The Devils We Know

17 Sep

Before the 2018 hiking season comes to a close, I want to get in at least one good overnight weekend Superior Hiking Trail trek. The timing isn’t ideal; it’s late enough to be a bit cold, but too early for most of the fall colors. I’m going to spend most of the next two weeks away from home for various reasons. But down time never seems to fulfill its desired function, and a 25-mile march will give some focus to diagnose his writer’s block, to say nothing of his whole long quest, some ten years in the making, that guided him back to this shoreline he knows so well.

I leave my car at the scenic Pincushion Mountain lot above Grand Marais, and my dad drops me at the other end of my hike. We park at Judge C.R. Magney State Park, the seventh of the eight state parks the SHT traverses heading northward. Magney, named for a conservationist mayor of Duluth from a century ago, lines the Brule River on its way down to Lake Superior. Its star attraction is the Devil’s Kettle, a mile upstream along a path that rises gently until it plunges down a 200-step staircase to a few waterfalls. The Devil’s Kettle is a famed split in a waterfall, half of which behaves like a normal waterfall, and half of which plunges into a deep hole that long baffled geologists as to where the water actually went. Alas, there is no devilry on display when my dad and I arrive: the Brule, torrential in its force after a week of rain, overwhelms the whole cliff and bounces out of the kettle and back into the main channel. Instead of a unique geological feature, we’re left with a pretty waterfall.

We return to the parking lot, and I strap on my pack and bid my dad farewell. After the rain there are countless small streams to hop, and sometimes the trail itself becomes a small stream, especially in the unremarkable first few miles out of Magney, where it follows a ski trail and then rigidly follows property lines up and down a hill. Things brighten at the Little Brule River, a small stream that still manages to carve a deep North Shore ravine on par with its more voluminous peers. The trail hugs the high bank and passes stray white pines before it breaks southward to the Lakewalk.

The Lakewalk is a 1.5-mile stretch along the shore of Lake Superior, the only wilderness portion of the trail that runs along the Great Lake. Its vast openness unfurls in stark contrast to the dense woods that line so much of the trail. The sun dances across rolling waves, the golden glow of the North; a bit larger and these rolling swells would be a surfer’s dream. The sound of rocks being pulled back with each retreating wave isn’t quite as powerful as the Pacific, but the dreamlike effect is the same. I eat a leisurely lunch from a seat atop a pile of rocks across a narrow channel from a small island.

I fancy myself a veteran beach hiker after my Lost Coast adventure in July, but that experience only takes me so far: there are a few easily traversed rock ledges, but much of the hike comes across bands of small rock that only last for so long. Frequently, I’m forced to scramble up to higher ground. The lessons of California do not apply, and the lake, at its highest levels is recorded history, doesn’t offer a retreating tide to make passage easier. At one point the trail disappears completely into the waves, and I’m forced to crash through a thicket, perhaps the most challenging bushwhacking I’ve ever done. One last beautiful stretch of beach follows my emergence from the brush, though I wonder if the rising lake will allow this stretch of trail to last.

My mind wanders to a debate that began over Grain Belts at Liquor Lyle’s, as all great pop debates do. A West Coast friend who’s guided my view of California as the mythic American frontier did battle with a fellow Georgetown grad, who stood his ground in defense of East Coast hierarchy. Our elites in Washington and New York may have their flaws, but at least they don’t pretend to be saving the world. That elite is wrapped up in a self-inflicted legitimacy crisis now, and while I too will lean in the direction of the devil I know, I’m more convinced now than ever that answers will come not from Brooklyn or Pacific Heights but instead from wilds where we can restore ourselves, if only for a little while. The lessons of California again do not apply, mugged by reality; the East helps only in its acknowledgment of history, not in a pathway forward. As a society divides, Octavio Paz writes, “solitude and original sin become one in the same…When we acquire a sense of sin, we also grow aware of our need for redemption.”

The Lakewalk complete, I plow upward and pass a couple of young grouse hunters, a sure sign of coming autumn. The Kadunce River had been my tentative goal for the day, but the campsite atop a ridge with no view of the river doesn’t strike my fancy, so I stop to refill my water bottle below some falls past the site and push on. The trail here is immaculate, the fruits of a diligent trail crew that I encounter rebuilding a bridge over the west fork of the Kadunce. I thank them for their work, skip past their site, and waffle over taking the passable campsite on Crow Creek before deciding to trust the guidebook’s glowing description of Kimball Creek 1.2 miles onward.

