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Urban Boatbuilder's canoe-building classes
Eric Dayton is one of those guys who always looks like he’s going duck hunting. At a recent breakfast at Moose & Sadie's, the café around the corner from his restaurant-bar-café-men’s-store heritage complex, the governor’s son is wearing a modified Amish-style beard and a hunting vest that Han Solo would dig. His look is intentional—and available for purchase at Askov Finlayson, the men’s store he named after the highway exit to his family’s Northwoods cabin.
We’re hanging in the North Loop to discuss Dayton’s recent TED Talk on rebranding our region as “The North,” an idea that he believes, in TED parlance, is worth spreading. Actually it’s an idea that’s been spreading. Dayton started producing $29 made-in-Minnesota hats knitted with the word “NORTH” at Askov in 2013, and now “North” has morphed into a bona fide content mill, with a Dayton-organized design panel at the Walker Art Center, articles in the Star Tribune and The Wall Street Journal, interviews with Dayton on CNN and MPR, innumerable blog posts, hashtags (#teamnorth), and, finally, the TED Talk.
“‘The North’ is about taking control of the narrative. Because if we’re not telling our story, then by default we leave it to others to tell it for us.” —Eric Dayton
One of the reasons “The North” has gained traction is because the answer to the question “Where is the North?” is easy. “People get it instinctively,” Dayton says. He’s right. You just look up, whether on a map or IRL. The North Star is the one fixed point in the night sky, the polestar that navigators have used to get around for centuries. Dayton’s TED Talk is almost as easy to get, crafted for smooth consumption, boosting the esteem of a community that feels routinely slighted by the coastal elites. He started thinking about this stuff when he was at Stanford and people would ask if he hung out at the Mall of America all of the time. He diagnosed “an identity problem,” and his talk includes his ’scrip for a cure. He believes “The Midwest” is an antiquated relic that originated from an East Coast perspective and is no longer even an accurate geographic description of Minnesota’s position on the continent. And this, says Dayton, is a problem because Minnesota, and specifically the Twin Cities, needs to differentiate itself in a global economy where Atlanta is competing against Denver is competing against San Diego.
Dayton is English-German but is fascinated with Scandinavia—a region having an elongated cultural moment, with hyperlocal cuisine and design that strongly emphasizes its own northern or “Nordic” heritage. He believes we should embrace our nasty winters, and his talk provides evidence that we have it in us, what with the popularity of outdoor events like the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival. He closes his talk by pointing out that our winters are good enough for 17 Fortune 500 companies, many of which have been here for 100 years or more.
Dayton is a politician’s son and a fifth-generation member of the greatest marketing family this state has ever known—they gave us Target—so he understands that for all the ink that’s been spilled over The North, it can’t look like he’s pushing this. Giving yourself your own nickname is never a good look. “I have done so little to advance this in terms of time and energy,” he says. “I don’t think this is a branding or marketing exercise—because if it’s branding, it doesn’t enter into the subconscious in a way that the truth does.”
But Dayton so assiduously avoids the hard sell that his pitch winds up being too soft. He defines the North by talking about what it isn’t—this isn’t the Midwest, and we don’t eat grape salad on Thanksgiving like The New York Times says we do. OK, fine. But he seems disinclined to define what the North actually is. He says Fargo and A Prairie Home Companion are caricatures, and he bristles at the thought of outsiders taking them seriously, but he shies away from confronting the deeper connections between why Prairie Home and Fargo are relevant years later (the latter is now a critically acclaimed TV show as well as a film). Why do these creations resonate with coasties as strongly as they do with Minnesotans? Maybe it’s because the Fargo persona—stoic, dryly self-deprecating, polite to the point of passive aggression—is rooted in something real. Don’t some of us still have an ice-fishing uncle with an encyclopedic knowledge of Ole and Lena jokes? A grandma who makes hotdish unironically? That’s where all the Prairie Home and How to Talk Minnesotan stuff came from in the first place.
It’s also true that our regional identity has been in slow decline for decades, with even our North-Central American English “you betcha” dialect slowly melting into the great American homogenized culture pot. And isn’t the loss of this kind of regional identity the reason so many Americans crave shows with “authentic characters” like the ones in Fargo? Isn’t that why we buy handmade paddles and heritage brand canvas bags at men’s stores branded after highway exits from Up North?
“That’s a little above my pay grade,” Dayton demurs. But he feels a responsibility to his city, and he’s frustrated with how it’s perceived. He truly is convinced that the reticence to tell our own story is hurting us nationally and internationally, and if we don’t raise our voices, more #grapegates are inevitable. “‘The North’ is about taking control of the narrative,” he says. “Because if we’re not telling our story, then by default we leave it to others to tell it for us.”
