Something In the Water?

St. Louis Park, sometimes referred to as St. Jewish Park for its high concentration of Members of the Tribe, has been the launching pad for a number of famous individuals over the years. The first ring suburb grew as Jews living in North Minneapolis, a veritable shtetl before the 1950s and 60s, moved west to affordable homes built in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Race riots in North Minneapolis during the 1960s ejected some of the last holdouts of the old neighborhood, many landing in St. Louis Park.

It may be surmised that there was something in the water, but in the case of St. Louis Park that expression strikes a bit too close to home. The Reilly Tar Company, also known as Republic Creosoting Company, was established in St. Louis Park in 1917 and produced creosote, a chemical used to preserve wood. Before closing in 1972, toxic chemicals from Reilly were dumped into a pond that went into an aquifer that eventually came out of St. Louis Park faucets. The Environmental Protection Agency declared the former Reilly land a Superfund site. So, water quality and links to cancer clusters are no laughing matter in St. Louis Park.

Despite this unfortunate history, the amount of Jewish talent to spring from “the Park,” has been notable. 

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, author and 3 time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, graduated from St. Louis Park High School, where he wrote for the school’s newspaper. Friedman has worked for UPI’s London Bureau, as White House correspondent for the New York Times, and as Jerusalem Bureau chief for the New York Times. He was also named to Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Among others, Friedman has written From Beirut to Jerusalem, Hot, Flat and Crowded, and The World is Flat

Our current junior United States Senator, Al Franken, moved with his family to St. Louis Park as a young child. As a high school student he met Tom Davis and together they performed political satire at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop. Franken and Davis were two of the first writers hired by Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. Franken, a Democrat, won the Senate seat in 2008 by a mere 215 votes. Due to the closeness of the race, a manual recount ensued, confirming Franken’s win. His opponent, Norm Coleman, a Republican who was formerly a Democrat, is also Jewish, but hails from New York and has no St. Louis Park connections.

Joel and Ethan Coen, movie directors known for their quirky films including Fargo and Barton Fink (this writer’s personal favorite). Their 2009 dramedy, A Serious Man, recreates St. Louis Park as they knew it as kids in the 1960s, and the film warmed the hearts of many Minnesotans who remembered the St. Louis Park it portrayed. The Coen Brothers were born to college professors and they currently reside in New York with their own families. Between the two brothers, they have been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards. Fargo won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1997 and No Country for Old Men won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 2008. 

Musician Peter Himmelman (son in law of Bob Dylan and former member of the 1980’s band, Sussman-Lawrence) has called Los Angeles home for a number of years, but he spent his early years making music in St. Louis Park with junior high friends and fellow landsmen Andy Kamman, Al Wolovitch and Jeff Victor. Now an observant Jew, his spirituality infuses his music as well as his newer venture, Big Muse, a company working to help individuals and organizations unlock their creative potential. (Most notably, Peter has done some writing for TC Jewfolk too!)

And, there are other Jews from St. Louis Park who have attained some degree of celebrity. Sharon Isbin, a classical guitarist founded the Guitar Department at the Julliard School. Author Pete Hautman has written, among other works, Godless, a novel that won the 2004 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Former Minnesota Gopher and Vikings football player, Marc Trestman has made a name for himself as a football coach in the NCAA, NFL and CFL (Canadian league) and in 2014, he was the only active Jewish head coach in the NFL. Film director and screenwriter, Joe Nussbaum, sports reporter, Halsey Hall, and indie musician, Dan Israel also hail from St. Louis Park.

Perhaps there is something about hailing from SLP; some shared values passed down from parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, who came to Minnesota, landed in St. Louis Park, worked hard, and encouraged their kids to dream big and reach for the stars. Or maybe it’s the water.