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Mary Tyler Moore Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (and Neither Does Prince Most of the Time)

How Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Identity Crisis Means Serious Trouble for Our Future

by Jay Walljasper

Published in MinnPost

Former St. Paul mayor and U.S. Senator Norm Coleman tells the story that when he moved to the Twin Cities his Brooklyn mother back in Brooklyn was convinced it was Minneapolis and Indianapolis. 

Jay Corbalis, a 27-year-old Cornell grad who is regional coordinator of the DC-based Locus real estate development firm, admits “On my first business trip I didn’t realize the Mississippi River ran through the Twin Cities.”

David Feehan, a business consultant who until recently headed the International Downtown Association, brought a tour of business leaders through Twin Cities in 2011. “Quite frankly, they were astounded. They had a great time,” he recalls.  “This was a well-traveled group, and none of them had been to Minneapolis-St. Paul before.  They had no image of it other than a cold, northern place.”

Twin Cities, we have a problem!

Mary Tyler Moore Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

We’re not on most people’s radar of lively, livable, progressive, prosperous, places.  The cities we compete with for business, jobs and well-educated young workers enjoy strong identities as attractive, interesting places.  Seattle is Microsoft and Nordstrom.  The Bay Area is high-tech and avant-garde culture.  Denver is America’s beer capital and the Rocky Mountains. Portland is the capital of urban livability and young hipsters.

We are best known for is ice, snow, wind chill, mosquitoes, the Mall of America and, if we are lucky, Prairie Home Companion-- which does not exactly portray us as a dazzling hotspot of culture, innovation and global cosmopolitanism.

“Unless you’re from Fargo or Des Moines, you probably don’t think much about the Twin Cities, except if you’re old enough to remember Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air on the Nicollet Mall,” comments Feehan, who grew up in Minneapolis and now lives in Washington, D.C.  “For a while Prince put Minneapolis back on the map, but that was a long time ago.”  

That’s not fair, you might say.  We’re home to more Fortune 500 companies per capita than anywhere in the country. We trail only New York in artistic activity per capita.  Our parks are rated among the best in the world, our flourishing restaurants and microbreweries win national awards. We’re tops in recreational biking and civic engagement, according to experts. It’s hard to think of another place that offers so many urban and arts amenities interspersed with the natural beauty of lakes, trails, woods and the Mississippi River.

To top it off, Slate’s business and economics columnist Matthew Yglesias recently counseled, “You should move to Minneapolis.” Here’s why: “Of the 15 highest income metropolitan areas, 14 are in high-cost coastal areas.  The other one…is the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Statistical Area.” 

“On many economic and quality of life features, the Twin Cities outperforms other much admired metros--Boston, Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and San Diego. Higher educational attainment, higher labor force participation, better job opportunities for young people, lower unemployment, and higher median income adjusted for cost of living, ” notes Ann Markusen, director of the Humphrey Institute’s Project on Regional and Industrial Economies.

But none of this makes any difference if we keep it to ourselves. To pay only scant attention to our image in a globalized age is the equivalent of relying on a landline and PO box with no email, Facebook, twitter, texting or Instagram. For young people especially, who’ve internalized “The Brand Called You” ethic of our times, reticence in talking up our strengths is interpreted as being feeble rather than being modest.

“We are not getting the internal migration from other parts of the country that we used to,” including the young talent who have boosted our community and economy over recent decades, says Caren Dewar, executive director of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), which is sponsoring the Greater MSP Ahead program to discuss how to ensure a bright future for the region.

The accomplishments of Minneapolis-St. Paul have always depended on a steady stream of industrious and innovative folks coming here from across the Midwest and points distant. Met council statistics show that 141,000 more people moved away from the Twin Cities to other parts of the country than moved here between 2001-2010.  We’re projected to lose 180,000 more by 2040.  “That’s a cause for concern,” Dewar says.
And it’s why over the past few months I have asked more than 30 urban experts and leaders in a variety of other fields about how the Twin Cities could tell its story more forcefully (and also what we need to do to have a better story to tell) in a project sponsored by the McKnight Foundation.  


What’s In A Name?  Plenty!

