Sidewalk poetry: is it worth $12,000 of taxpayer money?

Sidewalk poetry installation, Northfield Sidewalk poetry installation, Northfield Poem by Lily Hanlon Poem by Anne Running Sovik
I missed the imprinting of the sidewalk poems yesterday morning so see the short Nfld News video here and the story with more photos at Nfld Patch:  Northfield Sidewalk Poetry Installation

The first two pieces of sidewalk poetry were imprinted in the sidewalks (one on Third Street and another on Division Street) around the Northfield Public Library on Wednesday morning.

They included a piece from Lily Hanlon, a Prairie Creek Community School student, and Anne Running Sovik. These are selections from the first sidewalk public poetry contest from last year, which was sponsored by the Arts & Culture Commission and the Friends and Foundation of the Northfield Public Library. More poems from the 2011 selections will be imprinted at a later date.

I chatted with Library Director Lynne Young as I was taking photos and asked her about the funding for the project. She said that the Northfield Streetscape Task Force contributed $5,000 last year and that the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council (SEMAC) awarded a grant this year. I see on the SEMAC page of recent grants that the

City of Northfield Arts & Culture Commission received a $7,100 Arts & Cultural Heritage grant for Sidewalk Public Poetry Project.

"Arts & Cultural Heritage grant" is Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment money. Not counted in the total is City of Northfield staff time (public works, engineering).

I love public art and I think sidewalk poetry is cool.  But I think it’s worth discussing whether $12,000 of taxpayer money for this project is a good investment. I’m undecided. We have
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Update May 22: Some additional photos:

Sidewalk poetry installation, Northfield new sidewalk devoid of poety 

Left: I don’t understand why only one poem was installed in this new section.

Right: This section of sidewalk appear to be relatively new. Why weren’t poems installed here?

65 thoughts on “Sidewalk poetry: is it worth $12,000 of taxpayer money?”

  1. Griff – I think the poetry project is a good investment. As you see from the quote below from the Streetscape Task Force page on the city web site, money comes from the Master Development Fund which is designated for downtown improvement. This unusual artistic enhancement adds to the distinctive quality of our downtown. We as citizens can take pride in and enjoy the poems. Visitors will see them, remember them and very likely return town to enjoy ithem in the future. Aesthetics meet economic development!

    “Provide a recommendation to the City Council on
    the expenditure of the Master Development Fund
    balance that enhances not only the aesthetic
    improvement of the Downtown but also improves the
    Downtown economic viability and business

  2. I must wonder, Griff, what your opinion on this ”investment” is… I sense your opinion is questioning the wisdom of the expenditure; or are you just “stirring the pot”?

    I personally think it is a teriffic investment that says this is a town that cares about the hearts and minds of its citizens, as well as the dollars spent on sewers, etc.

    I also expect that since the company that made the imprint tools has been dong this for the city of St. Paul, that they have, with experience worked out the best size, depth etc for the imprint to be, for tech reasons like frost etc.

    Thanks to the Streetscape Task Force for an enlightened spending decision, and the Arts and Culture commission, Friends of the Library, i.e. all who participated … in addition to the Poets.

  3. There may well be better things the money could be spent on, but there are certainly many worse things.

    I do think that things like this contribute to a feeling of community, and I think they dovetail nicely with the two-college thing.

  4. Griff, the money the Arts and Culture Commission got from SEMAC is to go for projects like this! That is why the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment was passed!

    Now, yes there are some programing projects I have heard bout that I do not agree with that come from the “Legacy” money. However, this helps boost Northfield as a historic and cultural center.

  5. If this is an ongoing project, I would suggest sandblasting the poetry into the existing concrete with the next round. This is not difficult. One could have the sandblasting stencil mask cut at a sign shop, like Graphic Mailbox. I bet there are locals with portable basting equipment. The letters could be filled with a contrasting paint. This would surely cost a fraction what is being done now– knocking out existing stretches of concrete and replacing them with new concrete. Plus it would look way better.

    Here’s a website that shows examples of this technique:

  6. A few years ago I saw a striking sample of sidewalk art in San Antonio, Texas (whose River Walk, I understand, was cited as a model for Northfield’s own stretch along the Cannon). An artist there named Anne Wallace took a selection of historical photographs and passages from oral histories and had them reproduced in concrete — see for images. The photo transfers were done by a company called PhotoCrete (see for more images). Wallace recently did a similar oral history installation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (but without photographs, I think).

