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Brainerd Strong Town Series: Just another park

Today, public parks are seen as optional amenity to a community, something that you do in good times when you have the extra money or can get a donation or grant. In our pre-suburban development pattern, parks were looked at much differently. By working to understand the true nature of our original park layouts, we can reveal the true character of our places and begin the process of unlocking the lost value stored in our traditional development pattern.

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It has been a while since we have had an entry in the Brainerd/Baxter Strong Towns series. My twin home towns of Brainerd and Baxter are the perfect living experiments of the atrophy of an historic town (Brainerd) and the boom/bust cycle (Baxter), both inherent with the suburban pattern of development. You can read the introductory article for background on this series or you may wish to read the rest of the series, which is getting to book-length in its own right. Unfortunately, we are just beginning.

Last week, Justin (of podcast fame) and I grabbed a late night pizza after a meeting and decided to eat at Gregory Park. The park is one of my favorite places in Brainerd for some very complex reasons. While it embodies all of the decline and atrophy of the rest of the city, it holds a lot of hope and promise of renewal. I can stand in Gregory Park and hear the whispers of my ancestors, surrounded by reminders of what could be if we only understood what they were doing. I'm convinced that if we fixed Gregory Park, we could start slowing unwinding 50+ years of bad investments and neglect.

Now if you talk to anyone in Brainerd -- pretty much anyone inside or outside of the government -- they will probably agree that Gregory Park could use a little love. Some of the gardens need weeding, the grass could be better tended, the gazebo could use a little paint, the basketball court could use a new base, etc.... This is not the kind of neglect I am speaking of. What I am talking about is the complete misunderstanding of what Gregory Park is.

In its original design, Gregory Park was the focal point of the downtown of the city. It is the termination of Brainerd's original grand boulevard -- South 6th Street -- and the symmetrical axis on which the entire north side of the city is constructed. The intentional placement and design of Gregory Park was to reflect the value of this magnificent space through the downtown and all of the surrounding neighborhoods. You could stand anywhere along South 6th and see the park and, while standing on the axis of the park, have a framed view of Brainerd's prime boulevard.

It is this framed view that I am going to focus on today. What we have done to Gregory Park along this symmetrical axis reveals our suburban-era confusion over parks, how they provide value and how to capture that value throughout the city.

The picture below is of an arch at the north end of the park. We took the photo facing south. This arch was installed in the 1930's, along with some other rock work, all symmetrical to the north/south axis. The arch itself frames the view. You can imagine my ancestors, who inhabited this space as what we would today call "pedestrians" (back then, they just called them "people"), walking through this arch on their way downtown.

After walking through the arch, the view should be of the central garden, the fountain and the boulevard into the downtown, with the city's magnificent (and bustling) commercial area visible in the background. Instead, you get the first hint that we have no understanding of this space. The view is blocked by this cheap-looking gazebo, which itself is completely random and out of place. Behind the gazebo you can see the alien spacecraft hovering in the sky at the top of the light pole. 

Passing through the gazebo and the neglected (and poorly selected) shrubbery that surrounds the alien pedestal and "plaza" (which is now settled and misshapen bricks), we should now be able to view the glorious downtown of Brainerd. But alas, we've given this park a nature band aid believing that the problem was a lack of trees. You can actually see how we messed up the vegetation on the sides a couple of decades ago too. Instead of copying the straight trunks and full tops lined up to frame the view from the right, we've selected different varieties on the left and placed them randomly. No symmetry. No views. And I'm sure there would be a protest if we removed these trees in the middle that are blocking the view, even if we did it to install a reflecting pool or some other appropriate feature.

Now we're past the Arbor Day rescue project and should be able to see the downtown only to discover the someone fell in love with street lights and decided to put them in the park. That and a flag pole. Again, there is no symmetry to any of this. No sense of place or purpose. It is as if someone randomly went out and placed this light (which itself is out of place and makes no sense) and then someone else randomly came along and put down the flag pole with this tiny flag. I don't have a problem with the flag, but put it where the alien light is and then make it big enough to not be an afterthought.

Now we're finally through the park, having walked the entire axis, before we glimpse in any way what used to be the commercial heart of Central Minnesota. You can see the fountain here -- well placed -- and the 1930's rock work on the edges of the picture again trying to frame the view. You can also understand now why the "historic" water tower was placed where it was and, if you imagine South 6th lined with magnificent offices, shops, hotels and theaters as it once was, why the castle design for the tower was not so silly. It was all actually pretty cool.

Today that water tower is this odd structure, completely out of synch with the strip mall and parking lots it shades. People new to town gawk at it and think we're crazy to have built such a weird thing. If they only understood, we're not crazy, we have just lost touch with the meaning of our town.

On second thought, maybe we have not lost touch with the meaning of our town. After all, there really is no grand boulevard anymore. It was long given over to the suburban-era obsession of moving cars at high speed. And there is no downtown to frame. Again, in the suburban era it was largely converted to space for storing our cars, the remaining businesses either torn down and replaced with drive-thru establishments or just plain neglected.

