by Michael Wood
Whether it be a train or bus—where public transit stops tells you who is included in the public. Viewed this way, riding the Green Line light rail tells you a lot about public life in St. Paul. Can a space you pay to enter function as a public space? I visited the Dale and Victoria stations along St. Paul’s Green Line this fall to find out if the Green Line promotes those civic values embodied by public spaces. It was the stories these stations told about themselves that most interested me.
The variation in public art at Dale and Victoria stood out. Public art is a conduit to understanding, but it can also be used to misrepresent a place or people. I wondered about how art functions to represent members of a public. Who gets to be a part of the public? What stories are included in the stations of a massive public transportation system? What does that say about our public life? What I found out about was the hard-fought battle by community members to secure funding for the Victoria Station, let alone the public art along St. Paul’s Central Corridor.
Stopping for Rondo
The history of the Green Line is inextricably linked to the history of St. Paul’s historically Black neighborhood—Rondo. For readers who don’t know that history, Rondo was the epicenter of the Black community in St. Paul in the first half of the twentieth century. The tight-knit community was home to a host of co-ops, churches, and social clubs. The Rondo neighborhood was fractured (but unbroken) by the ramming of Interstate 94 through the heart of the neighborhood in the 1960s. It is a story told over and over again throughout U.S. cities: the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the creation of the interstate highway system, and planners throughout the country constructed it on top of Black and Brown neighborhoods. But the neighborhoods never disappeared. They continue to thrive today, and St. Paul’s neighborhood celebrates itself every July with its Rondo Days Festival. That story of urban planning and displacement was heavy on the minds of community members as talk of Green Line construction began.
Every day Green Line trains stop at Victoria Street Station because of community organizing. The initial plan for the Green Line would skip Victoria Street, Western and Hamline Avenues. Each of these stations serve populations who are upwards of 50% people of color and have a median income of around $30k. In response, a massive coalition of partners from across the Twin Cities formed the Stops For Us! campaign. The organizers successfully secured funding for three additional stations along the Green Line. The campaign even altered the way federal transit funding is budgeted—adding a set of livability and equity measures to proposals. The story of the Victoria Street Station demonstrates how a public planning process marginalized those who were most in need of reliable public transit. It was only through sustained community organizing that the Green Line can even be accessed by those living near Hamline, Western, and Victoria. Victoria Street Station memorializes that history of the community and political struggle through its public art.
Who gets to say what about a place?
While I had to search for the art at some Green Line stations, I couldn’t ignore the robust work at Dale and Victoria. Victoria and Dale had extensive pieces created by community members that required significant community engagement, public deliberation, and an acknowledgement of place. I learned about the public art along the Green Line from the firm who designed the stations. Nathan Johnson—an architect at 4RM+ULA (formula)— told us it was imperative to include public art in the design so as to let the community tell their own story. The public art at the Dale Street station is a series of painted metal and aluminum panels with patterns, symbols, and textiles representative of the many people living in Frogtown today.
The piece was created by the artist and Frogtown native Seitu Jones. Titled Crossroads Again, one cannot help but feel the weight of history and people when looking at these panels. The station’s location at the intersections of Dale and University makes that weight palpable in arguably one of St. Paul’s most diverse neighborhoods. A poem of the same name by Soyini Guyton is carved into the railings of the station. Guyton asks us,
It invites the reader into a space of reflection in a place that is designed for continuous movement. The collision of these icons with the futuristic sheen of steel and glass shelters collapses time. For the people represented in the panels, it says We’re still here.
Public art tells a story about a place, and that story can become representative of that place to the broader public. Public art’s power to define raises questions about who and what is included in the story of a place. How a story is told matters. The voices telling the story and what that story signifies can mean the difference between a deficit frame and understanding, between ignorance and empathy.
The design and construction of the Victoria Street station illustrates how to tell a story right—its example should be upheld as a model for future transit projects. The pieces at Victoria include 20 Terra cotta glazed tiles of significant community members by the artist Foster Willey. This is the Rondo Neighborhood Station in effect. The work is titled Faces of Rondo. The tiles include the likenesses of major Black figures including Gordon Parks and Hallie Quinn Brown as well as local faces such as activist Katie McWatt, professor Mahmoud El-Kati, and Rev. Floyd Massey, Jr. Moreover, it pays homage to the history of activism in the Rondo neighborhood. It honors the organizing and activism of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The list of people included was voted on by community members. The Victoria Street station itself connects the neighborhood to a network of resources and jobs. This public space has altered the landscape and vitality of its neighborhood. That being said, design is not management or impact.
While recognition in the form of public art is necessary, it is not sufficient. The art gives credence to stories that have been sidelined outside of the community. It shows something happened in a public form of recognition. Still, seeing a station in your neighborhood says in action what art cannot. But that may not be enough. Further economic development along the Green Line threatens those who have lived there for years. With new capital investment comes increases in property taxes, rents and the cost of living. In the coming years this public space may exclude the same people from their own homes and public life.