St. Paul is lined with American flags. Who puts them out?

Tom Edelstein takes a phone call from his daughter as he plants a flag.
Tom Edelstein takes a phone call from his daughter as he plants a flag on Summit Avenue in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Fourth of July gets fireworks and flyovers. Flag Day tends to be a much quieter patriotic observance. It doesn't come with a day off from work, so the anniversary that marks the official adoption of the American flag in 1777 is sometimes overlooked.

But in St. Paul, the annual tribute to the Stars and Stripes is impossible to miss along some busy thoroughfares decked out in a festive display of red, white and blue.

Small plastic flags appear by the thousands each Flag Day without explanation, notice or any public funding.

And for the few dozen volunteers responsible for planting the flags in the ground for the past 30-plus years, that element of surprise has been a big part of the fun.

Tom Edelstein holds a bundle of American Flags.
Tom Edelstein holds a bundle of American Flags before planting them in the ground along Summit Avenue in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"We used to do it, we'd get up at six in the morning and really try to be very sneaky about it," said Tom Edelstein, one of the people behind the flag display. "But times have changed and we usually do it late afternoon [of the previous day]."

Edelstein is a realtor with Coldwell Banker Burnet. The flag planting is officially a company initiative, but few offices go to the lengths that the staff do in the Highland Park and Crocus Hill neighborhoods.

By looking, you wouldn't know that the offices had anything to do with the flags. There are no signs taking credit for it and the effort is not mentioned on the company's website. The display is just flags — block after block of knee-high flags on wooden sticks, sometimes lining roads for miles. In dry years, volunteers have to carry a screwdriver to poke a hole in the dirt to stick the flag in.

People have speculated that the display is a city initiative or a neighborhood tradition or a gesture to honor the armed forces.

It's none of those things, said Edelstein, who is the son of a World War II Marine and the grandson of a World War I Army soldier.

"It's very unifying actually because it doesn't matter your politics," he said. "I think Americans really love their flag. They love their country. It's just a nice thing to do."

Tom Edelstein walks to the next spot where he'll plant a flag.
Tom Edelstein walks to the next spot where he'll plant a flag the day before Flag Day on Summit Avenue. He tries to plant one across from every house on the street.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The office staff distributes about 3,000 flags along city streets and they don't want any of them back. Tina Angell, a district manager with Coldwell Banker Burnet, said she spots them later in yards and gardens, or she sees people carrying them around to show their patriotic spirit. Some don't even wait for the flags to go in the ground to request one.

"As we're walking, we're putting out the flags, people are saying thank you, or somebody is coming by with a stroller and asking if they can have one for their child in the stroller, or kids coming by, saying, 'Hey, can we have a flag?'" said Angell.

And for one day every year, down miles of St. Paul streets, the answer is yes, for everyone that passes by.

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