New eyes for an Iron Range future

Like the Iron Range, Winnipeg has plenty of old brick buildings that look a little rough from the outside. But murals like this, found throughout the city, create a splash of color that gives new life to old buildings. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I think one of the best ways to begin strengthening a community is to see the place from a visitor’s point of view. Here on the Iron Range, a place with a cultural tradition of multi-generation families and insular social groups, that’s even more important … and hard to do.

As a native Ranger, I can’t drive down the Highway 169 Beltline in Hibbing without seeing the past.

That new Orthopedic Associates building will always be the old Pizza Hut.

They built that drug store next door on top of the old liquor store which was the old KFC.

Vic’s Crane and Heavy Haul is in that old pawn shop that took over Cummins Diesel where my dad got laid off and we lost the house.

Just talking about the Beltline dates me. Everyone knows (everyone worth their salt, anyhow) that the best times were before they laid down that big highway. You could go fishing and hunt rabbits out by Aviation Field. Then they’d have a big dance at the Memorial Building, which was never quite as homey as the one that burned down in the ‘30s.

In Hibbing, the signs read “Welcome to Historic Hibbing.” I love history, but I was never a fan of that tagline. I feel the same as if a sign said “Welcome to our Clean Hotel.” If you have to put it in the sign, you’re trying too hard.

I really enjoyed the blending of history and modernity that I saw on our trip to Winnipeg a couple weeks ago.

One great example was the way the city laid out its riverside in a section of town called The Forks. There the Assiniboine River flows from the West into the Red River, the same one that forms the northwestern border of Minnesota, and continues north to Lake Winnipeg.

So this place was a natural landmark, long used as a meeting place and settlement location for indigenous people of North America. But through the 1900s it was an ugly rail yard, and later a vacant ugly rail yard. Only in 1987 did the city of Winnipeg acquire the property and revitalize a vast section of the city into one of the most striking public places I’ve seen.

What I loved about it was the effortless blending of historical commemoration, public art and functional multi-use space.

That’s not just a playground. It includes plaques that explain the basics of local history, to be read by parents and children. An eye-catching sculpture pulls you into a square, only to see an engraved wall showing the historical and cultural significance of the location.

Private businesses like shops and restaurants are fully integrated in public tourist attractions. Parking sits alongside the park, so that the area becomes completely safe for foot and bike traffic. It was clear to me that this space provided a daily respite for local joggers and bicyclists, as well as a destination for tourists like me.

And it wasn’t just the Forks area that provided this sense. Throughout the city — from poor neighborhoods to the financial district — public art and murals created a sense that Winnipeg’s past, present and future were all part of the same story. Some artwork seemed to be positioned as a showcase. But even when we went bowling the old brick building sported a colorful hand-painted mural.

Fundamentally, a desirable town or city is a good place to live. Live! That means doing stuff that people do. Remembering and believing in who we are. Changing with the times.

Sure, Winnipeg is a big city. We are small. But small scale implementation could work, too. Filling in the gaps of the downtown business district with functional space. Drawing people downtown with affordable rental housing and activities. Turning an underused space like Frank Hibbing Park into a place where people would want to gather.

We could apply this same attitude to towns across Minnesota’s Iron Range region. After all, this whole place struggles with letting go of the past. Why fight it? Embrace the past with an eye to making a stronger future. We’ve got the stories. We’ve got the people. Do we have the will?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Toni Wilcox says

    Spot on, as usual. FWIW even visitors woukd know an old pizza hut. There’s a great 99% Invisible episode about them.

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