On Regional Identity and Cultural Heritage: Minnesota and Minneapolis-St. Paul as the North

February 16, 2015

There’s an interesting debate going on in Minneapolis-St. Paul right now. It’s interesting to many of us who live here, anyway, though I’m sure lots of people think it’s all sort of pointless. It’s a debate about the identity of the Twin Cities as well as Minnesota at large. Most people, including Minnesotans, probably think of Minnesota as part of the Midwest, though many like to consider us part of a subregion called the Upper Midwest. The present debate is about whether Minnesota ought to “rebrand” itself as part of the North, a regional distinction that does not currently exist in the United States but is common in other nations.*

Off the bat, let’s just dismiss the notion that the US shouldn’t have a “northern” region because Canada is further north, a criticism that has been leveled at this concept a few times. Northern England is south of Scotland but is well-recognized as having its own distinct region and culture. Closer to home, the Caribbean and Mexico are further south than the American South, which might be the US region with the clearest cultural identity even while it contains significant variation within it.

But does that mean that the US should have a northern region? And why might Minnesota embrace it?

The Regional Identity of Minnesota and Minneapolis-St. Paul

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No particular reason. Just a nice picture of my ‘hood.

Over at Streets.MN, Alex Schieferdecker wrote a spectacular piece on this topic and what being “the North” might mean for Minnesota. I’m not going to rehash everything he said because he said it better than I ever could, I’m certain of it. I appreciate his perspective particularly as a fellow outsider and transplant who really likes living here. I will say simply this: I am fully onboard for relabeling Minnesota — and Minneapolis-St. Paul in particular — as the capital of the North.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, and I think my background is a big reason why. Growing up, I did not identify strongly with any of the major national regions. To the extent I had one at all, my regional identity was tied to being from the Cleveland area and Northeast Ohio as distinct from other parts of Ohio. It came as a bit of a surprise to later realize I was also considered “Midwestern,” by maps and certainly by those on the coasts. “But that’s, like, Iowa right? Living here is not like living in Iowa,” I thought.**

I’m sure there are a lot of people who would see it as a distinction without a difference, but consider the following. Cleveland is about 200 miles closer to New York than it is to, say, Des Moines which is in roughly the geographic center of what’s typically defined as the boundaries of the Midwest.  Growing up, I definitely felt like I had more in common with eastern cites and states than those west of me, and the simple fact that Cleveland is much, much older than most of the rest of the Midwest was a big part of that.***

Being a transplant to Minnesota, I’ve become much more aware of cultural identity. It’s simply a bigger part of life here than it was in my experience in Ohio. As I said, people here are mostly okay with being identified as Midwestern. The so-called values frequently attributed to Midwesterners are not a tough sell on the surface: hardworking, honest, modest, friendly, family-oriented, and so on. It’s not as if people in other regions don’t think these things apply to them as well, so why not own them since that’s how others describe us? This makes it easy to look past negative stereotypes because we’re sure they aren’t true about us.

So while my anecdotal experience here in Minnesota tells me that most people tolerate the Midwestern monicker, they’d just as soon distinguish themselves using the Upper Midwest subregion I referenced above. I say we should not stop there. There’s something noncommittal about “Upper Midwest” whereas I think North is appropriately distinguishing. People in Minnesota, and I suspect in the Dakotas and Wisconsin, maybe Iowa too, see themselves as culturally distinct from places like Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Having had family and/or lived in three of those fives states, I’d say the distinction is very real and not terribly hard to see once you’ve spent some time in both sets of places. The current grouping of states considered Midwestern strikes me as way too large, the kind of labeling thrust on us by undiscerning outsiders.****

Minnesota Really Does Have an Image Problem (and It’s Our Own Fault)

Owing to its significant Scandinavian and Germanic heritage, Minnesotans are famously incapable of direct bragging. This is deeply cultural. The Swedes have a word (lagom) that emphasizes the importance of just the right amount of something — and no more. Moreover, the Law of Jante is a mocking list of rules created by a Danish-Norwegian author in a novel that describes a cultural intolerance toward what’s seen as individual braggadocio. Here are the rules:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Of course this does not describe every last individual of Scandinavian descent or every Minnesotan, but again my anecdotal experience suggests that many people are really uncomfortable doing or saying anything that can be seen as boastful, whether about themselves, Minnesota or Minneapolis-St. Paul. Nothing makes Minnesota butt cheeks clench together faster than open interpersonal conflict and a perception that someone is bragging. What’s more, Minnesotans are often quick to go in the other direction and talk about how it’s so cold, how it’s boring, or how the real state bird is a mosquito. My wife recently coined the perfect phrase for this — finding the “tarnished lining.” Think things are pretty great? Well, here’s why they’re not nearly as great as you think. Also, just you wait, they’ll surely get worse soon enough.

