Twin Cities: homespun and cosmopolitan

The GOP National Convention opens in a place reflecting the nation’s enduring agrarian myth ... with skyscrapers.

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    The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen sits in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden near the Walker Art Museum.
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Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. – A runaway bull charged through crowds at the Minnesota State Fair last year, butted into a red fire hydrant at full-gallop and dropped dead on the spot.

Sympathy was overwhelmingly for the bull, not the terrified bystanders. After all, who would plant a blazing-red fire hydrant anywhere near a bull barn?

The fact that the incident took place in the heart of the nation’s 15th largest metro area – home to an acclaimed opera company, 57 museums, hip-hop clubs, four major league teams, and three Tony-winning theaters – says something about the Twin Cities of Minnesota, which play host to the Republican National Convention starting Monday.

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The spirit of modern-day Minneapolis and St. Paul springs from the settling of America’s heartland. Even as skyscrapers rise from the vast Midwestern prairie where it abuts the banks of the Mississippi, people honored the values of pioneers and entrepreneurs who planted their ambitions on that prairie.

Most of us know the enduring myth of America’s great agrarian age by heart: Huck Finn fishes in yonder lake, berry pies cool on a window ledge.

Towering over the Mississippi’s banks in Minneapolis, the Guthrie Theater is as far from that image as anyone could imagine. Yet director Joe Dowling said the musical, Little House on the Prairie, was a perfect fit for his bold new theater.

Yes, the steel-and-glass theater designed by French architect Jean Nouvel would have rendered Ma and Pa Ingalls speechless. But the modern cities that flank the river today still revere qualities Laura Ingalls Wilder captured in her stories of humble pioneer life.

“There is a sense of community that is very real about this area, although the Twin Cities are obviously very different from small towns,” Mr. Dowling said. “The creation of this region came through people working together and supporting each other in all kinds of ways.”

That homespun quality of the culture comes to life every year at the State Fair just outside St. Paul. Everyone calls it “The Great Minnesota Get Together.” It will overlap with the GOP festivities.

Darlene Bramwell spends five days at the fair each year, one day for each grandkid. Her rules are strict: no midway, no buying junk, no rides.

These city kids have a heritage to revisit. A very pregnant ewe in one of the barns obliged by giving birth to three lambs last week before the wide-open eyes of 8-year-old Nathan Bramwell.

“It’s too bad we have to come to the fair to see this,” Darlene Bramwell said. “Years ago farm kids grew up seeing birth and death as a normal part of life.”

Long ago, the fair’s centerpiece was Machinery Hill, where farmers browsed for tractors. Now, the hill is dominated by riding lawnmowers, hot tub displays, and a Harley-Davidson showroom.

The old tractors are shown as museum pieces. Take Jim Birk’s 1932 John Deere.

“Some of the city guys will stand here, and they will watch it and call their friends up and send pictures through the cell phone,” said Mr. Birk who stopped farming in 1990.

He’s not surprised. “Everybody has an emotional tie to the farm,” he said. “I get people here all of the time explaining what their grandpa’s tractor looked like.”

Of course, there are dark textures in the culture’s homespun fabric.

Like the often peevish characters in Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, Twin Citians have their share of rivalries. An outsider would miss the nuances because civility is a mandate. Everyone calls it Minnesota Nice.

‘Minnesota nice,’ but don’t be fooled by that veneer

At the GOP convention in New York four years ago, a delegate might have thrown a fit in a shop and the clerk could give back as feisty as he got. It doesn’t work that way here. Instead of an argument, the rude delegate might get the smallest apple in the State Fair barrel and wait a long time for the change, too.

The official convention setting is St. Paul. But most delegates will sleep and party in Minneapolis, the larger city with more hotels and restaurants.

Delegates won’t notice any difference while crisscrossing city lines. But it would be a gaffe for a visitor to say the cities are the same. True, there are similarities. Both cities are river towns and classically Midwestern with wide, tree-shaded boulevards and expansive lawns.

“We spread way, way out,” said Larry Millett, author of several books on the area including “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

“That undoubtedly ties back into a Midwestern sense of openness and room,” he says. But sharp differences spring from history.

Minneapolis, built by wealthy industrialists, has a reputation as a top-down city. For years, decisions were made by elite leaders who represented old milling families, merchants, and grain traders.

St. Paul started as a fur-trade post. They called the settlement Pig’s Eye, the nickname of a whiskey trader. Later, Irish politicians and labor bosses got things done in their own ways.

“You look at Minneapolis and you see a city that people wanted to lay out in logical fashion,” Mr. Millett said. “St. Paul more or less just happened. Streets got named willy nilly.... There are many short ones that don’t go anywhere in particular.”

The sum of the differences is that St. Paul suffers an inferiority complex.

“There is a St. Paul Street in Minneapolis,” Millett said. “I can guarantee you there never, ever will be a Minneapolis Avenue in St. Paul.”

Imagine St. Paul’s pique when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said on CNN this month that conventioneers would be coming to Minneapolis. He grew up in South St. Paul a few miles from the convention’s downtown setting.

