What Is City Pride Worth?

This past week, the National Football League approved the request of the St. Louis Rams to relocate to Los Angeles. This, despite an aggressive push by St. Louis and Missouri political and business leaders to keep the team through the partial public financing of a brand new stadium along the Mississippi riverfront. This news story has a lot of angles, from the bonkers $2.6 billion stadium/NFL Disneyland proposed on the LA suburb of Inglewood, to the callous greed of modern sports. No doubt readers of this blog felt some envy for St. Louis, which despite attempts to the contrary, did not throw away half a billion dollars of desperately needed public money. As a state recently extorted by the NFL, Minnesotans can relate.

But I admit that I’m most interested in the alternative world in which the city convinced the team to stay. The world in which Minneapolis-Saint Paul currently resides. What convinces a city like St. Louis or Minneapolis to put down tremendous sums of money to keep teams around? What convinces leaders to spend time and money at the whim of pro sports? This despite the mountain of evidence from economists that sports teams provide little to no economic boost. This despite the incredible opportunity cost of financing the massive stadiums of the NFL.

At its heart, this is a simple question with an easy answer that you know already. Politicians finance sports stadiums because they fear that their constituents will punish them for losing the team, or reward them for keeping or attracting it. Push past the inflated economic figures and the dubious redevelopment claims, and it boils down to civic pride, which is what sports tend to be on the field for many people as well. In these discussions, you’re hearing a debate about what it means to be a “major league city”. Lose the Rams and St. Louis won’t show up on the maps anymore. Lose the Vikings and the Twins, and Minneapolis will be a cold Omaha.

I don’t think too much of this argument as a justification for spending half a billion dollars. But I think there’s more to explore here, especially after I read this Reddit thread, entitled “Are you hopeful for the City of St. Louis and the region more generally?”

The original poster poses the question in the wake of the Rams’ departure, but there’s more context needed. It’s been a rough few years for the city. The shooting of Michael Brown in the suburbs, the racial chasms it uncovered, the destructive riots, the militant police response, a crime wave, and other disappointments large and small have piled up to make the departure of the Rams take on outsized significance. It doesn’t help that in the relocation application filed by the team (which were under no obligations to publicly release, but did anyway) absolutely savaged their own city, casting it as a miserable, impoverished, post-industrial backwater. You don’t need to read the entire Reddit thread, but here’s the most relevant quote:

I do still think that some cities are better than others. And as a logical result of that, the fact of the matter is that some cities have to be among the bottom tier, just as some cities, by definition, have to be among the best.

And I know this is a horrible thing to say, especially in this subreddit, but it is an honest question (and I don’t just mean this as a provocation): Are we among the bottom tier? Are we heading there?

Yes we have restaurants. Yes we have arts districts. Yes we have a tech startup community. Yes there are pockets of revitalization. But, at the risk of sounding incendiary, doesn’t every city have these things? Surely it’s not enough to cite their presence as a reason to be overwhelmingly hopeful about our city.

What’s more remarkable to me is that the response to this post wasn’t indignant or offended. People engaged with the premise. Most people openly agreed with parts or all the original poster’s crisis of faith. The general thrust in the thread was a faintly hopeful one. Many comments didn’t dispute the city’s poor run of recent news, or the city’s grave challenges. Still, they found things to be positive about. But they didn’t exactly dispute the idea that if you ranked all the big cities, St. Louis probably wouldn’t challenge for the top.

I can pick up a common thread here. When I moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school, the first thing that struck me about the city’s character was a palpable inferiority complex. Philadelphia has a lot going for it, whether it’s history, its unmatched urban fabric of colonial-scale streets and alleyways, or its position at the center of the Northeast Megalopolis. Yet it was impossible to miss, in just my first day, how poorly the city’s own residents regarded their home. The good things people told me about were transparently ordinary (craft breweries! food trucks!). The bad things always seemed to creep into conversation. There are things I’ve since come to discover are wonderful and unique about this city, and nobody told me about them. Back in the day, the city’s tourism department put up a billboard on the highway that read “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” That still might be true.

