Sunday, December 12th, 2010
As we are experiencing an early winter storm here in the Midwest, one that is particularly slamming the Twin Cities – the Metrodome roof just collapsed – perhaps it is time for a brief look at the Twin Cities.
Minneapolis-St. Paul has always been a bit of an outlier in the Midwest. Its economy was originally based around grains and such, not the auto and metals axes that supported the rest of the Midwest. So it had a very different trajectory than most other regional cities. The economy, along with its location far to the north, meant that it experienced the Great Migration to an extent far less than other cities. Today, the Twin Cities are among the least diverse in the Midwest. The black population of Hennepin County is only 11% and Ramsey County 10%, compared to 26% for Cook County, Illinois, which is more representative of Midwest industrial cities. This, along with its Scandinavian demographics, give the Twin Cities a not entirely undeserved reputation as white cities, though there has been significant international immigration of late.
Minnesota is also famously liberal. Home to politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Minnesota has long been known as a progressive bastion, something perhaps related to its Scandinavian heritage. Richard Longworth, for example, noted that in 1978 33 of the 37 corportations that donated 5% of profits to charity were located in Minnesota. The Twin Cities have a large gay population and it is among the most gay-friendly locales in the country. Yet the picture is more nuanced than that. Republicans have often been elected there. The current governor is a fairly conservative Republican. And as immigrants have moved in and the economy changed, state politics have shifted to the right and now more closely resemble American than previously.
And of course there is the weather. It gets cold in Minnesota, making Minneapolis perhaps one of the few cities that can justify its downtown skywalk system. Unlike places like Chicago, however, where people hunker down for the winter or migrate to warmer climates, Minnesotans embrace the winter and winter sports. Their love of the outdoors doesn’t stop in December, and many people enjoy outdoor winter activities.
White, liberal, cold. In my view that sums up the easy popular outside stereotype of the Twin Cities. And like many, it is not without its grain of truth.
Interestingly, that rep is not that different, except for the cold part, from places like Portland and Seattle, places to which the Twin Cities are sometimes compared. Indeed, we see that it is similarly very educated, with a metro area college degree attainment of 37.6%, #8 in the country among metro areas with more than one million people. There’s also a surprisingly strong biking community. The city of Minneapolis has 3.9% of all workers commuting by bicycle, which is #7 out of all cities in the US, trailing only Portland among larger cities. They built a light rail line. The Twin Cities clearly deserve a place in the top ranks of urban progressivist cities.
Indeed, despite the weather and lack of diversity (the political climate’s affect depends on one’s own orientation), the Twin Cities enjoy a strong reputation, especially regionally. Interestingly, when I visited there last spring, a lot of the locals were concerned that, like many other Midwest cities, they have low brand awareness in the marketplace and are often a cipher to people out there in the world. That may be true to some extent, but I can tell you that they are far ahead of most Midwest cities in this arena. Especially within the region, people clearly know the Twin Cities and hold them in very high regard, even if they don’t think a comparison is necessarily fair. One example, an uber-hip person in Indianapolis was talking about some aspect of that city he felt was particularly strong compared to the rest of the Midwest. When I brought up the example of Minneapolis, he said, “Yeah, but everything about that city is just cool.”
So I think the Twin Cities have a positive brand image, from an urbanist perspective at least. And I can tell you from my time visiting and working there that it’s a great city. I could definitely enjoy living there, though there are some caveats I’ll get to in a minute. And it’s not just cool living either. The city is home to many corporations like Best Buy, Target, and 3M as well as a major hub for Oracle and a large American Express facility. There are tons of white collar, knowledge industry type jobs there. Its per capita income is well above the US average, as is its per capita GDP. This is a city that appears to have transitioned well to the new economy, even if employment is a challenge and it has experienced some serious housing bust issues.
The other advantage it has is the the metro area has the trifecta of being the largest metro in the state, the state capital, and home to the main state university. It also has a large share of the state’s population, giving it influence in the statehouse that a Columbus or Indianapolis could only dream of. The geographic downside is that it is remote, and geographically located near the fringe of the US, though it does have good air connectivity.
There are some caveats for outsiders, however. Although the region is below my large Midwest metro average for percentage of residents who were born in their current state of residence (possibly also affected by being a bi-state metro), I definitely get the impression of lots of Minnesotans every time I go there. That’s not necessarily bad, but as with many Midwest towns, it reinforces the feeling of being an outsider if you aren’t one, at least to me.
Possibly that’s a bit because the Twin Cities is a bit of an isolate in the Midwest. In Chicago, you always run into people from where ever it is you are from, especially if that’s in the Midwest. I don’t experience that in the Twin Cities. Indeed, looking at the numbers, other than Chicago and Wisconsin, the Twin Cities do not appear to draw a major number of migrants from other Midwest cities. Denver, San Diego, and Seattle send more people to the Twin Cities than do Detroit, Kansas City or St. Louis. It gets more people from Portland than from Columbus or Indianapolis. The Twin Cities seem more connected to other talent hubs than the rest of the Midwest.
The other thing I notice about the Twin Cities is a very old money feel to it. Perhaps it is just the local style, but the natives I know there often seem to have a somewhat patrician bearing and speaking style. Virtually everyone I’ve met who is a native whose origins I can conclusively identify is somehow connected to money or power. And even for those I can’t, there are strongly indicative things, like a stray mention that, “I grew up in a house along the other side of the lake.” Perhaps because I grew up in a poor rural area, I notice that stuff more, and it’s a little disconcerting. It gives off the impression that there’s a club, and you’re not ever going to get to be a member.
In short, while I really like the city and think I might enjoy living in it, I’m not entirely comfortable there. And I know I’m not the only one. I know multiple people who moved to Minneapolis and left it because of difficulty fitting in or penetrating the social structures there. This might be one cultural weakness of the city. In the type of dynamic, diverse world we live in, cities that turn off a significant number of people can be limited on the talent front. Also, the fact that I’ve heard reports of difficult to penetrate and navigate social structures is also not a good thing.
Nevertheless, given the strong structural advantages of the region, its educated workforce, its air connections, the strong and diverse base of employers, and its ability to attract immigrants, Minneapolis-St. Paul looks to be a successful place going forward, unless they screw it up somehow. What I don’t see yet is a catalyst for turning the region into a real economic dynamo that would strongly grow employment, population, etc. It strikes me that the most likely course is a more restrained and stable path into the future. Regardless, the economic state of the Twin Cities is one which many Midwest towns would dearly love to have.
PS: Here’s a video of the collapse of the Metrodome roof from the inside (if the video doesn’t display, click here):