Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Take What? Pave What?

At this very moment, I am probably being more productive overall than at any time in my life. That would be great, if I were a high-powered CEO, equipped with an exit strategy and a cottage in the West. And I don’t mean the Pacific Coast.

Most of my productivity is getting me slaps on the back rather than money, which is fine for proving my claim that I am not overly materialistic. But the juggling I am doing is making me delay by a week a post I have waited to put together for several months. I am hopeful that next week it will see the light, but the research is time-consuming, and I am not available to do it correctly today.

So, I may as well get back into my wheelhouse and write about what I know: my childhood musical experiences. One memory relates to one of my current time-consuming projects, so I’ll tell you about that as well. I won’t jump away from this year’s blog premise, either; the artist I am featuring has a female vocal lead. Here we go.

I lived in Bloomington, Indiana from August, 1978 to July, 1998, with some short forays into the real world (Mexico, Indianapolis, Gary). When I got to Bloomington, I went downtown a few times to check it out; they were filming the Academy Award-winning film Breaking Away then, which made downtown seem appealing. But the reality was different: As is the case with most Indiana county seats, Bloomington had a courthouse on a square. The square was wall-to-wall old buildings, some of which had active storefronts. The others, like the former Kresge store, stood empty. The commercial action was all at College Mall.

By 1983, the square was truly dying. A glance at the newspapers of the time show talk of demolishing the courthouse to try to build something that would appeal to consumers. Horrified preservationists stepped in, and the courthouse still stands. But what to do about the terrible economic situation of the heart of Bloomington?

Someone looked around and said, “Let’s take out the parking meters. The Mall advertises its free parking as a selling point, and we get complaints daily about having to plug a meter to shop downtown.” The city put bags over the meter heads for a few months, and investors, shop-owners and customers began to flood the square. The city removed the meter heads, and eventually it sawed off the poles at sidewalk level. Downtown Bloomington is now the cultural and commercial center of South Central Indiana, and there isn’t even an interstate shunting traffic into it.

That lesson was not lost on me when I walked down St. Germain Street in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In the downtown area, there are 327 parking meters. If you park, you pay. If you decide to stop downtown but aren’t carrying coins, you don’t stop. There are about 11 empty storefronts on that street.

It turns out that the St. Cloud Downtown merchants have been begging the city to ditch the meters for years. But their pleas were based on instinct, rather than hard evidence that a meter-free Downtown would be a successful Downtown.

And then, this February, I lost a quarter in a defective meter. I was not offered a refund. I wrote to the mayor, and I told him about the Bloomington Renaissance and the role of meter removal. He had me put on the Parking Committee agenda. I went to Bloomington, took a lot of photos, turned them into a PowerPoint presentation, and the Parking Committee ran with the concept.

From there, it was easy work to get the Downtown Merchants on board. The Downtown Council is using the momentum to full advantage, with stunning results. Soon, the proposal, complete with a unanimous merchant petition, will be taken to the City Council, where I will present my PowerPoint essay for the fourth time. If the vote is what the Downtown Council hopes it will be, we will bag the meters, use essentially the same parking formula that made Bloomington rich, and recreate St. Cloud’s Downtown. All without spending any money on a consultant to tell everyone what they already knew: what worked in Bloomington will work here.

That means that I have been out getting signatures on the petition. The merchants of St. Cloud’s Downtown are very excited. It is a good feeling. But I couldn’t get to the media item I wanted to review for today’s post.

I’m done writing on what I know about St. Cloud in 2009. The topic reminds me, though, of a song that has caused me occasional embarrassment since I lived in Gary in 1970.

It was August of that year, and I was staying at my Aunt Eileen’s house then, mostly in the company of my cousin Bob. I wrote a lot about them last year, because so many of my personal-soundtrack songs came from that summer and that house.

One of the songs I left out last year was a lively cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” I heard the version by the Neighborhood a lot on WLS, though it spent just 4 weeks in the national Top 40, beginning with its debut on August 8. It climbed only to #29, which should have meant it got no airplay on WLS. Not so. It peaked at #11 on the WLS survey. (The week it reached #17, it was billed as “Bi Yellow Taxi.”)

Bob didn’t sing a lot, but he sang this song. That’s what has gotten me into trouble over the years. Bob’s lyrics went like this (the words can’t even be a mondegreen): “Take down a bank, put up a parking lot.”

His sister, Lois, told him repeatedly that the song referred to “paradise.” Bob didn’t remember that, but I did. However, I figured she meant that the lyrics were “Take paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Inevitably, I sang that line in the presence of a Joni Mitchell fan, circa 1986, in Bloomington. Her gleeful, shocked, mocking laugh still rings in my ears. And on the rare occasions that I am expected to quote the line in question, I tend to say, “Take—pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Thanks, Bob.

It took me until last summer to get the song, as recorded by the Neighborhood, known in Whitburn as a “seven-man, two-woman pop vocal group.” The two women are in the foreground of the vocal arrangement. Given some recent covers of the song, you might think you hate the thing. But I like this peppy version. Thanks to my parking-issue time crunch, I’m not going to research the group further.

Well, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek. Joni wrote it about seeing a parking lot in the distance while she was in Hawaii. There you go.

Fortunately for me, while I’m wandering around St. Cloud’s Downtown, this song does not run through my mind. At least, it hasn’t so far.

If I need more excuses for delaying the post I wanted to write today, I’ll tell you about the Barbeque Saga.

Saturday, I’ll bring you Week Eighteen of the Great 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

The Neighborhood, Big Yellow Taxi


Lizzle-ba-Dizzle said...

Oh, and for the longest time, I thought the line was, "If it ain't paradise, put up a parking lot," which seemed a little harsh to me. I mean, the only options are paradise or parking lot? Sheesh.

Also, it never ceases to amaze me how very little it takes to dissuade people from going downtown (in Winnipeg) just because of parking. $0.25 or even $1 shouldn't be a big deal, and yet. . .

Yah Shure said...

Seán, that's great news!! Lovely Rita needs to find a new profession, anyway; perhaps as an interpreter for Lady Mondegreen.