Urban Terrapsychology and Creative Placemaking (15)

In my last post I related how I discovered the story of the Grand Excursion of 1854 and determined that it was an event that I had intuitively been seeking for years - an event that could be repeated in some sense during its 150th anniversary in 2004 as a way both to celebrate ten years of riverfront revitalization and heal some deep wounds to the psyche of the city of Saint Paul. And indeed, as soon as I made that proposal, it was immediately embraced by city leaders all the way up to the mayor. Ten years prior to 2004 the commitment was made to begin preparing for a redux of the Grand Excursion in that year, and I was put in charge of a small committee to begin planning for the big event.

Of course I was thrilled with this development, but I did have one nagging doubt. Why, I wondered, had the 1854 event been nearly forgotten when it was so important at the time? Did something go wrong back in 1854 that our community had been trying to repress ever since? If so, would that scuttle our 2004 plans or perhaps provide an opportunity for an even more profound transformation than we had originally imagined?

It turns out that a number of things really did go wrong back in 1854. One was recognized right away, and blamed on the people of my city. Others we could see in retrospect a century and a half later. But in all cases, the failings of our ancestors opened the door to a creative re-imagination of the original event. Rather than striving to re-enact the 1854 Grand Excursion, we chose to re-create it, in a way that enabled us to "get it right this time."

So what went wrong back in 1854? To answer that question it is helpful to consider in more detail what was supposed to happen back then. Grand Excursion 1854 was intended to be a kind of secular pilgrimage - a journey through the paradise of the Upper Mississippi Bluff Country to the new city of Saint Paul and on to the Falls of St. Anthony, a sacred site (both to native peoples and now to Euro-Americans) where a special ritual would be performed - a "mingling of the waters" ceremony where water from the Atlantic Ocean would be poured into the Mississippi River as a kind of sacred marriage uniting the East Coast with the Midwest.

That was the plan. But one aspect of the plan went terribly wrong. The boats arrived in Saint Paul a day early and no one was prepared to greet the thousands of excursionists and take them to the Falls of St. Anthony. Desperate to get to the falls, the excursionists began to offer to pay anyone who was willing to transport them there. The free market worked its magic, but only at prices that were clearly exorbitant. As a result, the new city of Saint Paul was roundly castigated by many excursionists, most notably by a traveling journalist from the New York Times who concluded a long diatribe against the city with the pronouncement that it was the greediest place in the Western Continent!

No wonder that by the late 20th century, Saint Paul residents had conveniently forgotten/repressed this embarrassing event dating from the time of the city's founding. And in retrospect, we could see that the entire 1854 event, even in its original intention, was flawed in other ways. It ushered in a full assault on the native peoples of the region, and the beautiful natural environment in which they lived. We certainly did not want to re-enact this kind of event.

I will be taking a two week break from my blog (warmup vacation); when I resume I'll explore how Saint Paul and the people of the Upper Mississippi Valley re-created the 1854 event to "get it right this time," in ways that genuinely transformed the community.

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