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We are North: repositioning MSP’s national identity for the 21st century

Is it time to differentiate the state, and especially the Twin Cities, from the rest of the Midwest?

It may have been the proverbial last straw. We’re talking about #grapegate, of course.

The Line

To recap: Prior to Thanksgiving, the New York Times published a 16-page opus in its Food section titled “The United States of Thanksgiving,” celebrating each state’s most popular dish for the holiday. For Minnesota, the Times’ selection was an epic fail. Grape Salad? The outcry was fast and furious.

One reader wrote, “Dear New York Times, What the hell is ‘grape salad’? Signed, All of Minnesota.” NPR started covering the debacle and a Minnesotan wrote on its website, “I have never in my life heard of a ‘grape salad.’ Not at Thanksgiving, not at Christmas, not during a Vikings game, not during the Winter Carnival, not during the State Fair, and not during the greatest state holiday: the annual hockey tournament of the Minnesota State High School League.”

On the Times’ Facebook page, a Twin Cities resident admonished — and warned — “By the way, Times staffers, don’t mistake the mild mannered comments below as gentle disagreement. What you are witnessing here with each additional post is simmering rage and contempt Minnesota-style.”

Minnesota, as all East and West Coasters know, is famous for its emotionally minimalist, anti-drama approach to life’s challenges, along with a refusal to boast about our accomplishments. And for being a blank screen in the national consciousness, fly-over country in other words. Haven’t we had enough already? Of being misunderstood, overlooked, flown over and disparaged? And of being lumped in with all of the rest of the amorphous Midwest?

Fittingly, Grapegate broke hot on the heels of another week-long cri de coeur: A panel discussion at the Walker Art Center — preceded by a lively conversation on MPR and in the comments following a Star Tribune article, both in anticipation of the panel — about Minnesota’s identity and our cultural place in the Midwest, and how both have evolved.

More specifically, discussions revolved around the Twin Cities as the creative capital of the North (a new geographic designation put forth by Eric Dayton while he was on MPR) and the economic engine that will attract the population — particularly millennials — necessary to keep the Twin Cities entrepreneurial, innovative, creative, robust and relevant in the coming years. 

‘We’re an urban state’

The discussions started with “a small simple idea” that Dayton (co-owner of Askov Finlayson and Bachelor Farmer in downtown Minneapolis) put forth: Was it time to differentiate the state, and especially the Twin Cities, from the rest of the Midwest?

On MPR, Dayton said: “The Midwest is this big nebulous part of the country and it’s kind of what’s left over after all the other regions of the country are defined. Those regions have much stronger identities if you think of the East Coast or maybe New England or the Pacific Northwest or certainly the South. The Midwest is kind of the catchall for what’s left.”
Dayton would like us to be called the North. He’s even had knit stocking hats created proclaiming the proposed identity. The hats, available through Askov Finlayson, promptly sold out.

Dayton wasn’t a panelist at the Walker’s presentation, “Midwest? The Past, Present, and Future of Minnesota’s Identity.” But he was a presenter and in the audience, and Askov Finlayson co-presented the discussion. On the panel were Tom Fisher, dean, College of Design, University of Minnesota (who also spoke with Dayton on MPR); Poppy Harlow, CNN correspondent and Minnesota native (the panel’s moderator); Bruce Bildsten, CMO, Faribault Woolen Mills; Andrew Blauvelt, senior curator, Architecture and Design, Walker Art Center; and Christine Fruechte, CEO, Colle + McVoy.

Fruechte launched the discussion by mentioning three things, according to her research, outsiders know about Minnesota: The cold, Prince and Garrison Keillor. Ouch! She then showed promotional videos her firm had created for Explore Minnesota, intended to convey the state as “an authentic experience.” The bucolic adventures of families at Mall of America and weekend cabins, as well as young Minnesota men’s manly outdoor summer pursuits — jumping into lakes, portaging canoes, etc.

Fisher was practically jumping out of his seat. He couldn’t wait to quote creative-class guru and urbanist Richard Florida and delve into the real topic of discussion: What makes a city attractive to the creative class. While the videos were “a great campaign for tourism,” Fisher said, “We’re not all about cabins and woods and summer. We’re an urban state” with most of the population in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Duluth. And a state that’s cold six months out of the year. “But we don’t present ourselves that way, which is a problem for recruiting.”

