Saturday, January 27, 2018

Crossing the Urban-Rural Divide

I attended a MinnPost Social event at the Happy Gnome with a friend the other day. The ostensible focus was on the "urban-rural divide." Is it a reality, or is it a myth?

The featured speaker, Gregg Ammot, is a MinnPost staff reporter, and he's written some interesting articles recently about things going on in places like Crosby and Montevideo. His presentation the other night was less specific, and therefore less interesting. Ammot's talk was peppered with phrases like "to some extent," "cuts both ways," "you can't generalize," "it's a complicated picture," or others in a similarly evasive vein.

Perhaps he was worried about exhibiting a bias, but it would have been useful to present some relevant facts about (for example) how urban and out-state population, legislative representation, and funding sit with one another. Instead, Ammot hemmed and hawed and failed, in the end, to say anything substantive about the topic at hand. 

Lucky for us, the audience was peppered with individuals with expertise in various aspects of Minnesota culture and politics. I'm not well-versed in Minnesota politics myself, and I don't remember the names, but to take an example, someone asked a question about the need for more broadband in rural areas, and there happened to be a woman in the audience who had been in charge of the state's grants program in that area for the last three years.

Near the end of the evening, audience members started asking more pointed questions about how much the Twin Cities subsidizes rural areas, and a gentleman from Swift County who owns several regional newspapers offered an interesting spin. "I spent a fortune educating my kids so that they could leave Benson and move to Minneapolis. So I've been subsidizing the Twin Cities for decades."

Someone asked an astute follow-up question: "Have you considered ways to make small towns in your region more lively and appealing to local youth?"

Coffee shop in Benson, MN
Another man in the audience brought up an interesting aspect of the subject near the end of the program: the death of the family farm. He told us that as a teenager in Pepin County, Wisconsin, he used to help his dad, an electrician, service 63 farms in the area. "Now," he added, "there are three farms in the area."

His remark reminded me of an article I read about Pepin County in Politico a few months ago with the title, Inside a Blue County Trump Turned Red. It offers a fascinating look at differing attitudes among locals and outsiders—and in some small towns, if you aren't a third-generation local, you're an outsider, no matter how often you attend church or shop at the local Cenex convenience store. The locals appreciate the business but are quick to detect an element of condescension in the air. Newcomers and summer residents are often oblivious to the vague feeling of resentment and reverse-snobbery their presence inspires.

Cafe in Pepin county owned by a real estate developer from Edina
I ran into an old friend the other day. He'd been raised in a small town on the North Shore but moved to the Cities for college and work. He and his wife were both outdoor enthusiasts, and they decided to relocate to Hibbing to be closer to the North Woods. However, when their son got to school age they moved back to SW Minneapolis. "I didn't want my kid developing those small-town attitudes in school," he told me. "You know what I mean." (I'm not sure I do.)

Now his son is grown and he and his wife are back in Grand Marias. It's hard to find good jobs there...but they like the pace of life; it's where they want to be. 

On the other hand, I met a young woman in Hutchinson not long ago who had moved there with her kids from Minneapolis. Housing was cheaper, and she found it much easier to get involved with local arts organizations there. Well, Hutchinson is a model of sorts among Minnesota towns. Just 40 miles from Minneapolis, it has a city park along the river, an attractive town square, a booming medical complex, and a 3M plant. Other mid-sized towns haven't been so fortunate.

Such tales can be multiplied many fold, of course. Connecting the dots between individual stories, what we come up with isn't a divide but a spectrum of attitudes and experiences, pulsing and shifting like the Northern Lights and similarly riven by streaks of darkness and illumination. It starts to look like a stark divide only when people are called upon to vote.

I suspect that on some issues--immigration, abortion, taxation, the environment--glaring crevises exist between city folk and country folk. I had hoped to learn more. At one point Ammot drew our attention to the town of Worthington, in the southwestern part of the state, where a third of the residents are now foreign born, but he didn't say anything much about how the old-timers in town feel about the situation, or how it affects their politics. 

The city mouse and the country mouse
The urban-rural split has a history extending back to Aesop, one of whose moral tales involves a city mouse lavishly entertaining a country mouse. When the cat arrives, the country mouse scurries home, convinced that personal safety is worth far more than fine wines and sauces.

A classic "recent" example appears in Marcel Pagnol's film and text versions of the rural saga Jean de Florette (remade in 1986 to great aclaim) in which a city man inherits some land, and the locals do everything they can think of to bilk him out of it.

The crafty villagers in Jean de Florette
In 2010  MinnPost ran an article by Sharon Schmickle in which she examined some demographic trends exposed by the then-recent census. Among the discoveries that I found most interesting is that “rural” folk own more vehicles than urban folk. Schmickle attributes this to the lack of public transportation options out-state, but I’m not so sure we need to feel sorry for our country cousins on that score. In the country, many people keep old cars around for spare parts. Then again, they might well have put the “closed” sign on the window of their beauty salon and are now out roaming the hills on their ATVs and snow machines. Meanwhile, we city folk remain cooped up in suburban office towers planning desperately how to avoid the rush hour traffic on our way home.

The annual 4th of July canoe trip in Appleton, Minnesota
Hilary and I enjoy visiting small towns, reading the local newspapers, admiring the quaint architecture, hunting out obscure diners, and taking every opportunity to strike up conversations with the locals, or at least do a little eavesdropping. The locals might accuse us of slumming or condescension, but more often they seem eager to share their experiences with strangers from the city who take an interest in what's going on locally. We have found that Wadena, Spring Grove, and Hackensack are interesting places to visit, not to mention Effie (especially during Rodeo Days), Milan, and Embarrass.

Do I really "know" those places? Of course not. But I'm learning. And I'm counting on future investigative reports from Ammot and other MinnPost reporters to help me out with that. 

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