Tale of Two Cities

l brown Tale of Two CitiesSAINT PAUL—Ray Vanyo, the general manager of a popular Italian eatery called Cossetta’s that sits right at the security perimeter entrance surrounding the Xcel Center here, wasn’t happy as he stood outside the shop Wednesday night.

Partly by virtue of being so near the place where tens of thousands of people entered the compound housing the Republican National Convention this week, he had been expecting as many as 700 people at a time to show up demanding Italian subs and pizzas and buying Italian delicacies at his adjacent store. To that effect he had erected a giant tent in the parking lot, in which he had created a lively-looking outdoor wine-garden complete with cigar and cigarettes on sale, checkered tablecloths, and piped Italian music. He’d brought on new staff to cover the floods of people and hired back employees he’d had to lose due to recent economic conditions.

But most afternoons the tables were empty. The conventioneers never came. The regulars avoided it, as they were avoiding anything near the perimeter of the convention, where they might be forced to deal with barked orders from police and secret service or face the prospect of being unable to take their accustomed routes home due to the network of detours that choked the downtown district of the city.

He was angry—and like many of his fellow St. Paulites, he directed his anger at the other half of the Twin Cities.

“Yes there are a lot of people that are around here, but they’re not coming in, because they’re getting bussed right out to Minneapolis,” he said. “Twenty-five out of 28 private parties that are going on are in Minneapolis, so they don’t have a need to stick around here.

“If the plan was to keep the protest here, and the delegates there, it came off without a hitch,” he added.

For many St. Paul businesses, the storyline has been similar, as Minneapolis has been the bustling hub of activity during the days and late nights this week, while St. Paul is more the commuter destination for a few brief hours of convention, before delegates return back to the city 12 miles away, adding fuel to an antagonistic fire that exists between these two urban centers of the Upper Midwest.

As is clear to anyone who’s stayed here the last week, the Twin Cities are not twins at all, or at least not the friendly identical type. If anything, they’re siblings close in age, except one is substantially bigger than the other, and the smaller one has a nagging inferiority complex that fuels a sometimes-fierce rivalry.

Or at least a one-way rivalry.

St. Paul (population 287,000) does not have the hotels or bars that Minneapolis (population 388,000) has. The Minneapolis skyway system, anchored by a giant “Crystal Court” indoor plaza, is bustling and vibrant, while St. Paul’s feels more like an aging airport terminal. The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune has broad based regional appeal, while the St. Paul Pioneer Press is, by and large, a hometown paper for the capital city and a few surrounding suburbs. The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis is the system’s flagship, with iconic architecture and a hub of activity; the St. Paul campus is literally a farm, host to the agricultural school, along with a few other functions. Downtown Minneapolis is anchored by a host of major financial and other businesses with legitimate office towers, whereas St. Paul depends much on government workers to fill its parking garages during the week.

So spars and spats between the two are a historic rite for the two cities and their mayors over time. In the late 1880s, when St. Paul had first been surpassed by Minneapolis in population, St. Paul raided a suspected fraudulent census counting session in Minneapolis. Battles over office tenants, developments and sports teams (St. Paul has tried to whisk the Twins away from Minneapolis on multiple occasions) have been common, usually with the big city west of the Mississippi River winning out.

“In the old days, folks from St. Paul didn’t go to Minneapolis,” Senator Norm Coleman, the onetime mayor of St. Paul, said yesterday, on his way to the convention hall. “It really has been a tremendous rivalry.”

So in 2006, when the Republicans chose St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center as its base of operations and events for the four-day festival, it was viewed as something of a Little Engine That Could moment for the forgotten sibling. Big events were always going to Minneapolis, and, sure, while St. Paul may not be as big, have as vibrant a nightlife (or day life), or hold as many theaters, locals east of the Mississippi felt convention would finally give St. Paul its well-deserved time in the spotlight. (Of course there was later frustration from St. Paul, voiced in a Minneapolis Star Tribune story, that headline writers and the nation’s public were under the impression that the GOP had picked “Minneapolis.”)

For the last week here, many local businesses in St. Paul have been frustrated and fuming about the lack of traffic they’ve seen, given that the media and Republican political worlds were all concentrated just a few blocks away.

“We had expectations of a State Fair-like atmosphere,” said Thomas Harlan, owner of Golden Leaf, a tobacco store on the West Seventh Street strip next to the Xcel Center.

The problem, in large part, seemed to be that the giant Green Zone-like perimeter that was established around the Xcel Center, closing off much of St. Paul’s small downtown around the arena, making it disorientating and unwelcoming to anyone from out of town, especially those staying elsewhere. Delegates simply got off their buses from Minneapolis hotels inside the safety perimeter, walked right into the Xcel Center, and then right back in their buses without having to see St. Paul, almost as if the arena were in some distant suburb. And when the buses brought folks back to their Minneapolis hotels, the beneficiaries were the bars and restaurants there.

Compare that to Denver, where thousands walked from the downtown to the adjacent arena, where the perimeter started at the edge of a field of parking lots. Before and after, the downtown was swimming with folks wearing Obama pins and credentials around their necks.

Further, Minneapolis didn’t have to have any disruptive security perimeter, St. Paul got all the protesters and the tear gas, and all of Minneapolis’ big arena spaces were booked up by Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Rage Against the Machine, among others.

“We see this as a cooperative rather than competitive one [with St. Paul], but Minneapolis clearly got the longer end of the stick,” said Councilwoman Lisa Goodman, who represents downtown Minneapolis. “We’ve had most of the hospitality, and the limited amount of protesters.”

The St. Paul-based griping comes as the two mayors, Chris Coleman of St. Paul and R. T. Rybak of Minneapolis, have shown unprecedented cooperation in recent years (the Star Tribune once called them “Brokeback Mayors” after they did a number of events together), and hailed the convention as a model of that cooperative spirit.

The feeling on the part of Rybak and Coleman is that the convention wasn’t so much about an economic boom for four days, but rather about a long-term effort to get the Cities on the national radar. After all, this is an area that is constantly promoting any sort of study that shows it scores high on a “livability” scale, or any scale that shows it at the top of U.S. cities.

“Our goal was to get better known and there are very few ways to do that in one swoop other than the convention,” Rybak said in a phone interview, mentioning a few stats about livability and the high number of theater tickets. “Minneapolis is much lesser known, but always does better with exposure.”

The convention, he acknowledged, had drawbacks for St. Paul with the security perimeter, but each night St. Paul was leading the news.

“St. Paul got advantages and disadvantages just like Minneapolis,” the onetime reporter said. “For a few days, St. Paul been made more prominent than Minneapolis was … Minneapolis was able to benefit from a dramatic increase in business without the disruption of security.”

Businesses complaining that conventions aren’t the promised boons is also nothing new—Boston had to have a tax holiday after the convention to spur local spending, for instance.

And even in Minneapolis, not all were cheery about the effects.

Christopher Gillis, general manager of the News Room, a Minneapolis restaurant, griped that business was up, but not up nearly as much as promised.

“It’s not as much as they brought it up to be—all hype,” he said.

But unlike his counterparts in St. Paul, there was no blame directed at the sibling city across the river.

The prospect of having a big security perimeter and protests were unwelcoming to him, he said.

“We’re happy it’s in St. Paul, in all honesty.”