If I’d given it any thought, I would have planned to travel to the states I’d never been to first. But I didn’t. I simply set out, haphazardly, where and when I could manage it, and so it’s well past the halfway point of the year before I fly over a perfect Midwest patchwork, neatly quilted in shades of green, and touch down in 2017’s first new-to-me state.
The airport terminal is named for one of the nation’s most glamorous white supremacists, America-Firsters, and Jew-haters. It’s just one more silent reminder, not that it is needed, of how many American cities barely bother to hide their history of hatred just below the surface, and of how changeable my status in my own country has always been.
The thought stays with me through the carpeted corridors but dissipates like fog when it meets the sun. Nothing can diminish the excitement of a place that’s new.
I find my way to downtown Minneapolis and end up on the west side of the Mississippi. My instant first impression is that a computer model of a generic North American city has been brought to life. I feel as if I’m standing in one of those images of proposed shopping centers or train stations, the kind that are projected onto screens at zoning meetings. It’s unnerving; had I been dropped here blindfolded and without warning, I couldn’t begin to guess where I might be or whether I’d been here before. I remind myself that I know exactly where I am, but I feel slightly disoriented, the way you feel just before you realize you are lost.
I walk, in desperate search of Minneapolis’s personality. At first, I see only hordes of very young corporate drones, overwhelmingly white, dressed in Madewell or Everlane. They walk to lunch in tight groups, like kindergartners tethered together on an outing, or stand alone on sidewalks, absorbed in their phones. Clean light-rail trains approach their stations, and tall, inoffensive buildings stretch towards the perfectly blue sky. Bars proliferate, and beer, especially, is everywhere. One would not want to live here if one did not like beer.
Slowly, the city’s individuality is revealed. Overhead, pedestrian walkways connect buildings at their second story – I spot one, then two, then I lose count. Most are sleek, like glass elevator shafts turned sideways, but each is slightly different, with its own little stylistic flair. These are the Skyways, which link together 69 blocks across seven miles, the longest such network in the world. It is brilliantly sunny and hot out, but I try to imagine the inviting warmth and light of the Skyways in the long months of cold and darkness, when icy streets are piled with snow.
Minneapolis, I read somewhere, comes from mni, the Dakota Sioux word for water, plus the Greek polis, city. Like most places, its true identity emerges at its waterfront, where I wander instinctively in search of peculiarities older than the Skyways.
I walk beneath a stone bridge, arched and pale like a structure from antiquity. It spans the Mississippi, as it has since 1883, but where it used to carry passenger trains, it is now reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.
I find myself nearly alone in Mill Ruins Park, a sunken garden of partially crumbled stone walls in the shadow of the shiny city. Most municipalities would have torn down and paved over what remains of this old flour mill, or simply put up barriers around it and let it crumble. But here its hollowed out rooms are allowed to stand, filled in with walkways over murky wetlands and patches of grass.
High above it all, the sign atop the old North Star Woolen Mill stands out. NORTH STAR BLANKETS, it says, the words encircling a star. The building is now full of lofts; the historic sign looks like it was designed five years ago to appeal to high-income hipsters.
Further along the river, I find the site of the earliest bridge built across the Mississippi – not the first in Minnesota, but anywhere, ever, all along the river’s 2,300 miles. Today there is a pleasant little space to sit by the water here, called First Bridge Park. A lineup of bronze frogs and turtles, arranged from small to large, is arrayed on a low wall beside a footpath. It’s meant for children, of course, not aimlessly wandering adults who happen to look down. But as a child I would have taken it for granted; now I know how much care must have gone into it, how much thought and artistry, and how many people must pass by without noticing the effort. I pause to read a question carved into the sidewalk. It says: Can you find 13 worms?
I cross the river to the east side, where the surroundings start to feel more industrial, the atmosphere calmer. The gleaming office towers are gone, replaced by parkland and old stone mills reborn as apartment buildings. This was a separate town, called Saint Anthony, until it merged with Minneapolis in 1872. Its old main street remains, paved with red bricks, and where it stretches along the river, the pace of this already slow and polite city becomes even more leisurely. Later, I will investigate other neighborhoods, further out from the city’s center, where the ambiance will be different, and this feeling will be lost. But here, where bright umbrellas shade outdoor diners and tufts of greenery poke up between the cracks in the brick sidewalks, there is an almost European sense of contentment.
None of it is unfamiliar, yet there’s something unknown about it, as there is in any new place. I think there must be something important to know about America here, in the state where the Mississippi begins its long journey southward. But I have to leave soon, for another new-to-me state, and this city of flour and beer and bridges, of old mills and waterfalls, of Dakota words and Nordic names and unsettling history, will soon fade behind me as I follow the river south.