The other day I saw a father and his kid stand at the corner, waiting to cross the street. They had just bought a doughnut at A Baker’s Wife (the best bakery in the city), located at 42nd Street and 28th Avenue in south Minneapolis. Whether they were heading to their car or walking home, crossing the street was required of them, and the light was red so they had to wait. The kid was perhaps three years old, wise enough to know the basics about crossing the street.
What happened next was profoundly sad. Remember how Ralphie feels up the leg lamp in A Christmas Story? Well, this kid was reaching up the yellow traffic signal pole, like Ralphie, feeling it up. I couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit me – he was searching for the “beg button!” It was a Pavlovian response – approach crosswalk, look for beg button. This particular intersection doesn’t have beg buttons (thank God!). The problem is, we’re teaching our children, when they are not strapped in the back seat of a minivan until age 14, that they must apply to cross the street in our fair city.
The City of Minneapolis is presently interviewing candidates for Director of Public Works. Public right of way makes up around one-third of the city, and how that space is designed and managed is enormously important. While zoning and planning is an obvious place to improve the built environment, the public realm is equally important, particularly that zone where the private realm meets the public. The eventual hire for Director of Public Works may be the most impactful decision Mayor Hodges makes in her tenure, yet there has been disturbingly little attention given to this job search.
I happen to believe Public Works has made a lot of progress under the outgoing director Steve Kotke, but there is certainly room for continued improvement, and change cannot come fast enough. If future generations of young Minneapolitans learn that they don’t need to apply to cross the street, we’ll be getting somewhere. Pick your poison, from potholes to lane widths to bicycle policy to street trees and so much more, the next Public Works director has the ability to create change that can transform the city into not just a more livable but more likeable place.
It is imperative that a progressive candidate is hired for Minneapolis Director of Public Works. Then maybe our children will learn they don’t have to apply to cross the street.