Warm greetings from Minnesota’s northern hellscape

Behold the horror of Cambridge, which is the worst place to live in Minnesota according to a link bait site seeking to make people angry.

Behold the horror of Cambridge, which is the worst place to live in Minnesota according to a link bait site.

All through yesterday friends and neighbors collectively set ablaze my social media feed with a link to an article entitled “These Are the 10 Worst Places to Live in Minnesota,” posted on a website called RoadSnacks.net.

To save you the suspense, Nick James of RoadSnacks.net lists the worst cities are as follows:

  1. Cambridge
  2. Brainerd
  3. Grand Rapids
  4. Cloquet
  5. International Falls
  6. Bemidji
  7. Virginia
  8. Isanti
  9. North Branch
  10. Waite Park

Hibbing was off the main list, but was next up at #11.

Before you fall over yourselves rushing to see the site, know that it’s click bait. Believe it or not, RoadSnacks.net is not a repository of our century’s finest thinking, but a website that profits when people look at their ads. It lacks the dignity of a site like this one, which has the class and intellectual merit to attract far fewer readers while making almost no profits whatsoever.

But I’m not dragging this dead cat out into the square to suggest we ignore it. Rather, I think there are a few worthwhile observations to make based on the methodology used by RoadSnacks.net.

What RoadSnacks.net did was look for the lowest population densities, highest unemployment rates, lowest median incomes, highest housing vacancies, lowest expenditures per student and highest student teacher ratios, coupled with highest crime rates per capita.

That’s a complicated mix and clearly a spitball take on how to judge a place from afar. Importantly, and James notes this, all of the “worst cities to live” are in Northern Minnesota. Most are in the 8th Congressional District. Contrastingly, the “best cities” are all fairly affluent metro suburbs.

Based on the methodology, Northern Minnesota never had a chance. Our cities have bigger footprints and fewer people. Our aging demographics and transitioning natural resources economies have pinned our unemployment above the state average for three decades or more. Crime stats are always tough to figure in rural areas, though anyone who thinks there isn’t crime in Northern Minnesota is kidding themselves. Our biggest social problems stem from serious drug and alcohol problems that permeate our entire region, much of which I’d attribute to longterm effects of the uneven economy.

Numbers are numbers, and these data reflect the challenges we actually face in Northern Minnesota.

What the numbers don’t reflect, however, is our greatest tool in addressing that challenge, and the reason why most of the people who live in these places wouldn’t call them bad, much less “the worst.” In fact, several of the communities on this list are doing good things. I live between two of the “worst” towns and would call my collective community a great place to live.

Simply put, a list like this doesn’t take into account the aesthetics. The site was all too quick to pull the least flattering Google Streetview pictures they could find to use in the story, but many of these places are defined by their proximity to natural beauty. People who live here don’t stay in town all the time. Life in Northern Minnesota means a willingness to drive, explore, bike, or hike your way outside city limits. Most who live here seek that lifestyle.

The biggest takeaway here is that we can probably agree that the problems cited by the story are real, but that fixing those problems is not something that will happen by default. Rather, aesthetics and innovation are the keys to improving the data metrics that would improve our communities. We’ll never be Edina or Eden Prairie, but most who live here are all too happy for that fact.

So no, Northern Minnesota isn’t the worst place to live, no matter what RoadSnacks.net says, but the region does face some of the worst economic challenges. Fortunately the region’s lifestyle and sense of community aren’t so easily tracked, and will be central to turning things around.

Will we act, or just click?


  1. Steve Chesney says

    I find it surprising to see Cambridge, Isanti and North Branch classified as “Northern” Minnesota. From my 763 perspective, they are just some the farthest flung exurbs of the Twin Cities.

    But I guess it’s all how you define “North”. For me, if you go there on a weekend — whatever direction you drive — you are going North.

    • Those towns are more accurately referred to as central Minnesota, but because they’re all in the 8th CD and all north of the metro I’m calling them “Northern.”

      • Steve Chesney says

        I remember the confusion of my daughter and son-in-law after moving to Princeton. “Why are we in the 8th District again?”

