Rise of the North

Will what makes Minnesota so good keep it from becoming great?

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The North is rising. It’s being asserted by politicians, journalists, businesspeople, hashtags, and proliferating t-shirts and hats that proudly declare Minnesota’s new self-appointed distinction. The question now is not what this means — a self-assured identity on par with the coasts and the long-established centers of regional gravity, a tentpole in the center of a nation looking for pathways combining prosperous stability and creativity — but whether we can live up to it.

There are skills that are advantageous for getting good grades in school: following rules, respecting authority, avoiding risk. And while they can lead to a comfortable (if unadventurous) life, they can also be the very things that preclude dizzying success.

It might be time to ask: Are the qualities that have made Minnesota so very good the same things that could prevent the North from becoming great?

Yes, We’re Different

We may indeed be onto something with our fairly recent declaration that Minnesota doesn’t belong in the traditional American Midwest. According to journalist and historian Colin Woodard, author of the influential 2011 book American Nations, Minnesota’s origins are rooted firmly in a historical culture he calls Yankeedom.

American Nations puts forth a distinctive vision for understanding America. By his estimation, constructs such as the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South are as useless as state borders in telling us anything meaningful about our regional cultural variations. Ohio and Illinois, for instance — two other states generally lumped with Minnesota into the Midwest — both encompass three distinct American cultures (Yankeedom, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia, for those keeping score at home).

In Woodard’s definition, Yankeedom was founded as an attempt at a religious Utopia on the shores of Massachusetts Bay by Old World resistors who chafed against the established order back home (that shore is also the site of the mythological American origin story, suggesting we might not be in the hinterlands after all). Yankeedom eventually stretched, by physical and spiritual migration, across upstate New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and then Minnesota (along with western Ohio, and parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa).

The Yankeedom that makes up Minnesota has historical traits that may still sound familiar to anyone who’s lived here: suspicion of inherited aristocratic privilege and scorn for conspicuous displays of wealth; being unimpressed by highborn nobles yet respectful of education; and (terribly relevant today) possessing faith in government to a degree “incomprehensible to people of the other American nations.” All this while maintaining a “leveling spirit” to prevent any member of the community from falling too low or rising too high. “From the outset it was a culture that put great emphasis on the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community, even if it required individual self-denial,” Woodard writes.

Cities Are Ideas

“A city speaks to you mostly by accident,” writes essayist, venture capitalist, and co-founder of the seed capital firm Y Combinator Paul Graham, “in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear.”

Graham writes in his essay “Cities and Ambition” that every great city is the hub for a specific kind of ambition. New York embodies economic aspiration; Cambridge (home to Harvard and MIT) the intellectual variety; D.C is the fulcrum of national politics; Paris, refined aesthetics; Silicon Valley and Seattle, technology and entrepreneurship; Los Angeles is the global epicenter of showbiz.

Ambitious people gravitate toward the city that resonates with their aspirations. This is how you end up with a place rife with beautiful and quick-witted people striving for cultural dominance in entertainment in Los Angeles, while the entrepreneurially and technologically inclined cluster further north, in San Francisco and Seattle. The very streets of Cambridge feel steeped in generations of erudition. It’s about infrastructure and systems, yes, but also shared priorities and values. It’s about a palpable and recognized sense of purpose.

Increasingly, though, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the talented and ambitious will go exclusively to the coasts. In a 2016 article in the Atlantic (“Can America Put Itself Back Together?”) detailing a three-year, cross-country investigation of the popular perception of a nation in decline, James Fallows writes, “Nearly everywhere we went we were surprised by evidence of a different flow: of people with first-rate talents and ambitions who decided that someplace other than the biggest cities offered the best overall opportunities.”

He Not Busy Being Born is Busy Dying

By the early 2040s, the number of deaths in Minnesota are projected to eclipse births for the first time in the state’s history if current trends continue on pace. Between now and then, Baby Boomers will be retiring, creating shortages in the labor force. Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower points out that while the state as a whole loses more Millennials than it gains from other states, Hennepin County has done fairly well in attracting young people in recent years. “But at this point, statewide,” says Brower, “we are not attracting and retaining the numbers we will need to meet employers’ future demand (if jobs continue to be added at the projected rate).”

