A Parable for Saint Paul

Prepared by Mark Vander Schaaf

January 8, 2002



The City That Prospered by Rediscovering Its Soul


The old city of X was once the most powerful city in its territory.  But as the territory prepared to become a full U.S. state, a neighboring city arose to challenge the status of X.


The new city of Y quickly became larger, more modern and more fully integrated into the U.S. economic system.  X initially responded by trying to beat Y at its own game.  The city fathers of X demanded that X rid itself of all of the trappings of its former prosperity and be as much like Y as possible.  No more old-fashioned architecture; no more quaint backward customs.


After several decades of competition, X ironically found itself even farther behind Y than when it started.  But it also began to notice something curious: tourists and visitors were still intrigued with the old architecture and customs of the early days of X. 


As a result, the leaders of X made an important strategic decision.  Rather than try to be like everybody else, X would honor its ancient heritage.  Moreover, it would turn its attention to the region that once looked to X as its leading city - a region of great natural beauty and historical tradition oriented toward a stretch of a famous river, but now parsed into remote corners of four different states.  A great festival was held to mark X’s rediscovery of its soul. 


But the great festival was only a beginning.  X also worked to become a center of local and regional arts, and to become widely acknowledged as the cultural capital of the region that brought it to birth.  Gradually the nation and the world all came to admire X in the role it had rediscovered.  X never was to surpass Y in population, but throughout the world it would be at least as famous as Y and would forever be identified with its beloved region.  Even Y came to see that X’s popularity was a good thing.



What City is X?


The above account is a description of the history of Santa Fe, New Mexico since the late nineteenth century.  Santa Fe was founded in the early seventeenth century and for over 250 years was the leading city of its region.  But as New Mexico statehood approached, Santa Fe began to be eclipsed by Albuquerque, a more modern, conventionally “American” city.


In the early 20th century, Santa Fe civic leaders responded by trying to become modern and conventionally American too.  Traditional portal porches were banned, a new Americanized town square was created, and programs were intensified to ensure that local indigenous peoples learned to speak English and to abandon their traditional customs.  But this strategy was a dismal failure; Albuquerque kept growing and Santa Fe kept shrinking.  But at the same time, tourists were seeking out Santa Fe to “see it while you still can” - they were intrigued with all of the city’s old traditions, and with the unique blend of indigenous, Latin and Anglo cultures represented in the community.


In the year 1912, the city’s leaders did an abrupt about-face, beginning with a declaration that Santa Fe would be the “City Different” and would cultivate a unique “Santa Fe Style.”  In 1919, the Museum of New Mexico joined the movement by sponsoring the first Fiesta Santa Fe, featuring reenactments of events from the city’s early history.  Santa Fe also began to find ways to celebrate its old traditions rather than to suppress them.


Perhaps of equal importance, Santa Fe began to exercise leadership over a larger regional culture covering the entire Colorado Plateau - a region anchored in the Upper Rio Grande Valley and consisting especially of northwestern New Mexico, but also substantial portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado - all places at the margins of their respective states.  Together, though, the places of the Four Corners Area began to penetrate national and global consciousness as a very special region indeed. 


Santa Fe’s rediscovery of its soul involved both quick, early successes and a sustained effort lasting for decades after the city and region began to reorient themselves.  It has, of course, generated its own problems and challenges - mostly along the lines of success threatening to spoil the factors that gave rise to success (well-documented in Chris Wilson’s book, The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition) but almost all would agree that the basic reorientation began in 1912 was the correct one.  



What Has Santa Fe to Teach Saint Paul?


Although the parable describes Santa Fe, there are many intriguing parallels between the parable and the situation faced by Saint Paul.


Saint Paul was once the leading city of the far northern Mississippi Valley.  Like Santa Fe, it too represented a largely successful synthesis of indigenous and Latin Catholic cultures (Spanish in Santa Fe; French in Saint Paul) which began to be disrupted as the city entered the Anglo-American mainstream.  And of course, statehood brought Saint Paul the challenge of its more modern neighbor of Minneapolis which eventually eclipsed it in population and economic clout.


Like Santa Fe, Saint Paul also tried for decades to beat Minneapolis at its own game of abandoning the past and diving headlong into modernity.  Stately Victorian homes on Summit Avenue began to be replaced by suburban ramblers; even the magnificent Landmark Center of downtown Saint Paul came dangerously close to being eliminated.


But by the 1970s, Saint Paul wisely began to rediscover the power of its historic heritage and the value of preserving grand old structures.   By the 1990s, respect for preservation moved to another level as the city began to learn how to create buildings that function as state-of-the-art facilities while simultaneously honoring the city’s historic soul.  Prime examples of this phenomenon are the new Science Museum of Minnesota, with its strong orientation toward both downtown Saint Paul and the Mississippi River, and the Xcel Energy Center which has the most modern features in the National Hockey League but also serves as a shrine to Minnesota’s deep and broad hockey traditions.


Just as did Santa Fe, Saint Paul has prepared a major festival to mark its reorientation toward its soul - the river and the great traditions of the city.  Saint Paul’s festival will be the Grand Excursion of 2004.  This festival also will provide Saint Paul with the opportunity to move to yet another level of its turnaround.  Much as did Santa Fe, Saint Paul has begun to exercise leadership over a region of great natural beauty and historical interest, that had been parsed into the corners of four states.  Just as was the case with the 1854 Grand Excursion, the 2004 Grand Excursion will pass through 400 miles of the magnificent Bluff Country of northwestern Illinois, northeastern Iowa, northwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota.  Because of their work on Grand Excursion 2004, the communities of this area are beginning to recover their identity as a region that was once known and admired throughout the nation and the world.


There is every reason to expect that the Grand Excursion will be a blockbuster event in 2004, just as it was in 1854.  But Santa Fe’s lesson for Saint Paul is that the 2004 Grand Excursion will truly succeed only if it is seen as a beginning more than an end.  While celebrating the successes of recent years, Grand Excursion 2004 must also initiate a sustained symbiotic relationship between Saint Paul and the Upper Mississippi Valley region that will become a permanent feature of the culture of our nation and our world.