  2. Thank you for your personal and candid remarks. I agree that this blog site is a click bait site where they financially benefit from headlines that get attention. I also live, work, play and raise my family in the Grand Rapids, MN area. I was raised in Bemidji and visit the Brainerd area several times a year. I am proud that I am from Bemidji. We have lived in the Grand Rapids, MN area since 1997 and are hopeful to continue living here another 18 years. My children receive a good education, and like the small town living and exposure to Minnesota’s nature. Every community has their issues. I agree that the stats were stacked against us. I think the takeaway from this for those that live and work here is to continue to work together to improve conditions here in the Grand Rapids, MN area. It is funny that they took a picture of this section of town because just recently someone purchased the old theatre and I hear that there are plans to bring it back to life. So, RoadSnacks.net…get ready to get flooded by positive thoughts versus wasting our energy on boo, hiss remarks.

  3. John Ramos says

    A few years ago, when I California filmmaker wanted to make a movie called “Duluth is Horrible,” you could have choked on all the righteous indignation that filled Duluth as people came running out of their houses and swarmed social media to let the filmmaker know that DULUTH WASN’T HORRIBLE AT ALL. I hope northern Minnesota doesn’t repeat this pattern. Get T-shirts made that say “Proud Resident of the Worst Place to live in Minnesota” and leave it at that.

  4. Frank Debelak says

    I was born in Chisholm with close relatives in Kelly lake, I remember my childhood fondly, summer days at my uncles farm, and riding my bike around “Chisholm lake”. My father was a diesel mechanic for now defunct LTV steel and lost everything when they declared bankruptcy. No pension, no medical. But yet he kept on going, WE kept on going. Thr range is always going to have a hard time , it’s the nature of the beast. I have since moved away to the south and warm winters, but I look back on my childhood and refuse to believe the range was anything but one of the best places to live and grow up.

  5. I teach statistics. I just used this as an example in class – about how you can make statistics look any way you want.

  6. Well, I definitely get that the aesthetic beauty is key to why people would live in these “bad eggs,” I actually don’t think that was ever in dispute, and there was even mention of the natural beauty a couple of times (See description of Brainerd and International Falls). I think the reason that the aesthetic isn’t taken into consideration here is because there are many other towns that have the same aesthetic, but without the crime, unemployment, underfunded education, etc. I grew up in the country, close to Virginia MN, and was lucky enough to benefit from its schools, without having to live in the town itself (particularly the “Southside” of town), but honestly, you can’t argue the aesthetics, if Eveleth and Mountain Iron are in spitting distance of Virginia, but don’t suffer from the same issues. Sure the site might be click bait, but I think the data is more accurate than we give it credit, and the issues are real. If someone that I knew was going to move up North, I would be inclined to tell them to avoid these places and live in the town next door.

  7. John Howard says

    If you want to live in Edina or Eden Prairie; move there; if you want to have a livable wage, education, peace, common sense, and peace of mind; try to convince someone with “power/$$$” to do something about it; the problems that be, that is. No one perspective is correct, it takes may perspectives to arrive at correct conclusion. From my perspective, I, uncomfortably rationalize the “large” footprints of our “local” cities via understanding that population will most likely increase overtime, and hoping that these cities will begin to grow up, stop growing out, and ruining our rural sources of livelihood and income.

  8. Hmmmm. Well statistics and perspective sure are two different things. I know so very many people who moved to this area for specific jobs that required specific education. I know lots and lots of people who retired to this general area. There are people who grew up in the North and feel like they are stuck here. There are many who moved away, but came back by choice, bringing a spouse and raising a family here. There are those who spent their career away because they got jobs somewhere else, but came back to retire in such a beautiful area. And there are others who came for specific employment, maybe not with whole hearted enthusiasm, but stayed because of the values they found here. At least now I know what click bait is all about.

  9. Bill Brown says

    Now, I know we have double named places in Minnesota ( not townships but cities and villages ) such as Lexington, Roscue, Franklin and in my seventy years plus I have forgotten a few. In the 1890’s we had several more St Paul Park was used twice and more. However, having said that at that point in time henceforth let me tell you I cannot find the second Waite Park. I know the one just west of St Cloud but that ain’t in da 8th. What I find nuts is it seems like dis joker James just went for a ride on MN 95 and wondered off a little. But having seen every court house in Minnesota some old some even older and some new, I announce , determine and find the only worst place to live in Minnesota is where Hibbing was, the first Hibbing. Now if you want some crazy names we got some but try French Lick, IN…..

