Riding the rural urban frontier up north

One of the quirks of the Iron Range is the way in which it is neither urban nor rural. In this way it’s like light, neither a particle nor a wave.

The Range is a series of small towns strung along a 135-mile ridge of iron deposits in northeastern Minnesota. Each town is autonomous, but not independent. The region functions much like a mid-sized industrial city in which the small towns are neighborhoods. But unlike a city, which is capable of electing centralized leadership to conduct centralized business, the Range has little ability to organize in a unified way. Plus, these “neighborhoods” are each separated by 2-10 miles of mines and increasingly populated rural townships, a wilderness that helps people forget the relationships shared by the towns and hide a lot of social problems.

To some degree the IRRRB, a unique state agency that handles our mining revenue (paid in lieu of property taxes), can offer direction to the Range region. To another, elected legislators can have above-average influence. Counties have a role, but there are two counties that have jurisdiction over the Range, Itasca and St. Louis. The Range cities represent a minority of the voting population of both these counties, so “the Range” has no single county outlet for its political will. The mines are titans of the local economy, but no longer involve themselves in local politics as they did decades ago.

There is an entire book to be written (and read by about 58 people) on this subject, indeed I have already tried. But the reason I bring it up today is a story by Jennifer Vogel at Minnesota Public Radio. She details the struggles facing low-income people who live on the Range who find affordable housing in one community but must then find employment and education in another. Reliable automobiles are key to survival here, though as the story shows there are some transit options. But public transit for places like this are among the litany of services the state is backing away from amid its self-inflicted, never-ending budget (read: political) crisis.

These “low-income commuters” are a central demographic on the Range, and they are getting slaughtered in the current economic and political situation. From gas prices, to weaker schools and higher tuition, to less help for child care, to fewer library hours to just about everything they touch, life has been getting worse for them for almost ten years. Bush, Obama, Pawlenty, Dayton, Oberstar, Cravaack. Doesn’t matter. It just keeps going on this way.

Take a look at the Vogel story, which does convey a sense of hope for some. I’ll be revisiting the urban/rural conundrum in the Range’s political and economic challenges in future posts.


  1. The answer is simple…faith, family & friends. The first two are inextricably tied and have been increasingly demonized, distorted and distained by society over the past 50 years. The media has enjoyed encouraging this but it’s not their fault. It’s ours for letting it happen.

    Thinking Bush, Obama, Pawlenty, Dayton, Oberstar or Cravaack are the answer only prolongs and exacerbates the pain…and exactly what the devil hopes we’ll do.

    Until we recognize the problem is us, and until we’re willing to change, we’ll continue the downward spiral.

    My goodness..I didn’t get two sentences into Vogels article when she states “thanks to too many tickets” that I knew it was a waste of time reading further. By her implying it wasn’t Celia fault for receiving “too many tickets”, you knew Vogel (& Celia) are clueless to the real problem.

    How sad..

  2. I respect your opinion; I just can’t understand how it can be implemented in any reasonable fashion from the top down. People with a reliable faith, family and friend network do, in fact, have a better chance of success and independence. And… And what? We still have problems because those things aren’t available to everyone.

    I don’t know about picking on one aspect of the woman’s story as an excuse to let her walk eight miles with a toddler and miss school is a good strategy. If low income people didn’t make mistakes there would be a lot fewer problems, but speaking as someone from a low income family that made plenty of mistakes through the generations I know for a fact that’s just not possible or practical.

    I am frustrated because there are ways up and out of poverty and those ways aren’t tied to the embrace of one particular party or the other. The problems aren’t the fault of liberal or conservative ideology. Your perceived decline in “traditional values” has been accompanied by an increase in rights for women and a more inclusive society. “Going back” is impossible and sometimes wrong; a new way forward is necessary.

    But I’ll take a moment to agree that a little faith, friendship and family support is a good place to start, wherever possible.

  3. Shorter Ranger47 (that would be a good unto itself): I didn’t actually read the article, but I’d like to trash it anyway on someone else’s blog.

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