    1. Hayes, I agree. I remember thinking Wallace’s work would fit wonderfully well in Northfield’s historic downtown.

  7. Jane/Hayes/Kiffi, I support sidewalk poetry as a legitimate artistic enhancement to downtown.

    But I don’t think Streetscape (downtown TIF) money should be used for art projects. “Aesthetic improvement of the Downtown” is admittedly vague language but it’s pretty clear to me that artwork itself is not what TIF money is for.

    Streetscape money was used appropriately for the Sesquicentennial Legacy Plaza but as far as I know, it wasn’t used for Ray Jacobsen’s Harvest sculpture.

    1. Griff:

      You are correct that none of the TIF money went to the Harvest sculpture, most of it came from MOM Brands (Malt-O-Meal). But you can argue that without the TIF money going to the SLP the sculpture would not have happened.

      1. Hayes, that’s exactly right. The Streetscape TIF money created the environment or infrastructure for public art along that stretch of the riverbank but it wasn’t used for the art itself. That same policy should have been used to deny the request to fund sidewalk poetry.

    2. What does “aesthetic” mean to you, Griff?

      The engineering dept and the public works dept walked the downtown sidewalks to see what sections needed to be replaced, and that is where the poetry stamps were then used. so… the sidewalks were going to be fixed in those sections anyway,and the enhancement of those replaced sections was done by the enabling streetscape $$.

      Full disclosure: one will be in front of our building where the sidewalk is chipped, has holes, and after a rain, standing water too wide to evade.

      1. Kiffi, where did you learn that these sections of sidewalk were going to be replaced? That would be helpful to know.

        I’ve added two photos to the blog post above. Left photo: I don’t understand why only one poem was installed in this new section. I understand the aesthetic of white space but 8 huge panels and only one poem? It seems excessive.

        Right photo: This section of sidewalk appear to be relatively new. Yet no poems. Was the sidewalk so bad that it couldn’t have waited?

      2. Griff:

        Both TJ and Joe Staph have told me that the site selection for the poetry was based off of sections of the sidewalk that needs to be replaced.

        You will need to talk to the Arts and Culture Commission on why only one poem was installed.

      3. Griff… in reply to 8.2.1: From the beginning, when it was discussed at Council, it has always been said that the poetry would be printed as sections of sidewalk needed to be replaced (cost containment)… and then Mr Stapf (City Engineer) reiterated that he and TJHenricy had walked the DT, looking for the worst sections of walk that needed repair.

  8. Griff: I will eventually have three poems stamped in concrete on Northfield sidewalks. You are welcome to walk upon and read, free of charge, the valuable intellectual property I have donated to the City of Northfield.

    The quality of life in Northfield, and its attractiveness to visitors, is enhanced by its commitment to the arts—its renowned choirs, its galleries, its theater, its writers. Our value should be determined not solely by a calculation of our material advantages, but also by the things that express our immaterial souls.

    For a while, a few people will stop and read my poems and know that I wrote them. Personal recognition is always nice. But what makes me infinitely happier is that I have given my words to Northfield. It makes me infinitely happier that what I have done belongs, not to me alone, but to my community. This is, come to think of it, how I feel about paying local taxes.

    Here is something of value that I have created. Let me share it with you.

    Tell me, Griff, do you have a better vision of how we should live together?

    1. Rob, I’ve written twice now that I support sidewalk poetry as beneficial public art.

      In question is the funding for it, both the source (TIF money) and the amount.

      1. You support public art, but you don’t think it should be publicly funded? You agree that it’s beneficial, but you don’t want to pay for that benefit?

        Kiffi and Hayes have both said, based on talking to city staff, that the poetry is being installed where sections of sidewalk needed to be replaced in any case. You complain about money being spent on poetry (although no taxpayer money went to the actual poets), but in 8.2.1 you complain that sections of old sidewalk were replaced without poetry included. Basically, I think you just like to have something to complain about.

      2. Rob, I’m not against public funding of public art. It’s that in this case, I don’t think the public funding for sidewalk poetry should be coming from the Streetscape Task Force fund.

      3. Griff,

        Yeah, it’s reasonable to question the source of funding for any purpose, no matter how good. What I still don’t understand (and asked about in #11) is why, specifically, the Streetscape Task Force fund seems inappropriate for this purpose. You’ve said more than once that this is your view, but (unless I missed it) not why.

