#74 The Biology of A City (2003)

All Rights Reserved © 2003 Thomas W. Day

Imagine that you are a terrorist.  Your boss, an elitist ruling class millionaire, ex-playboy, hands-off style manager, tells you to go to America and bomb "the" World Trade Center.  You've never been . . .  anywhere.  You don't know New York from New Mexico.  Or New York City's World Trade Center from any of the two dozen other World Trade Centers scattered around the country.  Doing a web search, somehow you stumble upon St. Paul, Minnesota's World Trade Center and you aim for that facility.  Knowing even less about American habits, you pick a Saturday for your grand attack on "the Imperialist State." 

Since a couple of the September 11th terrorists found St. Paul to be a good place to learn to fly passenger jets, it's unlikely that the above scenario could ever happen.  Unless the terrorists were looking for a secret place to make a practice run.  Nobody would ever mistake downtown St. Paul for a major hub of any kind of economic or social activity.  The city is a tomb, especially on weekends.

If St. Paul's World Trade Center were bombed on Saturday, the news would hit the presses no sooner than 9:00AM on Monday.  The loss of downtown St. Paul would not become an inconvenience until . . . sometime.  Probably.  Maybe.

Like at least 50 cities in the United States, St. Paul is cursed with the worst of all municipal handicaps; St. Paul is the Minnesota's state capitol.  In my personal experience, I've noticed that becoming a gathering place for politicians and civil service drones is practically a municipal poison pill.  From Sacramento, CA to Albany, NY the evidence is consistent and conclusive; to kill a community's vitality you only have to stuff the core with a state capitol building. 

That is just one of St. Paul's terminal illnesses, though.  Sometime near the turn of the last century, St. Paul decided to become a union town.  Coupling labor unions with politicians and civil serpents is the kind of thing that gives South American cult cloning a bad name.  It's the kind of social experiment that has driven intelligence from most rural communities.  Put the town idiots in charge of the town and everyone with a lick of sense gets out of Dodge on the first bus.

On the basis of his non-performance as St. Paul's mayor, Minnesota shipped Norm Coleman to the U.S. Senate.  Coleman sunk tons of taxpayer money into a variety of Simpsons-inspired debacles, from the public funding of a pro sports arena (the Xcel Center) to a variety of badly conceived and even more incompetently accomplished business and government buildings.  In the end, downtown St. Paul is even more empty and lifeless and St. Paul taxpayers are even further in debt.  That's the kind of performance that warrants a Republican political promotion in America today. 

Like pretty much every overstuffed city in the country, St. Paul is reeling from the current Republican recession.  Whatever income sources the city may have had are dried up and blowing in the winds of winter.  So the clever Powers That Be are forced to find creative new sources of income.  So far their creativity has been limited to increasing the fines on parking violations on downtown streets.  These social engineering wizards most likely live and shop in the suburbs, where parking is always free, so they shouldn't be blamed for missing the obvious result of their actions: screw anyone silly enough to venture downtown and no one goes downtown.

Since there is absolutely no human activity visible in the downtown area, the city cops have nothing to do but to stake out parking meters and issue citations with floating-decimal precision.  I recently received a citation that was issued precisely on the minute of the meter's expiration.  An observer watched the cop stand by the meter for five minutes waiting for the flag to pop.  The citation was written and torn from the cop's book and heading for my windshield before the meter expired.  Now that's government efficiency in . . .  action?

Obviously, reducing the government overstaffing in light of the city's lack of need is not an option.  Governments always grow, otherwise how could self-important government  management justify their inflated salaries?  But if the city is reducing how long can it be before the city government has to start shrinking?  In fact, the city is increasing the free parking spaces for government employees, at the expense of available parking for real human beings.  Currently, a solid three blocks of one street is dedicated to free city employee parking.  That's not enough, so the city has purchased a privately owned lot and is converting it to a parking structure for the ever-growing cast of under-skilled, over-paid, over-staffed city employees.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I volunteered to chase coffee during a work break.  Since we were smack in the middle of downtown St. Paul, I figured it would be a two block walk, tops.  After forty minutes of searching, I found an open, but empty, Marshall Fields store with a Starbucks.  On my trip I past no less than four downtown coffee shops and not one of those stores had Saturday hours.  In fact, the Marshall Fields was the only live downtown business that afternoon.  Drug stores, convenience stores, shoe stores, restaurants, banks, gift shops, and every other business struggling to survive in downtown St. Paul were all closed on Saturday. 

One of my associates joked that if the studio were in Minneapolis we'd probably have a coffee shop next door.  It's worse than that.  Little Canada, my dinky hometown, has a couple of coffee shops that are open seven days a week.  St. Paul, Minnesota's state capital, home to a zillion civil serpents, and not much else, has nothing going on at any given moment. 

Still, on a Saturday when the streets were largely abandoned and businesses were closed or as empty as a Kansas pasture, the St. Paul meter maids were lurking the streets, tagging the rare parked vehicle, and doing their part to keep the city streets empty and the businesses unprofitable.  My tax dollars at work. 

June, 2003

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