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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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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.

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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.