A Kitchen Table Conversation About Minneapolis and Its Future


Mitch Pearlstein
Founder & President
Center of the American Experiment

Back in 1974, shortly after I came to Minnesota to work with new University of Minnesota President C. Peter Magrath, the two of us were flying back to the Twin Cities late one afternoon from a trip Outstate when he pointed to the urban landscape below and marveled at what he described as one of the great metropolitan areas in the nation. I agreed, of course, not that I needed the smallest amount of convincing.

Yet while I was never oblivious to local problems in my first years here, truth is, I didn’t fully realize for a long time the ways in which, and the degree to which, Minneapolis specifically, and Minnesota more broadly, had been catching up with the rest of the nation when it came to immense and draining problems such as family breakdown, educational failure, and of course crime. A 1994 study by American Experiment, for example, based largely on Census data from 1960 to 1991, uncovered two mega facts: one very good, but the other, simply terrible.

The good and encouraging news was that in 15 of 16 categories reviewed, social and other conditions in Minnesota were better than they were across the nation, often significantly so.

The very bad and discouraging news was that our rate of deterioration was often steeper, sometimes much steeper, than it was in the nation as a whole. In shorthand, we were regressing to the mean in both senses of the term.

Variations on the dichotomous theme carry on.

We continue, for instance, to build and renovate cathedrals to great art and music: A brand new Guthrie, a brand new Walker, a renovated Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and a soon-to-be renovated Orchestra Hall.

But walking down Hennepin Avenue to make a curtain at the Orpheum or State theaters can be an R-rated adventure. This is especially the case around Block E, which was designed, as you may recall, as a “family destination.”

The University of Minnesota, as we speak, has plausible designs on being one of the three best public research universities in the country.

Yet the number of high school students in Minneapolis with a plausible chance of taking advantage of such a world class institution is comparatively minuscule, as the four-year high school graduation rate in Minneapolis public schools (as reported a few years ago by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Minneapolis Foundation, and the school district itself), was 58 percent for whites, 47 percent for Asian-Americans, 31 percent for both for African Americans and Hispanic Americans, and 15 percent for American Indians.

With apologies to Dickens, these may be some of the best of times for Minneapolis aesthetically and commercially, but in other ways—starting with the cliffs thousands of kids, especially those of color, are hurtling towards—they’re our worst of times, too.

All of which begs profoundly important questions like these:

Why are so many young people in Minneapolis—including men and women deep in their 20s and 30s—so lost?

Why are so many young men and women—but especially young men—stunting their lives right out of the gate by building long rap sheets rather than resumes?

With students in much of the rest of the world mastering advanced math and heavy-duty science, how can Minneapolis hope to keep up when simply getting kids to make it through high school is a battle, and achievement gaps here are larger than just about any other place in the country?

We’ve had a million conference table conversations about issues like these, the kind where politics and policies dominate, without nearly enough to show for them. What I would hope for this afternoon is a kitchen table conversation. The kind where serious people and trusting friends ponder subjects that are invariably more elusive, more uncomfortable, but also closer to hearts: matters, more precisely, of culture, values, faith, and personal responsibility.

We’re joined this afternoon by three such friends.

Peter Bell is chairman of the Metropolitan Council, having first been named to the job by Gov. Tim Pawlenty shortly after the latter’s election to a first term in 2002.

Gary Cunningham is the new vice president of programs for the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, having served most recently as CEO of the Northpoint Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis.

And R. T. Rybak is mayor of Minneapolis. He’s in his second four-year term, having first been elected in 2001.

Suffice it to say, Messrs. Rybak, Cunningham, and Bell are three of our most thoughtful neighbors in regards to the complicated and hard problems we’ll be discussing over the next hour, and I’m grateful for their courage in taking them on.

I don’t want to start by being a nattering nabob of negativism, so what’s working well in Minneapolis these days?