Philadelphia hasn’t lost any sports teams recently, but they might want to consider it. Of American cities with teams in the “Big Four” sports leagues, only Philadelphia could not count a single team in the playoffs this past year, and they are on track to repeat that feat again this year. Sporting success is a license to feel pride in where you come from or where you live, and I truly do believe that a lack of it matters. It’s definitely not the role of government to find the next coach of the local football team, but I do think that we urbanists tend ignore somewhat spiritual things like the success of local sports teams, and I wonder if these things matter more than we often consider.

Now is when I belatedly explain that there aren’t any bright ideas, new research, or relevant answers in this post. It’s just a discussion.

To me, my thinking arcs naturally back to Minnesota. Despite great pains to appear otherwise, Minnesota is a remarkably self-confident state, and MSP is a remarkably self-confident city. It’s not an audacious feeling of superiority, like that of the city of my birth, New York, or the country of my ancestry, the Netherlands. It’s a quiet, upbeat confidence. I cannot for a moment fathom the idea of a Reddit conversation of Minneapolitans debating where their city ought to rank itself, because the conception that MSP is, or ought to be a leader is basically a given. To the extent of self-parody, Minnesotans expect to challenge for the lead of every state ranking. Minnesotans expect to be underestimated, but Minnesotans are remarkably tireless at setting the record straight. I used to think that Garrison Keillor’s bit about the children of Lake Wobegone being “above average” was just a joke about well-meaning homogeneity. Now I know it’s actually the state standard.

Does this matter?

I don’t really know if it matters on a larger scale. But it does matter to me. I have some degree of choice about where I live, as do many people in my generation. I want to live in a place that’s optimistic about the present and the future. I want to live in a place where people feel emotionally invested in their city, not just their property. I want to live in a place where there are common points of pride. I want to live in a place where people know what makes it special. I want to live in a place with some kind of esprit de corps. I’ve written about this before. I suspect that if it matters to me, it matters to other people as well. Maybe that’s over-confidence.

All of this was bouncing around in my head this week, and then I saw Sam Newberg’s well-timed piece about the perverse joys of subzero outdoor football, and I found myself thinking “That’s a piece of what I’m talking about!” I don’t really give a damn about the Vikings, to be perfectly honest. But I tuned into the game anyway and watched it all the way through, because I knew that if I still lived in Minnesota, that’s what I’d be doing. I poured a beer that I had shipped from France 44. Sports aren’t why people move to one city instead of another. But I suppose you could see them as something as a proxy for the health of a city, because for most cities, their sports teams are their most visible ambassadors. What does it mean about St. Louis when their football team leaves, burning every bridge with the city in the process? What does it mean about Minneapolis that the football team stayed and is building a stadium that looks like a goddamn sand crawler, and it’s going to host the Super Bowl in the middle of goddamn winter? Is perception reality?

City pride is a total unknowable. You either have it or you don’t, and it’s immeasurable anyway. Also, it’s either worth something or its not, and that amount seems impossible to determine. (I’m reminded here of the famous confidence fairy.) There’s a lot more here that could be said that I’m unqualified to discuss at length, especially I think, of the racial implications of the St. Louis-MSP comparison, and how Minnesota’s Wonder Bread-whiteness plays into this conversation. But I think it bears considering (especially given sports’ historic role as society’s vanguard for diversity and racial tolerance).

This piece doesn’t really end, I just stop writing. My hope is to spark comment. I want more help in answering the question posed in the title. What are sports and stadiums worth to a city’s sense of collective self-worth? And what is that self-worth really worth?

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

39 thoughts on “What Is City Pride Worth?

  1. Kevin

    I think this is an interesting discussion. I’ve long felt that the Twin Cities take too much pride either in things lots of people find annoying (i.e. cold winters) or things that basically every other city in America has (i.e. good restaurants, good beers). Plus, I see our media’s tendency to throw up every survey that ranks us as Number One in something as kind of embarrassingly provincial. In my view, lots of times the strongest city pride comes not from confidence and optimism, but a scrappy love for a place you’ve known a long time. It’s not puppy love, where you’re convinced your city is the cutest, smartest, kindest, and best around. It’s more that sort of hard-won embrace of the place’s flaws, history, and struggles.

