Here’s the question on the table: Is Minnesota part of the Midwest?
However, because Minnesotans are posing this question, that’s not really what’s being asked.
Couched amid concerns about geographic legitimacy, cultural identity and economic vitality, the real question is: How can we sound more cool?
“Midwest? The Past, Present and Future of Minnesota’s Identity” is the focus of a free and public discussion Wednesday night at the Walker Art Center. A panel of academics, artists and marketers will poke around at our historical identity, considering whether its foundations are sound, or if we might be better off positioning Minnesota (and any neighboring states that want to come with) as part of a new region.
“Anybody that’s paying attention should be talking about this,” said panelist Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “We should stop being embarrassed about being in a cold climate. It’s a huge strength of ours.
“In places where there’s adversity, it tends to fuel innovation because it just takes more to thrive,” he added. “There’s a ‘North’ culture here, and we should claim that.”
Or in marketing parlance, brand that.
Andrew Blauvelt is senior curator of architecture and design at the Walker, and also on the panel. He knows that “branding” rubs some people wrong, sounding all craven and commercial.
“It’s a sticky wicket,” he said. “But what’s interesting to me is the notion of branding extended to the idea of governments and nations and cities.”
Tourism campaigns strive to set states apart from each other, but Blauvelt said such efforts often blur — you know, “Discover … fill in the blank.”
So what if people thought less about states and more about regions? And what if our region was less vague, less vast, less Midwestern?
What happened to North?
Eric Dayton has a dream: A CNN weather guy gestures across the national map and refers to “the weather in the North.”
“The United States doesn’t have a ‘North,’ ” Dayton said. “We have an East, and a South and a West, and then this nebulous place called the Midwest. You kind of scratch your head.”
Dayton and his brother, Andrew, are businessmen who’ve made a point of giving their enterprises a local flavor. The Bachelor Farmer restaurant evokes reticent Norwegian immigrants wed to their fields. Their Askov Finlayson clothing store is named for the highway exit to the family cabin. It’s also co-presenting Wednesday’s panel.
The idea of ditching “Midwest” came while Dayton was touring Scandinavia with the restaurant’s chef. “I was struck by how strong and proud the northern identity of that region is,” he said. “Why doesn’t America have a North?”
To test the notion of a Northern identity, he tapped a company in Cloquet, Minn., to make stocking hats that said “North.” Every run sold out. After 2,000 hats, Dayton decided, “Maybe there is this camaraderie of people who live in northern climates. I mean, it was interesting how little explanation this idea required.”
He takes pains to note that this identity movement isn’t a ploy to sell merchandise. “We’re not trying to become the campus store for the North,” he said dryly. “We want to protect the idea, not commercialize it.”
What’s in a name?
Minnesota wasn’t always Midwestern. In the nation’s early days, northern Minnesota was in the Northwest Territories, while the rest of the state was part of the Louisiana Territory.
When Oregon and Washington became states — essentially creating more Northwest — a vast swath of geography from the Rocky Mountains to Ohio’s eastern boundary was renamed the Midwest.
To some, vast isn’t working anymore — if it ever did.
Fisher grew up in Ohio and Blauvelt in Indiana. Both say they were born in the Midwest. Yet neither considered Minnesota under that umbrella.
“Most people on the coasts think of the Midwest as cornfields stretching to the horizon, and while that’s a part of Minnesota, a big part is the North Woods and the lakes,” Fisher said. “We’re much more diverse than Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, states that are the breadbasket of the country.”
Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon is high-profile, yet can sound awfully rustic when it comes to enticing young, smart, talented people to the region. (OK, Fisher used the words “slightly hick.”)
“Having a cabin by a lake is, for many people, especially millennials, not all that appealing,” he said. “They’re looking for an urban life that has a lot of activity, variety, diversity.
“This is about claiming the Twin Cities as the capital of the North, just as Boston is capital of the Northeast and Seattle is capital of the Northwest. Let Chicago take the Midwest.”
Fisher and Dayton like the term “North,” but said the forum may elicit other ideas. Northland? Wobegonia? Heartland? Maybe a more visceral riff on our state motto, like L’Etoile du Froid?
Midwest defenders may emerge, but Blauvelt is hoping for something more evocative.
“All brands want to be perceived as authentic, and heritage brands are really important here,” he said, reeling off products such as Duluth Pack bags, Red Wing shoes, Faribault blankets. “There’s an authenticity, something true here, a historical component that is hot now.”
Creatives attract creatives
Lest anyone regard the forum as one of those invented events to get us through winter, regionality is a big topic among urban planners.
Leading the talk is Richard Florida, a business professor at the University of Toronto and urban theorist who founded a think tank, the Creative Class Group. Florida contends that the most dynamic regions have urban centers that attract a creative class of technology workers, artists, entrepreneurs and others who foster an environment that attracts more creatives, which attracts investment, which fuels business.
A Twin Cities-based region could boast a high concentration of R&D-oriented companies, an educated populace, high voter turnout, a spirit of volunteerism, active residents.
Regional identity is important because people “are pouring off the plains into the Twin Cities,” Fisher said. “We have a much bigger catchment area than just Minnesota. This is about attracting and keeping talent.”
Dayton said a roster of member states isn’t the point. “I’m not the club president or anything,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what other states self-identify as North. But what’s important is that Minnesota really plants a flag as the center of this.”
And if the region evokes the frigid scene outside our windows right now, so be it.
“In Stockholm, there are outdoor cafes that operate year-round,” he said, warming to the topic. “Maybe the diners are wrapped up in blankets and out there drinking schnapps, but it’s wonderful and romantic.
“The rest of the country is going to think of us as a place that’s cold whether we like it or not, so let’s embrace it.”