Maybe we've not lost meaning with our town. Maybe we're just trying to avoid looking at what it has become.


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Friday News Copout

My fellow Strong Towners.....

Hectic week preparing for a vacation. I have a TON of material for a great Friday News Digest, but I'm up tragically late working on a grant application and getting up tragically early to take my dear niece down to the University of Minnesota for one of those senior-year tours for prospective students. I'm a graduate of I.T. and Humphrey Institute, both U of M, and will put on the full court press to get this very intelligent young woman to attend the U, even if she insists on attending the College of Low Aptitude (at least that is what they told us engineers that CLA stood for). 

This is all a long way of saying that I'm not likely to get a News Digest out today, which probably disappoints me more than you since it is always my favorite article of the week to write.

If you are going through withdrawal, check out the bonus podcast we added yesterday. We were able to take the audio from my Pecha Kucha presentation at CNU 19 and mix it with a video of the slides so you can both see and hear the presentation.

If I'm not back in this space today, thanks everyone for your understanding. Have a great weekend and...



On parades and community

A reader sent me this great quote regarding Independence Day from John Adams:

It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

In typical Adams style, I'm sure he said it with drama and meant it with all seriousness, but it brings a smile to my face nonetheless. Pomp and parade.... Oh, if he could see us now.

I absolutely love the 4th of July. My hometown of Brainerd bills itself as the 4th of July capital of somewhere....I can't remember if it is "the world" or just "Minnesota". Either way, I grew up with an annual dose of the full spectacle of American pomp. The only parades I ever remember missing were the two when I was off in the Army, and those were very lonely affairs. The pomp and parade of basic training may be more dignified, but just isn't the same. There's no place like home.

For one day each year, humanity descends on an otherwise inhumane landscape, pedestrians boldly take back the public realm and Brainerd feels like a community again. We brush up against each other walking down the street. We run into old friends and meet new ones. We look disapprovingly on the overly-tattooed kids puffing on cigarettes, who crave our disapproval. We stand in reverence of the flag, veterans of past conflict and current warriors. We laugh at the zany and the bizarre.

These are all the things that I would imagine our ancestors doing too.

When I say that Brainerd has an "inhumane landscape", I mean that it is generally inhospitable to people outside of their cars. Sure we have sidewalks in the downtown, but they are inches from streets designed for fast-moving cars, with "decorative" lighting for cars, signs for cars, shops designed for cars and large parking lots (of course, for cars). I've detailed in this space how the new county government center is a confused blight on what is left of Brainerd's urban fabric. But nonetheless, remove the cars from the street and it suddenly becomes a place that overweight people will walk a mile to be in.

Want to revitalize your town? Yes, it's that easy. And really, you don't even have to remove the cars altogether -- just make them the third factor you design the public realm for after pedestrians and cyclists and the last factor you design the private realm for after buildings and sidewalks. In urban areas, tame the car and watch your places flourish.

But we're a long ways gone in Brainerd. Our new county apostacy will be there for 50 years or more, as will the bizarre design of Laurel Street, a major part of the parade route that goes past all of our civic buildings. Laurel Street now has either a split personality (part street/part road) or is a cross dresser (a road in street's clothing). I look at everyone smiling and having a good time and I kind of ache. Hey guys....you know, we wouldn't necessarily have to have a parade to pull off a gathering like this. We could spend our money a little differently here and this kind of thing could happen all the time.

Speaking of the parade....I could be wrong, but the number of floats seemed down from prior years. While we had a good collection of soldiers, dignitaries and law enforcement vehicles, it did not seem like many businesses participated. When I was a kid I walked in the parade about every year there for a while. Once I carried a huge American flag with the rest of my baseball team. Our local sponsor asked us to do that. Another year I was on a float, again, for the business that sponsored our ball team. Neither of those two businesses were visible in this parade.

And come to think of it, neither were the places we were told were our economic future. The new places that put those old places out of business. There was no Wal-Mart float. No Target float. Home Depot had plenty of wood and trailers, as did Menards, but they weren't there. Super America, McDonalds, Jimmy Johns....didn't see any of these guys. 

And I didn't see any of their accountants either. They don't use our local accountants after all. Didn't see their printers or advertisers either. That's all handled at corporate. Same with their attorney and other professionals. But the local CSA was there (yeah St. Mathais farm) along with the best locally-owned restaurant that is one of their biggest customers (yeah Prairie Bay). And the high school band. Gotta have a band.

The day ended with the fireworks and, say what you will about my hometown, we know how to do fireworks. And even though this video from the local paper called it the "Grand Finally" (which it may have been for some), to me the finale of this day was tucking my sleeping girls into bed, confident I was creating some memories that will help them to someday see the hidden potential in the places that matter most to them.

Happy Birthday, America. When we use the proper measuring device, I believe we'll find that our best days are yet to come.


Strong Towns is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support this blog and our other efforts to build a stronger, more resilient America.