Ashlea Halpern and Andrew Parks are just starting to sweat. They’re barely glistening in the 150-degree heat of the pine-paneled, egg-shaped sauna that was laid outside the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
Halpern and Parks are freelance travel and lifestyle writers (Halpern’s next assignments will take her to Switzerland and Uzbekistan) who spent a decade in New York before touring the world.
They’ve taken saunas before, including in Japan, which they found intimidating, due to the nudity, but this is the couple’s first sweat session in their newfound Midwestern home. They climb straight to the top bench, where it’s hottest, like old pros, as if they’d spent their whole lives perspiring in the wood-lined boxes of Bloomington basements and Brainerd lakes area cabins.
Faster than a pair of glasses can fog up, Halpern and Parks have befriended their sauna-mates: four physicists, including two from Russia and one from Kazakhstan. Halpern inquires about a couple of Kazakh cities (Quick: Name one Kazakh city) and wants to know what the Russians think of the food at St. Paul’s Moscow on the Hill. (They confirm it’s authentic.)
A few minutes later, the physicists convince Parks to follow them outside for a face-first dive into an ice-crusted snowbank. iPhone in hand, Halpern documents Parks’ cultural baptism beside the sauna, which will soon be memorialized as No. 40 on the couple’s fast-growing “Reasons to Love Minnesota” list making the rounds on social media.
Two years ago, Halpern and Parks would never have imagined they’d be living in Minneapolis.
But a 16-month, 40-state, 229-town search for a new home (the couple joked that they were “speed dating America”) convinced them to settle here, in a place they’d never visited, a place they knew little about aside from its infamous winters.
Now they’ve become our biggest evangelists.
The search begins
Halpern and Parks met at Syracuse University’s student newspaper in 2001 and, after college, lived in Brooklyn for a decade, working for several glossy national publications, including New York Magazine, Bon Appétit and Entertainment Weekly. In late 2014, they decided to travel for a year, and then lived in Bangkok for another eight months.
When they were ready to move stateside, they considered L.A. But high housing costs spurred them to instead embark on a cross-country search for a new home that offered cultural richness, diversity and affordability, along with progressive, friendly locals.
The couple created a massive spreadsheet listing all the locations they were considering. Then they visited more than 200 of them, along with a few bucket list tourist attractions (including Graceland and the Grand Canyon), on a two-part road trip spread over nearly a year and a half. Some cities they ruled out after just a few hours. For the top contenders, they stayed as long as six weeks.
Minnesota was barely on their radar. The only person they knew here was a former co-worker of Halpern’s who had moved to the Twin Cities for a job.
“I noticed that she would post something on Instagram about how much she loved it here, and that was what first planted the seed,” Halpern said.
Whatever she saw in her friend’s digital dispatches — Prince’s gold star on First Ave; a vintage box of “mixed vegetable” flavor Jell-O or a plate of Himalayan food; the all-gender restroom at the Y; an idyllic urban lake framed by a bluebird sky — seemed to suggest: This is a good life, and it could be yours.
From First Ave to Five Watt
In mid-September of 2017, they arrived in Duluth, after a pit stop at the famous Moccasin Bar in Hayward, Wis. — the one with the taxidermy dioramas of gambling badgers and beer-drinking weasels — and a failed attempt to see the world’s largest accordion museum in Superior. (It was open by appointment only.) They made it to Minneapolis, where they ate at Hola Arepa and saw a show at First Ave on their first night out. The next morning, fueled by Five Watt coffee, they toured the vintage shops along Minnehaha Mile.
Over the next few days, they hit big tourist attractions (the Walker, the Basilica) as well as insider gems (Loon Grocery, where Parks had heard a guy named Mustafa made awesome gyros).
Everywhere they went — Patina, Midtown Global Market, the Pavek Museum of broadcasting — they asked shopkeepers and baristas and, basically, anyone who would talk to them for their recommendations. At the same time, Halpern and Parks were taking the pulse of the place.
They liked the way people embraced their home, but were also excited about changing it. They appreciated the Twin Cities’ two-in-one geography and abundance of cultural diversions. “For every five things we do here, there are 50 more I put on the list,” Halpern said.
Chickens seal the deal
“This is it — we can stop looking now,” Halpern told Parks as she climbed back into their car, parked outside Wild Rumpus in Linden Hills. “Ohmigod, their bookstores have chickens.”
In addition to its enviable metrics — a median home price around $250,000; 97 percent of residents living within 10 minutes’ walk of a park — what finally sold the couple on Minneapolis was its less quantifiable quirky charm.
A year ago last February, Halpern and Parks signed a one-year lease on a bungalow.
Their coastal friends were baffled. (“No matter how much you tell some of our friends in New York or L.A. about it, no one gets it until they come here. They just think you’re living in Siberia,” Halpern said.)
Locals were surprised to learn the couple had chosen Minneapolis for its attributes and not, like so many transplants, because they had family nearby.
“Minnesotans are really proud to be here, and they’re tickled and pleased when you love a place as much as they do,” Halpern said.