★ Minnesotans are famously laconic, especially when confronted with something that could lead to disagreements. So is there any chance we can openly and honestly begin discussing our shared family history up here in the North? In her book Claiming the City, historian Mary Lethert Wingerd writes about Minnesota’s mid-19th-century origins, when brutish pioneers like Henry Sibley were living in the remote, racially diverse, boozy fur trader town of Pig’s Eye on the muddy banks of the Mississippi. Sibley eventually became our first governor, coining the state motto—“L’Étoile du Nord”—in 1861, invoking the “North Star” in the language of the voyageurs only three years after Minnesota officially became a state. Wingerd writes about how from these origins, two unique American cities grew up, fighting each other every step of the way.
Her story gives a sense of the remoteness of our geography and the tenuousness of the hold of Western civilization on our early history—a remoteness that might be the defining characteristic of our cultural personality. Geographers recognize “the Buenos Aires Effect,” where an isolated region ends up considering itself to the point of neurosis because there’s nobody close enough to compare itself to, resulting in self-aggrandizement and an acute self-consciousness. Maybe that’s why we can be so defensive and passive-aggressive, but also why we’re compelled to take care of each other. Without help, you can die in this weather. So we’re up here, all by ourselves, in these brutally cold conditions, because dammit, we like it here!
Not everyone buys the remoteness argument. David Treuer, a former literature professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, is an Ojibwe who grew up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. He perceives Minnesota as a unique place that’s actually profoundly connected to the rest of the world through three different watersheds flowing in three different directions: the Lake Superior/Great Lakes watershed flowing east; the watershed north of the Laurentian Divide that flows into Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean; and the south-flowing Mississippi. “The North is not a place of isolation,” says Treuer, “but an epicenter of trade and travel.”
Our geography, particularly our waterways, made the industrial explosion of the early 20th century inevitable. The Mississippi drew men like James J. Hill to St. Paul, which he developed into a railway hub with access to the Northwest. And the inherent geological power of St. Anthony Falls attracted Yankee families like the Washburns and the Pillsburys to Minneapolis, who made fortunes by milling timber and winter wheat. Massive amounts of Germans, Irish, and Swedes flooded in to work for the railroads or the mills.
It’s at this point, says U of M geographer Brenda Kayzar, where the modern conception of Minnesotan identity—encapsulated in Garrison Keillor’s famous satiric tagline, “Where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are all above average”—comes into focus. As the 20th century rushed toward two world wars, Kayzar argues that two dynamics played into us becoming what Europeans would recognize as culturally “Nordic”—that is, a very white, very wealthy community that provides the most sophisticated social services for their own while gently yet firmly demanding conformity to social norms. First, we were too far away geographically to be economically tied to Chicago or the East Coast, so we had to set up our own financial and cultural centers. Minneapolis and St. Paul viciously competed for these resources, resulting in a divided metro area that still boasts two daily newspapers, two orchestras, and two baseball parks. Second, unlike the steel industry of Chicago, Detroit, and the big cities in Ohio, the Twin Cities engine was a marriage of milling and agriculture. Labor was becoming more and more mechanized, so instead of participating in the great southern migration of labor, the local demand was for educated skilled labor. “Industry here needed people to design the boxes, to create the major ad campaigns, to do the shipping, and get products into stores,” explains Kayzar. So we drained our vast regional hinterland of its best brains. “[There was] just this massive growth in educated white-collar-type labor. And we created an education system that served a very local population very well for a very long time.”
So is this who we really are—second-gen college-educated Garrison Keillors and Howard Mohrs making light and industrious comedy of our Swedish immigrant uncles? Put differently, is The North a tribe of wealthy, white-collar marketers who hire advertising firms to come up with legends of Paul Bunyans in order to sell North stocking hats and artisanal hand-forged axes? There’s no doubt that many of our most successful ancestors were boosters and hucksters and speculators who conceived chamber of commerce–sponsored events like the Winter Carnival and who—like Eric Dayton’s grandfather—invented the indoor mall. Our isolation and self-consciousness about our climate have always given rise to a marketing impulse—the reason we pass around the latest “best bicycle city in America” rankings with evangelical fervor. We are smart, we have money, we have great parks: It’s a specific strain of local boosterism, and we repeat it over and over again (see the 2018 Super Bowl Host Committee’s “The Bold North” umbrella slogan for the events that will showcase our city to tourists and media in town for the big game).
