Growing up in St. Paul, I always sensed it was a different kind of city. Once I left, I knew for sure that it was. While the uninitiated seem unaware that anything but the Mississippi River separates St. Paul and Minneapolis, locals know better. The two cities are very different. And proud of it. Perhaps the best explanation of the differences between the two cities goes like this: Minneapolis is a small big city, while St. Paul is a big small town.
Last night I finished reading a book that explains in fabulous historical detail just why St. Paul is St. Small: Mary Lethert Wingerd's Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul (Cornell, 2001). Wingerd, a labor historian, attempts to account for the distinctive civic culture of St. Paul -- in particular, the political power of the Catholic church and the parallel rise of what is affectionately known today as the "Irish Mafia." Wingerd argues that although St. Paul's "old Irish" (those who came to the city in its earliest years) and its newer, working- class Irish occupied vastly different social positions, a shared (and, certainly, rhetorically constructed) sense of "Irishness" bonded them together in a kind of civic brotherhood. These bonds weren't always tight, but for the most part, they held. This all just might explain that eerie feeling you get in St. Paul that everybody knows each other. Because, in some way, they probably do. I'm even connected to Wingerd herself: her son graduated from my high school a year ahead of me. There is an Irish Mafia in St. Paul and although I'm pretty sure it doesn't traffic in cement shoes or illegal booze, it's still a part of the social fabric.