Part of the answer is changing our name. Seriously. When I sat down with Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak to talk about the Twin Cities’ identity crisis, he politely inquired: “Can I ask you not to call us the Twin Cities? It makes it sound like we are only half as good as the Quad Cities.” Michael Langely, president of Greater MSP, informed me there at least 150 places around the world that call themselves the Twin Cities.

Even worse than “Twin Cities” is the habit of calling ourselves “Minnesota,” according to Steve Berg, a veteran journalist who’s covered urban issues at MinnPost, the Star Tribune and other publications.  “The sign at the airport says Welcome to Minnesota, as if there isn’t a city here,” he says.  Same goes for the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild, Lynx, Orchestra, Dance Theater and other nationally known institutions that could raise our profile.

Langley doesn’t think “Minneapolis-St. Paul” hits the mark either.  It’s a seven-syllable mouthful that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. No other region of a million people anywhere around the world has a longer name except Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, Japan.  And if you’ve never heard of Fukuoka-Kitakyushu, its name may be the reason.  

Langley prefers MSP, which also happens be the name of the new organization he heads to attract and retain investment in the 16-county metropolitan region-- Greater MSP.  It sounds sporty, like LA, DC or NYC.  It also happens to be our 3-letter Airport code, which other cities like Portland (PDX) are adopting as monikers.


A Better Story to Tell About MSP

It’s huge mistake to think all we need is a catchier name and more compelling story to assure continuing prosperity and high quality of life. In an era of accelerating social and economic change, we must also double down our efforts to make sure we have a good story to tell.

We can no longer rest on our laurels as one of America’s livable places lauded by magazines back in the 1970s. We are grappling with longstanding problems, such as the coldest winters of any major American city and the widespread perception that we are located in the middle of nowhere, as well as new threats like a widening achievement gap between whites and people of color. Well-established companies can fly off to Atlanta or San Francisco (as happened with Northwest Airline and Norwest Bank) and young talent may never even glance at us as they speed in the direction of Brooklyn or Portland or Shanghai.

Even our most cherished asset-- “a great place to raise a family”--is being undercut by places we once joked about: Omaha, Des Moines, Madison, and other small metros around the country that enjoy booming economies and rising urban sophistication.  David Feehan says, “Minneapolis-St. Paul has not been getting better at the same rate as these places.”

Challenges We Can’t Brush Under the Carpet

The Looming Achievement Gap
First and foremost among our problems is the stark, unyiedling fact that the “good life” in MSP is not shared by everyone who lives here.  Low-income communities, particularly people of color, are falling dangerously behind when it comes to income, education and home ownership. A sense that “we’re all in this together” has historically been one of our cultural strengths compared to the rest of the country, but now we rank near the bottom on many measures of economic and educational equity.

The reputation of our “brainpower” workforce looks questionable when minorities (who are estimated to be 43 percent of the MSP population in 2040) perform significantly less well in school than white students. This worries Citistates Group president and former Met Council chair Curtis Johnson, who notes, “Our comparative advantage has always been a higher percentage of educated people.”


Minnesota Nice: Not-So-Nice for Minorities
Our long pride in being a liberal, open-minded place vanishes after hearing people of color speak honestly about their experiences living here. “This is an hospitable place on the surface,” says Dave Ellis who moved to town in 1974 after college and worked for Dow Chemical, the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the United Way. “But it’s hard to be your full self here.  Telling my story is very important to me, but to the dominant culture it sounds like anger and rage. I’ve learned to be hyper-vigilant in social settings, and after a while you don’t want to participate any more.”  He now runs Three E Consulting and convenes discussions about race and culture across the state.

Many corporate recruiters admit that non-white professionals are reluctant to move to MSP. “They see barriers to moving up in their career,” explains DeAnna Cummings, DeAnna Cummings, executive director of Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis,  “There are few examples of African-Americans or others in positions of power.”  Erik Takeshita, deputy director of the Local Initiative Support Corporation-Twin Cities, acknowledges, “There is a growing diversity here, there’s still a lot of pressure to assimilate.  Other cities do a better job of letting you be who you are.”


