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Our View: Love it or hate it, new Peace Plaza is worth the trip

Just watch your step.

Our View editorial graphic
Our View
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All art is subjective, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people look at the Mona Lisa and say, “Meh. I don't get it.” Earlier this week, someone even threw a piece of cake at it.

With that in mind, no one should be surprised that the newly unveiled “Heart of the City” renovations to the Rochester Peace Plaza are prompting such a wide array of responses. Publicly funded art always faces intense scrutiny, and that scrutiny is further magnified when people routinely interact with and participate in the displays – as is the case with the Peace Plaza.

Critics have been quick to lament the project's $19.4 million cost, but we'd hasten to point out that these were state-provided Destination Medical Center funds, not local dollars. Furthermore, the bulk of that $19.4 million was spent on infrastructure improvements to First Avenue, including stormwater, sewer and other utilities. These largely invisible improvements will pay dividends for decades – long after, if history is any indication, some of the current art displays become footnotes in Peace Plaza lore.

Still, people have the right to ask, “What did Rochester and the state get for the $2.4 million that was spent on poetry, pavers, sculptures and fog?” And, yes, it's valid to ask whether bricks and water are good substitutes for what was some of the only green space in downtown Rochester.

Peace Plaza Commemoration
Mist rises as part of artist Eric Anderson's "Wakefield" public art piece as Arlyn Gagnon, wife of the late Rochester sculptor Charles Gagnon, who designed the Peace Fountain, speaks during a commemoration of Peace Plaza on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in downtown Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Every individual will have to make that judgment, and if you haven't been to the Peace Plaza in the past month, it's definitely worth the trip. The grass and walking path are gone, replaced by a shallow-water pool that already is being embraced by barefoot pre-schoolers, as well as teens posing for prom pictures. The pool covers part of a much-larger display of paving stones that stretches from the west side of First Avenue back to the relocated Peace Fountain.

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This 250-foot display, “Song of Water,” unites the design of artist Ann Hamilton with words taken from Minnesota Poet Laureate Dr. Gwen Westerman's “De Wakpa Tanjka Odowan / Song for the Mississippi River.” The inscribed pavers honor the Native Americans – the Dakota, in this case – who lived in this region long before European settlement began. The poem also celebrates humanity's physical and spiritual connection with water.

But please, don't set out to “read” the entire display. You'll block traffic on First Avenue and probably bump into and annoy quite a few people who are trying to get somewhere.

Plus, you'll likely get bored, or even frustrated, because “Song of Water” is meant to be experienced in bits and pieces. You don't read it sequentially from left to right, top to bottom. Rather, you're free to bounce from line to line, section to section, creating your own poem as you go, using words and phrases of your own choosing.

Just watch your step.

Peace Plaza Commemoration
People stand in the water as they gather for a commemoration of Peace Plaza on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in downtown Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

The raised lettering on the pavers, as well as some unevenness in the installation of the pavers themselves, have led to complaints about possible tripping hazards, as well as problems for people using walkers or wheelchairs. Given that the Peace Plaza is supposed to be a point of transition, a gateway between the community and visitors to Mayo Clinic, that's a big potential problem that could get even bigger after the pavers have endured a few Minnesota winters.

One downtown business owner has called the project “a boondoggle” on social media, and one local radio station had some fun with the display, asking listeners to write “Perturbed Poetry” to express their less-than-positive reviews.

The most-succinct response? “It's Trippin'”.

Levity aside, it's far too soon to pass judgment on the “Heart of the City” project, which remains a work in progress. While “Song of Water” might prove to be a bit of a maintenance headache, it is an attractive, ambitious display that might someday become as much of a downtown fixture as the Peace Fountain, which has been a downtown focal point since 1989.

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Furthermore, we'd point out that while the Peace Plaza's green space gave way to granite, metal and water, the sidewalk area on the east side of First Avenue has been transformed into a very inviting area lined with huge benches and shade trees – perfect spots to read a book, eat lunch or listen to live music. Downtown Rochester desperately needed such an area, and now it's there.

The reality is that more than three million people go through the Peace Plaza every year, which means it must serve an immense variety of purposes. It's a pedestrian corridor and a gathering spot. It's a concert venue and a festival site. It's an art center, a playground, a bar and a restaurant. It's a place of contemplation and a center of celebration. As such, the “Heart of the City” will constantly need to evolve, to adapt to the needs and wants of Rochester residents and visitors.

Some of these adaptations will work splendidly, others less so – and that's OK. The influence of water and time will ensure that change to “The Heart of the City” will be both necessary and inevitable.

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