Is the city selling out, or spiffing up?

When I first heard that the city was interested in upgrading street furniture, I thought that inspectors might begin ticketing homeowners and renters for barcaloungers left out on the lawn, week after week.

Some of the upholstery dotting the landscape in my neighborhood is no doubt the results of post-kegger furniture rearranging, a bad break up ("You take the sofa!" "No, you take it!"), or perhaps even a half-finished move ("That thing will not fit in the van! Just leave it!"). Maybe it’s a misbegotten interpretation of the fashion trend toward outdoor living rooms.

There’s a particularly sad-looking little mauve loveseat sitting cock-eyed halfway down the bank of the 10th Street bridge that I’ve been making up stories about. She bought it, but he hated pink, so off the rails it went. Or six adolescent boys decided to build a fort, but were reduced to furnishing it with Grandma’s leftover fluffy bits. Or maybe it was tied on to the truck badly and just took flight, landing half-askew and delighting the local field mice with its plethora of foam to shred and mountains of polyester to munch. Or, it might just be that sofa is perfectly positioned to watch movies on the big screen TV through the window of the apartment across the tracks.

But no. This is not what the city means. When it says "street furniture" it means informational kiosks, bus shelters, concrete benches and trash bins. It seems that some cities have "coordinated" street furniture, whereas we have a ragtag assemblage of hand-me-downs. Colonial, Modern, Art Deco, Mid-Century — it’s all here and mixing, but just not matching. Time to whip off the antimassacars and plastic dust covers and get down to rearranging the furniture — on the streets.

Feng shui- and design-minded citizens can weigh in at a meeting at the Central Library Oct. 15 or visit the website www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/street-furniture to submit a thought or two about how Minneapolis might decorate its outdoor rooms and check out the cool digs in other cities.

Chicago has historic-looking newspaper dispensers all black and in a row, as tidy as a library shelf and much spiffier looking that the mish-mash of lime, red, and yellow plastic stands chain-locked to the no-parking signs on corners along Hennepin. Toronto has outdoor recycling containers that put Lyndale’s graffiti-laden litter cans to shame. Many of these options are attractive and even charming and I’ll admit that it might be nice to have ashcans that match the bike racks that coordinate with the public toilets.

However, this isn’t quite a Beautify Minneapolis program without strings attached — it’s a sell-stuff-on-every-corner kind of program, and the beauty will be in the eye of the advertising beholder. The city is looking for vendors to provide free outdoor furniture to the city, in exchange for getting advertising space on the fixtures. The website calls this "enhancing city revenues."

This sort of deal is probably common as cash-strapped burgs struggle to bolt bus shelters and benches onto the pavement. Taxes don’t stretch far enough for architecturally interesting public furnishings, and hardy and nearly indestructible seating and bike rakes no doubt cost a pretty penny. Getting vendors to foot the bill is creative — in a way.

However, advertising isn’t always pretty, is it? Realtor ads on bus stop benches — while adding a dramatic accent of bile green to the corner mélange or even worse, a grainy photograph of a grinning salesman — don’t add to the city cache for me. I am stymied about why Denny Hecker lets that awful image of his head ride around on the backs of so many buses, for example.

And advertising isn’t always politically correct or even just inoffensive. I grow annoyed at the cleavage popping out of those Bebe fashion ads at the bus stop in front of the Red Dragon, and I can only imagine that that is the tip of the iceberg, pardon me Freud. Magazine and television ads are often blatantly sexual and exploitive, but at least I close the cover or turn the channel.

There isn’t much I can do about advertising disguised as street furniture. Except maybe whip up a few slipcovers in chintz.

Pamela Hill Nettleton lives in Whittier, and owns nothing in chintz.