Courtesy of Askov Finlayson
Askov Finlayson’s sold-out “North” hat

To rectify, or overhaul, our identity, we need to start by owning our cold climate, Fisher said. We also need to recognize that out of the top 20 most-innovative cities in the world, 17 have cold climates, he added, one of them being the Twin Cities (also, CNN Money recently named Minneapolis-St. Paul one of the top 10 cities for innovatively solving urban issues in the U.S.) Cold equals innovation, in other words.

So size (as in comparing the population of the Twin Cities to that of New York or Los Angeles, for instance) isn’t the issue: It’s innovation. From flour milling in the 1800s to Target, 3M, Ecolab, Pentair and the plentiful technology startups, the Twin Cities is nothing if not innovative. By innovatively embracing our cold climate, and embracing our role as capital of the North (as Minnesota lies directly at the center of North America), we’ll successfully differentiate ourselves.

In other words, Fisher said, “We need a new narrative.” Or perhaps a new brand. 

Global positioning

“The global trend is about cities, competition between cities,” Blauvelt emphasized. To attract new talent, and continue to fuel the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit at the heart of the Twin Cities and Minnesota’s economy, we need new positioning or branding. We also need “substance behind the branding,” Fisher added.

The genuineness and authenticity of the drive toward the locally made and locally sourced, and a sharing economy and community, is integral to our identity, offered Bildsten. Those factors appeal to millennials, whom cities are clamoring to attract and retain.

We are also an increasingly diverse urban area. And the Twin Cities need to do more to integrate immigrant populations within the fabric of the cities, the panelists agreed, using diversity as an advantage, not as a source of identity isolation or segregation.

Also in our favor: Our standard of living is high, our cultural amenities are world-class, the population’s ethnic diversity is growing and enriching our culture, public transit is happening, we have a multitude of colleges and universities, and parents can send their kids to public schools.

“We portray ourselves as a little bit hick,” Fisher said, “and that’s a problem, because we’re a sophisticated city that portrays itself in old-fashioned ways. We need to benchmark ourselves.” Or as Fisher told MPR, regional identity is important because people “are pouring off the plains into the Twin Cities. We have a much bigger catchment area than just Minnesota. This is about attracting and keeping talent.”

Added Blauvelt, “We need to mobilize to anticipate the future. We don’t have an [identity] crisis, we have a conundrum. Politically and culturally, we are not the Midwest. Currently we’re the blue thing in a sea of red. We can play on that.”

Dayton, who instigated the conversation about identity over drinks with former schoolmate Harlow a year ago, added that, “there’s no master plan here” in terms of where the discussion, or the branding of a new North identity, would go. While he did hint at something in the works, he was quick to clarify that “this is not coming from my Dad’s administration” (he is the son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton). “This is an idea to share.”

New possibilities for that identity gleaned during an MPR poll included The North, North Coast, Top Coast, The Grain Belt, No Coast, North Central, Center North and Deep North.

In the coming years, Harlow concluded, the Ryder Cup, Final 4 and Superbowl — all sports events — will be held in the Twin Cities. “The world will be tuning in,” Fruechte said. What will they see?

The idea of North, or something else that positions Minnesota and the Twin Cities apart from the larger Midwest into which we’ve been culturally, geographically and politically lumped, “is more honest,” Fisher said. “It’s claiming a part of the country we know, that clearly exists and isn’t defined by someone else’s perspective. There’s a ‘North’ culture here, and we should claim that.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 12/05/2014 - 06:13 pm.

    What is the difference….

    of what region of the country people perceive the state of Minnesota to be located in?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/05/2014 - 09:20 pm.

    I like it

    Not being a native, nor a marketing professional, I agree that what seems to differentiate Minnesota from “the Midwest” in general is that it’s an urban area, and it’s cold. Most of the state’s population lives in the metro statistical areas of the state’s 4 or 5 largest cities. Local boosters can crow all they want about the scenery, and I think the North Shore is VERY scenic, but scenery cannot be the driving identification factor – Minnesota can’t match the Rocky Mountain states for scenery, no matter how hard Minnesota’s boosters try.