  9. It is good to see that the city is becoming well versed in sidewalk replacement. Perhaps some of these poems could be put on the Riverwalk, where visitors can stanza round and enjoy the scenery.

  10. Griff,

    You say in #8:

    But I don’t think Streetscape (downtown TIF) money should be used for art projects. “Aesthetic improvement of the Downtown” is admittedly vague language but it’s pretty clear to me that artwork itself is not what TIF money is for.

    Could you unpack this a bit? Presumably, specific language exists describing appropriate and inappropriate use of these funds. Is this what makes the matter “pretty clear” to you?

    Seems to me reasonable people could differ on the wisdom of this, or any, particular expenditure. And, of course, we might like or dislike the poetry itself. (Sidewalks in our neighborhood already sport plenty of dog prints; I’d trade them happily for almost any doggerel.)

    In any event, I’m hard pressed to think of any better or more concrete example of art being used to aesthetic-ize a streetscape.

    1. Paul, I think if the Council that created the downtown TIF district had wanted to include artwork to “aesthetic-ize” the downtown, the TIF language would have mentioned it explicitly.

      And if the art organizations in town had known all along that public art projects could be funded with Streetscape money, there would have been a steady stream of proposals presented to the Task Force over the years. Maybe there has, I don’t know for sure, but I bet not. But they should ramp up quickly now, since the TIF expires next year.

      1. Griff,

        Perhaps the TIF district should not pay for just any old public art. But sidewalk art of the type under discussion here seems so patently part of the streetscape itself that it might well fall under the meaning of the act, as would, say, downtown’s fancy-schmancy streetlights.

        In any event, your “lede” question was more general: Can “taxpayer money” reasonably be spent on sidewalk poetry?

        Short answer: Yes.

        Longer answer: Poems underfoot // tempt me to take a haiku // But limericks? Right out.

      2. Paul, Iamb de(street)lighted to add this to the mix:

        Should taxpayers foot
        The bill for poetic feet,
        Or should verse be free?

  11. With apologies to poetic sensibilities everywhere (and partial blame ascribed to Paul Zorn for his scholarly consultations):

    A blockheaded blogger named Griff
    With cement twixt his ears caused a tiff.
    He showed himself shallow
    By doubting the value
    Of verse that starts wet then turns stiff.

      1. Hayes, thanks (I think). Just to be clear, I penned (actually keyboarded) those lines in all due affection, not to mention affectation.

    1. Barry: although limericks have been termed by someone (???) as the lowest form of rhyme; I thought this was pretty clever, but just because it IS clever, notbecause it makes Griff appear to be a ‘blockhead’…

      I think you should send it to Joe Stapf, the new city engineer… he’s a jovial guy .

    2. Barry, I’m truly honored by your limerick. Here’s mine:

      There was an old man on Division,
      Who authored a blog with a mission.
      He said, “I am wise
      Please open your eyes
      So enough of your shit, I’m going fishin'”

      1. Right back atcha:

        I share with John George this belief:
        That you’re due a brief spell of relief.
        So we’ll hold back a bit
        From giving you shit,
        But next week we’ll again give Griff grief.

      2. You should all submit limericks (or other poems) to the contest next April. The higher the participation rate in the contest, the more likely it is to qualify for grant money, which would mean less city money would be needed. Then Griff can go back to taking candy from small children or making his counting house clerk work on Christmas Eve, or whatever he does when he’s not picking on poetry.

  12. There once was a blog called LoGro
    With info we thought you should know
    As cement you do ponder
    We won’t blame if you wonder
    “The newsday today, it was slow?”

    Sorry…couldn’t resist!

  13. On a more practical note (ooops! This is about poetry, not music…sorry!), how easy will it be to clean ice and snow off these areas witn embossed letters? I’ve had my share of pitted concrete to deal with in the winter, so, though this has esthetic appeal, it would seem to add some safety challenges to the people stuck with trying to remove ice and snow from the sidewalks, IMO.

  14. Back in January of 2010, the Council approved 10 Streetscape Task Force projects totaling $325,000. See the Jan. 20 council packet. I’ve extracted pages 15-16 which list the two-page grid of projects.

    None of the projects were public art related.

    Table 1 – Projects Previously Identified and Prioritized

    Design of dumpster enclosure.

