Loving and loathing where we’re from

The less-than-picturesq view of the new Crow Wing County Courthouse that drives Chuck Marohn nuts every time he sees it. (Strong Towns)

The less-than-picturesq view of the new Crow Wing County Courthouse that drives Chuck Marohn nuts every time he sees it. (Strong Towns)

If you’re interested in the survival and development of small towns and rural places, you’d be well served to follow my friend Chuck Marohn, CEO of the nonprofit Strong Towns, a firm helping smaller cities make good decisions with their money. Chuck’s a big advocate of the notion that many expensive infrastructure investments that small towns make are unsustainable and that the money would be much better used in development that draws people into the town.

Like me, Chuck’s a Northern Minnesota guy deeply connected to his home area, in his case Brainerd, but endlessly frustrated by its decline and inability to change course. Today he wrote a post that woke me up a little. A successful guy, Chuck is often recruited to take jobs in other parts of the country. He won’t go, though, because he and his family love it here. But true love is always complicated:

Which is actually kind of bizarre. I generally loath Brainerd. To me this place is like that star athlete who, instead of using their gifts during their prime, spent their time partying and goofing off. Not only did they fail to reach anything near their potential, now they are a pathetic old man, body breaking down prematurely, looking back at the glory days of the past and not grasping what happened. Worse, they go put on a pair of Zubaz and strut around trying to recapture a little of that past magic, not realizing everyone else is shaking their heads behind their back. They don’t get that the thing that makes one great isn’t the flash and the style but doing the little things day after day after day.

Writing and working on my native Iron Range I can often feel the same way, only — sadly — we don’t do flash and style very well either. Pole buildings, though. We do pole buildings like a boss on the Iron Range.

Chuck’s entire post, including an interesting take on the attitudes those in power often have in the face of such criticism, is worth a read.


  1. Nothing wrong with a good pole barn…. I’ve lived/worked in the Southwest, New England and Southeast but have always kept a cabin up here. I came up as much as I could throughout the yrs when I wasn’t working on the Range. I love it up here and glad to call it home. You can keep the big cities and all the so called culture….. I’m a Ranger

    • Aaron uses the term ‘pole bar’ metaphorically. As in, empty generic looking metal buildings on the outskirts of core spaces. He is contrasting the difference between the Iron Range as a place with city centers, versus a place with empty promises in the form of development ideas signified by empty boxes placed well beyond the once proud, symbolic, and bustling urban core.

      Aaron’s pole barn refers to a thought, or way of thinking about community and economic space. He is really highlighting the difference between a community that built from the center cooperatively rather than one that erects empty shells individually far from any sense of community. He points out the difference in a place that once had shops and busy core areas, to a place with ruins in the middle and shiny metal on the circumference.

      Yes. The pole buildings are real, as are glassy office buildings, and bridges attached to nothing. All of which exist far from any dead urban core on the Iron Range.

      He was not talking about your pole barn. Who doesn’t appreciate a good pole barn? However, your pole barn was not intended to bring about economic and civic change. Plus, you probably paid for your own pole barn. Aaron is talking about pole buildings purchased and constructed with public money and/or financing.

  2. Yes, thanks for cleaning up my mess, Trevor. That is very much what I meant.

  3. My point was I’ve been working/ living in many parts of this country over the past 40 some yrs but the Range has always been home. Most of my children we not born in our state but feel MN is home, 3 are still in MN. My wife and I are Rangers, with both sets of our grandparents coming over from the “Old Country”. I’ve seen the booms and the busts of the 60’s & 70’s. I am fortunate enough to be able live were I please at this stage of my life and I picked here. I will go south for 4-5 months in the winter but am always excited to come back up. I guess what I’m saying is that with all the good and bad, ups and downs this area is special to me.

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