When I read Pete Buttigieg’s memoir, Shortest Way Home, the first thing that struck me was his love for South Bend, Indiana. As the title suggests, the book is about his personal journey back to his hometown where he is now Mayor Pete. After Harvard, Oxford, and a coveted job with McKinsey Consulting, he chose to come home to this small city with a population of 100,000. Pete writes about South Bend with such affection it made me think of how I feel about Minneapolis. I remember thinking – I get this, Pete.
South Bend, the home of Notre Dame, at its peak was also home to Studebaker and a thriving city. After the Studebaker plant closed, though, the city started on its steady decline to become what some considered a “dying city”. Now Mayor Pete has put South Bend well on its path to revitilization. Unfortunately, some people fail to put the history of South Bend into perspective when assessing Pete’s perfomance as Mayor. They don’t realize how far the city has come and how it’s on track to continue that progress. I found myself defending South Bend even though I’d never been there.
The next obvious step was for me to visit South Bend and see for myself what Pete was talking about. Of course I’d meet some local Twitter friends at the same time to get the full effect. Within the Pete Twitter community are many loyal South Benders, people who actually know what Pete’s done to make their city better. And the bonus is – they’re FUN.
Compared to my other trips to meet online friends, this trip was somewhat of a lark. I planned a time that worked for my schedule and hoped that someone would be able to meet up with me. I was trusting the universe on this one. So the fact that three South Bend Twitter friends were able to meet me for drinks and dinner was fortuitous.
I didn’t realize I would be meeting with the South Bend A-squad cheerleading team, although I should have known better. Lety, Joy, and AJ all knew each other and adored their mayor. As usual, it was so much fun to meet people I’d only known online in person. We met at the Chocolate Cafe (in Pete’s book) and then moved to Fiddler’s Hearth (in Pete’s book) for dinner. I loved hearing about South Bend from their perspective. Like Pete, they truly love their city.
I had no plans to tour South Bend much on my own since I didn’t have a rental car and I didn’t want to impose on my new Twitter friends. So imagine my delight when Joy offered to show me around! I will always be truly grateful to her. After dinner, she took me to all the Pete highlights including the old Studebaker plant where Pete formally announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
“Do you want to see Pete’s house?” Joy asked. I felt conflicted about this because I wanted to respect Pete’s privacy. But that being said, South Benders know where their mayor lives. So a quick drive by wouldn’t hurt, especially if it was on the way to where we were already going. On the out-of-the-way way. The lovely old house facing the St. Joseph River looked just like the photos I’d seen. The neighborhood reminded me of some neighborhoods in my own city. A regular guy living in a regular neighborhood. I wondered how long he would be able to maintain any sense of privacy.
No South Bend pilgrimage would be complete without a visit to the Mayor’s Office. Earlier in the day, I coyly entered the County-City Building on what looked like a very quiet day, passed the metal detector, and rode the elevator up to the top floor. With a large box of chocolates – made in Minnesota – under my arm, I entered the Mayor’s office and was greeted by an intern. “Is Laura O’Sullivan in today?” I asked.
Yes, Pete’s Deputy Chief of Staff was in the office. Not wanting to disturb her, I just left the box of chocolates and accompanying note with the intern. In my note I said that I knew it would be challenging now that South Bend was going under the microscope during Pete’s presidential bid and that she had my support. I included a small Minneapolis magnet. In my mind, I was a goodwill ambassador representing Minneapolis. I left satisfied that I’d made a connection between Pete’s city and my city.
Later that day, I received a Twitter direct message from Laura O’Sullivan thanking me for my note and the candy. You might be surprised that the person entrusted with handling the day-to-day demands of running the city while Mayor Pete is away would take the time to thank me. Even though I was touched, I wasn’t necessarily surprised. South Bend people are nice. Call it Midwestern nice. Call it small town nice. But it could just be the Pete effect.
Now whenever anyone makes disparaging comments about South Bend online or in real life, I quickly come to the city’s defense. I say, “I’ve been there! I know people who live there!” I tell them how I’d met up with Twitter friends and seen the development downtown. I show them photos of the St. Joseph River with its beautiful bridges and tell them how I’d walked along the River Walk.
And as I walked along the river on that lovely summer evening and viewed the growing city, I thought, THIS is South Bend. The people are nice here.
If you’d like to hear more about Mayor Pete and South Bend, listen to Lety, Michael, and Ryan on the Good Guy Pete Podcast