    Work with Historical Society on installation of historical plaque design and installation for Lyceum Building.

    Establish location and design of corals

    Locate and install bike racks in the downtown, gaining property owner support

    Locate and install benches in the downtown, gaining property owner support

    Additional wayfinding signage in downtown area for both walkers and drivers. City maps in simple vandal resistant frames that are easily accessible for map revisions.

    Enhance wayfinding signage at archways to Riverwalk including the addition of “ To River Walk”.

    Phase 1 – Design of trail and identification of trail easement

    Bridge Square Master Plan and Preliminary Design Division Street Enhancements Master Plan and Preliminary Design

    Gateway Projects Master Planning and Preliminary Design

    Cost sharing program for subsidizing additional cost to use the City’s streetscape elements along the edges of private properties to create a cohesive look within the district. Develop template of elements that qualify for program and define process for approval. Funds in this area would also be availabel for cost sharing of additional trash enclosures City/Business partnership.

    Table 2 – Additional Projects Identified but not yet prioritized

    Construction of gateway features planned and designed in 10C.

    Landscaping nodes along TH3 from Uptown (Cub/Target) to the Downtown providing a look of continuity throughout the corridor

    At the very end of Table 2, the “Stamping of poetry into downtown sidewalks” is listed, with a funding of $0 and the note:

    The Arts and Culture commission is exploring other grant funding sources.

    I looked back at all the other projects that have been funded over the years and none were public art. Somehow, this one snuck in.

    1. Griff: Again, why the ‘hotel’ are you making such a BFD of this? the Arts and Culture commission proposed a project to the Streetscape Task Force, who thought it was a good idea, and then added it into their project list with supportive funding, and then 2 years later it happened…
      You have often used the word “curmudgeon” about various people, at various times, and I would say this irritation of yours on this issue is certainly one of your most ‘curmudgeonly’ behaviors…

    2. Griff,

      Thanks for the listing of Streetscape-supported projects. A couple of reactions:

      1. What the heck does “Establish location and design of corals” mean? Last time I looked, we were pretty far from any reefs.

      2. Several entries refer to “design” of this and that, including a “dumpster enclosure”. And I like the “simple vandal resistant frames” for “wayfinding signage”. (Do we actually have “simple vandals” around here?) While such things aren’t exactly public art, I trust and hope that aesthetic considerations played some role (not that any simple vandals would notice).

    3. Good to have some spelling police here, Paul.

      I think ‘coral’ in that document should be ‘corral’ and I believe it refers to rounding up all those newspaper vending boxes into one pen.

      As for aesthetics of the enclosures, yep, it’s a big concern… and the reason for the year-long delay in getting the recycling containers approved. They’re coming soon.

    4. Kiffi, I’ve long been a curmudgeon about public expenditures for relatively small items that I think have questionable aspects to them, for example, the $85,000 city website, the $40,000 laserfiche system, the $10,000 hotel/convention center study done by the hotel chain, the $2,500 monthly expenditure for NTV, the $100,000 public toilets in the Archer House, the $250,000 extension of the Riverside Park trail, etc.

      And again, I love public art and would like to see lots more of it downtown.

      1. Griff, you curmudgeon, don’t you know how to use your own website? You should have posted your reply to Kiffi as 15.1.1 and your reply to Paul as 15.2.1, not both as replies to your own posting.

        In general, I miss the days when comments appeared simply seriatim, numbered by order of appearance. Among other things, the nesting of comments sometimes requires readers to jump around a page — or occasionally to previous pages — in order to catch up on recent postings. It also, on the longer threads, makes it difficult for John George to tempt us with posting #666.

      2. Barry- Psalm 90:12 admonishes us to number our days. It really doesn’t say anything about numbering our posts. Perhaps Griff does not want to become apocryphal.

  15. Barry, I do make that mistake occasionally but this time I opted for the serial replies instead of threaded since Kiffi’s and Paul’s comments were the most recent comments.

    Like you, I sometimes do miss the pure serial/chronological commenting for its simplicity. I’ve come to accepted the limited threaded approach, however, because few people would link to or excerpt from the comments of others when making references in their new comment.

    There’s probably a technological solution to this problem but I’ve not yet found one that doesn’t force other tradeoffs.