A nonprofit called Greater MSP is dedicated to the economic growth of the 16-county Minneapolis-St. Paul region; it has made boosting the Twin Cities’ signal a priority with its Make It. MSP. campaign, which aims to boost the region’s talent attraction and retention to keep pace with future workforce demand.

Peter Frosch of Greater MSP says, “We have the data: people are the number one competitive advantage [for the North]. Not every place competes on their people — some offer oil or weather. But for generations, it’s been the people here that make it the best place to live in the country. We’ve all seen the lists.”

Ah, yes. The lists. It’s hard to miss the self-congratulatory flurry on social media every time a new list names Minnesota at or near the top rank in the country for this or that. We swell with pride and put a figurative My state is an honor student bumper sticker on our collective van, inducing eye-rolls in the rest of the country — or at least whatever parts of it are paying attention (mostly limited to former Minnesota residents who still have a lot of Minnesota-based Facebook friends).

Frosch’s point stands, though. Minnesota does dominate in areas ranging from literacy to bikeability to arts to education to environmental stewardship, though there’s also an increasing sense of urgency that much work remains for these benefits to be extended across a (truly shameful) race gap — something the list-citers often blithely fail to acknowledge in their click-bait cheerleading.

But there’s a story to be shared here, and a real need to share it. “We’ve kept people who are highly educated best among the 25 largest American metros,” says Frosch. “But we’ve been attracting people 19th out of 25. If more people knew why we never leave, more people would come. There’s an asymmetry between what it is to live and work here, and what that story is outside of Minnesota.”

Money Talks

One of the central plot points in the story Greater MSP aims to tell is the North’s unique intersection of affordability and quality of life. In the Bloomberg Millennial Housing Affordability Index, Minneapolis-St. Paul registered a surplus of more than $12,000 between the minimum annual salary needed to afford a home and average Millennial earnings (in San Jose, California, the gap was more than $80,000 — in the other direction). “Mpls-St. Paul is one of few places in the country where you and your partner can build a great career and enjoy world-class quality of life that you can actually afford,” Frosch says. “That’s not a sales pitch. That’s the reality.”

Real estate prices increasingly dictate choices in today’s America. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn has risen to more than $2,600. In San Francisco, a one-bedroom is more than $3,600, rising to $5,050 for a two-bedroom. These numbers represent a fun-house mirror of income-to-housing ratios that, to the North, feel like a transparent bubble this region should exploit for talent and transplants.

Despite the popular, media-driven perception that ambitious and freewheeling young people don’t want to be encumbered with property, buying a house still holds appeal for the vast majority of Millennials. Yet the Bloomberg index compared median home value with median Millennial earnings, finding 13 cities in which Millennials cannot afford to buy a home.

Almost all of these financially inhospitable cities are on the coasts (plus Denver). So there is opportunity and a question for the North: when the roughly seven million people in America who move between states each year decide where to go, what is our case for why the brightest should gravitate here and contribute to the next chapter of the North? Affordability has undeniable appeal, but what is the next level of the sell?

We may never be the first destination for those looking to achieve massive wealth or international fame. And our culture isn’t overly enamored of physical beauty, thrill-seeking adventure, or athleticism (though we embrace all these things to a characteristically reasonable degree). What we can claim is a moderate, plucky entrepreneurial and technological streak, literary robustness, and a sophisticated culinary scene.

Affordability in the North is given. We’re working on communicating — and embodying — the opportunity piece that will make us a destination for visionaries, creators, and entrepreneurs. As Frosch puts it, “We want to be in the position ten years from now of seeing a Portland or Denver effect. Those are places on the list for people who are educated, looking for the next thing, looking to do something.”

In other words, people with ambition — people who may be more interested in seeing how high they can fly before finding the most comfortable nest.

We do a lot of cool things very well. But what can the North alone offer? What is the magnet at the center of our regional identity that can serve to pull those who feel a reflection at the center of their own hearts? How do we mirror and attract their sense of purpose and possibility?

Frozen Nice

Accessibility, comfort, and affordability mixed with a healthy dose of culture contribute to our reputation as a great place to raise a family (evidence: one recent list we topped was Best Place to Grow Up). But the fact that our retention rates are so high, combined with a northern culture rooted in prioritizing the health of the community over the needs of the individual, means that we face two real obstacles to attracting ambitious newcomers: insularity and risk-aversion.

