If you had to come up with a name for a new city that enticed people to pack up their lives and head off to Utopia, what would you choose?
Perhaps MXC wouldn’t top your list.
But that’s what they called it. The MXC (Minnesota Experimental City) was supposed to be the shining city of the future, a model for humanity, a masterpiece of technological ingenuity — and only half an hour north of Aitkin, Minn. The price: a cool $10 billion, in 1967 dollars. Population: a quarter-million. Completion date: 1984.
Can you go there today? Well, no. That’s the problem with utopias — most of them never come to fruition.
MXC isn’t Minnesota’s only failed utopia — in fact, there are several in the metro area.
Before we hit the road for a virtual tour, let’s figure out our definitions.
If you think about it, every town is a utopia, at first. No settlers founded a town thinking it’ll be a lawless hellhole with every man for himself. They lay out the streets, build the churches, the stores; they hope for the train to come through and petition Washington for a post office. They intend to make a good place.
Some towns, however, were founded with the intention of being utopian communities: perfectly ordered societies that followed a school of thought about how people ought to live. (The word utopia means “no place” in Greek, a warning that such ideas perish in the real world like icicles in late April, but the idealistic founders always believe they’ll get it right this time.)
Hi-tech MXC gets the ax
One of the most ambitious utopias was MXC, an early 1960s brainchild of Athelstan Spilhaus, dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. He also wrote an egghead Sunday comic feature called “Our New Age,” which ran in the Minneapolis Star; it predicted the advancements of technology that postwar citizens would soon enjoy.
The news website citylab.com reviewed a new documentary on the MXC project, and concluded:
“The MXC predicted the rise of personal computers, video conferencing, and a proto-Internet that would allow networked remote shopping and banking. They envisioned how this technology would allow people to work from home, and extrapolated the subsequent effects on transit networks and urban development.”
The city banned the internal combustion engine, emphasized recycling and proposed a mile-wide concrete dome enclosing the city, for that “Logan’s Run” touch.
Hubert Humphrey backed it. The federal government threw in some money, but hardly enough to turn a shovelful of dirt. When the Legislature decided that the MXC belonged on 55,000 acres in Swatara Township (a patch of land between Aitkin and Grand Rapids), the locals rose up, and literally marched to St. Paul to protest.
The project died in the early 1970s, and it’s probably for the best: Technological advancements would have outstripped its innovations, and the people who depended on a “proto-internet” would be dealing with an archaic system when the real internet came along.
Ever heard of Nininger?
Nininger City was founded by John Nininger, Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s brother-in-law, but it was popularized by his business partner, Ignatius Donnelly, a peculiar Philadelphian who moved to Minnesota to make a name for himself and boost the fortunes of the town.
Donnelly moved to the new community, built a big house and helped the population surpass a thousand souls. Nininger — which was in Dakota County near what is now Hastings — was supposed to be a place of rarefied enlightenment, where learned folk attended lectures and held civic debates. Why, once they built a pier on the Mississippi River for shipping and when the railroads came through, it would surely surge anew, and rival Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Nothing remains of Nininger today but some signs. The railroad came through … but it was on the other side of the river. The Panic of 1857, prompted by the crash of the railroad boom, emptied out the town, and those who remained couldn’t live up to the city’s requirement that all landowners make annual improvements to their property.
His career as a utopian promoter ended, Donnelly may have looked for other fields where people could be convinced by grand dreams, ornately described: politics and pseudo-scientific literature. He had one term as lieutenant governor, terms in the Minnesota House and Senate, three terms in Washington as a Minnesota congressman. When he was done with politics, he wrote a book about Atlantis, and made a pile of money advancing his belief that the lost continent wasn’t a fable.
There’s no evidence for Atlantis, and aside from some signs along the Mississippi, almost none for Nininger.
Shopping center as utopia
In the 1940s, the cooperative movement grew to include theories about living. Think your grocery co-op on a municipal basis. That’s how the town of Circle Pines got its start.
From the town’s website:
“In May of 1946 the cooperative village of 1,203 acres was announced ‘to unite the habitation benefits of a functional and contemporary community with the economic advantages of a consumer’s cooperative.’ Each home would front a park or a walkway. There would be adult education, nurseries, educational and recreational activities; and the commercial facilities and services would be owned cooperatively, as would the municipal utilities.”
The cooperative lasted three years. The town’s website chalks it up to “problems in securing financing and rifts among leaders.”
There were other attempts at creating utopias, including Jonathan, the planned community in Chaska, and Cedar Square West in Minneapolis, an enormous “new town in town.”
The most unsung local utopia, however, might have been the most successful.
Designed by a Viennese socialist, it had the usual goals: a new downtown built on empty land away from the old city; enclosed areas with modern art; housing, government buildings, commercial developments surrounding the town square. It would have parks, lakes, pedestrian paths. Truly a new way of living.
They called it … Southdale.