Saint Paul has always been comfortable as just another Midwestern city in a way that Minneapolis cannot be. Our younger, more outgoing sister to the west has always had the bright lights of the big city in her eyes, and yearned to be a great beacon out on the prairie.
Not Saint Paul. We see a beacon on the prairie as pointless, something that can only serve to confuse the waterfowl. We have more in common with Mankato than Chicago, more to talk about with Des Moines than New York. Saint Paul is all of these, pushed together, as if it is a dozen cities with one mayor. It’s something like a giant hotdish or booya where everyone is invited to bring their own ingredients.
Our definition of “urbane” involves ignoring things that leave you uninterested or annoyed or even disgusted, as if you simply eat around the parts of the hotdish you do not like rather than complain about them. But we are friendly and warm, with a devotion to duty and the tenacity of a terrier when something crosses the threshold to just plain wrong. Saint Paul is a satisfying home-cooked meal that leaves you full, where Minneapolis is an artfully prepared expensive meal of tiny proportions.
We both are blessed that each sibling has their own way more than we usually express. It is not a matter of rivalry as much as tolerance and coping skills. Yet as siblings we are forced to define ourselves against each other, and Saint Paul’s insistence that we are not so outgoing belies our deeply social and familiar ways, and Minneapolis’ refusal to even speak of us as a sibling tells its own story of a Midwestern girl who is still running far away to a distant place.
Saint Paul is the older sister, the good child that got over her need to be wild early in life. It was founded as a settlement by Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, who was kicked out of Fort Snelling in the 1830s for selling liquor to the natives. He settled just outside the fort’s boundary in Fountain Cave, a beautiful hole in the bluffs carved slowly by a natural spring. The settlement that grew up around his squatter’s saloon was known as Pig’s Eye, at least until Father Lucien Galtier convinced the population that “Saint Paul” was a more proper name.
All of this is chronicled by no less than Mark Twain in Chapter LX of “Life on the Mississippi“. Fountain Cave was bulldozed to make way for Shepard Road in 1962, an act of civic vandalism that I will never forgive any road engineer anywhere for.
Saint Paul gained a frontier respectability when it became the Territorial Capitol in 1849, and it’s hardly ever looked back. Well, it was still a river and later a railroad town, meaning it had its share of rowdy hardworking men who were often allowed to blow off steam. And of course Prohibition put the city somewhere between Chicago and booze producing Canada, so the city’s cultural tendency to look the other way allowed some bad things to go down beyond the corner of Saint Paul’s eyes.
How did Saint Paul become just what it is? The city is life, and like any life there is a history to it. The influence of rogues and missionaries, the disdain for siblings and big ideas all comes together in a kind of personality. A personality and set of neuroses shared by 287,000 people who have their own way of doing things, and really don’t care what you think.
I call it home.