Guest Post: Making Invisible Jobs Visible at the St. Paul Public Works open house

22 May
Editor’s note: When I heard that Saint Paul Public Works was having an opening house, I really wanted to go. Unfortunately, I was still in California at the time. Instead, I convinced my mom, Beth Beaty, to go and report back. She generously agreed to write about it for this blog, giving a nice citizen’s perspective on Public Works as a whole.

Beth Beaty lives, writes, and shovels snow in Saint Paul, MN. She also blogs at

“Really, Saint Paul? Define fun.”

That was my reaction when the City of Saint Paul’s Public Works Department invited me to “come join the fun!” at their open house via my Twitter feed. In fact, that question is exactly what I asked my daughter Veronica and my boyfriend Aaron when I sent them a copy of the tweet with my snarky commentary. Fun for all ages? How absurd. It was bound to be lame, right? Ooo, look at me . . . I’m such a loser I’m going to the Public Works Equipment Repair Garage for a good time.

Doesn't that sign just scream "fun"?

Doesn’t that sign just scream “fun”?

However, Veronica (a former Public Works employee) and Aaron (a current City Administrator) thought it sounded great. Some quirk of the fates gave me two policy geeks to love and cherish. I am not a policy geek. I have resigned myself to spend every major holiday meal for the rest of my life asking “What exactly is it you do again?” The only reason I follow the Saint Paul Public Works department is to get Snow Emergency updates.

(Note to non-Minnesotans: A snow emergency is not when you realize there is not enough snow to make the yard look nice for company, so you call the City to deliver some. A snow emergency is when those of us without off-street parking sit around in our pajamas waiting to find out if we need to pull on boots and coats, don mittens and scarves and make our way through snow up to our knees, shovel out our cars so we can move it to the other side of the street before the plows come through and then go to bed and catch some sleep before we need to wake up and to it again before leaving for work.)

So at their urging, and in the hopes I would learn more about their policy geek world, I set off to the open house. Besides, it was on my way home from work.

The event took place in the Equipment Repair Garage. In part, I am sure, because the big empty space lent itself well to

A snow plow end with not blades for pushing snow and a dump truck end where salt comes out to melt whatever is left.

A snow plow end with not one but two blades for pushing snow and a dump truck end where salt comes out to melt whatever is left.

the science fair style setup of poster boards on beer pong tables. But mostly because that garage is also where the cool stuff is, because as nice it was to be welcomed by blinking portable signage, we were all really there for the Big Trucks.

At the entrance, I got the obligatory plastic bag to fill with free stuff and a map of the event. I was eager to see Fuel Island on the map, but it turned out to not be as exciting as Fire Island.

As I suspected, most of the hands-on activities, at least the really cool ones, were for the kids. Little ones could be seen taking a ride up in the air in a cherry picker, repeatedly beeping the horn in a street sweeper, pretending to plow snow in a toy city, and playing in the bouncy house. No one invited me to do these things. It was a great event for kids. I could easily imagine making a huge deal out of going with a much younger Veronica.

I was expecting to feel a bit out of place being there without a little one. But I didn’t.  In fact, about half the adults there were without kids. And there was stuff for us, too. A nice woman explained to me that the smooth cylinder of stone was, in fact, a core sample of concrete. After she explained how they test concrete for strength, she admitted that, yes it could maybe also be an art project. I saw the cool go-over-the-side-of-the-bridge machine they use to paint and clean bridges. They had timelines for various projects around town. There was a photo display of how to tell if the thing in your yard was a broken sewer main or a Hellmouth (at least I think that’s what they were trying to teach me).

If you were stranded on a fuel island, what you bring?

If you were stranded on a fuel island, what you bring?

I also had a fascinating conversation with a couple of guys who worked in the severs and heard an exciting story about taking a five minute ride down into the sewers to shovel human waste while rats ran up their arms.

Organizations that partner with the city were also there offering energy audit, rain garden, watershed and street recycling information. Most of it was pretty standard to a State Fair junkie like me, but the Better Block Project caught my attention. This summer, a block along a street in town will be transformed into a well-designed, multi-use urban area. I may have added another policy geek date to my summer schedule.

As I wandered around looking at big machines and the people who know what they do, I found myself analyzing this as I would a marketing event. That’s really what it was. They were not trying to get me to buy a product, but earn my buy-in. The city wanted me on their side. Maybe they will get fewer complaints; maybe people will be more likely to vote for tax increases. Or bonding issues. Or whatever cities do to get money. Maybe people will just treat the city and the people who keep it working with a little more respect. But mostly it just seemed the city wanted to literally open their doors and say “See the work we do.”

The work of running a city well seems not so different from jobs I am more familiar with, say, editing a book, running a church office or lighting a stage. No one sees what you do – or even thinks of what you do as a thing people do – as long as you are doing it well. I firmly believe we should all take a moment every so often to notice the work that happens behind the scenes to make where and how we live better.

In that light, I was the perfect audience for the open house. All the adults were. Maybe the bucket rides and the street sweepers where just ploys to draw families in and keep the kids busy while the adults got ask dumb questions. And look into the eyes of the people who make their lives better.


4 Responses to “Guest Post: Making Invisible Jobs Visible at the St. Paul Public Works open house”


  1. What Public Policy Geeks Post About | Building Ebenezers - May 22, 2013

    […] can find it here. […]

  2. Life is Like Coding | Building Ebenezers - September 15, 2013

    […] have written about invisible work before. The downside of invisible work is right there in the name. No one sees it. So they forget it even […]

  3. Blogger Level Up: Guest Post Challenge Competed | Building Ebenezers - November 22, 2013

    […] was so excited for me. The only other time I have been a guest blogger was when I wrote about public works for her blog. She was having none of my “Yeah, but …” self-depreciating comments. This was how […]

  4. Smoke and Mirrors | Building Ebenezers - June 1, 2014

    […] hear the voice of their church. One of the things my daughter, my BF and I share (despite how much my field(s) differ from theirs) is the belief that our jobs, when done well, are invisible to others. My daughter liked to […]

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