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Why do Twin Cities people say home is 'Minnesota'?

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Steve Berg
Steve Berg: "Calling our metropolitan area Minnesota is like ordering a soft drink when you really want a Coke."
MPR file photo/Marianne Combs

Steve Berg is a journalist and urban design consultant who lives in Minneapolis. 

All the evidence says we live in a city. Cars, buildings, freeways, shopping malls and housing developments stretch pretty much from the St. Croix Valley to Lake Minnetonka, with clusters of taller buildings toward the center. The Census Bureau confirms these suspicions and calculates that Minneapolis, St. Paul and suburbs, with their 3.3 million people, form the nation's 16th largest metropolitan area. 

Yet we live in steadfast denial of it. We tell ourselves, and others, that we live not in a city but in a state. Minnesota.

This is odd. When we travel to Chicago for the weekend, we don't say we're off to Illinois. When we fly to Atlanta, we don't say we're going to Georgia. But when we're headed home we say we're going back to Minnesota, avoiding the precise name of our destination, almost as if it doesn't exist. We live in self-imposed anonymity. We hide in plain sight.

Why? 

One probable reason is that we don't like our metropolitan name, or our nickname for that matter. "Twin Cities" sounds a bit dated, and has a boosterish ring that's not quite authentic. The name might have stuck, had the pro sports teams adopted it, but they didn't. So we send teams from Minnesota to play against teams from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City.

Another problem with "Twin Cities" was that suburbanites, who now make up 80 percent of the metro population, were never quite sure that the name included them. I'm quite sure it did.

As for our real name, Minneapolis-St. Paul, the problems are trickier. St. Paulites tend to hate it because they get second billing and because their half sometimes gets lopped off. Suburbanites, ever wary, are unsure whether the name includes them. I'm quite sure it does.

Another problem with Minneapolis-St. Paul is that it's a mouthful, requiring six or seven syllables depending on your diction. That surpasses even Rio de Janiero, which is considerably warmer and goes by Rio for short.

Calling our metropolitan area Minnesota is like ordering a soft drink when you really want a Coke. If  the habit holds, the Coke brand eventually disappears — which is what's happening to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

If you doubt it, check the media. On many outlets, the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minnesota. A recent obit in the New York Times described MPR's Tom Keith as having performed "in front of a theater audience in Minnesota, or in other cities on tour." Another Times piece described actor James Arness as having grown up in Minnesota before moving to Los Angeles. A commentator in the Strib (writing, ironically, about the local image) described his move from Philadelphia to Minnesota. 

My favorite was MSNBC's recollection of former Sen. Larry Craig's arrest "in a Minnesota airport." 

The good part about the name Minnesota is that it's poetic and carries vivid imagery. Thinking of ourselves as "Minnesota" allows us metro types to pretend that we live in the Northwoods, to drive rugged vehicles and shop at stores called "outfitters."

But there's a downside, as business recruiters have discovered. To most Americans, Minnesota means cold, boring and rural — hardly the qualities you want to push when trying to lure top young talent.

What to do?

Political science holds the answer. We should merge Minneapolis and St. Paul into a single entity while retaining separate city halls, mayors and councils. Each municipality would become a borough —  like Manhattan and Brooklyn —  within a larger umbrella city. In our case, the new city requires no additional layer of government, just a figurehead —  a lord mayor —  with a small office and a cell phone, perhaps on a barge in the Mississippi River.

This new umbrella city will, of course, need a new name. MSP is short and snappy. MinneaPAULis is clever. Saint Minnie might work.

But my favorite name is Minnesota, Minn. It solves so many problems. And it puts our metro area back on the map.