    It has to be about embracing the climate, which is not ideal by any means, and in the process, embracing the cultural environment that’s been established here despite, and occasionally in league with, that climate. More theater seats in the Twin Cities than any area in the country outside New York. Just about every major professional sport. Techno whiz-bang around every corner, and standards in place for environmentally-friendly power generation and industry. Medical technology and research in both the Twin Cities and Rochester, a major inland and oceanic port in Duluth, at least some effort going into mass transit and making the Twin Cities themselves more livable.

    I’ve lived in St. Louis and Denver. The Twin Cities are not like either one of those metro areas, and the more clearly that can be established, the better for the state and its metropolitan areas.

  3. Submitted by susan lasoff on 12/06/2014 - 10:15 am.

    The New North

    Altho I like the term ‘North Central’, don’t forget greater Minnesota and the rural small town set in natural surroundings.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/06/2014 - 11:15 am.

    getting something back

    The negotiators who give away the farm to the sports promoters ought to be getting promotional exposure in return. Every home vikings game should include a statement like “this game brought to you in part by the state of Minnesota, heart of the north country.” Ditto for the twins, final four games, etc.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 12/06/2014 - 11:20 am.

    Identity of the Midwest

    How can the label “Midwest” seem clear-cut, or other than merely arbitrary as a regional designation, when it includes such very different milieus as those of Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Pierre SD, Minot ND, St. Louis and Omaha? And consider the striking differences between north and south within Minnesota and within Michigan.

  6. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 12/06/2014 - 01:18 pm.

    Yes. Let’s preserve our distinctive character.

    Let’s preserve our urban lakes and parks instead of paving them over to suit the light rail developers.

  7. Submitted by Wm. Sweeney on 12/06/2014 - 01:55 pm.

    Spread it out

    A directional term like “North” can only be properly given to a region…not a single state. East coast, west coast, Southwest, etc. are not applied to a single state.
    So, take a normal distribution curve, stand it on its head, cover MN (and parts of ND, SD, WI, the UP (and maybe a county or two of IA…altho that would really be up for debate) and you have the Deep North..with only one competitor for its capitol.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/06/2014 - 03:03 pm.

    There is more to life than


  9. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 12/06/2014 - 03:48 pm.

    Reclaiming the North Star name

    would be a good start.

  10. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 12/08/2014 - 07:59 am.

    I know of…

    some Canadians who have relocated to Minnesota who refer to it as the 11th province.

  11. Submitted by Nathan Johnson on 12/08/2014 - 09:33 am.

    L’Étoile du Nord

    History is repeating itself here a bit.

    L’Étoile du Nord is a French phrase meaning “The Star of the North”. Never heard of it? It is our State’s official motto, chosen by our State’s first governor, Henry Hastings Sibley. It was adopted in 1861, three years after admission of Minnesota to the union.

    Let Chicago be the star of the Midwest. We are the star of the North. Always have been.

  12. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/08/2014 - 12:26 pm.

    So, can I assume

    that the North includes everything from New York to Alaska? If not, why not? Or perhaps we should preserve the term for use in reference to the loyalist states in the Civil War.

  13. Submitted by Robert Adams on 12/08/2014 - 06:21 pm.

    Name Recognition

    I have no problem with the article, but I would add one very important point. Global, and even national, recognition is gravitating towards identification by city, as opposed to other governmental divisions.

    On a national scale, the natural peers of this metro area are the likes of Seattle and Denver. Yet our insistence on identifying ourselves by the name of a state, or worse yet, an artificial and inaccurate nickname (“Twin Cities”) which means very little outside of this region, puts us at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of having a firmly established identity in the minds of those in other parts of the country and world.

    While I realize that it touches a lot of local political and historical nerves, we’d be much better able to market ourselves by identifying this metro area by using the name of the primary city: Minneapolis.

    That doesn’t mean that St Paul should be left out of the conversation–St Paul is an indispensable part of the metro area–it simply means that we should recognize that to compete nationally and globally, highlighting the city that anchors the region is of vital importance.

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