2013 Best Civic Booster: R.T. Rybak

rybak vikings

Rock star!

In 1930, noted Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize in Literature mostly for lampooning Minnesotan provincial boosterism. In some ways, not much has changed. We still set the bar pretty darn high when it comes to hometown homers.

And this year, just in time for his denauguration, Streets.mn readers have voted to give a lifetime achievement-type booster award to R.T. Rybak, outgoing mayor of Minneapolis.

I like Rybak, but when I hear his name I always pretend that the “R.T.” stands for “Rootin’ Tootin'” because he’s so good at giving inspiring (and sometimes meaningless) speeches. (Protip: R.T. actually stands for “Raymond Thomas.”) Rybak has always been amazing at balancing business cheerleading and progressive values, gladhanding, liberalism, and development. If you’ve never been in a room being “worked” by Rybak, if you’ve never shaken his hand and gazed into his grey-blue eyes, then you’ve really missed. out. He’s literally crowd-surfed his way into the hearts of Minneapolis.


Star Tribune in 1983.

Digesting Rybak’s career as mayor is a story that far exceeds the scope of this post, but a rough rundown is interesting. For example, I was surprised the other day to find his name on a early 80s Star Tribune byline for the new Laurel Village and City Center developments downtown, where he did the yeoman’s work of reporting on downtown development deals. From there, Rybak took a position with the Downtown Council, doing media and PR work for the downtown business interests as they went about transforming downtown from a diverse and seedy Purple Rain almagam into the streamlined skyway’d stadia’d place we know today. He then won the mayor’s office over an incumbent, and the rest is history.

As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, civic boosterism is something I take with hefty doses of salt. Often “boosting” occurs in the name of projects that do little for the city, and come at great expense. On the other hand, sometimes all it takes to improve a situation is to change people’s spirits, to elevate ideals, and expand people’s horizons. Making a city is a messy process, and almost always needs a dynamite sales pitch.

Others on this list include Steve Berg, a Twin Cities urban journalist, Joan Vorderbruggen, who has been doing the Artists in Storefronts and Made Here projects in Minneapolis (she got my vote), and Erica Zweifel, a council member in Northfield. But Rybak received the lion’s share…


Rybak pitching architects on streetcars back in 2008.

Civic boosting is often ephemeral, something from proverbial wood-paneled back rooms, at conventions, atop Holidazzle parade floats, and in the day-to-day hand-shaking slog. Those are allthings for which Rybak has always had amazing talent. I worry that the Vikings Stadium, which was crowbar’d through the City Council and over the heads of the voters referendum, will be Rybak’s legacy in the same way that Block E has become synonymous with Mayor Sayles-Belton. On the other hand, so much depends on the details of implementation, and who knows, maybe it’ll all work out..

But enough hand-wringing. As Vergil Gunch, the president of the Zenith Boosters, once said: “If a fellow is keyed up to what you might call intensive living, the way you get it here in Zenith—all the hustle and mental activity that’s going on with a bunch of live-wires like the Boosters.” R.T. Rybak is nothing if not a live wire. He’s well deserving of this award. Thanks for the memories, R.T.!

rybak stage dive

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.