The flip side of this is our undying love affair with outside validation in the form of listicles and charts talking about how we are healthierricher, and just a better place to be. Some have said we’re the best, others have explicitly said you should move to Minneapolis. Just don’t expect any native Minnesotans say these things out loud. Our mayor even tried to institute a week of bragging last year which seemed to be mostly ignored. I know these lists can be critiqued endlessly, so I don’t pay a lot of mind to them individually, but to keep popping up in so many of them? We’ve got reasons to brag, Minnesotans, and I think distinguishing ourselves as the North is not a bad place to start.

I Will Bear Your Burden, Minnesota, But You’re Welcome to Join

As Minnesotans might say, autumn is "pretty okay, I guess."

As Minnesotans might say, autumn is “pretty okay.”

I’ve repeatedly used the word “bragging” to describe what I’d like to see happen, but that’s not really the right word. It’s more about confidence, about asserting that our state and our major metropolitan area belongs in the conversation about great places. It’s more than that even. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 16th largest metropolitan statistical area in the US, just behind Seattle and ahead of San Diego. Do you think about the Twin Cities in the same way you think about Seattle and San Diego? What about Portland, Denver, and Austin, all of which are hundreds of thousands of people smaller? Minneapolis-St. Paul is a major and important urban center, and it’s time we started speaking and acting like it. Our seat at the table with these places should be self-evident, but today it’s not.

As a Clevelander, I’m familiar with the muscle reflex people experience whereby they cannot bring themselves to say something positive about where they’re from. In Cleveland this was largely due to years of being beaten down in the form of a poor national image and real, substantive problems. I became acutely aware of this in college where I heard constantly about what a dump Cleveland was, both in the media and in day-to-day life. This phenomenon has produced two kinds of Clevelanders at either end of a spectrum of opinions. One is utterly fatalistic and convinced the city is doomed/cursed/whatever. The other is defiant and proud, ready to tell you about all the good things that are happening there now. As always, the truth of the city’s story lies somewhere in between, but — hoo boy — am I glad that there are people willing to talk about the good things now.

The reasons for this phenomenon in Minnesota are different, more deeply cultural, but it’s still a problem. Many of the friends I’ve made here are fellow transplants, and we’ve often talked about how much we like living here and how much we brag about it to our friends and family from elsewhere. We’d love to see our native friends embrace this place as wholly as we do, and to be sure some of them do. Re-identifying ourselves as the North is not likely to change the cultural apprehension around boastfulness on its own, but I think the conversation itself reflects an indication that the mentality around this is changing. We’re talking about calling ourselves the North because, increasingly, we want to be seen as distinct, as noteworthy for who we are.

I think this is great. We’ve got lots of stuff we can be proud of here in Minnesota regardless of what label we use, but I want a label that more accurately reflects us. Down with Jante Law and long live the North.

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*I put the word “rebrand” in quotes (twice!) because it’s an objectively gross word. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the concept of branding. At it’s simplest it’s about trying to represent yourself or your organization positively to others. But branding as a concept and activity is so omnipresent nowadays that talking about it just makes me feel a little icky. It has this connotation of favoring vacuous imagery and buzzwords over substance.

** I’m not picking on Iowa. Not at all. Promise.

***In fairness, Ohio is always the easternmost state lumped in with the Midwest and western Ohio does seem to have a lot more culturally in common with the broader Midwest than Cleveland does. I still think the sometimes-used Great Lakes region makes more sense. That or the “Rustbelt,” which many have tried to reclaim and spin in a positive light.

****Incidentally, if you’d like a 100% foolproof asshole-detection test, here it is: Anyone who uses the term “flyover states” with complete seriousness is an asshole.

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