MARQUETTE — Technically, this lovely little city on Lake Superior is part of the same state as Detroit. They have the same governor and send representatives to the same Legislature.
Both cities operate under the same laws and lie in the same time zone, though it gets light and dark later in Marquette.
Yet though they are less than 500 miles apart, the biggest cities in Michigan’s two peninsulas are really in utterly different worlds.
“Yes, I‘ve been south of the bridge, but I don’t like to go,” says Andrea, a bright young woman who works at Doncker’s, a more than century-old candy store and restaurant in downtown Marquette.
Once, she went down almost as far as Flint. “But I really didn’t like it - no offense!” she said. Downstate is crowded and feels different, said Andrea, who is working on a master‘s degree in psychology at Northern Michigan University here.
She also resents paying the $4 fee every time she has to cross the Mackinac Bridge.
When she learned I was from the Detroit area, her eyes widened a bit. “Things are really troubled there, aren’t they?” she says, sounding as if she were speaking of, say, Syria.
From time to time, residents of the Upper Peninsula grouse that they should really be a separate state.
That’s unlikely ever to happen.
Besides all the Constitutional difficulties involved, the population is too small (311,000) and the economy too poor to make it work.
Nobody doubts, however, that if the UP were a separate state, gleaming little Marquette would be its capital.
But it would be a tiny one; there are fewer than 22,000 people.
Once, pretty much everyone in town was involved in the iron ore business — mining it, loading it onto immense freighters; shipping it all over the world.
Today, while there still is mining and freighters still come to the one still-functioning ore-shipping docks, the biggest employers in Marquette are government, in one form or another, including the university.
Like Detroit, it is a place that is still struggling to find replacements for a once-key industry that has seen better days.
Like Detroit, Marquette tends to vote staunchly Democratic.
The staff of Doncker’s were thrilled two years ago when President Obama stopped there for a sandwich en route to a speech.
They were even more thrilled when a picture of him browsing the candy displays made it onto the official White House calendar.
But there are vast differences. When they talk about ethnic diversity in Marquette, they are likely to mean Finns and Norwegians.
There are a few hundred African and Asian-Americans, many of whom came to town when Marquette was home to a U.S. Air Force base (K.I. Sawyer) during the Cold War.
But the base closed in 1995, which had a devastating effect on the local economy.
“The base also gave us some diversity,“ said Tom Baldini, a lifetime “Yooper” who has divided his life between politics and education.
Mr. Baldini, a former high school and college teacher, has also worked as a Lansing-based aide in the 1980s to Gov. Jim Blanchard, who used to half-jokingly call him the “governor of the Upper Peninsula.”
Regardless of your politics, it is clear that Baldini knows both the UP and downstate better than most.
“Folks in the Upper Peninsula are aware of the Detroit situation,” he said. That is especially true when it comes to understanding the effects of the auto industry’s decline as a major employer. “Many of the communities that had a copper, iron ore mine or paper mill close,” felt much the same impact, he notes.
But while Yoopers tend to be “very understanding and generous, they are believers in the need for the locals to solve some of these problems. They believe they made the difficult and tough decisions to reduce operating budgets … and Detroit hasn’t.”
Yet he added that most folks were appalled by the idea of cutting pensions and benefits for retirees. “Not fair, because it is the breaking of a commitment made by a government.”
Detroiters might complain that their problems are far greater and more complex than any Upper Peninsula folks have faced, in large part because of the racial dimensions, and the size of the populations involved. Even today’s shrunken Detroit has more than twice as many people as the entire UP.
But Upper Peninsula dwellers say, with equal justice, that the “trolls” — those who live south of the Mackinac Bridge —don’t get them, either.
Baldini, for example, is particularly miffed at the Snyder administration’s insistence on treating the UP as a single region.
“It is a five and a half hour drive from Ironwood to Sault Ste. Marie,” even in good weather, he said. “They have nothing in common,” except maybe an appreciation for history.
Marquette is a town which is getting more appreciation these days, especially since CBS called it one of the best places to retire to in the nation.
A wave of gentrification has hit, and pretty condos now stand on lots that once held old warehouses full of iron ore pellets.
I asked Andrea, the Doncker’s clerk, when she next planned a foray into troll country. She made a face. “Never, if I can help it.”
She was perfectly happy in the world of her peninsula.
Later, looking out at the stunning Lake Superior sunset, over earth tinged with red, I began to understand why.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.