Comprehensive studies of cities are tricky things. The growth, evolution and development of a complex community can be shoe-horned into a neat narrative, but does that really capture the spirit of a place? Photos and well-wrought prose can emphasize one viewpoint, but so, too, can numbers and graphs. One trait that make cities so special is their elusiveness, their chameleon-like character that allows for multiple perspectives, each with worthy claims to truth. This is no abstract philosophical exercise. Head to a busy street corner at 8:00 am and start to pay attention. Write down what you see, what you think is going on, what it all means. Head to the opposite side of the corner at 11:00 pm and try the same exercise. Does one contain more truth? Or do we need both in order to appreciate the complicated chaos and choreography that is a city?
Questions of perspective and priority crowded my reading of Tom Weber’s Minneapolis: An Urban Biography. It’s an accessible narrative account of the city. Weber is a journalist and radio host. He knows his city and its stories. Weber’s a fan, no doubt, but he’s no starry-eyed idealist when it comes to the city. He’s penned a tough-minded book that highlights conflict, exclusion and a disturbing history of recurring racism. For all its progressive policies and practices, Minneapolis’s origins are grounded in deception of native Americans and their slaughter by whites. Slavery was no stranger before the Civil War, either. And as the city grew, in perpetual competition with St. Paul, Minneapolis was home to much conflict, exacerbated by nativism. Class and labor issues were also major problems. Through much of the twentieth century, conflict and exclusion persisted. This is well-established for many historians and not a particularly unique characteristic for many American cities. That said, it’s unusual that a popular history to appreciate the importance of conflict in shaping economic, political and social culture. It certainly did in Minneapolis. Weber did his homework.
The book is long on anecdotes, the kind of historical examples that give life to an area. Weber is a sports fan, too. He anchors the book in the exploits of Minnesota sports teams, which seem have played an outsize role in shaping city culture. It’s light, though, on maps and charts, the kind of harder-edged information that us urban nerds appreciate.
I can’t attest that I know Minneapolis well. I can affirm, however, that I’m in a much better position to learn it and its history after spending a few hours with Weber’s book. Even with its hardheadedness, the book makes a strong case for spending more time in Minneapolis.