Unconjoined Twin Cities: A Catalogue of Difference II (Juvinalia)

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

This episode of Unjoined Twin Cities will explore another crack in the Twin Cities' crystalline facade: the age-old dichotomy between the individual and society. Though the manifestations of this opposition are plentiful, three things come immediately to mind: economic history, museums, and landscape.

Economic History

The early economic development of the Twin Cities reveal radically different approaches to growth. By the time the boom came around, Saint Paul, historically older, had established itself as Minnesota's commerical trading center. The primary reason for this was that Saint Paul's lower landing was the end of the line for most Mississippi river traffic, and the town consequently focused its civic attention on inter- and intra-state commerce. Wholesale establishments, merchants, import/export businesses... they swarmed the banks of the river like Asian Lady Beetles on a white wooden house, and Saint Paulites were acutely aware of the happenings in larger Eastern towns like Chicago and Milwaukee. Commerce was the word on the street, and Saint Paul's richest man, James J. Hill epitomized this focus, having accumulated his vast wealth by lacing the country with railroads such as the Empire Builder.

[Minneapolis's Washburn mill got so big that it exploded in 1878]

On the other hand the upstart burg of Minneapolis emphasized industrial power, specializing particularly in the ancient art of flour milling. It was mostly a matter of happy conicidence, as the hydroelectric power provded by Saint Anthony Falls allowed Minneapolitans to effeciently mill the vast amounts of wheat that grew across the upper reaches of the Great Plains. Minneapolis's industrial barons thus had an enviable feeling of empowerment, and families like the Pillsburys could imagine themselves determining their own destiny.

Whether or not the commercial specialization of the Saint Paulitan made him or her more cosmopolitan is a matter of heated debate, but at the very least the outward focus of the TC's Eastern people meant that they found themselves more dependant on others for their daily bread. In Minneapolis, on the other hand, they had developed a lucrative market for their flour milling, and have ever since habitually viewed themselves as an enclave of economic self-sufficiency.


We can all be proud of the fact that Minnesota's Twin Cities are such a powerhouse of museum-ness, offering sightseers no shortage of collected antiquity. But at the same time visitors should know that the two towns are not equals, museum-wise, and that each town reveals an individual curiosity personality. The difference runs through their main museums, which in Saint Paul are the Science Museum, the Children's Museum, and the Historical Society. Across the river, Minneapolis contains the larger, more traditional museums: the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (or MIA: a classical repository of art history a la New York's Metropolitan Museum) and the Walker Art Center (one of the leading contemporary arts museums in the country…if not the world).

[Kids are greeted to the Science Museum by a quite climbable iguana.]

This museum disparity stems from each city's pedagogical philosophy, mindsets which correlate roughly with social and individual modes of learning. What I mean is, attending the various Saint Paul museums you'll find yourself literally immersed in their exhibits, most of which are filled with "hands-on" activites oriented primarily toward children. In fact, most every day finds yellow schoolbuses lining up outside each of the three downtown buildings while their museum halls echo with the non-stop chirp of high-pitched glee. In the Saint Paul museums even adults often wind up resurrecting some of their long-lost youth.

In contrast, the major Minneapolis museums offer more sobering and serious fare. The majestic marble pillars of the MIA instill the art with a quiet dignity, and museum-goers usually respond with a quiet respect. Even the frequent elementary school tours are almost somber, the children seeming to leapfrog into adulthood while learning about sculptural abstraction and canonical tradition. And this adult feeling is amplified over at the Walker, where the earnestness of contemporary art bounces acutely off its whitewashed walls, and if you stay long enough you'll probably glimpse a tour group of the Minnesotan wealthy lending the museum a country club atmosphere, a timbre that somewhat belies much of modern art's playful nature.

[The MIA's daunting facade]

All in all, the museum difference between the two cities is one of distance, a shift in the relationship between spectator and spectacle. Minneapolis promotes the accomplishments of the individual, and while each artwork is placed delicately within its relevant social context, the experience inevitably remains subjective and personal. Saint Paul on the other hand accentuates the accomplishments of society as a whole, that general, gradual accumulation of scientific and cultural progress that we all know and love. Visiting any of these "educational" museums thus makes one feel part of a larger whole, a comfort to say the least. Neither approach necessarily rises heirarchically above the other, and though I personally find a certain liberation in the distance offered by the Minneapolitan duo, suffice to say that two city's museums blend in a beautiful harmony.


Though to say as much is trite, humanity sets itself apart from the rest of the animal kingdowm in its ability to shape its environment to meet its needs. Less acknowledged, however, is the fact that our environment shapes our civic worldview in a great variety of subtle ways. For example, there's no telling exactly how many of the differences between the Twin Cities are rooted in their contrasting topographical landscapes.

The distinction: Over on the West Coast, the land underneath Minneapolis is largely flat. There's a way in which Minneapolis marks the beginning of the great plains, that vast expanse of tabletop soil extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Saint Paul on the other hand, is a veritable encyclopedia of topographical oddity, (albeit a tremendously expurgated encyclopedia, lacking as it does mountains, buttes, steppes, isthmuses, &c.). Still, when placed next to its twin, Saint Paul offers no small degree of landscape turbulence.

[Minneapolis on top, Saint Paul on bottom.]

This pair of contrasting foundations informs the perspectives of their respective denziens, the way in which they look at the world. The vast flatitude of the Minneapolis means that when one of its citizens looks at the world s/he sees emptiness, a tabula rasa, a vast archetectural opportunity. Perhaps its a space for visionary ideas, some grand plan, or an intricate and totalitarian street-grid scheme. However, when a St Paulite looks at the world s/he sees myriad obstacles, and the bluffs, hills and/or ravines become an almost-stultifying framework with which s/he must blend and cohere.

Furthermore, this difference isn't limited to the topographical limitations of social planning. The literal perspective of each city is similarly disparate, as the flatness of Minneapolis means that the only way to get a "birds eye" view is to ascend to the top of one of its many skyscrapers. It's either all or nothing for a Minneapolis vista-viewer, while on the other hand Saint Paul offers a plethora of promotoriies, bluffs, and scenic overlooks from which to survey the scenery. In fact, to walk about Saint Paul without coming across a natural vista is noteworthy ocurrence; they're just that common! Perhaps this is why, generally speaking, Minneapolis imbues its citizens with a feeling of limitless individual opportunity, and over the river in Saint Paul people feel constrained by the naturally-defined world around them, and thus take a more objective outlook when it comes to questions of personal expression or individual identity. It's literally the fact that the ground beneath each city's feet grants the Twin Cities two unique ways of understanding.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

groovy explanations for the differences between the two cities. i enjoyed it very much.