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Super subcultures, great neighborhoods: 14 experts on what makes the Twin Cities special

There's something about the Twin Cities. Many of us who live in and love them have this feeling about the spirit of the place. Some people talk about a biomagnetic vortex, here where the prairie meets the North Woods.
I'm not qualified to weigh in on that idea, but I've often been struck by the loyalty that creative folks in many fields feel for the Cities. So I called around to a bunch of them to get their takes on what makes Minneapolis and Saint Paul special. And because love should never be entirely blind, I also asked what we need to make them better places for new ideas and new urban ways of being.

I wanted more than the familiar pluses: the depth of talent and expertise here in every field, the presence of so many colleges, universities, and international corporations in a relatively small city, the corporate philanthropy, the urban lakes and trails, and so on. It's not a scientific sample--just a garnering of articulate opinion from people who smile when you say "Lake Street" or "Grand Avenue," "May Day Parade" or "Rice Park."

We're Subculturally Sociable

"When Bicycling magazine rated the Twin Cities the most bike-friendly city in America, it wasn't because we have the most riders," says Steve Clark, Bicycle and Walking Program Manager of Transit for Livable Communities. "It was because of the depth and variety of our bike subculture." Clark points to places like Cars R Coffins Coffee Bar and Cykel Garage and One On One Bicycle Studio--hybrids of bike shop and coffee shop--to indicate just how entrepreneurially innovative and connective our bike bohemia is.

Our high-tech subculture is similar, according to cyber-entrepreneur Dan Grigsby. "There are two kinds of techies," he says, "the introverts with pocket protectors and the pierced and tattooed ones who got into tech through games and music. Our towns are full of the latter, and they're social." As a result, he points out, they've set up a plethora of informal tech forums like MinneBar, where hip geeks trade ideas while imbibing a microbrew or two, or three. (Look for our report on the May Minnebar next issue.)

And musician James Everest credits close, long-term personal networks--and connections made in record stores--with a major role in forging the Cities' vibrant music scene. "So many of the people in the major Twin Cities bands--the Replacements, The Bad Plus, many others--grew up together here, and in our very rich record-store culture, where you went in and talked to clerks who loved music, and then heard great local bands in in-store performances." There's been attrition, but that culture still thrives, he says. Mainstream buyers may be downloading, but fans, collectors, and vinyl lovers are still congregating in stores like the venerable Electric Fetus, Saint Paul's Eclipse, and Shuga Records in Northeast.

We Cultivate a Creative "Ecosystem"

"One thing people elsewhere in the country know about the Twin Cities is that we do a lot with the arts," says Laura Zabel, director of Saint Paul's Springboard for the Arts. "What people may not know about our art scene is that we have this rich ecosystem of cross-sector organizations that support art. Springboard advises artists on making a living. Intermedia Arts connects them to social projects. Artspace was the first developer in America devoted to live-work spaces for artists. There are so many resources here to support the entire range of artists' concerns."

DeAnna Cummings, executive director of Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis, chimes in on the theme of support, from another angle.  "There's foundation support for the arts at all levels here," she says, "not, as in many cities, just for the big institutions. And there's a real back-and-forth interaction between the larger organizations like the Walker Art Center and establishments like Juxtaposition," she says. "We're a small nonprofit focused on urban youth, but we've collaborated as real partners with both the Walker and the Guthrie."

The arts have a big impact on the wider creative community here, too. Chris Pollard, a principal in Whoop Design and board member of the Minnesota Interactive Media Association, likes to wander through gallery buildings during the cities' many open-studio nights and art crawls. "My goal is always to get out of my box, to see my client's issues in a new way," he says, "and while I'm walking through the Grain Belt building or Casket Arts, I get to see images made from a wholly different perspective than my own. It helps, and it makes me a happier, thus more creative, person."

And Mark Simonson, an open-source type designer from Saint Paul, fondly recollects his first impressions of the Cities when he moved here from small-town Wisconsin in the 1970s. "I could see a progressive attitude about design as soon as I got here," he says. "There were all these signs in Helvetica, which was the cool font then. I mean, the headlines in the newspaper were in Helvetica!"

