Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bloomington-Normal: a town divided against itself

In a recent article in Health and News, a small monthly newspaper here in Bloomington-Normal, it is mentioned that Minneapolis/St. Paul is the "other Twin Cities." What?! The article clearly wasn't meant to be disparaging of Minneapolis/St. Paul, since it was a favorable tourist guide of the area. (The article itself has other problems; for example, I would take issue with Mall of America as being the biggest attraction of the area.) What I find strange is that Bloomington-Normalites would describe their cities as the "Twin Cities." Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge, huge fan of Bloomington-Normal, and love its cultural offerings, perhaps more than what is offered in the Mpls/St. Paul metropolitan area. But, that said, I can't help but feel that Bloomington-Normal is one city, divided in half. As a St. Paul friend of mine recently pointed out, Minneapolis and St. Paul are two distinct cities in every way - each has a downtown with its own nightlife and its own distinct culture and feel. While the cities touch, their downtown centers are 10 miles from each other. In contrast, Bloomington has the downtown, Normal has the college life and uptown area, everybody drives back and forth like the divide on Division Street does not exist. Only in terms of public services, like school districts, police forces, etc., does the division have a present-day objective reality. Here in Bloomington-Normal, you don't hear the common refrain in the Mpls/St. Paul Twin Cities, "I don't know much about Minneapolis" or "St. Paul, I never go there."

Maybe I could be accused of being an outsider, or a newcomer to B/N, still lacking a feel for the cities. Still, I must resist calling B/N the Twin Cities. Does the term come from copying the Twin Cities to the north? Does it really capture Bloomington-Normal's uniqueness? Does the city division serve only as an excuse for redundant city bureaucracy?

And then, there is the issue of school segregation. Since moving here, I was surprised to constantly hear from folk that Unit 5 schools - based in Normal but encompassing much of Bloomington, indeed surrounding its core - is better than the Bloomington District 87, a view I've since heard derives it true origin from utterly racist and classist views perpetuated by realtors since the 70s and 80s. Both Bloomington and Normal, and every school within their districts, would be considered lily white and middle-class suburban schools in larger metro regions, underscoring the absurdity of this view. Even though I don't know of a single school in the B/N area failing to make the NCLB grade, much of this is being further aggravated by the absurdity of the NCLB testing system, which encourages some teachers to view working in schools that serve a slightly higher percentage of poorer and more disadvantaged students as a potential threat to their job security and, when schools test scores get compared, their own feeling of occupational worth. If this can happen to teachers, who should be able to see that NCLB is poor assessment policy, it is no wonder that middle-class B/N residents count living within the Unit 5 boundaries as a plus.

In trying to explain some of these popular views, I was recently very surprised to hear someone in Bloomington say that she wouldn't send her kids to Normal, due to its lack of diversity which, she thinks, contributed to racist attitudes being expressed to her children by other children and a complacent school leadership on the issue.

While such problems are hard to eradicate, merging the two districts into a single one might help. I also can't help but wonder why, if you must have two distinct districts, they don't follow the city boundaries. Isn't revealing that much of upper-class Bloomington is within the Normal-based Unit 5?!

Seems to me, in talking about merging, a unified Bloomington-Normal might be advantageous on all fronts. Besides the issues centering on social justice, the vast majority here live in B/N as if it were one city. To artificially think of ourselves living in the Twin Cities, when there exists a Twin Cities that is nationally known to have that name (and even has a baseball team that calls itself the Twins), seems to disparage the special uniqueness of Bloomington-Normal.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I have lived here for a few years, and I can say that you hit the nail on the head in terms of calling B/N the "Twin Cities". There is no division except on paper.

That being said, the diversity issue within Unit 5 really depends on where you live. For example, Normal West HS is very diverse, but Normal Community HS is not. It just depends on which areas of town are feeding into the schools.

As far as combining the towns, I don't think it will happen for a long time. It's been tried a few times and it never happens because, i think, there is too much pride in each town. I don't know a whole lot about the issues that surround the merging of the towns, but I do know that people think differently about Normal and Bloomington. As an outsider, myself, having come to live here, it almost seems as if you come here to live in Normal and work in Bloomington. While this isn't true for some people, it is for others.
This last bit, of course, is all my opinion.