    1. Wayne

      Provincial is the perfect word for Minnesota. If it weren’t so far from every other place of density or culture it wouldn’t get away with the self-congratulatory garbage because it would have to actually compete more directly with other cities that try harder in areas that matter instead of just hanging up nice curtains and changing laws to allow food trucks. Let’s call it a day, city problems solved! We’ve got food trucks for downtown workers now!

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        For once, I agree with Wayne! I use the word “provincial” sometimes to describe MSP, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be a leader on things like sustainability, transportation, and talking about trying to end structural racism without doing it. I sometimes wish the Twin Cities were more connected to other big metro areas, but we’re not.

        1. Justin

          Minnesota is a very provincial state. I won’t argue that at all. St. Paul is a pretty provincial city. I do not find Minneapolis to be particularly provincial.

          But yeah, the region isn’t close to much else so we gotta grow our own.

    2. Justin

      Are you from here Kevin? I agree that the cities don’t have a legacy of “scrappy love” but the state itself definitely does. And I think we stand out in that respect. Many states don’t have much of an identity but they have cities that do. And as far as optimism and living through bad times…most of the cities west of the Mississippi are at least somewhat like that. Newer and without the mass exodus of jobs and industry.

      1. Kevin

        Born and raised in St. Paul, lived in Iowa during college, then out in NYC, and now back in Minneapolis. Because my whole Minnesota tenure has been in one of the Twin Cities, I don’t really have a good sense of how other places in Minnesota view themselves.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Let’s be honest… if the Vikings had left to L.A., would we really be missing anything? Other than nearly a billion dollars of municipal debt service?

    1. jeffk

      I guess I think so. I’m enough of a nerd and an academic to think I, and we, should be above something so ridiculous as professional sports. But on occasion when I have nothing better to do, I walk down to my neighborhood bar on a Sunday afternoon, when it would otherwise be empty, and find a bunch of people who don’t know each other behaving communally. And isn’t that an urbanist dream? I’m not so convinced there’s zero value in something arbitrary that brings very different people together.

  3. Wayne

    The Minnesotan ‘confidence’ mentioned above also leads to exclusionary attitudes, a great love of the status quo, and a pitchfork mob for anyone who dares criticize anything here. It’s how entrenched segregation continues to persist despite the seemingly progressive nature of politics and local government. It’s how bad decisions get defended till death despite being obvious mistakes to anyone who steps back to consider them objectively. It’s how railing for change gets you told to go back where you came from.

    I will submit as evidence the replies I expect to get to this post that will basically prove my point.

    1. Justin

      I heard you mention this several times and I’ve definitely seen it to some degree, but I’ve also seen plenty of griping by natives as well. I mean, just look at how much people outside the city criticize the city, no matter what it does, from “choo choo boondoggles” to parks spending to Black Lives Matter or whatever the hell else. People in Minneapolis proper might be more defensive but the city wasn’t given all that much respect in the state until pretty recently and was also overlooked by the rest of the country. Your perspective of this place is pretty limited as someone who has only been here since good things started to happen.

      And yeah, if you hate it here that much, I really don’t know why you’d want to stay.

      1. Wayne

        The suburban/outstate gripes are generally without merit and just crapping on the city, though. They also tend to have a bit of a racist undertone in a lot of cases. But somehow criticisms that the city is not being progressive enough get treated the same way, which is what puzzles me. I have no idea how saying “we need better sidewalks and transit” gets me lumped in with people who hate transit on principle and are ‘afraid’ of going into the city because of ‘crime’ or other coded racism.

        And the economy is pretty decent and it’s affordable, so it’s a good (enough) place for me to be right now. Just because I criticize something doesn’t mean I don’t see the good. I just see how it could be so much better than it is with surprisingly little effort and get frustrated that everything moves at a glacial pace and supposed ‘progressives’ are every bit as much of an obstruction as city-hating exurbanites.

