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Maybe the ‘Miracle of Minneapolis’ should be called the ‘Snub of St. Paul’

REUTERS/Eric Miller
The gleaming towers of downtown Minneapolis house some important corporate headquarters; the city's park system and lakes are jewels.

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.

MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun
Explaining St. Paul is much more complicated than unpacking its higher-profile neighbor.

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

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/19/2015 - 10:45 am.

    The most egregious neglect of St. Paul was when

    the Republican National Convention was held there. I saw countless national news stories that stated that the convention was being held in Minneapolis.

    I’m not a Republican, not even close, and I’ve never lived in St. Paul, but I was offended on the Other Twin City’s behalf.

  2. Submitted by Mark Ohm on 02/19/2015 - 11:03 am.

    St. Paul made the Second Banana tourney

    St. Paul made to the round of 64 in Grantland’s “Who is the Top Second Banana?” contest, starting today.

    Unfortunately, they have a tough matchup against Canada…..

  3. Submitted by Dan Bensman on 02/19/2015 - 11:50 am.

    Show me the Miracle of St Paul

    Jeeze Dave, I’m scanning your article for evidence of some sort of great St Paul resurgence. Oops, there it is: “St. Paul’s population gain was actually greater (2.51 percent) than that of Minneapolis (2.27 percent).” Bully for Sao Paulo.
    Fact is, after 6 pm on any weeknight in DT St Paul, one risks being knocked down by a gaggle of tumbleweeds, barreling down St Peter.
    Yes, the Atlantic’s omission of our fair sister city is a PR debacle, but it isn’t entirely undeserved. Many MPLS neighborhoods, including up-and-downtown (but excluding the Northside), are vibrant and growing — St Paul, while a great town, just doesn’t make for a great story right now.

  4. Submitted by Scott Stansbarger on 02/19/2015 - 12:56 pm.

    Here’s the deal…

    Every city and town in the metro could get its feelings hurt over being ‘slighted’ but whether you like it or not, Minneapolis is the big brother and St. Paul is the little brother. Minneapolis is the QB All-American all the girls want to go to prom with while St. Paul is the one living in the shadows.

    One is about the bright lights and glamor while the other is more laid back and the book reading type. Both have positives and negatives.

    I don’t understand the St. Paul insecurity.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/19/2015 - 01:02 pm.

    St. Paul

    Maybe it is because I live in the suburbs and that I’ve spent significant time in both the East and West Metro, but I think Twin Cities rather than focusing on Minneapolis or St. Paul. In fact, if Minneapolis and St. Paul were to merge into one city, it would not be the end of the world. Or maybe we can think of it as like New York City – made up of a number of boroughs that have their separate identify, but not superior to NYC as a whole.

  6. Submitted by Paul Strebe on 02/19/2015 - 02:07 pm.

    No need for St. Paul to take offense…

    The Atlantic’s article seems to just be using “Minneapolis” as a short hand for the Twin Cities, as they refer to Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Twin Cities quite a bit. The fact is, outside of the state, people don’t talk about the Twin Cities and certainly not “the metro area”. Sad to say, but St. Paul may just need to get used to always being Dallas’s Fort Worth or Tampa’s St. Pete. Or just move to Minneapolis! 😉

    • Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 02/19/2015 - 10:40 pm.

      Nailed it. “Twin Cities” no more, Minneapolis is dominant.

      “Sad to say, but St. Paul may just need to get used to always being Dallas’s Fort Worth or Tampa’s St. Pete.”

      Despite shrinking-to-stagnant population in both central cities over the years 1950-2000, and a resurgent population in both cities post-recession, Minneapolis has been solidifying its position as the more dominant city since the rise of computing and other telecommunication/technological advances made it unnecessary for major corporations, banks, and law firms to have facilities in both cities. I think massive suburbanization (hence the 50 year stagnation in central city population) has actually masked this effect some. With the current “back to the city” movement by people young and old spurring massive residential development in the core, the retail, hospitality, and office employment sectors will follow. Already we are seeing smaller firms trickle back into the core cities, leaving the suburban office parks behind in order to attract the young, college-education talent they need to prosper. In this regard, Minneapolis is absolutely smoking St. Paul, not that it’s supposed to be a competition. It just is. The Green Line will really help parts of St. Paul get back on its feet, especially Midway and Downtown, but it has a LONG way to go.

