The tourist versus the local. It's been a major theme of this trip for us as we've planned our destinations and driven through the larger half of our route. Every place we've gone to has been either been dubbed cliche tourist attractions with gift shops and scary tour guides, or slices of local culture.
Everywhere we've gone (tourist trap or local eatery) we've tried to identify what it is that makes a place one or the other. Typically the answer comes down to the number of local visitors to the attraction, as well as the variety of shot glasses available in the gift shops. And there are always gift shops.
Because the tourist destinations tend to leave a sour taste in our collective mouth, I couldn't help be but a little bit nervous about our approach to Minneapolis/St. Paul, which houses the world-famous Mall of America. After all, it's a mall which boasts 35-40 million visitors every year. That is more than the number of visitors to Graceland, Disneyland, and the Grand Canyon, combined. That is more than the entire population of Canada. And it's all for shopping. I'd say it's the Mecca of Consumerism, but Mecca only gets 2 million visitors every year, so that doesn't quite cover it.
And yet...it didn't really feel like a tourist destination. Keeping in mind that we were in a mall during an economic crisis on a beautiful Thursday, it still just felt like a big mall. There wasn't anything particularly "touristy" about the place, aside from the (wait for it...) gift shops that were strategically placed near entrances, selling Mall of America t-shirts and souvenir lanyards.
In fact, as I walked around the Mall, if felt exactly like the mall I grew up going to with friends. Like the mall I spent my summers at home working part time jobs. Like the mall in Nashville that I worked during the school year. It felt like the places I went for Christmas shopping and date outfits, just like most people use malls. This was just four floors of small town malls, pushed together and filled in with specialty shops and Caribou Coffeehouses.
Several of us shared later that our conversations with shoppers revealed a largely local crowd. I was pleasantly surprised to hear most of the group really enjoyed their time at the mall, and wouldn't have minded spending more time there. I was surprised to find that I could've stayed a while longer myself.
After our tour of the mall, we headed into the city to the riverfront and to Mill City Ruins Park. Minneapolis has worked hard to preserve and revitalize the riverfront, where the city once prospered around the grain milling factories. Until the Washburn A. Mill exploded in 1878 after a spark ignited some flour dust inside the mill, the factories around St. Anthony Falls in the Mississippi River. In the past ten years, the city has revamped the riverfront area, building a museum inside the old Washburn Mill, dedicated to educating young Minnesotans about the milling history, a riverfront greenspace along the ruins of the park, and a shiny new theater.
We explored the area for an hour, and walked along the riverfront, admiring the mixture of Minneapolis architecture. From our perch on the Endless Bridge at the Guthrie Theatre, we could see four different bridges, each built in a completely different style. It made for a strange hybrid, but it worked. Here was a city that seemed more interested in diversity and history within its own borders than in impressing visitors with its cohesive style and tourist friendly attractions. I have to say, after three days of national parks, it was pretty refreshing.
For dinner, went to Midtown Global Market, built in part of an old Sears building. Again, I was nervous, as “Global Markets” have typically translated to expensive organic foods and upper class yuppies gathering around Ethiopian smoothies and congratulating themselves on their bohemian bourgeoisie lifestyles. But once again, we were greeted with local food vendors offering authentic meals and cultural artifacts from all over the world, and nary a yuppie. In fact, as we purchased our meals and sat around tables in the center court, it became apparent that we were the outsiders…tourists stepping into a local joint, feeling just slightly out of place.
After dinner we drove Harriet Lake and had class near the bandstand, watching the sunset over the city. We watched families play together in the park, couples snuggle together on a hill and read books next to one another, puppies tangle up in their leashes as they chased smells and fireflies, and children practice their dance moves on the bandstand while their parents looked on from the benches.
We all seemed to be in a good mood by the end of the day, and more than a few people said they could definitely live in Minneapolis as they watched the sky fade from blue to pink to a dusty indigo. I took a deep breath and realized all of my stress had been for nothing. I had been so afraid that Minneapolis would be another tourist trap, another nail in the coffin of the Midwestern reputation. But yet again, the cities that we have either little or low expectations for come through in the end. Our band of tourists had found the local and fallen in love. All in all, a pretty good day.