Cure for what ails a trail: community art


The loveseat and chair probably looked sharp in someone’s living room, once. But now, tipped over, missing cushions and with a used condom drooping off one armrest in the afternoon sun, not so good.

“Aww, will you look at that!” says Dan Collins, his disgust palpable, as we exit his minivan and walk across the Gateway Trail’s Arlington Avenue parking lot to the abandoned furniture.
Collins, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Trails and Waterways Manager for this part of the state, is not here today on trash cleanup duty. He’s come out to show off something new in the triangle of DNR land wedged between the trail, Arlington Avenue, and Interstate 35E in St. Paul: the first community public art and garden on the Gateway. He hopes the art will improve the trail, boost community involvement, and reduce chronic problems like the abandoned furniture that greets us on the parking lot.

Junked furniture is emblematic of the challenges facing this beginning stretch of the Gateway between Cayuga Park and Arlington Avenue, just over a mile long. Litter, graffiti, and vandalism are common problems here. The 18-mile Gateway is one of the state’s most heavily used trails, but this section has relatively few visitors. Traveling it, it’s not hard to see why. The path is always within sight or sound of 35E as it threads behind a shopping center, through a couple of isolated underpasses, and along an active rail line in St. Paul’s North End and Payne Phalen neighborhoods. When the trail passes east of 35E, almost at Arlington, homes begin to flank the trail and the worst of the traffic noise recedes.

Collins quickly pushes the furniture off to one side of the lot, barely missing a beat on his mission to get to the new artwork.

The far end of the disused parking lot has been torn up, blacktop replaced by big piles of compost brought in from Ramsey County. A wooden pergola rises in front of the compost piles, framing the entryway into what Collins hopes will become a community garden.

“But will you look at this,” he says, pointing to the beams forming the top of the pergola, 15 feet off the ground. A double row of ceramic tiles has been set into the beams. A closer look reveals that the tiles—mostly about four inches square—have been hand painted. Small scenes emerge: trees, flowers, a hand formed into a peace sign, kites, the word ‘Welcome.’

“The kids [from Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet School] made all of these,” Collins smiles.

A Trail Community Forms

Noreen Farrell has been concerned about this stretch of the Gateway for a long time, and regularly picks up trash there. Farrell is a past president and current membership chair of the nonprofit Gateway Trail Association, which promotes trail use and lobbies for funding. She also has long been interested in the possibilities of public art on trails. She points to local success stories combining outdoor recreation and art. Both the Western Sculpture Park in St. Paul and the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, she says, successfully combine both elements.

At a meeting between Farrell and Collins last September, the problems on the Arlington-to-Cayuga stretch came up again. Collins and his assistant at DNR, Nichole Alberg, had been considering proposing a project to the Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet School, a St. Paul public school just a few blocks from the Arlington parking lot. Collins and Farrell decided to drop in at the school and visit with Principal Andy Xiong.

Xiong says the school has partnered with many organizations on art projects before, and he reacted enthusiastically to the proposal for a community art project on the DNR trail.

“Our teachers have used the trail in teaching the kids about the outdoors, but it wasn’t until Dan came out and said ‘we want to involve you’ that we could do a project like this,” Xiong explained.

DNR, the trail association and the school agreed to pool cash and in-kind resources, enabling the school to work with a local arts nonprofit, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), to hire an artist-in-residence (David Vang) for the school just for the Gateway project. Soon a workgroup consisting of Collins, Farrell, Alberg, Xiong, and Vang were hashing the details of the project.

The pergola and ceramic tiles—both intentionally welcoming trail visitors—were Vang’s idea, says Collins. The school could feasibly produce painted ceramic tiles, and tiles would be an easy way to involve students, with each student creating their own vision of welcome on their tile. Then the problem was how to display the tiles.

“We thought about a peace garden behind the L’Orient Kmart, with the tiles attached to rocks we would bring in,” says Collins. “But we were lost as we began to think about the magnitude of actually bringing in enough rocks and figuring out a way to attach all these tiles the kids made, over 300 plates. Then the community garden idea came in, and David Vang said, in keeping with the Welcome idea, ‘What about a pergola to attach the tiles to, an entrance to the community garden?’” In the end, the Arlington parking lot, little used for anything but illegal dumping, was chosen for the transformative project.

Project Completed: What Comes Next?

Planning meetings wrapped up in March, and the project moved ahead quickly. Vang worked with the kids in third through sixth grades in April and May to create more than 300 ceramic tiles. Collins and a crew from DNR pulled up old blacktop and built the pergola in June. They affixed the welcome tiles along the top of the structure. A dedication formally unveiled the pergola and tiles on June 28.

The community garden is planned for development in 2009, says Alberg. The school has expressed interest in one large plot, leaving about 15 smaller plots for interested families. Prep work such as soil testing and bringing in a water source will have to be done before then. “It’s a work-in-progress,” she says. “As far as I know, there are no other community gardens on DNR trails.”

How will DNR know if the Arlington project is a success, and what’s next for this stretch of the Gateway? Alberg says brainstorming has begun on other projects, perhaps another school art project where the trail passes under Maryland Avenue, or further south where a footbridge carries it over railroad tracks.

“One of my goals is to reduce the kind of petty crime that occurs along that part of the trail, to return a sense of community,” says Collins. “The art and the garden are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise fairly industrial setting.”

Freelancer Paul Purman writes from St. Paul’s Mounds Park neighborhood. He worked at Minnesota DNR in a previous work life, and enjoys biking the Gateway Trail.