      As for the article using “Minneapolis” as shorthand for “Twin Cities”, that is a good thing! Many civic boosters have been pushing “Minneapolis-St. Paul”, or MSP over the too-generic “Twin Cities” jargon, and I fully support that. “Minneapolis” is just shorthand for “Minneapolis-St. Paul” 😉 Nobody says Dallas-Ft. Worth area, they say Dallas. Same goes for San Francisco-Oakland, Tampa-St. Pete, etc. It is common practice to only say the name of the principal city. While St. Paul may have been a “twin” city in the past, it is now very clearly subordinate, and there is nothing wrong with that! Demanding that the media make sure they say or print “St. Paul” every time they talk about Minneapolis (or the metro area) is pretty silly.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/19/2015 - 02:21 pm.

    talk about forgetfulness

    This reporter-critic might want to re-familiarize himself with the funding “deal” for the new Vikings stadium, in Minneapolis. The public money does not come from across the state, as he indicates, in a move to cut Minneapolis out of that story.The stable, and the largest, commitment of public money comes solely from the taxpayers of the city of Minneapolis, who are (reluctantly, to be sure, because most Vikings fans come from elsewhere) bound to an additional 30 years of a dedicated half-percent sales tax that goes to pay for the football stadium.

    The reporter seems peeved at Minneapolis getting all the Twin Cities credit, but actually, Minneapolis has been doing a better job of branding itself than St. Paul has, and the Metropolitan Council has become ever more controversial.

    And despite the fact that St. Paul piggy-backed a Saints’ stadium on the Minneapolis Vikings stadium funding (they got their little stadium without St. Paulites paying anything toward it, along with a huge subsidy for the Xcel Center), the reporter might admit that most of the visible (see: Branding and Marketing) action around the towns is in Minneapolis. Sorry.

  8. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 02/19/2015 - 03:00 pm.

    What was the point?

    There seems to be a sentiment among many of our fine neighbors in St. Paul that vague disgruntlement over being perceived as in the shadow of Minneapolis is worthy of endless column inches. I would like to believe that there are many other St. Paulites who find such columns as tedious and trite as I do.

    Yes, it is unfortunate that St. Paul is overlooked, but the fact of the matter is that most people know nothing of our region as a whole so there’s nothing particularly special or unique about St. Paul’s plight. Indeed, a friend of mine on a trip to New York was recently asked vague questions about his home town of “Mindianapolis”. It happens, folks, so get over it.

    Fundamentally, St. Paul’s sense of neglect is the Russian doll inside Minneapolis’ sense of neglect. Instead of devoting column inches to nursing and nurturing our self-pity, perhaps we should write as if we’re not constantly trying to sell our town or region. We’re ignored: so what? St. Paul is ignored more than Minneapolis is ignored. So what? If you’re trying to sell something and nobody is listening then you are in the end trying to sell it to yourself. If you’re trying to sell something to yourself then it means you haven’t bought it- which is exactly what this insecurity is all about. If you are secure in the knowledge that St. Paul is a good place to be, then the fact that it gets less publicity than Minneapolis (itself quite obscure) is a matter of indifference.

    As near as I can tell, St. Paul’s vague sense of being overshadowed is the tired thesis of this article. A more cogent thesis would address how so many St. Paulites just need to get over this petty and parochial fixation which has far outlived its interest.

