we use space.
The field book lists 8 different “forays,” which are 1- to 2-mile map-guided tours that begin from different Green Line stations. Each foray has a theme ranging from fossils to stone to wetlands to wildlife. What do the forays look like? One of my favorites began at the Raymond Avenue station in St. Paul and explored the theme of the Kasota wetlands.
I got off the train, pedaled my bike onto University Ave. and turned north up N Hampden Ave. The “streets” I made my way along were really just the paved spaces between warehouses and loading docks. I rode past semis and they hauled past me along the broad asphalt. My tires bumped over old railroad tracks criss-crossing the road and ending in the grassy patches in front of industrial buildings. I zigzagged over to turn North on Transfer Road and climbed up the bridge, overlooking a huge rail yard and stacks of shipping containers to my left as the road curved East.
My field book told me I was exploring part of the original Kasota wetlands area and the Bridal Veil Creek watershed. Much of the wetland area was drained and filled in by the railroads and the creek now runs through the sewer system under the pavement and warehouses all the way to the Mississippi River, dumping out near the Franklin Avenue bridge.
At the top of the bridge my map indicated a large pond just north of Transfer Road as it curves to the East. I looked down the industrial road for a moment, then jogged my bike across and hopped the curb. I forged a path through thick brush of shrubs, staghorn sumac, and tall native grasses, carrying my bike with me. Just a minute or two and only one stinging nettle burn later, Newell Pond opened up in front of me far below. I looked past the sumac, wildflowers, ferns, and native grape vines to see metal power line structures jutting out of the water and huge trailers full of shipping containers parked in front of more warehouses on the opposite side of the pond.
What really struck me about the forays in general was the concept of “seeing” as a way to discover something that was previously hidden to you. One of the first pages of the field guide asserts, “The acts of looking, recording and sharing our discoveries can make us feel more grounded and oriented in both familiar and unfamiliar places.” Because the field book provided natural history as the context for what I saw around me, I did think about what I was seeing in a different way and responded to the space differently than I normally would. Who knew biking through a warehouse wasteland could become so interesting when paired with information about the Original Public Land Survey and historical notes on how that landscape changed!
When I pedaled past those warehouses to stand in the native plants and sketch Newell Pond, thinking about the Kasota wetlands and the railroads and the shipping containers and the warehouses, I couldn’t help but think about the choices involved in the way things are today. Over the course of the last couple hundred years various interests have made decisions about how to change the natural landscape to suit their needs. The result in this case has been loss of native wetland, anonymity of an important watershed (just ask somebody if they’ve ever heard of the Bridal Veil Creek), and the existing natural space of Newell Pond sitting hidden in an industrial district. TOGL gave me the context to see that history and mull over the land use choices that were made over time, reflected in what I saw in the space around me. For me it highlighted the power of choice in creating and changing our urban landscapes.
All in all, exploring the Green Line with The Other Green Line was an extremely interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Learning the stories of urban spaces in the context of natural history was a new experience for me and let me see the those spaces and the natural environment with new eyes. TOGL is a great example of how we can use public art and history as tools to connect us to the spaces we use, and to get us thinking about the ways in which transit helps us make those connections.