Saturday, June 20, 2015

Urban Bike: Yard Art in a Civil Society

I see things from my bicycle I don't see from a bus or car. 

It might be an old guy on his bicycle, stovepipe hat, bushy beard, archaic black clothes, a character from a Dickens novel. Or a bearded guy cycling the Midtown Greenway in a girlie dress. 

They seek attention, or inhabit an alternate reality, or express art. I'm fine with any of that.

"Did you see that?" a cyclist asks politely as he speeds past me.

It's not just the fellow cyclists who enrich my cycling experience. I get to take in all the individuality around me, including the yards in front of people's homes. 

I'd like to tell stories of three of those yards, including the yard of one of the bearded cyclists I mentioned at the top of this post.  

The House with the Giraffes 

Northeast Minneapolis ("Nordeast") is a haven for artists, so it's no surprise to see art in unexpected places. 

Two giraffes have taken up residence at a home on the 2200 block of 5th Street NE. 

I found the owner, Mark Safford, in the property tax records. That led me to his Facebook page where giraffes form the backdrop to his profile photo.

Mark is an artist and educator for several organizations, including the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.

I've been to plays that have incorporated Heart of the Beast's large and fanciful puppets. But it's their embedding in the community I admire most about the organization. Beyond bourgeois theater attendees, they reach out to working class people, recent immigrants, youth, the economically disadvantaged. 

If you Google Mayday Minneapolis, your first hit is Heart of the Beast. Their mission is "to tell stories that explore the struggles and celebrations of human existence." Their performances address differences and explore ways for us to work together. 

In today's America, some would call that socialism.

I have 22 blocks of 5th Street NE and beyond to cycle before I reach my next yard. 

5th Street is quiet, there's designated bike lanes, roundabouts, and a traffic signal specifically for cyclists. This is not a prosperous area of Minneapolis, but there's dignity. Yards are tidy, there's no trash blowing around. Some yards display the kind of art you buy in a hardware store, the kind that declares "we're not snobs."

An Art House

Last year I visited art houses on the island of Naoshima in Japan's Inland Sea.

A nonprofit arm of the wealthy Benesse Corporation has bought up homes scattered throughout a small town on the island. Artists, regarded as significant, have transformed these houses into works of art.

Haisha ("dentist") art house, Naoshima Island, Japan.
This is art, but so is the next home I'm heading towards.

I'm now on the most expensive section of bike trail in Minnesota. It stretches less than 400 yards, but it cost $3 million

I cycle through a tunnel under Interstate 35W then pause under the 10th Avenue Bridge. On my left, the bridge crosses the Mississippi. On my right, protected by a chain link fence and the deck of the bridge, is what I call "The Art House."

While the trail is the most expensive in Minnesota, this home has to be among the least expensive. This has been Chester's home for the past 15 years. [Star Tribune.] 

Chester looks beyond his 63 years, but he cuts a fine figure when he's out on his bicycle in his stovepipe hat and Dickensian outfit.

His squat is illegal in so many ways: it's not his land, it doesn't meet zoning requirements, it's not sanitary. But he's not going to support himself in a conventional apartment through work or his $400 in monthly social benefits. 

I'm grateful I live in a city that accommodates Chester. Politicians, police, and neighbors look out for him. 

In today's America, some people would yell: "get out of my nice neighborhood, get a job." I don't feel that virtuous: his carbon footprint is dramatically less than mine.

Karmel Village Apartments

I'm now in a railroad trench that cuts a swath across South Minneapolis, the Midtown Greenway. I somehow manage to cycle past Freewheel Bike without stopping for a coffee or an ice cream.

I stop at Karmel Village Apartments, affordable housing in a former machinery hall. This part of town welcomes immigrants and refugees from around the world. The owner of the apartments is Palestinian.

Residents' children play here in front of murals. The artist, Glenn Terry, wanted to depict fantastical places with a middle east flavor, a "golden age paradise."

A twisted uprooted olive tree sculpture reminds me of the world that is waiting for these children.

Minneapolis resident Nick Eoloff commissioned this memorial. His May 2014 obituary describes a man engaged with issues of social justice

In 1948 Palestinian men, women, and children were massacred in the village of Deir Yassin. Hundreds of villages would be destroyed to establish the new state of Israel. Almost 70 years later, documents about the massacre are still classified by the state.

I think of the awful traveling preacher who wedged his corpulent body next to mine earlier this year on a flight from Houston to San Francisco. Jesus's sales rep. talked about a trip to Israel, "a country surrounded by enemies." I talked about a business trip to Israel where my co-workers felt it was socially acceptable to disparage fellow Israelis who happen to be Arabs. We talked right past each other.

In today's America there are people who deny the massacre ever happened and is just propaganda to "demonize Israel and establish a false moral equivalence between Israel and the Arabs." 

These yards take you to uncomfortable places. I'm grateful my city can be home to the likes of Mark Safford, Chester, and Nick Eoloff. They initiate civil conversations about things that matter.

Postscript: Our House

Our one piece of yard art tries to hide.

Our house hasn't always been this restrained. In the early 1970's the Boydie family owned the house, and made their statement with this wooden car on the front porch.

Mary, Paul, and Lynn

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