        1. Justin

          I completely agree that we need better sidewalks and transit. I didn’t even really notice a lot of the sidewalk issues until I started spending a lot of time here and on the forum. And yes, the pace can be slow but we’ve dealt with decades of relative neglect and “oh well, good enough” but I see it really picking up in the last few years.

          Curious, what could be fixed with surprisingly little effort? I’m all about that.

              1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

                Only for cities that choose a lower limit… But we already place those signs for winter parking restrictions, etc. Minimal cost (probably about the same as the cost of 30 mph signs on most main roads every few blocks).

                1. Scott

                  Exactly. They already have the sign for the town name, the sign for the winter parking restrictions, and the big sign for churches, the Elks, Rotary, state volleyball champions from 2004, and whatnot. Adding a speed limit XX unless otherwise posted seems pretty innocuous.

          1. Wayne

            What Bill said is an obvious good start, but things like making an actual effort to improve the pedestrian realm instead of doing half-measures and barely meeting the word of ADA requirements but not the spirit would go a long way.

            Also admitting the transit planning methodology used to plan certain ‘upcoming’ (maybe) transit lines was maybe not the best way to plan transit and allowing ourselves a second look instead of claiming inertia makes it impossible to second-guess something that has been getting kicked around and growing in cost for almost a decade now with not a single shovel of dirt moved yet. Or having a serious look at allowing local funding of transit improvements without needing the state to give its blessing (which it almost never will).

            Or restructuring our fractured and stupid county road system to allow the cities the roads actually run through more say in how they’re built. Or maybe throwing the whole system away once and for all and giving local control of everything but the limited-access highways back to the actual municpalities they exist in.

            Or even little things like realizing the current sidewalk snow clearing enforcement system simply does not work and try something new like proactive enforcement or even having the city do all the plowing and pay for it via a frontage assessment.

            I didn’t say these things would be popular, but they are relatively low hanging fruit and would have a demonstrably positive impact on life for people here. I’ve got tons more you’ll hear me grouse about at some point if you haven’t already, but my point is that there’s a lot that could be done but no one seems interested in doing it because (insert some excuse about political realities or something).

    2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      I don’t deny that MSP has all of the traits you mentioned. But I’m less convinced that they are unique to MSP, or more acute in Minnesota than in other places.

      Take the Park Slope, Brooklyn, a very cosmopolitan neighborhood where the wife of the senior senator from New York led a nasty public battle against a bike lane. Exclusionary attitudes, a love of a status quo, and pitched battles over change occur everywhere.

      I think that to some degree, Minnesota’s self confidence may be a benefit in confronting these issues, not a blockage, because the state of the cities feel pressure to live up to the ideal, and address issues that are incongruous with it. I can think of other places that strike me as much more divided, retrograde, and hostile to criticism.

      1. Justin

        I was having a discussion on another article about transit and he was talking about transit in Seattle and Portland compared to here. He made it sound like it’s much more factionalized there, with very passionate groups opposing each other. You might get a lot done quickly in one area, but then run into a brick wall someplace else. We don’t really have that here to the same degree. I think we’re more consensus driven, which is slow but steady. Not saying that’s better, it’s just different from a lot of other American cities, particularly on the coasts.

      2. Wayne

        I’m coming around to the view that other places are equally bad in some respects after seeing what’s happening with a few transit projects around the country. That said, a lot of places still seem able to take more bold and decisive action than ever takes place here. I know the political gridlock in most places is grinding the wheels of government to a nonfunctional halt, but isn’t that just the time for a ‘can-do’ spirit to really make a difference? I don’t see that spirit working much here, just shrugging and saying maybe in twenty years.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          I don’t know anything about you personally, but perhaps MY view is colored by the fact that I only lived in Minnesota for six years, and it happened to be during a time of tremendous relative change, both for myself and the city.

          Just measuring MSP in 2009 when I came vs MSP in 2016 today, the differences seem enormous to me.

          1. Justin

            As someone who grew up in the suburbs and moved to Minneapolis in 2000 for college, I would agree. The last several years have been crazy in Minneapolis.

            You want to see how it used to be? Go over to St. Paul. That’s about the pace of change we used to have. A couple new things here and there, with a lot of conflict. Things just didn’t happen here really. Now it’s constant.