Kimball Creek rewards my patience: after a long descent down from a road, I come to a pleasant site perched above a rushing creek. I set up camp, read and write in peace, content, and decide to prepare my dinner. I then discover my grave error: somehow, I’ve managed not to pack a lighter or matches; even if I’d wanted to make a fire, all of the wood around me is wet. I settle for a freeze-dried meal made with lukewarm water, all but the rice in my “Himalayan” lentil dish reconstitutes passably, and I wash it down with some bourbon. After spending a night at a site with 12 other people in May, I appear to have Kimball Creek to myself tonight, and I’m delighted at this chance to write in peace.

That all changes at dusk, when Jerry stumbles into camp. He’s a middle-aged hiker with a t-shirt that proclaims him a “Drunkle,” and he’s parked his car along the road at the top of the bank and is using this site as a base for a hiking adventure up toward the Boundary Waters. There’s no escape from my chatty new sitemate, but he’s an amiable veteran of wilderness adventures and he shares some of his various sinful goodies with me, which further wipes away the taste of my mediocre dinner. I write long into the night after we retreat to our tents, and struggle through a fitful, cool night’s sleep.

Jerry asks me few questions. He walks away from our encounter with no idea of my family life or what I do for a living or what I do for fun besides traipse around the woods. At the time it annoyed me, but there’s something freeing in frivolous talk, and the disappearance of my easiest talking points allows my mind to get past them and on to something more existential. This summer, my mind has often been caught up in a battle between pride in what I’ve built in my three years back in Duluth and a gnawing sense that I made a mistake and came back home too soon. It would be easy to lapse into careerism, or to obsess over various power plays. Tonight, I end my night looking at the last line in a passage from an old story I’d screenshotted the day before so I could have it even when I’m unplugged on the trail: “even the eternal striver knows his place.”

Jerry and I set out at the same time the next morning, him up to his car, and me across the two branches of Kimball Creek before a long climb up through a lush, mossy spruce forest. The rain that had loomed in the forecast never materializes, but it is oppressively humid, and I’m drenched in sweat despite a second day of ideal hiking temperatures. Faint views of the lake peek out from the ridge beyond Kimball, and the rising sun paints a band of orange across the horizon between the greys of the clouds and the lake. The trail drops through groves of spruce to Cliff Creek, then passes over a seemingly interminable stretch of peaks and valleys over nine gurgling streams, one of which features a descent so muddy that one can only settle one’s boots into it and slowly ski down, grasping at the trees lining the path for stability.

A crossing of wider Durfee Creek signals the end of this endless up-and-down, and it’s followed by a much steadier up. The reward at the end is a beautiful Alpine meadow with views all along the shore and an array of flowers lending color for the scene. The trail then loses itself in some ridgetop woods, and Woods Creek comes as a mild surprise, its rushing waters audible down below long before I can see it. The trail then plunges 800 feet down alongside the creek, and I stop to reload on water when it makes its way down from the top of the ravine to the side of the stream. I cross Lindskog Road and work my way away from Woods Creek before abruptly coming to the gorge of the Devil Track River.

The North Shore has no shortage of gorges, but that of the Devil Track, I quickly decide, may be its grandest. Red cliffs tower hundreds of feet over the river, and the trail works its way up the east bank with scattered views. The climb up along the ridgetop is the most exhausting of this trek, but a steady string of red pine stands, natural cathedrals that have always been my favorite of northern forests, keep my mind off my burning quads. The trail wraps around a couple of tributaries, beautiful ravines in their own right, and finally plunges down to the river past a pair of excellent campsites, one right on the riverbank and one right across the bridge. I pass some other backpackers eating lunch and have one of my own on a convenient rock beneath some cedars just before the trail rises up again. My delight at this gorge justifies any muddy feet, any forgotten lighters, any lack of sleep. The North Shore restores and redeems yet again.

The climb up a long staircase away from the Devil Track punishes me, but at the top the SHT joins a mercifully smooth ski trail. Half a mile onward I come to a quick spur up Pincushion Mountain, which angles up a sheer rock face and traverses a giant granite dome to offer views in three directions. I find a seat and put pen to paper as I gaze out over the Devil Track gorge, silent from this high up, and back across toward the meadow I traversed a few hours earlier. The breeze here on the exposed dome cools me, and I wander about it freed of my pack to drink it in from every angle. Mission accomplished, I trudge along ski trails for the last 1.7 miles of my trek.

This hike is bookended by devils, the Devil’s Kettle and the Devil Track River, names that my dad guesses are the result of poor Christian translations of Anishinaabe spirits. Devils don’t have a lot of purchase for a religiously sympathetic agnostic clambering past these roiling waters in the twenty-first century, but the concept, when stripped of stereotypical accoutrements like tridents and horns, still has some value. Whether we call it original sin or human nature, our species retains its dark and destructive sides that are difficult to shake, something that no love-is-all-you-need faith nor Silicon Valley change-the-world claptrap nor narrative driven by human power structures alone will ever overcome. Most of us blessed with some capacity for self-reflection can name the things that hold us back; the courage to find our way out remains both our greatest challenge and the transcendent task that makes us human.

