On his final full day in office, former President Barack Obama issued a challenge to the American people: “All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into ... the joyous work of citizenship. Not just when there is an election, not just when our own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”
If any American community has been taking those words to heart, it’s St. Louis Park, Minn. (pop. 48,171). It’s not just the impressive voter turnout in November’s general election — 83 percent. For generations, the city has also put a special premium on educating its children.
Only 15 percent of St. Louis Park residents has school-age kids, but invariably more than 70 percent approve school referendums, an unheard-of level of support in many communities throughout the country.
And of St. Louis Park’s 35 neighborhoods, 24 are organized into associations, empowering residents with a bigger megaphone to make themselves heard in civic life.
In his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who grew up in St. Louis Park, says he tells foreign visitors, “If you want to be optimistic about America, ‘stand on your head,’ because our country looks so much better from the bottom up than the top down.”
Having lived just outside Washington, D.C., for nearly 40 years, watching the nation’s capital become ever more politically toxic and dysfunctional, I can’t disagree.
As early as the 1830s, French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, on his famous journey around America, observed that “participation in local government can cultivate the ‘habits of the heart’ that democratic citizenship required.” Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel laments that Tocqueville never passed through the St. Louis Park — from which he, Friedman and a Who’s Who of nationally known talents emerged. Among them: U.S. Sen. Al Franken; Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (whose film “A Serious Man” was set in St. Louis Park); noted congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, and Grammy-winning musicians Sharon Isbin and Dan Wilson.
Sandel tells Friedman, “Although Tocqueville did not make it to St. Louis Park, he would have recognized the civic virtues that led Minnesota-bred politicians (such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale) to national political prominence.”
Back in 1999, in a Star Tribune article titled “St. Louis Park, forest fire of genius,” the former vice president satisfied his curiosity about the suburbs’ ability to “churn out so many original thinkers.” He asked some of the city’s famous sons to write letters explaining what’s in the water.
“Creosote,” suggested then-comedian Franken. Turns out St. Louis Park was home to a plant that made creosote (a railroad tie and telephone pole preservative) until 1972. “Ingesting large quantities can lead to two things,” Franken told Mondale tongue only partly in cheek, “increased intellectual activity and/or prostate problems.”
Ornstein took a page from Garrison Keillor, noting that like the fictional Lake Wobegon, the real children of St. Louis Park were “all above average.”
“People still call me about that article in the Star Tribune,” Mondale, 89, told me. “It still lives all these years later. That you have 83 percent of registered voters turning out in St. Louis Park in November doesn’t surprise me a bit. That’s the way it was and it will be. They just have a high civic interest.”
St. Louis Park seemed too good to be true — civic-minded, education-centered and “Minnesota nice” — so I decided I had to make the journey Tocqueville missed to see for myself. After flying to Minneapolis and taking a short drive due west I found, as Friedman had reassured, that “no moat, wall or drawbridge” greets you when you cross into St. Louis Park. Visibly, little distinguishes it from other suburbs: strip malls, fast food, and a variety of postwar residential neighborhoods.
But the man waiting for me across from St. Louis Park High would begin to unravel some of its mystery. Paul Linnee, a former cop and retired consultant, part-time Uber driver and member of the board of trustees of the St. Louis Park Historical Society, has deep roots in the community. Jorvig Park is named for his Norwegian uncle, Torval Jorvig, a longtime city councilman.
Linnee introduced this outsider to the four quadrants of the city, beginning in the parking lot of McDonald’s — the second oldest one in Minnesota — opened by McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc himself.
“The city started on this block, the only old block in the city,” Linnee said, as we drove past the Walker Building on Walker Street. Both were named for lumber baron T.B. Walker, whose personal art gallery became the Walker Art Center. But it was only when we entered the northeast part of town, the original Jewish Quarter, that I began to understand how St. Louis Park became what it is today.
Linnee explained how virulent anti-semitism in the 1930s and ’40s triggered an exodus of Jewish families in the 1950s and ’60s from north Minneapolis to St. Louis Park. “Almost overnight, Jews made up 20 percent of St. Louis Park” — among them was Friedman’s family. “But in the northeast quarter, where I lived,” said Linnee, “Jews represented 45 to 50 percent.”
Though St. Louis Park doesn’t abut north Minneapolis, it became a magnet for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism because it was one of the few places at the time that didn’t use restrictive covenants to keep Jews out.
