10 April 2013

Frank Barnes asks in thirty two magazine “Does the Midwest matter?” By way of answering the question, he talks about visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in Mason City, Iowa. The hotel, which he calls one of the most architecturally significant in the world, opened in 1910, fell into disrepair, and has been renovated and reopened. Barnes uses the example of the hotel to point out that though many significant things have been produced in the Midwest, it is not a place we think of as producing greatness. Many Midwesterners, who want to make an impact on a national scale, leave their homes for the coasts. There is even a name for it: “brain drain.”

Barnes’ piece identifies and is part of a growing regional consciousness in the Midwest. As I have suggested elsewhere, there are many sighs to suggest a coming Midwestern renaissance. I have suggested that, just as previous regional renaissances were based around literary reflections on the regions past Golden Age, the Midwestern renaissance will be a reflection on the regions status as the heart of America’s industrial engine that allowed it to become a world superpower.

Barnes suggests that people leave the Midwest, because of the innately American drive to conquer the frontier. Reading his piece it occurred to me that a significant aspect of the Midwestern renaissance may be the drive to conquer the frontier of our own backyard. It is easy to see much of the contemporary American malaise as a problem that arises from the lack of any obvious frontiers to conquer. It seems like everything in the world has been figured out. All of America has been conquered and American culture and power is ubiquitous around the world. For a country that is culturally predisposed to want to constantly begin the world anew, a lack of frontier is a problem.

Conquering the frontier in our own backyard fulfills American’s romantic desires and our pragmatic predisposition for problem solving. A great example of Midwestern frontier conquering is biking culture in Minneapolis. A few years ago some bike magazine named Minneapolis the number one biking city in the country. Minneapolis stole the title from the long time reigning champ Portland. The city was abuzz about the recognition, and the title is constantly mentioned as one of the major selling points for the city.

The reaction to the title is significant for several reasons. It proves the growing regional consciousness of the Midwest. Whereas extreme modesty was once considered one of the defining traits of the definition –less Midwesterners, the pride about the bike title disabuses all notions of Midwestern modesty (at least amongst cycling supporters in the Twin Cities). In a region known for wide open spaces, hardly anyone would expect a major metropolitan area to be dense enough for a thriving bike culture.

And yet thriving it is. Through the efforts of a progressive mayor and countless grassroots supporters, Minneapolis is terrifically bikeable. As a lifelong country boy who is terrified of city biking, I’ve been able to make my way around the city, and I look forward to doing it more. Bike lanes and commuter centric bike trails make for easy and safe navigation of the city.

The bike title is also significant for its pragmatic implications. Car culture is ingrained in the American way of life, and it is increasingly becoming less desirable and sustainable. Having a bikeable city goes a long way to making the transition away from cars. Civic leaders from around the country visit Minneapolis to find out how they have done it.

The changes in Minneapolis bike culture have come from a concerted effort by a group of citizens who want to make their city a nicer place to live. A group of smart capable people have made their city a national model for the transportation of the future. They have conquered the frontier of their own backyard.



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