Nostalgia is a complicated force, one that can both fuel or drown a life. I decided I wanted to go home out of nostalgia, both to honor a past that was and atone for a past that wasn’t. At times, I’ve achieved it; at others, I still have many miles to go. On to the next campsite, and may it bring me not a plaintive musing, but gratitude over what I’ve found.

Advertisements

In Search of a Millennial Normal

2 Sep

Some novels seem like they’re written with the sole purpose of luring me in, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the greatest recent addition to that category. Normal People does not pretend to be a sprawling social novel, telling us how we live now. Short but precise and easily inhaled in a quick weekend, it tells us how two Irish teenagers lived then, and in so doing, she can speak, if not for a generation, at least for an inwardly-probing and literary-inclined segment of it. Rooney has set the bar for a new wave of writers, and the rest of us need to get our acts together.

If Rooney is a sign of what we millennials will bring to fiction, I have some hope for us yet. Normal People is about two fellow millennials’ interactions between 2011 and 2015, so yes, they send texts and emails and check Facebook and so on, but at no point does it feel like a forced statement on use of technology, or any sort of commentary on how technology is changing lives. It’s just a fact of the characters’ existence, and one gets a sense of how little those details matter up against the more powerful, interpersonal challenges that drive Normal People: love, longing, betrayal, hurt. And while the characters have political lives, Rooney (an avowed Marxist) uses them smartly, and lets them bubble up only when it would make sense for them to appear. (The one digression she does allow, a brief discourse on the political limitations of literature, at least fits with a protagonist’s own struggles.) This is a novel about two people and their relationship, period, and its understatement allows it to say more than an overwrought Great Irish Novel could have.

Rooney’s tightly wound novel is a millennial love story, the on-again, off-again tale of two Irish kids from Carricklea, a fictional town in provincial County Sligo. Connell is a well-regarded, jovial athlete in high school who would rather keep to himself and read books; outcast Marianne is an odd duck rich girl who can’t wait to flee her backwater hometown. Their relationship is fraught by class, as Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans the expansive home of Marianne’s icy family. Both lack fathers; Connell’s never figured in his life, while Marianne’s is deceased, and they both bear some scars that their high school social circles will never understand. But Connell and Marianne are the two most driven students in Carricklea, and which leads them to find one another and then make their way to Trinity College, Ireland’s most esteemed university. At Trinity their roles begin to shift, as Marianne starts to find her crowd while Connell is suddenly out of his element among the Irish upper crust, his basic decency and quiet smarts unable to attract much attention in the breeding ground of the Dublin elite. The pair struggles to make its way in the world, never formally attached but always drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, united by ties they cannot shake.

Long stretches of Normal People are dialogue, but Rooney eschews the use of quotation marks, a tactic I’m rather fond of: it forces the reader to track it carefully and breaks down some of the barrier between the third-person narration that drives the novel forward into a sort of haze, one that both lulls the reader into the rhythms of Marianne and Connell’s complicated love life and forces one to keep track of who exactly said what. Rooney’s prose rides along with a droll simplicity, and its matter-of-fact statements that belie their own gravity. It’s not hard to picture her as the sharp, snide girl injecting venom from the back of the classroom, and there was certainly a phase when this kid who sees a lot of himself in Connell would have been attracted to her Marianne.

Normal People is a superb bildungsroman, a genre of novel that remains my favorite. It takes young people from a state in which the world’s possibilities open before them through the growing alienation when reality does not match dreams, through times in life when doors begin to close and they must learn who they are, where they come from, and just what they might become. Jaded outsiders will probably always be best at capturing the halls of power, and much like Fitzgerald in New York, Rooney knives through her characters’ social circles in Dublin with a brilliant exactitude. Even as Marianne and Connell bust out of Carricklea, it pulls them both back; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of grief, and finally in something that may begin to approach catharsis.

As any great novel should, Normal People reaches its peak in its final pages, a rush to a climax followed by a struggle toward resolution. For all its world-weary cynicism, for all its characters’ brokenness and painful missteps, it still knows that intimacy is not impossible, that people still have jobs to do in spite of it all. My generation’s great artistic calling compels us to find the shards of a broken sublime, and Sally Rooney does just that.