We risk freezing out the people we want to attract in more ways than one.

Minnesotans have a longstanding (and fair) reputation for being chilly to outsiders. (The too-true joke goes: Minnesotans will give you directions anywhere, except their house.) The fact that so many people born and raised here never leave means that new arrivals are competing with lifelong friends and family in the marketplace of social connectivity. “If you’re from somewhere else, you’re entering a community that feels really tight,” says Frosch. “The answer isn’t that everyone needs to invite strangers to their cabin, but we can connect newcomers who are motivated to meet people. ‘Here’s Chloe who just moved here from London, go explore the North Loop together.’”

That’s a promising notion, but first we need to get Chloe to move here. To big-city folks, the risk- and conflict-averse nature of Minnesota culture can be as challenging an adjustment as the winters. Comedian and native Minnesotan Ben San Del wrote in a 2015 column for the Star Tribune about walking past a building on a downtown street and having a gentleman open the door for him. He hadn’t been planning on going inside, but he didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. So, in he went, with a polite “thank you.”

“Avoiding conflict on this level can be a sign of social anxiety,” writes San Del. “Then again, it’s also a telltale symptom of Minnesota Nice. As someone who suffers from both conditions (and, yes, I do consider Minnesota Nice a condition), it can be difficult to pinpoint where one ends and the other starts.”

It’s a charming story, and politeness — cultural and individual — is a virtue. But if one of the defining (and prized) features of our regional culture overlaps in a significant way with diagnosable social anxiety, what are the implications for our relationship to the friction inherent to ambition? (I’m imagining Boston and Minneapolis attending couple’s counseling, and their therapist working very hard to help them both find a middle ground — directness without hostility; clarity without belligerence.)

The question is whether cultivating a favorable attitude toward ambition is fundamentally at odds with Minnesota’s culture. American Nations author Woodard explains, “The big threat to freedom, in the Yankee mind, is that members of the community will rise up and become tyrants over the rest. Individual ambition has to be held in check if it appears to threaten the freedom or health of the community, which is the preeminent concern.”

Singer, rapper, and ambitious wordsmith Dessa splits her time between Minneapolis and New York City. She agrees that conspicuous ambition is a tough sell in Minnesota. “To think that you might have something special to offer is perceived [here] as a vanity, a conceit. Which, I think is understandable. On the other hand, it’s hard to develop something special without first thinking that you’re capable of doing so.”

Risk and Reward

An appetite for ambition also entails a necessary acceptance of risk, an area of deep ambivalence for Minnesota culture.

If a natural tendency to be reserved is in the regional DNA, there also is a long and healthy business tradition to draw upon. Minnesota is an established hub of med-tech innovation, with local giants including Mayo Clinic and Medtronic creating pathways to exploration and experimentation. And there are Northern initiatives underway (including Target and Techstar’s joint 2016 Retail Accelerator) that aim to attract more innovative startups in the tech and retail sectors.

There’s an untapped potential in the North. Minnesota has been recognized as a fertile breeding ground for innovation by publications and organizations ranging from Fast Company and Forbes to Google, which recently declared local startup Player’s Health the winner of its competitive Google Demo Day. Player’s Health is a member business of Twin Cities-based co-working space COCO — whose co-founder Don Ball has a unique vantage point on the local startup scene.

“Our advantage [in Minnesota] is that we’re inclined to work hard and persevere,” Ball says. “We can thank a history of farming and harsh winters for that. At COCO, we invited the directors of Google’s own startup lab to meet with local startups. They said that our startups were far more developed on less funding than what they were used to seeing in Silicon Valley. We value steak over sizzle, which is great. But as [Minnesotan] entrepreneurs we also need to get better at promoting ourselves and maybe even butt in line for the funding and recognition we deserve.”

With its highly educated populace, robust tax base, and traditions of corporate philanthropy and civic cultural involvement, the North should be a hotbed of enterprise. Yet of its Fortune 500 companies, none have been founded in the last half century. Is there a hesitancy to think big?