  10. LoieJ has already hinted as much, but I’ll say this: there is a strong generational disconnect when it comes to rating “best” and “worst” places to live. This goes back decades. I’ve heard about young people hitchhiking out of the Range in the ’70s, telling a willing driver they were headed “anywhere.” This is understandable. When I was a chap it was all about bright lights, tall buildings, nightlife and the like. Most of that stuff begins to lose its luster as you embark on the back nine of life and begin to appreciate the quieter, ineffable qualities of a well-lived life. My phone number still begins with 612, but for reasons we can all appreciate I find myself spending more and more time in the 218.

  11. Nicolette Roberts says

    Thankfully our business was cut off of the picture Radiosnack used of Grand Rapids. I would have been heart sick. We have enough difficulties without an attention getter’s proganda. It did get me thinking about what I could do to improve my community…I looked around..it’s wonderful here. PS..I am a transplant from Williston ND circa 1996

  12. Amy Mastin says

    I think this is more a bullying tactic than informational!! I live in International Falls, and did live in the big city of Mpls for 9 years, hating every day!! I missed my nature walks, picking blueberries, strawberries, pincherries, chokecherries, raspberries, the trees, birds, and yes, even the bugs!! Haven’t seen a whole lot of crime, at least not much worth reporting, don’t need a whole lotta money to live on, at least if you are comfortable with modestly living. I’m staying!!!

  13. The action is in the reaction. I’m not sure this list is such a terrible idea. Imagine the different reaction you would get if you changed the locations on the list. There are plenty of places in America where the reaction would be much less defensive and much more about victimization. The ethos of reactions in this circumstance have all been about defending a place, not about a group of people proving how unjustly their treatment has been. That shows a strong internal locus of control. There is good reason to be positive in that regard.

  14. I didn’t give this any real credence. Just laughed. I lived in Isanti as a teen, thus one attended junior and senior high in Cambridge. Moved to Brainerd after marrying. For weekend shopping and entertainment, I go to Bemidji, Brainerd, or Grand Rapids. Maybe hell is just my kind of place…

  15. We just went on a month long vacation looking for a better community to live in. We live in Bemidji. We drove 5000 miles west and southwest and on the way back looked at each other and said …We already live in the best place! Cheaper, cleaner, prettier, tons of clear clean water lakes to play on and woods to hike and bike. It’s heaven on earth! (The below zero weather in winter is tough…but it keeps the ref-raft out!)

  16. Home is where you hang your hat. These towns might be the worst place to live, but the fact remains, these towns exist because people decided that there was something in that town that they liked, loved, wanted, or just a place to hang their hat. The nothern tier of Minnesota is woods, lakes, recreational places, and GOOD childhood memories for the majority of us. We struggle with businesses, keeping kids safe, and jobs, but any little town here is better than Detroit! We chose to live where the water is blue as the sky, the woods and grass green and inviting, we are a hardy bunch and like to hunt and enjoy the best of Mother Nature. Our little towns have something to offer – we help each other in times of need, there is always a smile for a stranger, we try harder in sports as we don’t have the “big school talent” draws, and we enjoy our time with family when they come to visit from all those wonderful far away big cities. We live here for a reason – it’s God’s country and we all know it. So mock us if you like, but there is a reason after all that big city adventure, why is it that so many of those who moved away come back – to hang their hat – and live and love where they were born? I was born in a small town, LOVE it!

  17. Dave Durrant says

    Please try to resist writing articles like this because it only encourages folks from afar to venture north. Look at Ely and all what all the citified riff-raff have brought there. Next thing you know they’ll bring micro-breweries and fancy eateries along with other trappings of the ‘outside.’ Hmmmf!

  18. jerrold moen says

    I guess that shows how much science is worth

  19. Bloggers are beginning to confronting Christopher (Chris) Kolmar and Nikolaos (Nick) Johnson (the ones who make the RoadSnacks lists), in what I believe is their uninformed and graceless immaturity, and often inaccurate data in their new venture, in regard to communities all over the country. Here is the link to a post that I wrote: “Why Christopher Kolmar is not on my Happy List (and he Shouldn’t be on Your’s either)” ‪http://www.marybakerart.com/newburyport/?p=4500‬ . And I am putting together a list of people who are standing up to these guys, and your post is on there. Thank you so much Aaron for speaking up.

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