Is Mankato A “Cultural Wasteland”?

A recent article in the Mankato Free Press (the nation’s preeminent cultivator of “rapefruit“) looked back on the sixth season of Grind Fu Cinema, a spring-thru-autumn film series curated by the hosts of KMSU’s linchpin program, Shuffle Function. The piece carries a celebratory tone that would’ve undoubtedly served the series a lot better had it been published in April instead of the day before the final installment. But hey, informing the public isn’t really the Free Press’ forte. (Good luck casting an educated vote for city council today, citizens.)

Anyway, a quote from Grind Fu devotee David Ulcini stood out as particularly delightful:

Ulcini says part of him sees Mankato as a kind of “cultural wasteland.”

This isn’t an uncommon sentiment among residents. But is it accurate?

First, let’s rewind. I moved to Mankato roughly six years ago as a Duluth native coming off a three-year hangover in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. And from day one, I had one foot out the door. Mankato–at least at the time I moved here–prided itself as being a smallish-town with a self-proclaimed Twin Cities vibe. But the Mankato version of “Twin Cities vibe” isn’t one of thriving art and music scenes. It’s one of suburban genericisms and chain-store sprawl. The slogan basically boiled down to, “We’re Almost Shakopee!”

Needless to say, couldn’t wait to move northward:  To hit the Triple Rock on a weekly basis and see independent films in theaters and eat at killer restaurants and ride a bicycle on the street without getting gently mauled by tentative septuagenarians in late-model Impalas.

But after entrenching myself for a couple of years and socializing with the rad people that make up the core of this town, unearthing cool stuff became less difficult. For instance, the weekend before Halloween was home to two killer shows in Old Town: Old Towne Ghosts hosted Arms Aloft and Nato Coles & The Blue Diamond Band, while local death metallers Face of Oblivion made a triumphant return after a yearlong layoff.

These are prominent local acts–the most established punk and metal entities in town, by a significant margin–and they brought in prominent out-of-town talent. Yet the audiences at both shows were largely comprised of the bands and their close friends. Why? Well, days earlier, the town’s main resource for local events was busy devoting a thousand words to a Christian rock band that was preparing to play a sold-out show. At a church.

But is it really the local paper’s duty to cover legitimate cultural events? Their target demographic loves Dear Abby and bridge and high school basketball. Even if the “Currents” page made even made a passing sidebar mention, the people that need to hear about these shows just flat-out weren’t going to hear about it. The word needs to come from an independent, grassroots source…but it has to be loud.

If a riff is played in a mid-sized college town, is it still awesome?

Yeah, probably. But Mankato’s dependence on word-of-mouth transmission does, indeed, render it something of a “cultural wasteland,” at least in perception. Communication amongst like-minded individuals is a game of chance. (Part of this has to do with the structure of the town itself; the college campus is a hilltop island prison surrounded by drywall strip malls and burrito joints, discouraging students from venturing downtown for any reason beyond engaging in blackout belligerence. But that’s a discussion for another day.) Cool things are happening, but you have to play a couple years’ worth of social pinball to luck into ’em.

“Cultural wasteland” is inaccurate, but only slightly. “Cultural Thrift Store” might be more appropriate. No advertising. No service. Tons of junk. But underneath the piles, some electricity lurks under this town’s surface.

That electricity just needs a conduit.

Get Red With…

Hard Skin – “First Day Angry Song”

While violent HC bands like Coke Bust bemoan the existence “bar culture,” anti-racist oi revivalists Hard Skin embrace it to the fullest. And while the state college brand of “bar culture” found in downtown Mankato’s “entertainment district” isn’t really one that should be celebrated, the kind in which you can can embrace an excellent craft pour, a solid meal, and quality conversation with the locals certainly should.

I mean, how else are you going to learn about Mankato? Reading?