07/25/2012 08:49 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2012

Catherine McMullen Loves Fargo, North Dakota

Catherine McMullen teaches journalism at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and is a winner of the North Dakota Mental Heath Association's Media Award for writing about mental health issues. Mullen also served on the board of the Family HeathCare Center, which provides primary care to low-income and uninsured people.

Dear Fargo,

You're a far more interesting city than the one in which I grew up. Once, you bored me. I found you flavorless, provincial and unattractive. Parents and teachers told the teen-aged me that I was fortunate to have grown up in such a well-educated, affluent and safe community, one with three universities and an active arts scene.

I didn't believe them.

I had traveled enough to know that people elsewhere regarded us as hicks. "I've never met anyone from Fargo before" was the common remark made by people in what I regarded as more fashionable cities. Back then, the only sight of Fargo I longed to see was the city shrinking in my rearview mirror. I didn't want peaceful and safe, damn it. I wanted exciting and hip. You were vanilla soft-serve and I wanted mango-persimmon sorbet, two scoops ideally. I wanted to live someplace where TV stations never ran commercials for certified seed or herbicide and where diversity meant more than choosing between Plates A or Plate B at Phil Wong's Chinese Restaurant. And so I abandoned you for the good life I imagined existed only in a large Eastern city.

You've changed: True, people elsewhere still tell me they've never met anyone from Fargo before, although now they add that they've seen the movie. For one thing, you are far more ethnically diverse. Once, you were about as white-bread homogeneous as it gets; now, after 30 years of resettling refugees from more than 15 countries, "ethnic" no longer means Norwegian or German but Bosnian, Serbian, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Sudanese, Somali, Kurd. These new Americans have made you far more vibrant and interesting and bring the world's culture to our schools and art, our restaurants and grocery stores.

You're now more small city than big town. Your downtown, once abandoned to office buildings and banks and parking lots after most merchants had marched to the mall, is alive again, full of chic shops, good restaurants and bars, and our beloved Fargo Theatre, a restored art deco treasure that shows independent and art films.

You're far more sophisticated. Your arts community is stronger than ever, and now, because I have a basis of comparison, I know how good your symphony and museums and theater companies really are. The problem is not dearth of cultural opportunities but how many I can take in. I love that we can attend concerts by the Rolling Stones, or Rosanne Cash or Lyle Lovett, without having to endure metropolitan traffic and $30 parking bills.

I've changed: You've taught me to appreciate more subtle forms of beauty than that announced on "Scenic View" road signs: The watercolor clouds that grace your huge sky. The lilacs that scent the city in May. The smell of baking bread in late August, when wheat is ripening in the surrounding fields. The archway of elms that still line the streets of your oldest neighborhoods, and even how chimney smoke freezes in the air on subzero mornings.

The Fargo of old houses with porches in front rather than decks out back, of neighborhood with distinct personalities, where people know the names of their neighbors and visit with them over backyard fences, persists despite the spread of places like "Prairie Crossing" and "Stonebridge Farms," with their stone walls and gatehouses. Yes, a growing part of you is indistinguishable from any other city in America, comprised of strip malls and franchise restaurants and three-stall garages and streets without sidewalks, but plenty of you remains singular.

You're still the home of the obligatory standing ovation, and your people, no doubt defensive after generations of Fargo put-downs, tend to go gaga whenever the national media pay you any attention. Winters remain Siberian. Summers are humid and buggier than ever. Nearly every spring we fight the Red River then pat ourselves on the back for yet another sandbagged victory.

It is your smaller pleasures I most cherish: Waking on snowy mornings to see that a neighbor has cleared our sidewalk and knowing that someone will stop to help should the car break down. I love knowing traffic means my commute will take 12 minutes rather than eight and that I'd better be nice to the lady in the grocery stores because I'll see her again at the symphony. As for what the rest of the nation thinks about you, I no longer care. I'm fine keeping what we have a secret.

This is where I want to be. Some 30-some years after my flings with sexier cities, I'm starting to think this just might work out.

Catherine McMullen