"You have to stop saying that to people who live here."
My husband, Al, a native Minneapolitan, is laughing but not joking when he says this. Our friend Paula, who introduced us to each other nine years ago, also laughs but doesn't disagree.
What I have said is, "I love how small this city is!"
I mean it in the best possible way, I really do. For the last ten years, I've lived in Chicago, a city of 234 square miles, to Minneapolis's 58. Population-wise, it's 2.7 million to 400,000. (Throw in the metro areas, and "Chicagoland" is still comparatively enormous.) In Chicago, I lived in a north-side neighborhood nine miles from downtown, a journey that took anywhere between 25 minutes and six months by car, depending on traffic. In Minneapolis, I live right downtown (for just the same rent, I might add) and have yet to find a destination I can't drive to in 15 minutes.
Even Ikea! I can drive to Ikea in 15 minutes! And I don't need to pack a lunch for the walk from the parking lot to the door. The closest suburban Chicago Ikea was an hour's drive from our home, and by the time we got inside, Al and I would need to sit down over Swedish meatballs (to keep our blood sugar up) and work out a strict furniture-shopping strategy to minimize the chances of homicide or divorce. Here, it's all so civilized.
So that's what I mean when I say "I love how small this city is!" I mean physically, it is much more manageable than where I've been living for the last decade, and I am very much enjoying the ease with which I can move around here. That's not what “Your city is so pleasantly small” sounds like to a local, though. It sounds like I'm being a condescending jerk, using those words to remind everyone that I'm from somewhere (that I think is) more cosmopolitan.
I get it. Over the years, I've had to do a lot of yoga breathing to calm myself when friends from New York said things like, "Wow, Chicago has places that are open 24 hours!" and "Hey, this is actually a real city!" Before that, I lived in Toronto, and worked to center myself while American visitors remarked on the shocking number of people of color in that major urban center — one of the world's most diverse — and disappointing lack of Mounties (Toronto has its own police force), French speakers (try Quebec), and conspicuous politesse (it's a city, you guys). So often, a newcomer's expressions of surprise are merely a reaction to having stereotypes and bad information corrected. People who already see a place clearly aren't going to be impressed or grateful when the scales fall from your eyes.
I'd absolutely deserve 50 lashes with a wet walleye if I were saying things like, "Wow, Minneapolis isn't a bad little theater town!" Or marveling at the variety of spectacular restaurants, the vibrancy of the art and literary communities, the large Somali and Hmong populations, the existence of the Mississsippi River in the middle of the city. In the age of Google, there's no excuse for such ignorance, even among people who have never visited before. And I had the advantage of a native tour guide every time my husband and I came to see family and friends in the Twin Cities while we lived in Chicago. (I still laugh about his heart-attack serious correction when I referred to "the Pillsbury factory" early in our relationship. "It's the Pillsbury A-Mill, Kate.")
But when I say, "I love how small this city is!" I don't mean it's a miniaturized version of a "real" city. I don't regard everyone who passes me downtown as a good-looking man, strong woman, or above-average child, ready to tell me an Ole and Lena joke and invite me over for lutefisk. I mean, quite simply, I love this city — in large part because it's not very large.
The smallness of Minneapolis means I can walk to the river or a lake in half an hour or less. It means I can pass through multiple distinct neighborhoods in the time it would have taken me to get to the grocery store in my old one. It means I can see a Broadway-style play, world-class live music, and a top-notch drag show within a few blocks of my apartment. It means I have a view of high-rises and concrete on one side, and miles of treetops on the other, so I never feel cut off from the city's glorious abundance of green space. (Bonus: On the Fourth of July, we could see more than a dozen suburban fireworks displays from our balcony.) It means I unexpectedly run into friends just often enough to feel delighted, rather than suffocated. It means I might even get over my longstanding terror of urban cycling.
Upon reflection, my husband is right that I should quit calling Minneapolis small. What I'm really trying to say is, it’s not too big, overwhelmingly big, exhaustingly big, like Chicago felt by the time we moved. But it’s definitely not small, either. For me, at this point in my life, it's just right.
Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It, due out in August.