If you are a cog in the formidable machine that markets Minneapolis, your first impulse had to be a jump for joy this week when you checked out Atlantic magazine’s latest online offerings. “The Miracle of Minneapolis,” declared the headline. “No other places mixes affordability, opportunity and wealth as well. What’s its secret?”
The writer went on to flesh out the details of his discovery. I’ll spare you the particulars, or most of them, anyway. You can see for yourself by going to the magazine’s website. As for me, let’s put it this way. If I were writing this piece for, say, the Columbia Journalism Review, I might conclude that the Atlantic’s article was a messy, inadequately reported piece of work. (For another critique, see this Washington Post piece).
Suffice it to say that Minneapolis has a lot to talk up. The city’s downtown serves up a fabulous skyline, soon to be enhanced by a billion-dollar football stadium (paid for largely by taxpayers from across the state). The gleaming towers of this downtown house some important corporate headquarters, plus a vast fleet of lawyers, accountants, consultants and other intelligentsia clustered nearby. The city’s park system and lakes are jewels, and Minneapolis claims the main campus for the University of Minnesota, one of the country’s leading research universities. Not to mention a vibrant nightlife scene. And, yes, Minneapolis, more than any other municipality, is the economic engine that drives much of the region’s success. Heady stuff for a city with just 400,938 souls.
Coleman takes the high road
But what about that other Twin City? St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman took the high road Tuesday, as the city’s chief executives have learned to do over the years in commenting on similar stories and reports. “The problem with being mayor of St. Paul is you know that you’re loved, but you don’t necessarily get mentioned in the headlines,” he told a Minnesota Public Radio audience. The mayor might have said more to talk up the city, which also has many assets. But explaining St. Paul is much more complicated than unpacking its higher-profile neighbor.
In the process of discovering the Twin Cities area, the magazine said almost nothing about St. Paul. Instead, its piece slides back and forth between Minneapolis and the Twin Cities region as if the two are almost one — just about everything good that happens seems to happen in Minneapolis.
This, even though fewer than one of every eight residents of the metropolitan statistical area lives in Minneapolis and scores of significant businesses and nonprofits located in the region are not to be found in Minneapolis. While this article picked up on some of the region’s so-called secrets, missing entirely was recognition of the volunteerism, philanthropy and communitarian ethic that have counted for so much here. Another glaring omission: an acknowledgement of how the region virtually got a free pass from the racial and ethnic stresses that our larger coastal and Midwest metropolises had to deal with. Until the 1980s, the Twin Cities was for decades almost totally populated by white people.
Most of the sparse attention St. Paul gets from the Atlantic derives from being part of the region’s tax-base sharing system, hailed by urban specialist Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution. Indeed, this system has earned many well-deserved plaudits over the years. Yet it would have been helpful to note that the city-suburban cooperation that gave birth to tax-based sharing here in 1971 has frayed considerably over the ensuing decades. And to acknowledge that both cities face difficult challenges with their school systems, their economic disparities (particularly in Minneapolis) and other troubles that confront big cities across the country to varying degrees.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges understandably told MPR listeners that “I’m not going to complain” about such praise being heaped on her city, but both she and Chris Coleman went on to stress these challenges. On the same program, even Derek Thompson, the author of the Atlantic article, called the region’s affordable housing efforts “the warmest of ice cubes” when compared with the efforts of other large cities. In his article, so cool that it was boiling over, the ice cubes somehow melted into hot water.
Need more than demographics
Thompson’s article was written largely for millennials. Much as we had to endure endless waves of mega-attention to baby boomer demographics, we are now on the cusp of a similar swamp of journalism and marketing aimed at this generation. That’s OK. We older folks get it, but we’ve come to expect more from Atlantic magazine.
We’ve seen plenty of these fat kisses for the Twin Cities before, often from precincts east of the Hudson River. We’ve witnessed plenty of royal brush-offs of St. Paul, too, sometimes arising from the comfy confines of downtown Minneapolis.
Take, for instance, the way the Star Tribune handled that preliminary estimate from the Metropolitan Council last May, the one that showed that the population of Minneapolis had at long last inched back above 400,000. In a story that ran above the fold on its front page, under unusually large type, the newspaper pronounced this a milestone — “a striking reversal from decades of population decline and stagnation.” Indeed it was, but the Star Tribune, which prides itself on serving the entire region, reported about the new population estimates almost totally from the perspective of Minneapolis. The Met Council also released new population estimates for St. Paul and scores of other municipalities then. St. Paul got passing mentions in three paragraphs of this story, which dealt mostly with development projects and population gains, achieved or projected, in Minneapolis. The article focused on population gains from 2012 to 2013, yet there was no mention of the fact that St. Paul’s population gain was actually greater (2.51 percent) than that of Minneapolis (2.27 percent) during this year.
Fortune’s errant fortune-telling
But admittedly, that’s a speck in the dustbin of history. Consider the fascinating dump job Fortune magazine did on both Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1936. In a lengthy diatribe that unfolded under the headline “Revolt in the Northwest,” the magazine blasted both cities as pits of dysfunction, anti-business screeds and worse. Fortune socked Minneapolis for its labor unrest, but left a glimmer of hope for the city. St. Paul was given a death certificate, complete with a searing autopsy. “People who have moved away sometimes look back upon St. Paul with nostalgia,” the magazine concluded, “but if there were a great upheaval of the hills upon which St. Paul is built and the entire city slid into the Mississippi and disappeared, it would hardly make a ripple in the economic life of the United States of America.”
Some Twin Cities residents canceled their subscriptions. Outraged civic leaders in both cities, particularly St. Paul, pelted the magazine with charges of inaccuracies and much more. The president of the First National Bank of St. Paul called for a boycott against Fortune. The magazine’s editors launched a broad investigation of their own story. Four months later, their findings appeared in a lengthy analysis headlined “The Twin Cities: An addendum … in which Fortune reappraises an article it published in April 1936, reaffirms some conclusions, acknowledges a controversy.” Embracing an apologetic stance, the magazine unearthed, described and corrected various errors, but bravely insisted that its overall conclusion — basically that the economies of the Cities were going down the tubes or in St. Paul’s case had already reached the bottom of the chute — was correct. A generation later, Fortune returned to the Twin Cities to hail the many strengths of the region. It was Fortune’s version of the hosanna to the region that Time magazine published in its 1973 “fish cover” pronouncing Minnesota’s quality of life the best in all of the 50 states.
So what’s the moral of this critique? Beware, when magazines from afar come bearing either very good or very bad tidings about the Twin Cities. For Minneapolis boosters, that means it would be highly advisable to not get too excited about Atlantic’s discovery of the miracle of Minneapolis.
Dave Beal is a freelance journalist who retired in 2006 after 25 years as a business editor and columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.