Friedman reflects on St. Louis Park’s inclusive nature

Author will speak April 30 at sold-out fundraiser for the St. Louis Park Historical Society

After years of writing about national and international events, author and The New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman decided to focus on his upbringing in St. Louis Park.
In his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late,” Friedman wrote, “I knew that what was pulling me back home to Minnesota and St. Louis Park was not simply an academic interest in the extraordinary politics of these places. What was pulling me back was a reaction to four decades of covering the Middle East and then Washington, D.C., and seeing how much these two arenas had come to mirror each other – and how little they resembled the places that had shaped me in my formative years.”

In an interview, Friedman said he left Minnesota at the age of 19 for college and later work. However, he said, “Over the last 40 years or so, I came to appreciate what a basically inclusive and nurturing and healthy, in a way, community I grew up in.”

With experience living and covering other places in the world, Friedman said he wanted to understand whether he had remembered St. Louis Park better than it had been or whether his recollections had been correct. He said he wanted to understand what made St. Louis Park work.

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman

Similarly, he wanted to understand how the community had been handling a transition from being a mainly white Protestant, Catholic and Jewish community to becoming more diverse racially and religiously, he said. The whole country, and in some ways the whole world, is going through a transition of increased diversity, said Friedman, and he wanted to consider St. Louis Park as a microcosm of that and a model for how to build an inclusive community.

St. Louis Park Historical Society board member Jeanne Andersen recalled a discussion involving society board members and Friedman while he researched “Thank You for Being Late.”

“It was a wonderful two-hour session in which he shared his ideas for his book, and we shared our experiences growing up in the Park, especially with regard to the relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish friends at school,” Andersen said. “The Jewish kids were technically a minority, but their level of school involvement and academic excellence set the bar higher for everyone and gave the school it’s sterling reputation.”

Most of the early chapters of Friedman’s book relate to changing technology, climate trends and market forces in what Friedman calls “the age of accelerations.” His chapters about St. Louis Park amount to a case study of how one community is dealing with the impact of such changes.

He delves into the history of the city’s acceptance of the migration of Jewish families from north Minneapolis, their impact on other populations in St. Louis Park and the city’s embrace of other cultures in modern times.

St. Louis Park is unusual in its commitment to pluralism, Friedman said.

“There are other communities, I think, trying to work in the same way, but it’s a very strong example of it,” he said.

No moat, wall or drawbridge surrounds St. Louis Park, and it is basically indistinguishable aesthetically from other neighboring cities, Friedman said.

“But it’s somehow maintained a unique culture over a long time now that is distinct and is pluralistic,” Friedman said. “I attribute that to leadership.”

He quotes from interviews with former mayor Jeff Jacobs, current Mayor Jake Spano, former city manager and council member Jim Brimeyer, current City Manager Tom Harmening, Supt. Rob Metz and other St. Louis Park leaders in his book.

While Friedman said in the Sun Sailor interview, “It’s not like we have had Nelson Mandela as our town manager for 70 years,” he said St. Louis Park has benefited from ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.

“That always is the key to success,” Friedman said. “You can’t depend on one heroic person. It’s good people over time making more good decisions than bad, and there is actually something beautiful about it.”

None of the mayors or school superintendents in St. Louis Park went on to become national political figures, but they created change in their community over a long period of time, he indicated.While Friedman said tensions still exist in part because St. Louis Park is more diverse racially and religiously than in the past, he said city leaders are still seeking to weave an inclusive community together.

“I realize the challenge is more difficult now, and it’s not easy and there will be stops and starts,” Friedman said. “What impresses me is not that they’ve exceeded and somehow created the perfect tapestry in America. What impresses me is the number of people who want to get caught trying.”

He reiterated, “What I find in St. Louis Park and Minnesota politics in general is there are still a lot of people trying to apply hope. I don’t know if it will succeed, I don’t know if it will work, but they’re willing to get caught trying. That’s all you can ask for.”

Making St. Louis Park famous

He noted that his book has given him an opportunity to talk about St. Louis Park internationally.

For example, about two weeks before the April 12 interview with the Sun Sailor he gave an interview in Paris to promote the French version of his book.

“It was sort of fun and friendly, but talking with all these French people about St. Louis Park on a big news show,” Friedman said. “But in fact, they were quite interested.”

He will also travel to China to promote a Chinese version of the book.

Of St. Louis Park, Friedman said, “It’s going to be famous. It’s pretty unusual. It wasn’t a neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York or downtown Los Angeles – just this little suburb of Minneapolis. But it spawned a lot of energy and a lot of people who went on to do interesting things.”

While he said many of the celebrities who came from St. Louis Park were the product of a certain community at a certain time, he said he has been impressed by the energy coming out of St. Louis Park High School.

“I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it spawns another generation of Frankens and Coen Brothers,” said Friedman, referencing St. Louis Park-raised comedian and U.S. Sen. Al Franken and filmmakers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.

Friedman said he made about five trips to St. Louis Park while researching “Thank You for Being Late,” but he also still makes social visits to the city regularly from his home in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.

“I live in Washington, but I’m from St. Louis Park,” he quipped.

He will return to St. Louis Park 7 p.m. Sunday, April 30, in a sold-out fundraiser for the St. Louis Park Historical Society at the Sabes Jewish Community Center.

“They asked me if I would do a fundraiser for the historical society, and I said I would be thrilled to,” Friedman said of society board members. “Nothing puts a smile on my face more than coming back home.”

The fundraiser will benefit the society’s capital fund drive. The society has been seeking to find a permanent home for a museum and a research office. To learn more about the society, visit slphistory.org.

To learn more about Friedman’s book, visit thomaslfriedman.com.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]