Unconjoined Twin Cities: A Catalogue of Difference

[This is content recycled from my now mothballed website, www.excitablemedia.com. Please enjoy!]

Out of towners tend to imagine that the Twin Cities are one large conglomerated urban area, but people who live here know better. The TC is better described as a symbiotic binary system where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the distinct differences between each city creating areas of specialization, the two cities polar focii. I grew up in Saint Paul, but now for the first time I find myself living in Minneapolis, and I'm starting to notice their differences, which while minor, are more than enough differentially-speaking. Each city's enviroment provokes in its residents a uniquely unique uniqueness. To wit:
  • Street Orientation

[Local Rectangular Landscape.]

Travelling upstream to the Northermost navigable reaches of the Missipppi River, you reach a point where the river bends to the south, then curves back to the north before it rushes torrentially over a large waterfall. This point of curvature is where the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul happened to have been planted, long ago, and as they grew up, aligned alongside their respective river-segments, they formed axially-contrasting rectangles. Minneapolis is thus oriented longways North-South, while Saint Paul is longways East-West. Furthermore, for each city the microcosm of the urban street grid mirrors the macrocosm of the larger city's orientation, their individual rectangular urban blocks running parallel to the river, so that the front doors of a Minneapolis home will generally face East or West while the houses in Saint Paul will generally face North or South.

This foyer-facing differential reconfigures individual dispositions in relation to sunshine, so that the phrase "the sunny side of the street" takes on radically different meanings in each city. This contrast is further accentuated during the long sunshine-deprived Winter months for which Minnesota is justifiably famous. While the street orientation of Minneapolis works to equalize the amount of sushine exposure received by its residents, Saint Paulites across the river must cope with "photosynthetic polarity phenomenon (PPP)," where one side of the street (the Southern Exposure side) receives dramatically more sunshine than its opposite number. Because of this simple fact, mood swings in Saint Paul display greater amplitude, and inter-street division is marked, which means that Saint Paulities as a whole tend to view Wintertime as an extremely trying experience, perhaps more so than their more atmospherically cohesive counterparts across the Mississippi, where at the very least all residents experience roughly the same degree of sunshine exposure.

[Night/Day Transition.]

The street orientation differential also manifests itself during the night/day transition period, commonly called "sunset" and "sunrise." While each urban area boasts many "main drags," broadly speaking the main streets of Minneapolis tend to run North-South (e.g. Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Avenue, Central Avenue) whereas heavily trafficked Saint Paul boulevards run East-West. Thus, during those periods of the day where the sun sits low in the sky, Saint Paulites who happen to be stuck in their cars will experience more of its glare (depending on the direction of commutation). On the other hand, for Minneapolitans, the sun's blinding light, being peripherial, is much less of a problem. The precise effects of this difference are unknown, but it might account for the varying rates of vision loss, the tendencies of each city's citizens to work "regular hours," or the stark traffic accident disparity.
  • East/West
While the two cities are separated by a mere river, their two downtowns lie farther apart. Roughly 10 miles stretch between the two downtowns, Saint Paul nestled in the East, and Minneapolis towering high in the West. But the river that separates the two cities isn't just any old river, rather, it's the mighty Mississippi, the great American dividing line, which symbolically divides the nation into East and West. Consequently, Minneapolis identifies with the radical West Coast while Saint Paul, spiritually speaking, sees itself as an the last bastion of East Coast civility.

[Our country, East and West.]

This difference manifests itself in many disparate ways, ranging from diet to sports preference, but perhaps the most striking example is the different call numbers of the two city's media outlets. As you probably know, all TV and radio stations East of the Mississippi must begin with the letter "W," whereas on the West side they begin with a "K." To the extent that the alphabet represents progress (as it does for each child first learning to read), each city's self-image corresponds to either the beginning of the end of the alphabet, the Romanized Alpha or Omega. Saint Paulites, represented by "W," the 23rd letter, are largely content to stay as they are, knowing as they do that end of the alphabet lurks just around the corner. In contrast, the "K" of Minneapolis, only the 11th letter, compels those on the West Bank to launch themselves into a vast and unknown future.

  • Skyways
One of the more unique aspects of the Twin Cities is the extensive downtown skyway system. During the industrial rejuvination of the 1960's, the cold regional climate dictated that each city start to build artifical sidewalks or "skyways" to connect the urban office core of the downtown areas. As is often the case, building these skyways became a matter of pride for each city's business council, locked as they were in fierce competition for the same local commercial tenants. Skyway development reached its peak during the early 70's, fortunately coinciding with a dramatic growth in government, so that by the time the urban recession rolled around, prompting declining central business district (CBD) vitality, each city had done much to integrate its urban core into a single, interconnected pedestrian web.

[Saint Paul on top, Minneapolis on bottom.]

That being said, the two skyway systems in Saint Paul and Minneapolis display distinct differences. Foremost among them: The Saint Paul skyways are all owned by the City Council, whereas the Minneapolis skyways are owned by their individual real estate tenants, and they respectively represent the public and private models of social infrastructure construction. All the Saint Paul skyways thus conform to a single model, a pewter-esque metal design featuring modernist Van der Rohe sensibilities infused with classical adornment. On the other hand, the Minneapolis skyways were designed and constructed according to the individual whim of each building's architect, and vary greatly in style, dimension, and accessibility. The greater general vitality of the Minneapolis downtown means that their skyways are also more diverse from a commerical standpoint, although in my opinion that has little to do with their public/private manner of contruction. The difference boils down to a matter of taste, although the general consensus is that the diversity of the Minneapolis skyways makes for a more interesting walkabout.


Anonymous said...

You had me really contemplating how a North/South vs. a East/West axis could influences a city and its residents. I grew up in Minneapolis; could the fact that my house faces East have an impact on my outlook on the Metro Area that differs from someone who grew up in Highland Park or Frogtown? Fascinating stuff! Reading along, the differences between the Twins degenerated into an observance of the skyway systems. Why? I know that skyways are the bane of progressive urbanists but they hardly constitute a subject fertile enough to contrast the two cities. My point isn't to slam your analysis but, rather. to encourage you to expand them. What are the philosophical differences between Mpls & St. Paul?
Rex Anderson

Alex said...

Wow you have some revolutionary ideas, Bill. Interesting to ponder how the directional orientation of long blocks affects the psychological disposition of inhabitants. As historical maps (links below) indicate, Minneapolis made the switch to long blocks oriented to the PLS some time after St Paul did, and it appears that the subdivisions that were first laid out in long blocks weren't necessarily near the river. Do you think there was an ordinance indicating which direction streets should be oriented? This is something I've always wondered as it seems as though the Twin Cities has a lot more uniformity in the grid pattern than many other towns with grids (although they are uniformly in different directions depending on the twin).



Bill Lindeke said...

Well, this was written some time ago with no small amount of irony. It's not meant to be taken seriously, but as a kind of thought experiment... what if all the differences between the two cities could be attributed to geography? What if your address determined your attitude?

Why does Minneapolis have so many theaters, but Saint Paul have so many antique stores?

Ari said...

As far as W and K ... In Minnesota stations can pretty much use either, since, in some cases, you can be both east and west of the Mississippi at the same time (Highland Park and the West Side in Saint Paul, most notably).

Which explains KNOW in Saint Paul and WCCO in Minneapolis (which began life west of the river, way back in the '20s, standing for, of course, Washburn Crosby Company.)