Fargo: Last on many lists but still worth saving
By James MacPherson
FARGO, N.D. — What defines Fargo for the rest of the United States? It has to be that accent.
When Joel and Ethan Coen released the movie "Fargo" in 1996, they crafted an indelible image of Fargoans as cheerful dimwits who speak in comically broad Scandinavian vowels ("oh yaaaa, yaaaa").
Natives are quick to point out that only the first five minutes or so of the movie actually take place in Fargo, with the rest set in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and Brainerd (guess "Brainerd" didn’t have the same ring). And with the eyes of the country now fixed on Fargo as its residents labor tirelessly to hold back the surging Red River, they’d like you to know that their city of almost 100,000 is a lot more than just barren snowscapes, local yokels and perpetual natural disasters.
"We’ve had a number of guests who tell me they’re here because North Dakota was their 50th state on the list to visit," said Karen Stoker, who in 2003 opened the trendy Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo, which has $40 bison steaks on its restaurant menu, works by local artists on its walls and hosts musical performances and poetry readings.
There are a few facts that are undeniable about Fargo. People do speak in a unique regional dialect, but it’s not as exaggerated as the movie. It is cold and it is very flat, which makes it more vulnerable to blizzards and floods.
But real estate is cheap, it takes about five minutes to get anywhere in town, and as the last week shows, it’s the kind of place where calls for volunteers to sandbag the homes of strangers turn up dozens of people in an hour or so.
"We’re all a bunch of people who aren’t that many generations removed from the pioneers, so I think hospitality and helping each other out is a natural for us," Stoker said.
Fargo has experienced a resurgence in the last decade, in part because of a growth in technology companies and its colleges.
In 2000, Microsoft purchased Great Plains Software, then a burgeoning software business founded by a North Dakota native. It’s now the second-biggest Microsoft campus outside of the headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Other high-tech and innovative companies have followed, including Appareo, an aviation software firm; Cetero, which researches and develops vaccines; and NRI, a neuropsychiatric research firm that has done well-regarded studies of eating disorders.
Between them, Fargo and its sister city across the Red River, Moorhead, Minn., have three colleges — North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University-Moorhead, and Concordia College — enrolling about 20,000 students combined. NDSU recently entered Division 1, a big ego boost for the rabid local Bison fans, and made the NCAA basketball tournament this year.
Between the high-tech workers and the students, downtown Fargo has transformed from a somewhat depressing place to a thriving destination with independent restaurants, high-end boutiques and live music venues that have hosted indie rockers such as The Hold Steady and Bon Iver.
"I have colleagues in New York and L.A. and they’re always saying, ‘When are you moving here?’" said Matt Charpentier, 25, who moved back from Savannah, Ga., in 2004 to start his own graphic design business. "And then they tell me how much they’re struggling. I’ve got all the work I can handle. Why would I go there?" In all, the Fargo-Moorhead metro area population is estimated at about 195,000 people. One thing the area still lacks, though, is diversity. The U.S. Census found Fargo was 93 percent white in 2000, although that was down from 97 percent in 1990 and city officials estimate the growth in immigrant communities has accelerated even more since then. In particular, Hispanic and Somali communities have gained a foothold and have begun opening authentic ethnic markets and restaurants in town.
North Dakotans have gotten used to the fact that it takes somewhat derisive movies like "Fargo," or crippling floods and blizzards, to get them publicity. And part of living here, it seems, is learning to appreciate the jokes.
Tom Isern, a professor of history at NDSU, has collected hundreds of satirical one-liners about North Dakota culture. For example: You must be a North Dakotan if you define summer as three months of bad sledding. Or a more timely one: You must be a North Dakotan if you think of something other than the Bible when you hear the words "The Great Flood."
Whatever happens with the flood, Fargo will remain a very affordable place to live. When Ellen Shafer, a PR consultant, and her husband moved back from Minneapolis a few years ago, they purchased a 105-year-old mansion with six bedrooms and a formal dining room for $180,000.
"A lot of people say, let’s keep this stuff a secret," Shafer said. "I say let’s not. Fargo has benefited greatly the last few years from an influx of smart, talented people."