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A tale of two cities

The Minneapolis skyline. MICHAEL STAVSKY PHOTO

Anyone with twin children knows that while the two may be similar in many ways, often they’re vastly different in others. One will excel in sports, while the other is more studious. One will favour history in school, the other mathematics. And, of course, there’s nearly always a vibrant rivalry!

It turns out cities are no different. Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. are commonly known as the Twin Cities. Just 12 kilometres apart and separated by several rivers including the Mississippi, the metropolitan area is home to more than three million people. Yet the two cities have considerably different histories and Jewish communities as well.

First founded by Europeans in the early 19th century, the Twin Cities area was already an important centre for several native American tribes. The confluence of several rivers in the region made the area easy to navigate by boat for the Dakota and Ojibwa tribes, and later for European traders.

Minneapolis soon came to be known as “Mill City”, as the burgeoning flour industry attracted farmers for hundreds of kilometres. By 1900, nearly 15 per cent of flour produced in the United States was milled in Minneapolis. The history of the city’s milling industry is on display at the Mill City Museum downtown. Built within the ruins of the Gold Medal Flour plant, visitors learn about the history of milling in the region, as well as the devastating “flour dust” explosions that levelled the factory.

Just downriver from Gold Medal plant is historic Minnehaha Falls. Situated within Minnehaha Park, the impressive waterfall was made famous in Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. While nowhere near the scale of Niagara Falls, the abundant flora and scenic trails surrounding Minnehaha Falls make the area among the most photographed places in Minnesota.


Nearby St. Paul grew rapidly with the arrival of the railroad. Originally settled by French-Canadian fur traders, the city became the capital of Minnesota and expanded quickly as the seat of political activity. St. Paul soon developed a flourishing cultural district, with numerous museums just a short drive from the stunning Cathedral of St. Paul.

For over a century, the two cities had an intense rivalry, which occasionally ended in violence. Stories abound of violence at intercity baseball games, kidnapping each other’s census takers and not agreeing on the same daylight saving time schedule! Even today, professional sports teams in the area unilaterally use the “Minnesota” moniker in their names so as to not upset one side or the other.

Having largely settled the rivalry, the Twin Cities have grown into a vibrant metropolitan area, complete with a stunning commercial complex in nearby Bloomington. The Mall of America, built in 1982 by noted Jewish Canadian Jacob Ghermezian, was an architectural marvel that encompassed the largest indoor shopping mall in the United States. Ghermezian had just completed the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta and was looking for a similar development in the United States.  The 96-plus-acre Mall of America site was designed as a complete shopping, dining and entertainment centre, including a full-sized amusement park in the centre.

With the large influx of Europeans in the 19th century came growing commercial development that attracted Jews as well. A handful of German Jews were among the first settlers of St. Paul. In 1856, they established the first shul in the region, Mount Zion Temple. Not to be outdone, Minneapolis’ blossoming Jewish community took root in the city’s north side with the influx of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms.

By the 1920s, Minneapolis’ Jewish community was somewhat dubiously known for its connections to organized crime. Isadore Blumenfeld, known as Kid Cann, was long considered the most notorious mobster in Minnesota. Raised on the rough streets of North Minneapolis, Blumenfeld ran illegal activities on a scale that rivaled Al Capone’s in Chicago.

In the years that followed World War II, anti-Semitism became rampant in the city. In a scholarly work from 1960, former CJN contributor Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut referred to Minneapolis as “the capital of anti-Semitism in the midwest.”

While the St. Paul Jewish community still boasts several shuls, its overall numbers have dropped in recent years. The majority of the region’s Jews have settled in the quaint, tree-lined village of St. Louis Park. A suburb that produced such famous Jews as Al Franken and the Coen brothers, St. Louis Park has in the last few decades swelled in numbers, thanks in part to a large influx of Russian Jews.

Nestled among the synagogues, day schools and kosher eateries are numerous Russian-themed stores and restaurants. With weather similar to parts of Russia, the immigrants adapted quickly to their new home. Their arrival was welcomed by the established Jewish community and bolstered its standing as a warm, inviting group within the Twin Cities.

Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Minneapolis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in co-ordinating his family’s trip to the Twin Cities.

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