Vanilla City USA
In the eyes of many, we are an out-of-the-way city populated exclusively by blond-haired folks who eat spongy white bread and say “you betcha.”  That’s not going to stir much excitement for an emerging generation raised on rap, dim sum and a desire for diversity.

Of course, that perception is as outdated as Lou Grant’s wardrobe. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Africans have arrived in large numbers since the 1980s. We elected America’s first Muslim to Congress and the University of Minnesota boasts one of the largest concentrations of Chinese students. You can see West Indians in white flannels playing cricket in Bryn Mawr meadows on Sunday afternoons and gala Quincenara festivities all over town on Friday and Saturday, as Mexican-American communities celebrate girls’ 14th birthdays.

Even the suburbs are turning colors. Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, not Minneapolis and St. Paul, are the two most racially diverse communities in the region. People of color make up at least ten percent of the population in 72 of the 183 communities in the metro area-- about 40 percent of all suburbs. You can find a Halal Meat Market, Somali restaurant and a grocery store advertising “African, American and Mexican Food” next door to one another on Blake Road in Hopkins.

To add brightness to our international image, we should highlight what’s happened around town musically since Prince left the stage. Atmosphere, POS, Brother Ali (who is blonde but also Muslim) and their brethren at the influential Rhymesayers Entertainment record label are leading lights in the hip hop world.


It’s Chilly Here--And Not Just the Weather
It’s not just people of color who find it hard to fit in. Tom Borrup, founder of the organization Creative Community Builders, moved here from the East Coast more than 30 years ago.  “I found it easy to meet people,” he remembers, “but very few of them grew up here. I heard that you were really accepted as a Minnesotan when you got invited to someone’s cabin.  Well, that took about 15 years.”

“In Minnesota, a new resident is someone’s who’s lived there 10 years,” reports Katherine Loflin, author of the Knight Foundation’s landmark Soul of a Community study, which studied 26 regions around the country to find what factors create a sense of belonging for local people. She found that “young talent” was the “least welcome” of all the groups in MSP.

Our Economy is at Risk For Not Taking Risks
The Star Tribune recently shouted the bad news on its front page: “Minnesotans ranked last in creating new businesses.” According to Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the newspaper based its story on mistaken information from the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity but nonetheless our economic dependence on big, established companies is worrisome. “What if you took half of our Fortune 500 companies out of the equation?” asks Curtis Johnson. “I believe these companies are more mobile than we think.”

Since most of our big employers are homegrown it’s essential that we continue nurturing small businesses, which provide more jobs than big companies. This inevitably raises questions about the business climate, which has been a political dogfight for decades.  Do MSP’s high taxes squelch prosperity?  Depends on whom you talk to.  But it seems clear that even with relatively higher taxes, our economy has remained stronger than many low-tax/low-services regions around the country. 

But another deterrent to entrepreneurship merits further scrutiny.  “The business climate here is terrible,” declares real estate consultant Sam Newberg.  “I’m not talking about taxes.  I’m talking about all the bureaucratic obstacles, like needing to provide two bathrooms in a tiny store. We need to make easier to do the right thing.”

Lagging Behind in Livability, Walkability and Transit
Any discussion about the business climate should be broadened to include what spurs economic development along with what inhibits it.  That’s the crux of the familiar Creative Class theory, which holds that regions with a high quality of life attract the young creative workers and entrepreneurs who are critical to economic success in the 21st Century. Many local observers worry that we are falling short on important measures of urban livability, walkability and public transportation which are dear to the emerging generation of creative workers.

The Millennial Generation-- born after 1980 and are now entering the workforce in large numbers to replace tens of millions of baby boomers soon to retire--are the first generation in a century not obsessed with autos. Even Motor Trend magazine admits that young urban professionals are less likely to buy cars than in the past.

While MSP sports some of the best bikeways anywhere in the US, we are outpaced by many other regions when it comes to walking and transit. Even with the soon-to-open Green Line, we’re still behind places like Dallas, St. Louis, Calgary, San Diego, Baltimore, and Salt Lake City on rail transit, not to mention our A-list competitors.