Lately, the biggest barrier to thinking about The North as our own quasi-Swedish-progressive-socially enlightened enclave is statistical evidence of staggering racial economic disparity. For all the back-patting over the Twin Cities being a refuge for globally disadvantaged communities, from the Hmong to the Somalis, stories like “If Minneapolis Is So Great, Why Is It So Bad for African Americans?” have appeared in national outlets like The Washington Post with sickening regularity. If the impetus of The North is to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the Midwest in order to compete against the rest of the country for the attention of genius millennials who value diversity above all else, those statistics hurt that effort. Greater MSP, a regional development partnership, just released a ranking of 12 “peer cities,” and economic disparity was one of the only statistics holding the Twin Cities from the top of the rankings. It’s terribly negative publicity, especially for a city as self-conscious as ours.
Community organizer Adja Gildersleve of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis was arrested last year for her involvement with the group’s protest at the Mall of America. The group seized on the MOA because of its immense power as a marketing symbol—Gildersleve believes racism is deeply encoded in our language, and without changing our language, it’s difficult to change behavior. This is where our communication problems in the North can hurt us. “A lot of folks in Minnesota need comfort,” she says. “We don’t talk about things that are difficult to talk about. And as progressive as we want to see ourselves, we certainly don’t talk about race.”
This wasn’t always the case, says Myron Orfield at the University of Minnesota’s Law School. “What did Minnesota give to the United States?” Orfield asks. “It gave it civil rights.” He points to a passionate speech Hubert Humphrey gave at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Humphrey advocated keeping the civil rights plank in the party’s platform, a moment Orfield believes changed the country’s trajectory. He cites the equal employment laws that Humphrey introduced in Minneapolis in the ’40s. Humphrey went on to become the senate floor leader of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Walter Mondale, Humphrey’s star protégé, was the author of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Orfield believes we’ve abandoned our legacy of civil rights, and he has the stats to prove it. “We are the same racially as Portland and Seattle,” he says. “We have the same percentage of black people and the same percentage of poor people. And Portland has two racially segregated schools [schools that are more than 90 percent black] and Seattle has 25. We have 83.” Orfield argues that this new status quo isn’t the product of some deep-seated northern identity, but rather the result of abandoning fair housing and school integration policies. “It’s the most shameful thing in Minnesota history,” he says.
The South thinks of itself as The South—and that’s the way it’s always been. We’ve never really felt that we had the right to be The North. Maybe we do.
Kayzar agrees. “If the end goal of The North is to attract population,” she says, “then while you’re acknowledging the cultural difference of Minneapolis versus the rest of the Midwest [and highlighting] all these great things—the bike lanes, the parks, the theaters, the dance, the visual artists—with that same hand you should be saying, ‘We have great schools for everyone, and we have services for everyone.’ ”
★ So here we are, stuck with one another at the top of the map. But if we don’t all fit into the tidy narratives concocted by our marketing forefathers, then where does that leave this discussion? Where in The North can we find common ground? It’s easier to stick together if you focus on your common enemies, and while we band together against our vindictive winters, nothing gets our long underwear more in a collective bunch than when The New York Times botches our Thanksgiving preferences. But wouldn’t we be better off focusing on positive, authentic Minnesota creations that change hearts and minds beyond our walls? We have to tell our story or somebody will tell it for us.
When Orfield asked that rhetorical question about what Minnesota gave the United States, the impulse was to say, “Prince.” It’s always “Prince,” even if Wheaties is probably what we should be known for. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Isn’t the regional ennui at the heart of Fitzgerald’s stories, the fact that even Gatsby himself feels like a Midwestern fraud who never got to marry his high school sweetheart, the perfect conceptual avatar for Minnesota?) But Prince is the coolest name to drop—a one in 7 billion talent, this strange arctic orchid, cultivated in cultural isolation within a unique ecosystem with progressive social resources. He’s so unique he could only have happened here. Lucky for us, the entire world knows who he is.
But the world knows our stereotypes, too. Kayzar thinks one of the reasons we recycle Minnesotan caricatures over and over is because we’re afraid of discussing who we really are. This reticence is essentially Minnesotan, but so is making art about that reticence. Take Low, the trio from Duluth who just put out a record about the lies we tell ourselves in order to believe in each other. Or the photographer Alec Soth, whose photographs seem to starkly reveal how weird and ugly we can be. Or the transplanted rapper Lizzo, who is intent on creating her own super lit yet humane cultural space for those of us who feel left out.
What if we took a cue from these artists and realized that the hot, jumbled up feelings of shame and pride we’re suppressing are holding us back from addressing deeper problems or achieving greater things? If we truly believe we’re great, we should be thinking of all that we have to improve, together. And then we can choose a name that has true, deep meaning. The South thinks of itself as The South—and that’s the way it’s always been. We’ve never really felt that we had the right to be The North. Maybe we do. Perhaps instead of simply looking up, or paying so much attention to a distorted coastal mirror, it’s time for The North to look within.