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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

City Maps Drawn on the Senses

A faucet, garden, silo and sewer grate are featured in Twin Cities tours designed to offer fresh (or not-so-fresh) insights into urban life.

September 03, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — James Boyd-Brent leaned off the curb into blaring downtown traffic and poked his nose toward his idea of a tourist attraction: the sewer grate at 7th and Nicollet.

He was rewarded with a whiff of pure nastiness -- a belching-diesel, rotting-garbage, backed-up-port-a-potty smell that condensed the essence of urban underbelly into one throat-clogging blast.

The college professor inhaled with gusto.

"If you get close like this, it's really disgusting!" he called, delighted.

Then he raced off to breathe in the pepper-spiked autumn-bonfire scent of the Kramarczuk Sausage Co.

Both the sewer and the sausage deli are stops on a Twin Cities "smell tour" that Boyd-Brent put together with fellow professors at the University of Minnesota. They identified 50 distinctive odors in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Now they want their neighbors to start sniffing.

The university's Design Institute will release "Odorama: A Smell Map" today as part of a quirky initiative to provoke a community conversation about urban life. Funded by a $1-million grant from Target Corp., the project aims to get people thinking about how their cities are designed, how that design affects their lives -- and how they can push for better urban planning.

Events include a five-day road race this week through Twin Cities neighborhoods, a summer Design Camp for teens, and the sale of nine offbeat maps, including "Odorama," that invite the public to explore an urban kaleidoscope of smells, sounds, tastes and colors.

A garden map leads to a plot of heirloom tomatoes tended by deaf Hmong immigrants. A spiritual map points to a freshwater spring, sacred to Native Americans, burbling in a grove hung with offerings of dried tobacco. A map devoted to the grain industry traces a path from farm to silo to mill to the fortune cookie factory on Minnehaha Avenue.

When familiar landmarks make it onto the maps, it's with a twist: The Mall of America is listed not for its extravagant shopping, but for the sharp, astringent smell of the chlorinated log-flumeride that circles through the vast lobby.

Each map works almost "like a palate cleanser at a meal between courses, like when someone serves you a delicious fennel sorbet. It reboots your perspective," said Janet Abrams, the director of the Design Institute. "You'll see what's always been there, but you'll notice it differently."

Using maps to prod civic activism "is not your run-of-the-mill way of doing things," said Michael Southworth, an associate editor of the Journal of Urban Design. Still, he thinks the concept could work. "It certainly can engage people in thinking more about their neighborhoods."

Skeptics, though, wonder whether some of the map attractions are worth contemplation.

John Weatherston isn't sure what folks will get out of listening to the squeak of the restroom faucet in his St. Paul pizza restaurant -- No. 4 on the list of distinctive urban noises for the Twin Cities Sound Map.

If John's Pizza Cafe was going to make it to a best-of list, Weatherston would rather have been cited for his potato-and-artichoke-hearts pie.

"I guess I've paid just as much attention to the sound of that faucet as I have to the sound of my basil growing," Weatherston said.

Across the river in Minneapolis, carpenter steward Clyde Bailey was baffled that the racket he wears earplugs to block was described on the sound map as an "orchestra" to be savored. The addition to the Walker Arts Center that he's helping build will one day be a major draw. But the construction pit?

"Absurd!" Bailey shouted over the shriek of pile drivers. "I wouldn't advise anyone to come here as a tourist attraction."

The sound map, like the others released this week, was not based on a rigorous survey of important landmarks. The four friends who designed it spent months simply listening: to old men slurping rice noodles in a Vietnamese restaurant, to votive candles flickering in a hushed cathedral. After work, the amateur cartographers walked the streets with decibel meters, measuring the urban beat and asking strangers to guide them to favorite sounds.

"People thought we were a little eccentric at first," said Rachel Thompson, an arts educator. "But they almost always had their own sound stories to tell."

Following those stories, the team discovered an ill-paved block of 26th Avenue where cars click-clicked past in clumsy rhythm. They found a rusty gate into a park on Raspberry Island; when they pushed it, it grumbled and squealed like an ancient choir. One man led Thompson to a sheltered valley in a public park where he had heard newborn fox cubs yipping. All those sounds, and dozens of others, made it onto the map, which comes with a CD of field recordings.

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