            We’re actually catching up to cities that used to far outmatch us in culture and amenities and services, and we’re keeping pace or outmatching our peer cities.

  4. Monte Castleman

    Also, in case anyone still believes it, the Vikings were never a threat to move to Los Angeles. The NFL has a list or criteria for relocation, things like fan support, effect of division rivalries, whether it’s a legacy team, stadium situations and such. The Vikings failed several of these and the Raiders and Charges both met every single one.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Very true, although I was actually surprised that *any* team would be moved to L.A… it seemed like the perfect perpetual blackmail scheme. Now to where will NFL owners claim they will decamp?

      1. Acs

        Depends on where the other two relocating teams end up. San Antonio, San Diego, Oakland, St. Louis, and down the road London.

    2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      Not to mention the Twin Cities size and wealth makes them an unlikely NFL market to move in the forseeable future. Still, I thought about the parallels given the history of teams leaving MSP, and the shaded threats the last time around.

  5. Tom L

    I grew up in St. Louis, and I think it’s really hard for Minneapolitans to understand what all this means for St. Louis. Minneapolis is a young city: it growth is recent, it’s easy to imagine Minneapolis’ best days ahead of it. Minneapolis is well diversified, its business generally have weathered recessions well, it population is confident. By contrast, St. Louis is an old city; it had glory days on an international scale, but they were over a century ago. The city looks back at a time when it imagines it might have competed with Chicago for dominance of the midwest, but that was a long time ago, and its leadership and its businesses have weathered recessions very poorly. Major businesses have explicitly forsaken the city, seemingly for no reason except to escape the city. Purina, McDonnell-Douglas, TWA, the football Cardinals, Anheuser-Busch, and now the Rams have all either left, shut down, or moved their headquarters.

    St. Louis is very divided, and it’s very difficult to accomplish anything at a regional level. The NFL situation takes on outsize proportions there because losing the Cardinals when I was a kid really exposed the region’s shortcomings. Their efforts to woo an expansion team fell apart when the County and City both separately presented to the NFL and essentially each exposed all of the other’s weaknesses; the NFL listened attentively, and chose to give the team to Charlotte instead. As is often the case in St. Louis, the only way they were able to get past this impasse, in 1995, was an extremely wealthy private citizen who decided St. Louis should have LA’s football team.

    Getting the Rams was a coup because LA was a much larger market, the NFL had both left and then rejected the St. Louis market, and the owners actively attempted to block their relocation. It was a bit of good news in the midst of a deeply bad period for St. Louis, when McDonnell-Douglas got bought out and TWA basically collapsed.

    There have been plenty of positives for the City in the last twenty years, but there’s also been a continuation of the negatives. Is the city in better or worse shape than it was when the Rams arrived in 1995? It’s hard to say. But the Rams are going back home, and St. Louisans don’t have the confident optimism that Minneapolitans have, so it plays in to a regional dialog of failure. It’s hard to turn things around when the public is afraid to be bullish about the region.

    Minneapolis is a growing city with a lot of positives, and far more good than bad news for our businesses. It’s hard for Minneapolitans to imagine a population that seriously considers the possibility that its city might be a bottom-tier place. Losing the Vikings would sting, but the region doesn’t really need the NFL to reassure it that things are going well here. St. Louisans have to accept that most people outside St. Louis don’t see it as an exciting, growing place; the city rarely gets cited on “best-of” lists, and it’s not a major destination for tourism or conventions. There’s probably no nationally-known movie since 1944’s “Meet Me In St. Louis” that’s depicted the city as a go-to place.

    In that environment, the sports teams are one of the few things that gives the city a good image on the national stage. With only three major-league sports, the fact that the Cardinals dominate the National League is a point of major civic pride. The Rams won a Super Bowl and played in another during the two decades in St. Louis, and that also was a point of pride. Losing the Rams is tougher in that environment.

  6. Scott

    Having traveled and knowing several people from Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, I find them far more self-confident that their City is top tier than MSP. Both cities make the ‘best places to live lists’ and they deserve it. In fact, I got the sense each city actually believes they are the best,/ epitomy of cool. I think MSP-ers are not completely sure and look to lists for validation.