Tom Borrup, who consults with people around the country wanting to improve their communities, does not mince words: “The one area that’s horrendous here is public spaces. Aside from the great parks, it boggles my mind how the streets, neighborhoods and downtowns are so car-oriented.  Being a world class city depends on good and aesthetically pleasing places to walk.”

Actually the center cities and some close-in suburban neighborhoods show great potential for walking, which accounts for our inclusion in the Top 10 Walkable Cities from WalkScore, a website that charts walkability.  But driving is still the default way to get around town. 

Walkability is an issue that goes beyond transportation choices, air quality and exercise. Place where people walk a lot are also places where people interact, the secret sauce of vibrant cities.  “We are losing the chance to interact with one another,” argues Max Musicant, founder of a local ‘placemaking’ firm. “We need public spaces to come together.” 

“There’s still an attitude here the status quo needs to be suburban office parks, subdivisions and freeways,” says Jay Corbalis, a real estate developer who works around the country.  “Minneapolis-St. Paul is behind the curve, which is why so many Big 10 graduates are flooding into Chicago where they can walk, ride trains and live a big-city life.”

Not Quite a Big City?
Is MSP is a big city along the lines of Seattle, Toronto, Boston and Chicago, or an overgrown version of Duluth or Sioux Falls?  That’s the question at the heart of one of our most contentious issues today: urban density. “Getting the kind of energy, vibe and experience that people want in a city doesn’t happen without density,” explains Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation.  “People equate density with tall buildings but new developments like you see at 50th & France show you can do density in other ways.”

People here have long equated an urban atmosphere with blight, while spread-out houses with easy freeway access symbolized the good life as seen on TV shows like the Brady Brunch. But many young people today aspire to the urbane world of Friends, How I Met Your Mother and Happy Endings.  The 20th Century American Dream of a big house and a green lawn is not disappearing any time soon, but increasing numbers of people want the choice of living in more compact, lively neighborhoods within walking distance of amenities, including convenient transit. The regions that thrive in the future will offer people both options.

Our Distinctiveness Deficit
 “What’s iconic around here?” asks Carol Becker, who teaches public policy at Hamline University and is an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation. “Besides the Juicy Lucy, which is just a cheeseburger turned inside out, what’s our special food?”

The IDS Center looks a lot like skyscrapers everywhere and the Walker Art Center’s cherry spoonbridge is hardly an Eiffel Tower. What are we best known for?  Probably the Mall of America, an impression Sam Newberg finds “embarrassing”.  The overwhelming majority of its stores are chains and even local boy Snoopy has been ejected from the amusement park in favor of a cable TV channel.  Is it any wonder people think of us as bland?

Part of the problem, Becker says, is our lack of reverence for the past. “We don’t look back, especially in Minneapolis.  St. Paul does a better job of appreciating its history.  Minneapolis has always been, ‘Tear it down and build something new.’”

We definitely need to develop more of an independent streak when it comes to local businesses, patronizing local landmarks instead of familiar franchises. Just because we gave birth to the world’s first modern enclosed shopping mall doesn’t excuse our relative shortage of funky, idiosyncratic, locally-owned places to shop, eat and have fun.

The arts, particularly, cry out for more attention. The Fringe Festival is America’s largest non-juried arts festival in America Jonathan Tourtellot, Geotourism editor at the National Geographic Traveler, notes that it was the Toronto Film Festival that first drew the world’s interest to another city once dismissed as blah. There’s a staggering breadth of grassroots arts organizations from the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater to The Loft Literary Center to Springboard for the Arts to Skylark Opera to the Walker West Jazz School to the Ethnic Dance Theater to the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival.

Given that our most universally known attribute is wild swings in the weather, why not grab some attention with big-bang seasonal festivals that show off our extremes? “The Winter Carnival and Aquatennial are both good, but need some shaking up,” offers Mayor RT Rybak. What about a major Midsummer Festival to capitalize on our Nordic heritage? And an International Hall of Fame, with exhibits on everything from extreme blizzards to polar explorations to the history of ice hockey as well a gloves-on “freeze chamber” that simulates 30 below and encourages snowball fights in July. Each December it could host a European-style Christmas market and an induction ceremony honoring the likes of Will Steger and Lindsey Vonn as well as non-Minnesotans like Edmund Hilary and Irving Berlin (composer of “White Christmas”). 

