The North… Or Not?


Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

What began as a quiet conversation about Minnesota’s regional identity has, of late, morphed into a full-blown wedge issue with dedicated and vocal followings on both sides. Does “The Midwest” fully encapsulate who we are or is it time to cut ties and strike out on our own as “The North?” Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and The Growler Contributing Editor John Garland take sides to hash it out.

The North

By R.T. Rybak

Look at a map of the northeastern part of the United States, and notice how many different regions it has: New England and Middle Atlantic. New York is its own deal, and, by the way, there is the City and then there is Upstate. And, of course, Washington, D.C., doesn’t like to be part of anything but itself.

Now look at a map of a part of the country five times as large: from Western Pennsylvania, through the Ohio Valley and Chicago, all the way to the Rockies, with Minnesota almost forgotten up on top. Why do we have only one name (and a super bland one at that)—the Midwest—for this giant area? And what does that mean anyway? The middle of the west is Denver. “Midwest,” to me, is a term invented by people who don’t know, and don’t much care to know, about all the amazing and unique parts of the country’s vast and diverse midsection.

I’m not playing their game anymore. It’s time to call ourselves exactly what we are: The North. And Minnesota is The Star of the North, which, to me, sounds a whole lot better than “a forgotten part of the forgettable Midwest.”

The North is more than a name. It’s a way of grabbing hold of what we are and loving it, instead of settling for second best. (Remember the pathetic term “Mini-Apple.”)

The North means lakes and trees and prairie and the last place on the planet with a reliable water supply.

And, yes, The North means winter; we have it, it’s ours, and we need to stop apologizing for it. Yes, there are days when winter sucks, but try Washington, D.C., or Atlanta on a humid August day. Try Seattle or Portland on the 362 days a year when it’s raining.

The North doesn’t put its weather second to anyone. It’s the “Theater of Seasons,” and if you want a one-act play go bore yourself with another Groundhog Day in San Diego. The North has no bad weather—just wrong clothing.

Winter in The North is also that bright sunny day when the air is crisp and a fresh overnight snowfall is making the trees sparkle. It’s the Luminary Loppet when 15,000 people transform Lake of the Isles into a winter wonderland, with dog-sled races, fire twirlers, and two-story high ice sculptures that shimmer with the Minneapolis skyline in the background. It’s Crashed Ice, the Winter Carnival, and the Pond Hockey Championships. It’s Lake Superior crashing dramatically onto the North Shore with its icy waters quickly turning to ice sculpture. It’s whole cities of icehouses springing up on Lake Mille Lacs and Lake Minnetonka, and artists turning those ice houses on Medicine Lake into museum pieces. You can’t do that in the “Midwest,” and certainly not in the “Middle Atlantic States.”

North Quote2

While we are at it, let’s put to bed that other term we have outgrown: the Twin Cities. I may be the only person who’s bothered by this, but we need to realize that there are about 4,000 “Twin Cities” in the world, so using this to describe our cities doesn’t mean anything to half the planet. And what does this mean: Are we half as good as Quad Cities? When you use a meaningless term like Twin Cities after a while, you strip away what you really are. Dallas–Fort Worth, another “Twin City,” is making that mistake by using the horrific “Metroplex.” That sounds like a toe fungus.

So let’s embrace that one-of-a-kind place we live in: Minneapolis–St. Paul—MSP for short: The Star of the North.
I’ll drink a local Minnesota beer to that. (Of course, I would drink a local Minnesota beer to a lot of things, but that’s another story.)


…Or Not?

By John Garland

I agree that we need a better elevator speech for Minnesota than “It’s not actually like Fargo.” But is The North really the explanation we’ve been waiting for? I feel like the time is right to at least explore the argument against this popular idea.

It’s true that The Midwest doesn’t mean much of anything. But what exactly qualifies Minnesota as The North? The lakes? We have less than Wisconsin does. A vibrant urban metropolis celebrating the cold? We’ll never match Chicago there. A “heritage” culture as a gateway to a pristine wilderness? Michigan has all that. “Nordic Chic” cuisine? Try Montreal.

And by declaring sovereignty from The Midwest, The North falls prey to the same problem of painting with a broad stroke. Just as it’s reductive to declare Lincoln, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati are all part of the same region, so is acting like Minneapolis–St. Paul, Rochester, Duluth, St. Cloud, and all the little lake towns in between have a perfectly homogenous culture.

Not North Quote

Face it, Minneapolis–St. Paul, we’re not part of lake country. We’re our own thing. We love to take a cheeky glance at Brainerd and Ely and pat them on the head like they’re our little siblings, but we have about as much in common with them as we have with the rest of The Midwest—from which we’re apparently trying to secede. And even if a portion of us migrate up there on weekends and prop up the storybook tableau of cabins and cozy flannel and lazy afternoons in the canoe, that whole way of life is completely foreign to a massive swath of Minnesotans.

Perhaps I’m having a hard time grasping the idea of The North because it’s promoting two different things. It says we’re modern and creative by saying we’re traditional and steadfast. It positions us as both on the cusp of culture and frozen in time. Why should our new brand be so preoccupied with “heritage” goods and simple wilderness retreats? Our image problem is that people think we’re an isolated frozen wasteland. Maybe playing into that stereotype is what got us here. We’ve created this comfortable fiction that we’re all just ice-fishing, thumb-twiddling simple folk at heart. It’s time we broke that mold and let the rest of the country know we’re not just Lutherans and lutefisk anymore.

If we want to change how people view our city, let’s be a different kind of city. Austin didn’t need to secede from The South to become known as a hub of music, art, technology, and carnitas tacos. Portland didn’t feel encumbered by its place in The Pacific Northwest. Instead, it stepped out of Seattle’s shadow by promoting their inherent uniqueness. The cool kids aren’t the ones telling everyone how cool they are, they’re the ones quietly being cool.

We need to ask ourselves whether a brand is appropriate at all. We can call ourselves anything we please, but no one is attracted to a brand if there’s no substance behind it. The North isn’t going to lure a Harvard graduate to Target or General Mills because she can expect to be wrapped in a cozy Faribault woolen blanket before freezing her lips off to ogle some ice castles. She’d rather see a Metro that’s responsibly investing in public transportation and promoting the arts, and a state that seems reasonably concerned with protecting their wilderness.

The North feels like a proclamation of something already accomplished, or of an identity already forged. I feel like that work has only just begun.

Because what good is lip service to a brand if it’s not backed up by actual change? Instead of telling the country they’re wrong about us, let’s show them they’re wrong. Let’s put in the work of being a standout city, instead of insisting that we already stand out.


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