To pay the bills, Halpern works as an editor-at-large for the travel magazine Afar and writes for other national publications. Parks focuses on covering restaurants and bars, contributing to magazines such as Food & Wine or Travel + Leisure.
But their pet project is cultivating their Minnevangelist website and social media accounts designed to “spread the gospel of Minnesota’s greatness” to outsiders and residents alike. So far, their following is small, but they hope at some point that it can generate enough money to pay others to contribute.
Nearly every day since its January 2019 launch, Halpern and Parks add to their “Reasons to Love Minnesota” list, which includes everything from poetry-dispensing gumball machines to a Midwest Polka Association dance. The tight curation, striking photos and detail-packed, vibrantly written descriptions differentiate the Minnevangelists’ recommendations among typically bland tourism guides.
Using a massive Google document containing nearly 2,000 places they want to investigate, the two frequently “itinerize” outings of half-a-dozen or more stops.
But they’re also open to spontaneity. Halpern admits to regularly annoying Parks by making him turn the car around to check out something they’ve just passed. “We rarely go from point A to point B,” Parks said.
A day in the life
On a recent Thursday, after lunch at Breaking Bread, a homey, social enterprise restaurant on West Broadway in Minneapolis that Parks had been wanting to try (“Everything we do is driven by your stomach,” Halpern joked to Parks), the Minnevangelists set off to explore several other destinations in Near North.
The two drive a Cadillac Escalade, whose incongruity Halpern felt compelled to explain: After their tiny Nissan kept getting stuck in the snow last winter, her dad tipped them off to a good deal on the SUV through a police auction. (It had been seized containing several bricks of cocaine.)
Their next stop was the nearby Minnesota African American Heritage Museum, where the two perused the artifacts — an African-print dress, a North High letter jacket, a “Green Book” — in the small gallery before ending up in a lengthy conversation with the museum’s co-founder.
Part of what distinguishes the Minnevangelists’ approach to so-called service journalism, where lifestyle reporters offer tips and recommendations, is that they are as much interested in the people behind the place as the experience a visitor will have there.
Everywhere they go, they’re chatting people up to find out their back stories. (For instance: The owner of the Japanese boutique Umei used to work for Mattel, fulfilling a Barbie-fueled childhood dream.)
Sometimes, they have to work a little to get people to open up. When Halpern and Parks introduced themselves to the owner of the tiny Ukrainian Gift Shop, he gruffly informed them he was on his way out. Too many Instagrammers, he complained, have barged in aiming cameras at his wares, without so much as a hello.
“We have the opposite problem,” Halpern said. “We talk too much.” Soon the owner had relented and was considering her request that his daughter teach her how to make the shop’s elaborate, decorative eggs.
On the way to their next destination, the couple discussed the trend in the tourism industry to experience a place “like a local.” The irony, Parks noted, is that natives often stick to the same stamping grounds, overlook what’s right under their noses or struggle to get off the couch.
“Residents,” he said, “could benefit from acting more like travelers.”
For example: Within minutes of arriving at Royal Foundry, a new distillery off Glenwood Avenue, Halpern and Parks gently encouraged the owner into sharing his life’s history. By contrast, a lifelong Minnesotan patronizing the place might have gone to high school with the guy and never known that he arrived in Minnesota from Belgium, speaking fluent French.
Tooting our horn
Regardless of whether we’re tourists, or residents acting as such, social media increasingly helps us decide where to go and what to do.
Christine Fruechte, CEO of Colle McVoy, a Minneapolis advertising agency with expertise in the tourism industry, said Instagram, in particular, is a major force. A small study of United Kingdom millennials that found 40 percent considered a destination’s “Instagramability” as a factor when making holiday travel plans, said Fruechte, who is a Star Tribune Media Co. board member.
Tourism functions as a sort of “first date” in recruiting people to move to Minnesota, said Matt Lewis, director of Make It. MSP, an economic development program focused on attracting and retaining talent.
Like travelers, people considering relocation find great value in personal recommendations, which makes happy newcomers such as the Minnevangelists particularly effective in recruiting others.
“Newcomers share their experiences back with the networks where they came from,” Lewis said. “And if they have a great experience, they’ll be our best advocates.”
Fruechte observed that Halpern and Parks’ perspective as travel writers and outsiders gives them a lot of credibility and that the content on Minnevangelist.com and @minnevangelist is “hitting all the right buttons.”
“Minnesotans tend to be more humble,” she said, “so we need people like this to best toot the horn of Minnesota to a larger audience.”
Beset by humility or not, most locals would have trouble simply keeping up with our new resident tourists.
The Minnevangelists highlight places it can take locals several decades to get around to visiting, such as the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station in Cloquet. Most of us have never made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth or gone dogsledding in Ely. And who knew that North America’s largest Hindu temple could be found in Maple Grove?
The Minnevangelists have been here only a year, and they’re already out-Minn-ing the rest of us.
But Halpern and Parks don’t see it as a competition. They just want to remind people of the cool places they know about and perhaps introduce them to something new.
“That’s really our goal, to share our enthusiasm,” Halpern said.
“We’re just showing a fresh eye, a perspective from someone who isn’t from here, of what it’s like to fall in love with a place,” Parks added.