Extend the question to our art scene — arguably an accurate thermometer of a region’s creative energy. We (justly) laud the fact that Minneapolis is among the most creatively robust cities in the nation. There’s no question the soil is fertile in the North for both business and the arts, nourished by rich traditions and boasting a flourishing ecosystem with sturdy roots and impressive diversity. But what keeps the tallest trees from reaching greater heights?

Sarah Rasmussen took over last year as artistic director of Minneapolis’ Jungle Theater. She uses the prism of the national art scene to raise the question of whether Minnesota needs to learn to trust its own voice. “Phase one of the regional theater movement here was about asserting that we can have art on par with the big cities,” she says. “Now the question is: How do we combine being aspirational and investing in our own? How are we in conversation with national and global questions?” And how do we gather the gumption to start that conversation, instead of simply serving as its local transmitter — picking up the signal from elsewhere and relaying it back home?

Being a player on the national level means being willing to jump in without letting opportunity slip away while we’re taking the water’s temperature. “The mainstream theaters in the Twin Cities have often historically said that work has to be vetted somewhere else before we can take a risk on it,” Rasmussen says. “And we’re wary of offending people. But in attempting not to offend, things get bottled up.”

That assessment of the culture scene in the North offers an ideal analogy to the region’s current conundrum: how to address the (older) population that likes things as they have long been, while taking enough risks to attract new (and younger) lights. As Dessa puts it: “Environments that embolden people to push, to change, to brave failure — those are the environments most likely to yield new and interesting art.”

Pushing for change, trusting our own voice, propelling it with confidence: these are the ways a community gets itself heard.

Wanting Lightning to Strike

Comedian Joseph Scrimshaw moved to L.A. to pursue a career after feeling he’d reached the ceiling of what he could achieve in Minneapolis. “There’s always a lot of luck to success as a creative person,” says Scrimshaw. “It’s bad luck to get hit by lightning, but you can increase the odds by standing on a hill with a pole. L.A. is a hill with pole. But you get hit by good lightning.”

Regarding the environment for ambition in Minnesota, he says, “I’ve certainly encountered hostility [to my ambitions]. Sometimes it’s spoken verbally and sometimes it’s spoken with eyes.”

While Minnesota’s relationship to individual ambition ranges from ambivalent to hostile, it has no shortage of regional ambition (albeit of the sort that looks inward rather than out) — something Woodard points out is nothing new: “It flows from the Puritan roots of the Yankee cultural ethos: a utopian experiment to make a more perfect community, undertaken by people who believed themselves to be in an Old Testament-style covenant with God no less. That’s pretty ambitious…. Seeking to engineer a better society through public institutions.”

Ambitious Puritanism may be the most succinct explanation yet for why Minnesota still doesn’t have legal Sunday liquor sales — one quaint and mildly frustrating example amid burgeoning bike lanes and stadium deals of a culture that needs to at least acknowledge and possibly wrestle with itself as it re-imagines what it wants to become.

“The positive side is this is a place that has thrived on stability and consistent growth of economy,” Frosch says. “Our institutions work. Our government is clean. We have [robust] philanthropies. Now, how do we take institutional excellence and bring it into the 21st century?”

And there it is — what I’d suggest is the iron core at the heart of Minnesota’s sense of identity, the magnet that draws people with whom it resonates: institutional excellence; the perfection of the civic model; the utopian quest for the consummate community.

The question before us now is: how do we maintain enough of the “leveling spirit” that has collectively raised our quality of life to rank consistently among the best in the country, while loosening it enough to allow for more individual variation, more risk, greater success, and tolerable failure?

Even if we never decide to let people buy a six-pack on a Sunday or construct a building taller than the IDS Center, there are steps we could take in the direction of cultural maturity. We have a story to tell, and a voice capable of communicating it, but grabbing the megaphone that will broadcast it nationally entails a certain amount of risk, and requires the courage to grapple openly with dissenting and diverse views.

If our cultural evolution can find a way to combine both the regional ambition that has motivated a 158-year experiment in creating the perfect community with a greater tolerance for the individual and organizational ambition that extends a city’s influence beyond its own borders (and acts as a beacon to the boldest and brightest), then we can hang on to all that has made Minnesota good, while creating space for the North to become great.

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