“I personally believe allowing Jewish homeownership in St. Louis Park touched off a Jewish migration to the city and really instilled a value of education and hard work that’s still here today,” said St. Louis Park Schools Superintendent Rob Metz.
It was also that welcome mat that set the tone for St. Louis Park’s long history of inclusion. Friedman and Linnee’s families symbolize the kind of cultural combustion that took place in St. Louis Park — what Friedman calls “a very decent civic-minded Scandinavian culture and the migration of third generation Jews liberated from their ghetto. You put it all together in one bottle, shake and stir and it created an incredible explosion of energy that propelled a lot of people.”
On his book tour, Friedman always gets laughs with this punch line: “If Finland and Israel had a baby, it would be St. Louis Park.”
If there’s a load-bearing wall holding up St. Louis Park, it’s the importance placed on education. So I took Friedman, the St. Louis Park High Class of ‘71 graduate, back to Room 313, where in 1969 his 10th grade teacher changed his life.
Until then, Friedman had thoughts of becoming a professional golfer. But Hattie Steinberg had other ideas. “She was very strict with very high standards, enabling me to discover my love of journalism and that I had a certain facility for it,” Friedman recalled.
Metz hears stories like that over and over again: The power of teachers to transform students. When the retiring superintendent promotes the St. Louis Park school district brand, he focuses on history. “We have had 125 graduating classes from St. Louis Park. We have a lot of people whose kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids graduated from Park. They have an emotional connection to our city and schools, not unlike the emotional bond of rooting for the Cubs because their grandpa or great-grandpa did,” he said.
Despite having a 91 percent graduation rate among black students and 95 percent among Hispanics and being ranked the fourth best Minnesota high school by the Washington Post, St. Louis Park High “is not Nirvana,” Metz is the first to say. Shortly before I visited, a male senior allegedly pulled a hijab off a freshman female’s head. “I was very troubled by it,” said Metz. “We’re going to have incidents and we use them as teachable moments.”
Metz observed St. Louis Park was 99 percent white in Tom Friedman’s day. Today it’s 58 percent white. Given the influx of Somalis and others, Metz said, today “we probably have more Muslim than Jewish students.”
To ensure St. Louis Park’s unique story is passed on from generation to generation, each mayor travels to the elementary schools and teaches every second-grader the history of the city. St. Louis Park’s newest mayor, Jake Spano, shows them “famous faces, such as Al Franken and tells them: ‘What I’m excited about is that I’m sitting in the room with the next famous face. Someday, 50 years from now a mayor of St. Louis Park will be in this classroom talking about the famous people from St. Louis Park and one of you will be mentioned.’ ”
Spano, like Franken and so many other Minnesotans, was shaken by the sudden plane-crash death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002. “There’s an entire generation of people who began to question, ‘What am I doing with my life? Is this the highest and best use of my time?’ ” Ten years ago, Spano’s wife told him to quit a job that made him unhappy and the change allowed him to find his true calling — first as a 36-year-old unpaid intern for Amy Klobuchar, who had just announced her candidacy for the Senate. Then, he signed on with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, now a gubernatorial candidate. There he got to see “how local politics had a huge impact on people’s lives.”
Today, by day, Spano is deputy secretary of state at the capitol in St. Paul. Evenings and weekends, he’s mayor of St. Louis Park, where he invites constituents to call his home phone number posted on his website. “Our residents let us know when we miss the mark, and we do.” But he’s bullish on the future of the city, especially because of the young people in town, including a group of high school students who recently went before the City Council to grade St. Louis Park on its sustainability efforts (A for solid waste and D- for climate change). “You are speaking with great moral authority,” Spano told them, “because we are looking directly into the eyes of our future.”
Friedman calls Minnesota “Oz” and St. Louis Park its “Emerald City.” But there is no yellow brick road. There is no man with a booming voice behind the curtain. Instead, there is an authenticity built over many generations, what Friedman calls “a gift of enduring values and optimism.”
Spano realized the beating heart of St. Louis Park is a constituent who recently offered the mayor a lesson: “If the decision in the best interest of everyone is X and I’m not on board,” said the resident, “I understand and accept that. It shouldn’t be about me.”
Minnesota nice, for sure. Too bad Tocqueville never visited.
Freelance writer Richard Harris lives in Bethesda, Md.