While celebrating prairie values, most Twin Citians would rather throw themselves in front of that charging bull than be seen as crude, prairie simpletons. Still, at the State Fair, they relish a simpler era when people would work hard and, therefore, could eat hearty.

In downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis, they dine at the tables of award-winning chefs. Here at the fair, they down fried everything on a stick and tons of sugar.

Before meeting a friend for lunch, Cary Giese wandered into the Minnesota Republican Party’s booth. He was wearing an “Obama ’08” T-shirt, but he wasn’t lost. He wanted a campaign button boasting: “Time for a real hero/McCain.”

It was a peace offering for his friend, said Mr. Giese who lives in a suburb near Lake Minnetonka, one of the largest of the state’s more than 10,000 lakes. They were sure to argue politics, and the gift would help keep things civil.

The McCain button cost 50 cents; down the street, Obama buttons were going for $3. Giese quipped that it was “value pricing.”

The Republicans gave him a reception. They had bigger things in mind with Governor Pawlenty on Sen. John McCain’s shortlist of potential running mates. If anyone had inside information about Pawlenty’s prospects, they weren’t sharing it.

State’s major political figures
Giese has met two vice presidents at the fair: Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. He has met every senator in recent state history and most of the governors.

State fair appearances are mandatory for politicians. It’s where the people are – more than 1.6 million a year.

So there was Al Franken, the commentator and satirist who earned his fame on Saturday Night Live, shaking hands and signing autographs.

“I miss you on Air America radio,” said Dorothy Johnson who lives in Los Angeles but comes back for the fair. “What happened?” “Ohhhh, I decided to run for Senate,” Mr. Franken deadpanned. He’s the Democrat’s challenger to Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman.

As love for the fair shows, the Twin Cities is more connected to rural regions than most other metro areas. Take their major league teams. The Republicans will convene in the home of the Minnesota Wild Hockey Club – not the St. Paul Wild. Likewise, the Twins, Vikings, and Timberwolves use the state name rather than Minneapolis where they play.

That sense of community is reflected in the politics, said Dane Smith, who covered politics for 30 years for local newspapers and now is president of the Center for Growth & Justice, an economic think tank in St. Paul.

While much of America venerated the notion of individual competition, the Scandinavians and Germans who settled the Twin Cities brought “cooperative rather than competitive models,” Mr. Smith said. As pioneers in an isolated place, they needed each other.

“There has always been a consensus in terms of the commonwealth and pulling together,” Smith said.

It’s the reason Minnesota typically leads the nation in voter turnout. People believe their votes matter.

“We believe in progress and the idea that we can improve our situation,” Smith said. “We are not waiting for the market or a second coming to improve our lot.”

That is not to say that Twin Citians are necessarily liberal. Instead, they came up with a “distinctive progressive brand of Republicanism,” Smith said. During the convention, he will host a conference on that tradition.

Pawlenty is more conservative and more committed to values defined by evangelicals than other Republicans who have carried the tradition over the years. He is steadfast in his refusal to raise taxes even after Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi last year and other bridges needed repair. The upshot is constant tension between him and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Pawlenty’s success lies in part in his understanding of the culture, Smith said. He offers positive solutions to problems even while holding the line on taxes that could pay for the remedies.

Mitch Pearlstein uses the State Fair for an unscientific study of the Twin Cities’ character. He is president and founder of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis.

Mr. Pearlstein once wrote in a column that outside of mega areas like New York, America had three distinctive cities: Salt Lake City, New Orleans and the Twin Cities. When he moved here from New York in 1974, he “just adored being surrounded by all of these Nordic folks.”

But the distinction is fading. When Pearlstein watches crowds at the fair he sees “permutations and combinations” of people who make the Twin Cities look much more like the rest of America.

Stroll the fair grounds, and you hear people speaking Hmong, Spanish, Somali, and other languages.

One of them, Sy Vang Lo, tends the Hmong Folk Art booth in the fair’s International Bazaar. After she fled the communist takeover of Laos, she spent five years in a refugee camp in Thailand before making it to the Twin Cities.

It has not been easy learning English and earning respect for Hmong people and their culture. But she’s not complaining.

“This government helped us come to the United States,” said Ms. Lo, now 56. “I didn’t know how to speak your language, but I did know how to sew.”

Now her exquisite needlework is a fixture in local art displays. Among other places, Hmong tapestries adorn the State Capitol.

Without doubt, immigrants changed the “Nordic folks” character. Many argue they improved the food: more spice. They also brought problems with gangs and leftover trauma from war in their homelands.

But, in classic Twin Cities form, immigrants are punching their way onto school boards and city councils.

Pearlstein predicts something of the old character will endure.

“One of the traditions here is that people band together,” Pearlstein said. “We are this cold outpost between Chicago and Seattle, and we take care of ourselves.”

Back at the fair’s barns, Travis Wulf, 17, is no quitter either. It was his bull that broke loose last year and ended up in a rendering plant. Mr. Wulf plans to show three bulls this year. For insurance, he said, he “walked them around outside” so they wouldn’t spook so easily.

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