    1. Griff, I was kidding, of course, about your (mis)placements. But I think the old serial format has advantages beyond its mere simplicity. I think it conveys more the spirit of a public forum, in which people speak in turn and actually listen to one another. The threaded approach suggests a gathering that’s broken into clusters of conversations going on simultaneously.

      I agree, the threaded approach makes it somewhat easier for readers to identify which earlier posting is being addressed, but only to the extent that posters use the proper “reply” button. It occasionally happens that someone will, either intentionally, accidentally, or mindlessly, continue a conversation at a completely new number (as you did here, with posting #16 in reply to my 15.4.1 — the connection between them is easy to see for now, but may become obscure if Kiffi adds a risposte to your 15.4).

      One conceivable techno-fix would be if my clicking on “reply” to your posting #16 here created a posting #17 (or some other, later number if someone else has posted in between) that starts out “Barry Cipra (in reply to Griff Wigley at #16) says:” with the “#16” formatted as a clickable link that goes back to your posting.

    2. Barry, I spent an hour or so over the weekend reading up on the latest features of WordPress comment systems/plugins/services. I’m not ready to make a changeover to anything new yet but I did find a plugin called Live Comment Preview that shows you a preview of your comment as you type. It seems to work pretty well so far. Let me know if you see any problems with it.

      Now back to sidewalk poetry!

  16. I agree with ‘Lord Limerick’ (Barry) that the direct serial commenting is best, and this is why I think so, Griff…
    You want people to be polite , but sometimes if you have disagreed with someone’s comment, and then they ask you a question in a fragmented thread that is not last in line, you may miss it and not answer, therefore making it look like you are ignoring their question, i.e. them…

    So the one-by-one comments are, as Barry said, more conversational.

  17. After reading the previous posts, not sure if the Streetscape Task Force fund is the proper source for sidewalk poetry,
    but I think it’s prolly better than paying for a study to see if it is, and I think it’s a wonderful idea.

  18. An anonymous submission via email to the Sidewalk Poetry Selection Panel:

    There once was a man named Griff
    Who blogged in search of a tiff
    At the poets, he took aim
    though his point was quite lame
    And his swing, naught but a whiff

  19. In today’s StarTribune South section: Sidewalk art sinks into Northfield

    Looks like the editor was asleep. The 3rd paragraph quotes someone named Snyder. I think it should be Schultz:

    Poetry has stamped an indelible impression upon Northfield. This spring, the city began locking up some of its best poets’ work by imbedding it in a humble, immobile place that will be viewable for decades — downtown sidewalks.

    “Poetry is just one door into the artistic experience, but it’s a very accessible medium,” said poet and author Leslie Schultz, a member of the city’s Arts and Culture Commission. It organized the sidewalk poetry contest in the Cannon River town, nestled between St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.

    Poetry “lights up the brain,” Snyder added. “It’s joyful. It’s playful. It’s exciting. There’s just no downside to encountering a poem here and there in your life.”

    Also mentioned:

    Although business owners like having sidewalk poetry near their shops, Staph said, a few residents have called it a waste of money. He noted the concrete poetry work was covered by grants.

    Small quibble. Saying “grants” makes it sound like this was foundation money. Legacy money is taxpayer money, as is Streetscape TIF money.

    1. Griff: I am not sure of the details of this so you’ll have to ask Phil Spensley of the Arts and Culture committee to supply those, but Joe Staph is correct that grants from SEMCAC were involved with supporting the cost of the sidewalk poetry project, as well as $$ from the TIF district.

      1. Snyder is the ghost of the reporter’s dead proofreader, who has an ability to finish Leslie Schultz’s thoughts from behind the grave. Snyder died of a particularly bad Staph infection.

        The fine city employee quoted in the article is named Joe Stapf, not Staph.

      2. Sorry for mis-spelling Mr. Stapf’s name… Victor did the same thing yesterday, so it must have truly been a ‘staph infection’ that was contagious!

        Yes, I agree… Mr. STAPF is a fine city employee.

      3. Rob, it’s good to see you giving John George a run for the title of chief punster here on LoGro.

        Kiffi, the SEMAC grant of $7,100 for sidewalk poetry was from the Arts & Cultural Heritage fund, one of the categories of the Legacy Amendment which is funded by an increase in the sales tax that we all pay.

      4. Me? I just couldn’t come up with anything concrete to say. Too many people are trying to curb my efforts, just because I walk acccording to a different screed.

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