    The city of Seattle is becoming unaffordable and I found their poorly maintained parks system surprising. Portland has an amazing urban fabric, but their economy doesn’t come close to Seattle or Minneapolis. And, both cities have a huge homeless problem that Minneapolis/ MN is doing a better job of addressing. There is room for improvement in all three places.

    I too wish Minneapolis was making more and faster progress on creating safer streets, improving transit, and developing people-oriented places. Perhaps, ‘city pride’ / competition with cities like Portland and Seattle is a force that encourages MSP to make more progress?

  7. GlowBoy

    In lived in both Seattle (early to mid 90s) and Portland (starting in the late 90s) during the periods when each city went from insecure about its place in the world to much more self-confident. The latter is not necessarily a better thing in terms of accomplishing things.

    When I first moved to Seattle it was about the time Starbucks, grunge and microbrews were all taking off, and the city was making a lot of “best places” lists. During most of that time, by the way, the Seahawks and the Mariners both sucked, and there wasn’t any of the kind of sports pride you’ve seen in more recent years. But culturally, the place was still smarting from the 70s, the era when Johnny Carson made nightly jokes about the rain in Seattle and the “will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” billboards went up.

    Confidence grew with all the attention Seattle was getting, and the Mariners finally had a good season in the mid 90s. Coincidentally (?), that same year ceiling tiles started falling out of the Kingdome, and the Ms asked for a half-billion dollar stadium so they could make more luxury-box revenue. Among my friends and coworkers who passionately pushed for a YES vote, there were two primary arguments:
    1. “It’s for the kids!” Seriously, I heard this over and over again. Of course no one was able to articulate it further than that, and explain how spending the revenue from the proposed tax increase (+0.1% in King County, which is most of the metro area) would benefit children so greatly.
    2. “World class city!” As in: “If we lose baseball, we won’t be a world class city”. I heard this one even more, especially from all the civic boosters, newspaper columnists, etc. And it’s total BS. Seattle is a world class city (with world class problems, BTW) and pro sports have little to do with it. The countywide vote failed by about 1 percentage point, but the legislature stepped in and overrode the county’s voters.

    Shortly after that incident, and yet another failed regional transit measure, my wife and I bailed for Portland, because it looked like a city that was better preparing for the future. And I think we were right. Seattle’s biggest entrenched problems – nightmarish traffic, increasing unaffordability, undersubscribed public schools – have only gotten worse, and livability has suffered greatly. But talk to the average Seattleite, and if they acknowledge at all that these problems are worse than – oh, let’s say Portland — they’ll either deny it or make some other statement that these problems come with the territory of being a world class city and there’s not much to be done.

    In other words, civic pride quickly gave way to smugness – Seattleites are convinced they live in one of the greatest places in the world (and in many ways, they’re right) – but smugness blinds people from problems and saps the motivation to fix them.

    The same thing is happening now in Portland. When we first moved there, Portland was not on the radar outside the northwest, and even in the northwest it was seen as Seattle’s pimply-faced awkward little cousin. When we’d tell Seattleites we were moving to Portland, we’d get a bewildered “why?” in response (much as we got more recently from Portlanders when we said we were moving to Minneapolis!). Like Seattle a half a generation earlier, Portland was a gritty, hardworking blue-collar town without much of a reputation but lots of civic engagement and a lot going for it.

    And like Seattle half a generation earlier, Portland is soaking in the accolades, getting written up in the NYT travel section all the time, absorbing lots of newcomers and feeling more sure of itself. But unlike the first big wave of new transplants, a lot of newer ones are bringing buckets of money with them. This, plus all the new cars brought by the newcomers, demands a civic response, but among longtime friends I’m now seeing the same kind of self-satisfied complacency that I saw in Seattle not that long ago.

    Will this happen in Minneapolis? I don’t know. It is starting to get on more of the “best of” lists.

  8. GlowBoy

    One more thing, about provincialism: maybe compared with east coast cities Minneapolis seems provincial. But it’s got nothing on Portland (or even Seattle).

Comments are closed.