  9. Submitted by Sarah Burridge on 02/19/2015 - 03:31 pm.


    I guess I don’t really see what the issue is here… If this article were about a conventional metro with one downtown and a ring of suburbs surrounding it, no one would be surprised at all when the name of the core city and the name of the metro were used interchangeably. Nor would they be surprised by there being a great deal of focus on the economic center of the city, despite the fact that a small fraction of metro area residents actually live IN that city proper. This is just how we talk about large metro areas.

    Also, this article completely fails to note what in particular the Atlantic piece might have thought to say about St. Paul, and I’m having trouble coming up with much. St. Paul is a great city. I’ve got no beef with St. Paul. But its particular merits relative to Minneapolis were just not part of this story.

  10. Submitted by jody rooney on 02/20/2015 - 10:26 am.

    Well as the daughter of parents who decided

    who would pay for dinner at Charlie’s on their first date based on the outcome of a Millers vs. Saints game back in the 40’s I can say I am familiar with the rivalry.

    I do think the cities are very different and it pretty much depends on what you enjoy. I find Minneapolis pretentious and insecure. I find St. Paul sleepy and laid back. Personally I prefer sleepy and laid back.

    Mu only evidence is that both my mom and I imported our husbands from Nordeast and So. Minneapolis respectively and they have never wanted to go back. So even those from Minneapolis can learn to appreciate the east side life style.

    PS. Dad paid and no one remembers who won the game.

  11. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/20/2015 - 10:28 am.


    The biggest recent news out of St. Paul is that an abandoned department store is going to be turned into a hockey practice facility for a team that already has a big, shiny arena a few blocks away. Not giving the requisite shout out (“St. Paul rocks, too!”) seems like sound journalism rather than a snub.

  12. Submitted by Bob Pleban on 02/22/2015 - 07:50 am.

    Snubbing St. Paul in favor of Mpls.

    I believe the writer should take an overall look at the Twin Cities. Yes Minneapolis is bigger, but not better. The small town atmosphere of St. Paul has it over Minneapolis by 100%. There is no “homey” atmosphere to Minneapolis. Yes people live there, but do they do much to make is a friendly atmosphere, NO. Each city has its good points, but St. Paul will outshine Minneapolis in many ways. I am from a small town so maybe I am biased, but Minneapolis has its share of problems, crime is high, personally I will never go to downtown Minneapolis for any event. Some of the crime that happens in Minneapolis doesn’t seem to happen in St. Paul, but then Minneapolis is bigger, not better. Snubbing St. Paul is from a writer that doesn’t live here and knows nothing about the atmosphere of each city. Get a life and be a writer that knows what he is talking about.

  13. Submitted by Rosalie O'Brien on 02/22/2015 - 10:16 am.

    It may be that they mean well and are just clueless….

    The story was a positive one, and in essence touted the Twin Cities rather than put down St. Paul. Heck, with the pace that digital media requires of writers and editors, what feels like a snub could be in part attributable to the penchant for alliteration that headline writers seem unable to kick.

    Having moved to St. Paul slightly more than ten years ago from outside the state, I’ll tell you what bugged me this past week: the small item in Thursday’s New York Times headed “Guthrie Theater Getting a New Artistic Director.” It consisted of five sentences, the first four managing to cover the length of Joe Dowling’s tenure; Mr. Haj’s current position; his ethnic heritage; the fact that although his company is located at the University of North Carolina, he does actually work with actors from New York; and that he began his career as an actor, training with “foremost directors of experimental theater.” It was the final sentence that I found utterly strange: “The Guthrie, founded by the director Tyrone Guthrie in 1963, is a cultural force in Minneapolis and the Midwest.” Thus the heading of this comment.

  14. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 02/22/2015 - 04:11 pm.

    St Paul Snubbed

    I think, after having lived in Minneapolis for 51 of the last 55 years, that St. Paul’s problem is that most of the people that were born and raised there are terrified of Minneapolis. And I know a guy who has lived in St Paul for maybe 30 years, who worked in Minneapolis for a long time, and rarely goes to Minneapolis anymore.

    Maybe St Paulites are afraid of the bridges.

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