O, say can you see … the Minneapolis city flag?
Odds are, you didn’t know Minneapolis has a flag, much less seen it gallantly streaming.
Although Minnesota’s biggest city has had a city flag for more than 60 years, residents haven’t exactly rallied around it. It’s rarely seen in public. In the few places it has been displayed, it often has flown upside down or with the colors reversed — without anyone noticing.
People who do know the flag describe it as mediocre at best and “incredibly boring” at worst.
Which is a pity, because a good city flag is a place-making tool, something to demonstrate civic pride, especially when lots of visitors come to town for, say, a Super Bowl.
Everywhere (other than Minneapolis), municipal flags are having a moment.
Just across the river, there’s been a grass-roots movement to make the St. Paul flag more visible. The bright yellow, blue and red banner is flying at ballparks, breweries, bars and homes.
A recent redesign of the Crystal city flag has resulted in what one expert called one of the nation’s best. And a contest is underway in Rochester to come up with a new flag, making it one of about 100 cities nationwide trying to create a city flag worth saluting.
If you wonder why a city should bother with a banner, just ask Chicago.
Regarded as one of the best nationwide, the Chicago flag has been embraced by residents as part of the city’s identity, not just a symbol of the city government. Its four-star flag (adopted in 1917, with stars added in 1933 and 1939 to reflect key events) shows up on uniforms, hats, coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments and bike messenger bags. There’s even a website devoted to Chicago flag tattoos. That’s what you call a good branding.
It’s not that other cities aren’t trying. According to the Flags of the World website, more than 50 cities in Minnesota, from Albertville to Zumbrota, have a municipal flag.
But most city flags are “the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed,” according to a 2015 TED talk on the subject by Roman Mars, host of “99% Invisible,” a radio show about design and architecture.
The principles of good flag design call for simple design with meaningful symbolism and no more than two or three basic colors, say flag experts, or vexillonnaires.
But municipal flags often are what flag fans call an SOB (seal on a bedsheet), or they have words written on them — both of which are hard to distinguish on a flapping piece of cloth 25 feet in the air.
Most of the city flags in Minnesota feature lettering, typically the name of the city, often tossing in an anodyne motto: “Serving Today, Shaping Tomorrow” (Maple Grove), “A Proud Past – A Promising Future” (Farmington).
But “if you need to write the name of what you’re representing on your flag, your symbolism has failed,” said Ted Kaye, a member of the North American Vexillological Association.
Minneapolis flag takes flak
Minneapolis’ blue and white flag, with its seal-like symbols — which include a building, a gear, a ship’s wheel and a microscope — barely merited a C grade (5.58 points out of a possible 10) in a 2004 survey conducted by the Vexillological Association rating 150 municipal flags in the U.S.
Despite being largely unseen, it has routinely taken flak.
In a 2012 MinnPost article, writer and artist Andy Sturdevant said the flag is “just not inspiring.” Gizmodo featured the Minneapolis city flag in a 2015 article asking, “Are These the Ugliest City Flags on Earth?” And a 2017 City Pages article dissed the Minneapolis flag for its “hollow symbolism.”
Even its designer admitted that “there are fewer and fewer places where you can see it,” said Louise Sundin.
She is executive vice president for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and a trustee with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. But back in 1955, when she was a teenager attending Southwest High School, she won a contest to design a new Minneapolis flag. She received a $250 U.S. savings bond.
“I was really proud,” she said.
While she thinks the symbols on her flag are “still appropriate,” she understands that tastes — and flag designs — have changed. “I can’t imagine that design is flawless forever,” she said.
Some people have suggested alternative designs for a Minneapolis flag. But there hasn’t been a groundswell of support to replace Sundin’s design. The Citizens for a Minneapolis Flag Redesign Facebook page, which had 68 followers, hadn’t had a post for a couple of years and now appears to be offline.
Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano, who is from Chicago, has seen what a valuable tool the city flag is there. In 2015, she tried to get an initiative going to create a new Minneapolis flag in time for the Super Bowl. But interest, uh, flagged. “It got deprioritized,” she said.
St. Paul flag is ugly but beloved
In the Vexillological Association survey, St. Paul’s flag was rated even lower than Minneapolis’. But that hasn’t stopped St. Paulites from embracing it.
Featuring a shield with images of the Capitol dome, the Rev. Lucien Galtier’s chapel, the North Star and a winged wheel, St. Paul’s flag was designed in 1932 by Gladys Mittle, an art student at the then-College of St. Catherine.
As recently as 2004, there were only four known copies of the St. Paul flag on public display, according to a Pioneer Press report.
At the time, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly suggested a contest to replace the Mittle flag with something “more dynamic.” But Kelly’s idea didn’t fly. In 2012, Sturdevant wrote that he couldn’t find any public displays of the St. Paul flag.
But oddly, since then, the old flag has begun to experience a renaissance.
“You see it and you think, ‘Wow. What’s that?’ ” said St. Paul resident Andrew Korsberg. “I thought the flag was good looking. I wanted to fly the flag at home.”
He and a group of friends ordered city flags. In 2014, he flew the flag at his Hamline-Midway home. Then one of Korsberg’s friends, St. Paul geographer Bill Lindeke, started selling the flag on his blog site (tcsidewalks.blogspot.com).
In the past two or three years, Lindeke has sold 200 to 300 flags to residents and businesses. They’ve been flown at CHS Field, Minnesota United games, Can Can Wonderland and a pickle vendor’s stall at the farmers market.
Sustain Ward 3, a St. Paul neighborhood group, has used the flag to rally its members in their advocacy for sustainable city planning and more affordable housing.
“It might be a bit of a silly design, but it’s ours,” said group chairman Brandon Long. “It is our flag, and we really love our city.”
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775
The Good: Chicago's flag is an example of what a city flag should look like. It's simple, yet gives a nod to four pivotal events from the city's past. The popular design is used on everything from uniforms and hats to coffee cups.
The Bad: St. Paul's flag is considered even worse than Minneapolis', still St. Paulites are starting to embrace the 1932 design. It's being flown at sports games, restaurants/bars and private homes.
And the Ugly: Efforts to replace the rarely seen and much maligned Minneapolis flag have, uh, flagged. So the 1955 pendant-style flag — with its indecipherable symbols — remains the city's official flag.