Sibling Rival Midlife Identity Crisis

What’s really interesting about returning from London, Oxford, San Francisco, Paris, Florence, is that Minneapolis/St. Paul looks less like home, more like a city or two to get to know.

A year ago I thought I knew the character of the Twin Cities I grew up in, so well that I could say I favor St. Paul to Minneapolis with a certain sneer that suggested I really knew it so well, so deeply, that it was my place to say. Or admit that, really, Minneapolis was the city that mattered out here, though upon reflection, neither could make it without the other.

But really what did I know?

I knew a period of maybe ten lucid years where a person really observes the place they live in, having crawled out of the depths of infantile acceptance and ignorance of one’s surroundings. I knew a romanticized dual-core metropolis looked back upon longingly from a three hour drive to the middle of nowhere, that morbidly made me call itself home. I knew we were forward-looking people, us proud residents of the Twin Cities, with our light rail transit, museums, theatre, art, social programs. But what of our past?

That is a question I had to start really asking, when I became consumed, obsessed even (ask those who were around me at the time) with the histories, both broad and intimate, of the grand urban centers I mentioned in the first line. These are characters that go back famously for hundreds of years in some cases — to London’s Roman origins, Oxford’s ancient educational pedigree, San Francisco’s great fire that 100 years ago Katrina’d a city that even then was grand enough for people to bitterly mourn the loss of, and celebrate the subsequent rebirth of.

And what was the character, the zeitgeist of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 50, 100 years ago? One hundred and fifty years ago I could imagine – just look at the river bluffs, even to this day. Just look at Fort Snelling. At Minnehaha Falls. The pioneer days are easy to imagine. But what about the 1920s? There were mobsters, as most locals are aware of, but what of the rest of the citizens? What, even more curiously, of the 1950s? The 1950s, when Minneapolis’ population was over half a million (to today’s roughly 380,000), when that same city was called by some the nation’s capital of anti-Semitism, when the horrendously-ugly Minneapolis Central Library, now replaced by a finer structure, was first built?

What of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, incorporated into the city only in the 1920s, scene in the 1960s of a lawyer’s brutal murder of his homemaker wife (the famous T. Eugene Thompson case that once enthralled the public and the then-four major papers)? What of Macalester College, bohemian scene it is today, 50 years ago? What of all those freezing Catholics, in the days before the Minnesota Twins, Garrison Keillor, Dylan, Mary Tyler Moore? What of those metropolitans in the days of Charles Lindberg (a notorious anti-Semite in his own right)?

Well, somewhere in the old mill ruins by the river (now a fine city park and museum site), in the cornerstone time capsules unearthed in the old Minneapolis Central Library, in the Star Tribune’s reprinting of now-humorous historic headlines, in the occasional glimpse into a life now passed, much more forgotten than the pasts of those famous cities, London, Paris, et al. — somewhere, in all that, perhaps I’ll start to piece together an idea of what these Twin Cities were before they got their current flavor. Stripping away all they’ve gained in the last fifty years makes the idea of 1950s Minneapolis seem pretty bland. Perhaps it was. But somewhere between those sibling rivals, Minneapolis, St. Paul, I suspect there is a mystery or two worth uncovering.

Once uncovered, maybe I can even begin (just begin) to imagine what made the Cities I called home and took it for granted I knew… what made their freezing citizens tick, when television was just a vision and radio brought the news from London and Paris.


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