Urban Terrapsychology and Creative Placemaking (14)

I began the year 1994 with a sense of anticipation.  To summarize items discussed in my previous blog posts: After three years of learning from mentors to think terrapsychologically, I found myself with -

* An awareness that my city of Saint Paul, MN was strong on neighborhood-focused soul, but weak on having a strong sense of itself as a centered city with a healthy ego. (Thanks to Robert Sardello for that insight.)

* Recognition that Saint Paul's inwardness stemmed in part from its natural history as a place riddled with caves and other underground spaces, some of which were sacred sites to indigenous peoples - and that in recent centuries the cave motif carried forward into Saint Paul's two most monumental buildings, the state capitol and the cathedral - both structures dominated by cavelike domes. (Thanks to my spouse Elizabeth VanderSchaaf for that insight.)

* Perception that the neon sign on Saint Paul's historic commercial skyscraper - a giant "1st" that flashes on and off - could be a clue to the psyche of the city and its wounds that needed healing.  Saint Paul was originally an important river city as the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.  And it was the "first born" of the two Twin Cities, and surpassed Minneapolis in size for the first 30 years of their existence.  So it had long been haunted by the dual loss of the river as a special place, lost by abandoning the river to industrial pollution, and the loss of the city's preeminence to Minneapolis.  (Thanks to Gail Thomas for that insight.)

* A meditative image of the Circle City mandala - an image suggesting the interrelationship of a circular pattern of urban development anchored by Chicago in the southeast and Minneapolis/Saint Paul 400 miles to the northwest.  And a growing awareness of a kind of flow of energy from Chicago to the Twin Cities seeking a water path.

What especially fueled my sense of anticipation in 1994 was the fact that Saint Paul had just elected a new mayor, who had made riverfront development a top priority of his administration.  As a planner working for the city, I had been assigned to help the mayor craft his development agenda.  So I knew that his hope was for the city to embark on a ten-year riverfront revitalization project and then do something to celebrate its accomplishments after ten years.  I wondered if my terrapsychological insights could bear good fruit in this context.  So I began reading about the history of the Mississippi River in the Upper Midwest, hoping to find the missing piece to my terrapsychological puzzle.

Almost immediately I found what I was looking for - in a classic book called Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi published in 1968 by a historian named William J. Peterson.  There I read of an event called "The Grand Excursion of 1854."  This event was evidently the largest and most spectacular tourist and visitor event in pre-Civil War U.S. history.  It celebrated the completion of the last link in the first seamless railroad connection between the East Coast and the Mississippi River, terminating then at Rock Island, Illinois.  To celebrate, several thousand East Coast dignitaries gathered in Chicago, took the train to Rock Island, and then boarded riverboats for an excursion to see the brand new city of Saint Paul and the famous Falls of St Anthony, located where Minneapolis soon would be.

I quickly sensed that this story represented the fulfillment of my terrapsychological dreams.  Our mayor's idea of celebrating ten years of riverfront revitalization would coincide exactly with the 150th anniversary of the Grand Excursion of 1854.  So why not re-create that excursion as the way to celebrate not just our city's riverfront revitalization, but the revitalization of the entire Upper Mississippi River Valley?  I did have a few nagging questions, however.  Why was it that I'd never heard of the story of the 1854 Grand Excursion before?  Why was it completely forgotten by almost everyone else in our city, when it seemed to feature Saint Paul so prominently?  And would other cities along 400 miles of the river find this story to be meaningful to them?

Next week: How the idea for Grand Excursion 2004 took root, and how my nagging questions were answered.

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Comment by Mark VanderSchaaf on February 2, 2015 at 4:33pm

Lola -Very interesting to learn of your family connection to the Grand Excursion of 1854!  And yes, I was aware of the Emma Bull War of the Oaks book - I read it shortly after it first came out and it helped inspire my sense that good old Minnesota could be a place of magic and mystery.


Comment by Lola McCrary on February 1, 2015 at 6:12pm
Thanks for talking about the Great Excursion of 1854. One branch of my family lived in Mendota at that time, and I'm sure they were there to watch this! I saw the PDF on the 2004 site of newspaper articles that you and your wife compiled--great work.

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