We're Cooperators

If you're getting the idea that the spirit of mutual support is a big deal here, you're right. Katya Pilling directs the Seward Redesign community development organization in Minneapolis. "Ours is a co-operative culture, in contrast to the more ruggedly individualistic culture of the West," she says. "I have a great photo from the days when the beautiful old railway workers' houses on Milwaukee Avenue were going to be demolished by urban renewal. It shows hippies taking City Council members on a tour of the street." The two groups worked together to save the colorful avenue, which today is a civic icon.

Lars Leafblad, an executive recruiter who works with entrepreneurs, figures that this cooperative spirit has been crucial for his business. "Here, if I call you for a referral--not for a position for you but for a recommendation of someone else--there is a high, high likelihood that you're going to call me back. People in the Twin Cities want to be helpful."
What accounts for our willingness? Chris Romano, who directs the Riverview Economic Development Association on Saint Paul's West Side, thinks that because of a slower-than-coastal pace of life, multigenerational family ties, and the proximity of nature, "it's not just about the bottom line here, not just about rising to the top or making the most money."

We Need to Un-form Affinity Groups

For all his appreciation of Twin Cities helpfulness, headhunter Lars Leafblad has some gripes too. "We realize that this is a special place, and sure, we help one another, but we tend to do that inside our circle of affinity, whether that's a neighborhood, a city, the metro area. We don't always consider the whole. I think we need to be much more intentional in building connections between different sectors."

University of Minnesota geographer Judith Martin speaks to our parochial tendencies from a different angle: "I think people here need to realize that it's okay to be a big city. What did it take for us to have light-rail transit, thirty-five years? There's been a relative ethnic homogeneity here and a pretty low urban density; both are changing fast, and with generational shifts we are seeing more and more acceptance of both."
Dan Grigsby underlines another local issue that feels vintage Minnesotan--practically Lake Wobegonian. He calls it "cabin culture." "Many techies here need to pay two mortgages," he says. "One on their house and one on their lake cabin. So they get a little risk-averse. Rather than starting software companies, they work for a bank or for retail, or as contract coders for clients. So despite the wealth of tech talent here, we're not producing startups at the rate we could, and we are not the tech presence we were twenty years ago."

We Need to Leverage Our Creativity Even More

Call it Minnesota Nice or simple optimism, but when I asked others what the cities need, they preferred to talk about opportunities rather than weak points. Urban planner Peter Musty, who loves the Twin Cities for providing, as he puts it, "everything you would want in a big city combined with the pace of a Charleston or a Santa Fe," hopes that we will continue to develop in a way that "doesn't imitate other cities and lets our local, climate-driven culture emerge--slowly and naturally," by getting more and more environmentally conscious and leveraging elements of the urban fabric like our pattern of small, mixed-use buildings at street corners.

Christine Podas-Larson, executive director of Public Art Saint Paul, hopes that "as the economy of the state changes, foundations don't give in to pressure to 'reconsider' arts funding out of existence. There are many other needs, like closing the achievement gap in our schools--that should be everybody's priority. But the arts are vital to the cities and the state, and we truly are all in this together."

And architect and urbanist Christian Dean thinks that artistic and design creativity could play an even more direct, and almost literally concrete, role in the development of our cities. "I think artists and designers could be more involved in pragmatic infrastructure decisions," he says. "In creating sculptural playgrounds, like Isamu Noguchi designed. Or how about street striping? Is a straight line the best way to indicate a bike path? Do crosswalks have to be standardized? Design talent could contribute here, and I'm not talking about an added esthetic layer, but about making something function better."

Dean is echoing Forecast Public Art founder Jack Becker (look for my Q and A with him next week), who dreams of bringing artists into a vast range of problem-solving situations: "Urban planning, the environment, education," Becker says, "name any subject and I think there is probably a role for an artist in it." And James Everest pursued the same theme when he described to me how artists in some European countries are regularly called upon as consultants in business and government. "These artists are respected as professionals for their ability to step back from a problem and see it in a new way," he says. "It would be a great way for artists here to get paid for their problem-solving skills, not just as entertainers. And it's way better than waiting tables."

I'll leave you with that idea, an artist-staffed consultancy, which I love--any takers, art-and-artist-loving entrepreneurs?--and with the image of a two-city city that takes creativity seriously, especially if it's aimed at the greater good; is well-educated but resistant to elitism; loves to innovate but is ambivalent about big-cityhood; thinks people should do things together; and is heading into the two-thousand-teens with a pretty good grip on the contradictions that show that it is alive and growing.

Jon Spayde is managing editor of The Line.

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