Golden Valley May Be a Model for Civic Change
- For those of you who don't know the Twin Cities, Golden Valley is an
older inner suburb that typifies the statement "there's no there
there." It's interesting to see how its own residents are rethinking
Golden Valley May Be a Model for Civic Change
Circling the nation 40 years ago "in search of America," John Steinbeck
wanted to see one area in the Twin Cities region. "I meant," he wrote,
"to go through Golden Valley, drawn by its name."
In "Travels With Charley," Steinbeck wrote that when he arrived here "a
great surf of traffic engulfed me ... All I saw was a river of trucks,
all I heard was a roar of motors ... I never found Golden Valley."
Although a lot of folks have managed to find it, there remains a
lingering truth in Steinbeck's words.
"Everyone drives through Golden Valley," said John Kluchka, who lives
and works there. "No one thinks about it."
Kluchka has been a key figure in "Envision Golden Valley," an ambitious
self-assessment that concluded last week with the mailing of thousands
of "vision guides" to residents of the city.
Present and Future
The process took six years and eventually involved hundreds of people.
It culminated in a community summit. It is likely to serve as a
statewide model for citizen involvement: It either has been or soon
will be featured at statewide conferences of planners and local
The 20-page document calls on the people of today's Golden Valley to
join in a "renewal of the suburban ideal." And it stresses that the
city won't do it for them. Based on countless individual suggestions
from residents, the guide suggests a gradual retooling of the 1950s
suburb to diminish the role of the automobile and connect people face
And it hints that answers can be found close by: Hopkins' rejuvenated
downtown, with its busy arts center; Robbinsdale's community festival;
Edina's cluster of distinctive upscale restaurants; the light-rail
trains and lakeside concerts in Minneapolis and halftime celebrations
at Friday night football games like they have in St. Louis Park.
Charlie Quimby, a Golden Valley resident whose job it was to pull all
the suggestions into a single treatise, said the dominance of the car
is one of the greatest differences between suburb and city.
"I used to live in the city and come home through Edina and maybe see
one person who wasn't in a car," he said. "In suburbia you go through
the garage to the house and back out the same way."
Taking part in Envision Golden Valley, however, made him realize he was
surrounded by like-minded people who also missed that human contact.
"This process really gave me a different view of my community," he
said, "and of what's possible in suburbia."
Ann Forsyth, director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the
University of Minnesota, cautioned that even ambitious community
conversations can represent the views of relatively few residents.
"Often the people who respond to these things are people with the
energy to change things," she said.
In a deeper sense, though, she said the city is part of a national
trend on the part of suburbs that started off as one kind of thing -- a
refuge for young families in search of good schools and quiet streets
-- and are having to mutate as residents age.
Even among first-ring suburbs, all them full of white-haired
residents, Golden Valley stands out. Its median age is 43, compared to
31 in Minneapolis. The share of its residents who are preschoolers (5.5
percent) is half that of Lakeville, while the share who are over 65 (20
percent) is seven times as high.
"When that happens," Forsyth said, "it becomes a different kind of
place because you're grappling not just with child-rearing. It's about
a transition from places for children into places that have more
Bruce Peterson, a leader in the Envision process, noted that both old
and young residents turned out to want many of the same things. In
meetings, residents talked about long-lost expressions of community
such as the Lilac Festival.
"Those were things that lent us a sense of character and identity," he
said. "And younger people, when they heard about these things, really
tagged onto them."
Although initially kept at arm's length, the City Council has affirmed
the vision guide.
All sides also stress that the process isn't just meant as a critique.
Not only does it speak to what people like about Golden Valley, it
stresses that much about the city deserves to be maintained. It speaks
obliquely of "maintaining character," which participants say are code
words for blocking the New Suburbia look of big-box retail stores and
outsize cookie-cutter mansions with three-car garages.
"That's a 2001 model that's already looking tired, in my own personal
opinion," Kluchka said.
Next step will be to form a group of some kind to push the ideas along,
perhaps a nonprofit community foundation.
The whole process is a natural and longstanding one in American
society, Forsyth said.
"The cities we love that have been around a really long time were
pretty rough to start with," she said. "Even New England villages often
didn't fill in their village greens till the 19th century. It takes
time. It's hard to be terrific from the start. Most places we love have
been redeveloped and redeveloped, over and over, and that's the way you
make terrific places."