Friday, September 12, 2008

Guest Blogger Dave Schwartz: Let It Be

I confess that, although I've been using a Minneapolis band's discography to title my post this week, my true love is St. Paul. This despite the fact that I've only spent about eight years living within the city limits: the first seven, and this last. I've spent most of my time in the suburbs here, in Madison, Wisconsin (going to school, off and on), and in Chicago.

It was living in Chicago that forced me to admit that St. Paul, much as I love it, isn't necessarily a "world-class" city. Even combined with Minneapolis, it's simply not on the scale of Chicago or New York, and it doesn't have the history of London or Munich or Tokyo. I enjoy books about cities--books like Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography, Andrew Hussey's Paris: The Secret History, or Fredric Morton's books about early 20th-Century Vienna. And I love Herbert Asbury's popular crime books from the 1930's, like Gangs of New York and The French Quarter, equal parts legend and history about the raucous, gritty underbelly of empire building.

St. Paul, with its shady beginnings and Prohibition-era notoriety seems ripe for a book like these. Add in things like the Streetcar Riots, figures like James J. Hill and Archbishop John Ireland, and the shifting ethnic character of the city--from the Irish rise to respectability to the destruction of the Rondo neighborhood to the new Hmong and Somali communities--and you've got the makings of a great American saga, but it may be some time before anyone writes it. Biographies seem to take about ten years to write, on average, and the biography of a city could be the work of a lifetime, I suppose. In the meantime, in addition to the above, I give you five reasons to love St. Paul:

1. Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant. The capital city took its name from this fur trader and whiskey bootlegger until Father Galtier took offense and "re-christened" the city. Working out of a cave near Fort Snelling and getting most of his business from the soldiers stationed there, one-eyed Parrant was the city's first inhabitant but left under mysterious circumstances in 1844.

2. Summit Avenue. I am perhaps biased, being a current inhabitant of the neighborhood, but if there is a more picturesque drag in any American city I have yet to see it. Most of the mansions of the robber barons (and their bankers, lawyers, managers, etc.) are still standing a hundred years later, thanks to the economic winds of fate; for the most part, when fashion and disdain for history might have demanded their demolition and replacement, there simply wasn't the money for it. Now they stand like Gothic castles, even subdivided and gone condo as some of them are, monuments to the days when the railroads made the city a boomtown. The perfect place for a quiet stroll on a summer evening, or a guided tour on a Sunday afternoon.

3. Mee Moua. In the wake of Vietnam the Hmong, allies of the Americans during the war, were given special consideration for immigration. Thanks in large part to former mayor George Latimer, many of them came to St. Paul, where they have become prominent in business, the arts, and politics. Mee Moua is an example of the latter, holding the highest political office of any Hmong-American in her capacity as a Minnesota State Senator.

4. The O'Connor System. While not precisely a thing to be proud of, the O'Connor System made St. Paul one of the most notorious cities in the U.S. during Prohibition, and added a particularly colorful chapter to its history. Originated by Police Chief John O'Connor, the system made it known to wanted criminals like John Dillinger, the Barker Boys, Machine Gun Kelly, and Babyface Nelson that they would not be harassed by the St. Paul police so long as they agreed not to commit any crimes within the city limits. While the federal government--particularly the newly-formed FBI--weren't bound by any such gentlemen's agreement, the arrangement lasted long enough for corruption to spread throughout the police department and city government. Since, during the Depression, gangsters were seen more as glamorous folk heroes than public enemies, it wasn't until the heir to the Hamm's Brewery fortune was kidnapped that the system began to fall apart and the reign of the gangsters crumbled.

5. The St. Paul Winter Carnival. When a New York reporter called St. Paul "another Siberia, unfit for human habitation," the Chamber of Commerce responded by creating a festival of winter sports and arts. That was in 1885, and it's still going today, with ice sculptures, Vulcans, and cold toes. In a way the Carnival sums up the stubborn and defensive (in the best way possible) nature of St. Paulites and Minnesotans in general. "Too cold? I'll show you too cold!" I've written more about the Carnival here, at my own regular blog, about the wacky wonderfulness of the pagan-inspired Carnival mythology, from gun-toting princes to Klondike Kates, and the special ephemeral wonder of an ice palace--may we see another someday soon.

That concludes my stint as a guest blogger here, and I'd like to thank Common Good Books for inviting me to yammer at you all week. As mentioned above, I can be found at my usual blog, so if you've enjoyed these posts you may want to check that out. If you'd like to read an excerpt from Superpowers, you can find that here. And for good measure I'll point you at this interview I did recently with Thanks for reading!