A perfect neighborhood

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January 30, 2012
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
Veteran developer Ray Harris imagines what an ideal community would look like in his new book, ‘Welcome to Wynott’

Change is inevitable, but if Ray Harris had his way we would do a much better job at managing change in our communities for the greater good.

In his new book, Harris has created a mythical utopia called Wynott — a place where people live and work in smart and sustainable ways. They walk more, drive less and spend more time with one another socializing in common spaces.

Harris, 82, is a long-time resident of downtown Minneapolis and developer behind Calhoun Square, Greenway Gables and the Loring Park dog park.

The impetus for “Welcome to Wynott” came when Harris’ children urged him to write a memoir about his unique career. After Harris graduated from Stanford in 1950 with a degree in industrial psychology he worked as an Army officer — teaching hand-to-hand combat to recruits. Then, in an unlikely segue, he became a foreman at a toilet seat factory. Following that job, he spent the next 50 years self employed, working as a developer on a variety of projects.

When he began working on the final chapter of the memoir, he started writing down things that are wrong with the ways communities work. He realized the final chapter should be an entire book.  

“I started to make a list and low and behold I had 50 or 60 things — things that we all do that somebody somewhere else is doing in a better way,” he said. “Then I came up with the mythical place called Wynott where people do things the right way.”

In Wynott, people are happier. They have more time and more money. They know their neighbors and are engaged in community projects.

Unfortunately, most communities are a far cry from Wynott. Harris questions just about everything about the way we live — from how we educate children to what we buy.

“The book is really about resistance to change,” Harris said, noting that most people remain subservient to somebody else throughout their life — first their parents, then teachers, then employers. “They never get to a point where they think for themselves and are willing to take a risk and do things differently. Most people want to come home after work, take off their shoes and open up a beer and sit and watch television.”

So how can we do things differently?

Harris points to a couple of examples. Take education, for instance. He questions why the school calendar runs from September to June. That made sense when children used to help out on the farm, but now a lot of kids just sit and watch television during the summer months. He also notes that a lot of research indicates that it’s better to start children in school at age 3 rather than waiting to 5.

In his book, Harris also explores more efficient uses for school buildings and buses, and promotes efforts to make school lunches more nutritious.

In Wynott, people spend a lot less time commuting than the typical American. Instead, they live close to where they work and have the option to bike or walk to work.

Long commutes are a fact of life for many in the Twin Cities.

“If you think about driving two hours a day, you’re spending 10 to 15 percent of your waking hours in an automobile, wasting your life,” he said.

Harris walks the walk on this point. He rarely drives, choosing instead to get where he needs to go from his condo in Loring Park on foot. He lives just a couple of blocks from where he was born — the Eitel Hospital, which has since been converted to an apartment building.

While Harris doesn’t hold back on his criticism of the way most communities are structured today, he doesn’t want to intimidate readers. “It’s a serious message, but it’s written in a fun way.”

He collaborated with Lily Coyle, a local playwright and freelance writer, and Kevin Cannon, a cartoonist and illustrator, on “Welcome to Wynott.”

So how do we create a Wynott?

Harris insists that no laws need to be changed. He’s also confident that these ideas can appeal to people regardless of their political leanings.

In Minneapolis, he is optimistic about the new Downtown 2025 Plan promoted by the Minneapolis Downtown Council. Many of the goals would make the city more like a Wynott, such as a push to increase use of public transit and increase green space. He’d also like to see downtown Minneapolis attract more retailers.

His daughter Sarah Harris, chief operating officer of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, is one of the key community leaders involved in the 2025 plan.

In “Welcome to Wynott,” Harris challenges readers to be more proactive and get involved in community-betterment projects like the Downtown Council’s plan.

“Change happens whether you like it or not,” he said. “It’s time we managed it and questioned why we’re doing things in an inadequate and antiquated way when somebody in the next country or state is doing it better than we are.”

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For more information about “Welcome to Wynott,” visit welcometowynott.com. Ray Harris will be speaking about his new book Jan. 26, 4 p.m., in Coffman Memorial Union’s bookstore on the University of Minnesota campus.