Our Near-Total Obscurity as a Travel Destination
It’s difficult to shift perceptions of a place very few folks have ever set foot. This poses a missed opportunity far bigger than lost hotel and restaurant revenues. Happy tourists become prospective residents, or even if they have no plans to move here they nonetheless spread the word back home. And while here, tourists help enliven our public spaces, cultural institutions and entertainment offerings.

Our Midwestern humility may blind us to MSP’s appeal as an urbane destination.  For the last two years we’ve led the rising star category of Travel + Leisure magazine’s “America’s Favorite Cities” poll, where 40,000 readers ranked 35 cities for their best qualities.  Last year, they ranked us #1 for Intelligent, Cleanliness and Parks/Outdoors;  #2 for Theater, #3 for Gay-Friendly. We topped vacation hotspots such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, Boston, Honolulu, and Washington DC.

Making Cold Cool
We need to talk about ourselves as the “Northern Sunbelt, with blue skies for most of  the winter when other places endure a blanket of clouds, says local education expert Ted Kolderie. Ann Markusen has pored over data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which shows we are among the country’s sunniest places outside the Sun Belt.  Indeed, our climate may actually be a sweet spot between the gray skies that generally prevail to our east and the barren brown landscapes to our west.

Disturbingly, climate change might make Minnesota look more attractive by raising temperatures and shortening winter at the same time as erasing people’s favorable impressions of hot weather.  But polar explorer Will Steger cautions that global warming will also bring more deforestation, decline in water quality, ice storms, invasive species, vermin, drought and heat waves.  But that’s mild compared to the sea level rise, hurricanes, water shortages, severe droughts, and interminable heat waves threatening other parts of the country.  

Let’s not forget one of the least appreciated virtues of cold weather. Many of our region’s strengths have been born out of the necessity of doing things better than other places to compensate for the perceived liabilities of Minnesota winters, reminds Jon Pratt, Director of the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits.

Back to Our Story
Overall we have a good, but no means perfect, story to tell.  So how do we tell it better?

Jeff Berg, creative director at Olson, which is famed for branding campaigns commissioned by everyone from the Detroit Pistons to Pepsico, says it’s elementary marketing:  “We have to figure out what makes us unique from other places. How are we different from, say, San Francisco?”

Off the top of his head, he rolls out some ideas. “Consider the dress code for most men here: flannel, jeans, boots. Does that not say hardy pioneer stock?  How do we get people to consider us as a place to live? Maybe they have to ask themselves:  Am I hardy (and hearty) enough?  Do I want to be a pioneer of industry, live in the land where creativity is demanded?  Am I looking for the easy way or the road less traveled?  There’s a great play of words here-- Minnesota: Can you weather it?”

There are advantages to our long winters too, says Berg who grew up in Eugene, Oregon and moved here from New York City.  “We huddle together in ways you don’t see in other communities. We work together in civic ways to make things happen.”

In a similar vein Sam Newberg, who grew up here and writes the Joe-Urban blog, says, “If I was to sum us up in one word it’s ACTIVE. We’re involved politically and in our communities.  We ice fish and ride our bikes all winter.  We open up our own brewpubs and spend the long winters discussing ideas with our friends.  We’re just active.”  

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about urban and community issues.  He is author of the Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.  For many years he was editor of Utne Reader and now edits OnTheCommons.org.  This is the first of four reports he is writing for the McKnight Foundation about the prospects of the MSP region. His website is: JayWalljasper.com

SIDEBAR: Advantages To Build Upon
Despite all these challenges, a thorough assessment of our strengths and weaknesses against other U.S. regions shows that MSP’s glass stands closer to full than to empty.  Here are some of our current assets:

Business & Economy

Public Participation, Civil Society & Government

Education, Arts & Recreation

Community & Social

 “So far Minneapolis-St. Paul get good marks,” says Doug Baker, CEO of Eco Lab. But he cautions that we must understand it’s not something in the water. “We need to make it happen.”