Active Former Hounds, 2019

2 Sep

Here’s the annual better-late-than-never accounting of former Duluth East hockey players who played post-high school hockey this past season. Stats come from EliteProspects. Asterisks denote early departures.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* The longest-tenured ex-Greyhound, now 34, continued his career with a fifth season in England, this time with the Glasgow Clan. The longtime enforcer put up 17 points, his highest total of his professional career, which began in 2005-2006. His 178 penalty minutes, while still basically double anyone else on the team, was his lowest ever total as well. The legend lives on for Fitzgerald, whose nephew, Jack Fitzgerald, graduated from East this past spring.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* Fairchild returned to the Russian KHL, his first overseas destination, but only stuck for six games with Riga this past season. He then took his services to KalPa in Finland, where he was reasonably productive. Now 30, the former fourth-round pick has now spent five seasons on the European circuit.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* The former first-round pick completed his third full season in the NHL and continued to log steady numbers despite his Kings team finishing in the cellar. He’s now successfully established himself as an NHLer.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* In other former East defensemen now plying their trade in Southern California, Welinski split his season evenly between the Anaheim Ducks and the AHL’s San Diego Gulls. He had four points with the big club, including his first NHL goal, and 19 in 27 games with the Gulls. He also had a productive postseason run for the Gulls, with 10 points in 16 games as they made it to the semifinals of the playoffs for the Calder Cup.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Like Welinski, Toninato collected his first NHL goal, though he played just two games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2018-2019. He spent most of his season with the Colorado Eagles of the AHL, where he put up a workmanlike 29 points in 57 games. He’s now moved on to the Florida Panthers’ system for 2019-2020.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) Randolph’s first year out of college took him to Jacksonville of the ECHL, where he put together his usual collection of assists and a 20-point season. He’ll now follow in the tradition of Hound headed across the pond and is slated to play in Sweden this coming season.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Randolph and Toninato’s former linemate also went to the ECHL for his first full season of professional hockey, and put together a strong 32-point season for the Orlando Solar Bears. He’ll be back with them in 2019-2020.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore wrapped up his four-year tenure at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a four-point effort. He never put up the big points in college like he did in high school, but put together a strong enough career to get a shot in the ECHL with South Carolina this coming season.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano’s junior campaign at D-III UW-Stout saw him collect a respectable 16 points, which was good for third on his team. He’ll wrap up his college career this coming year.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano, another of the many Hounds who have made their way to Menomonie, Wisconsin at Stout in recent years, had 11 points in his junior year, his highest total to date. He also dramatically reduced his penalty minutes.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) The Hounds’ old agitator had another strong season at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he finished tied for second on his team with 18 points. He’s got his senior season ahead of him.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) A year after he led all NCAA Division-I defensemen in scoring, Beaulieu was right there again with a strong campaign for Northern Michigan. He logged 35 points in 38 games for the Wildcats, and now heads into his senior year.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp’s junior season at St. Thomas was his best to date, as he settled into a regular role and collected 10 points from the blue line. He even put in a bit of time at forward, demonstrating his longstanding versatility.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann had a quality freshman season for D-III Williams College in Massachusetts, as he finished fifth on his team in scoring with 14 points.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) The younger Altmann brother wrapped up a three-year run with the Minnesota Wilderness with a 14-point effort. He’ll join the D-III ranks this coming winter as he heads to St. Olaf.

Luke Dow (’16 F) Dow had a strong third season with the Wilderness, where he amassed 38 points and wrapped up his tenure as the NAHL club’s all-time leading scorer.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Patience paid off for Donovan, who will be joining his younger brother at Wisconsin this fall. The steady defenseman wrapped up his 3-year NAHL campaign with a solid 16-point campaign for Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and will now add his name to the Hounds’ D-I ranks.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) The Hounds’ big man began his collegiate career by appearing in five games for Wisconsin-Superior.

Reid Hill (’17 D) Hill appeared in just one NAHL game this past season, though he did collect an assist in that appearance with Janesville. He has now made his way to the University of St. Thomas.

Garrett Worth (’18 F) Worth’s post-college debut did not go according to plan, as he failed to stick in the USHL and wandered among three different BCHL teams over the course of the season. There’s too much talent here to waste, though, and he’ll get a crack with Des Moines of the USHL this coming season.

Luke LaMaster (’18 D) The Hounds’ second 2018 Mr. Hockey finalist also had a lost season, though in his case, it was entirely due to injury. The Badger recruit will join Sioux City’s USHL squad for 2019-2020.

Ian Mageau (’18 F) Worth’s compatriot on the Hounds’ top line in 2018 put up 16 points with Austin in the NAHL, and rather than labor on in junior hockey, he’s chosen to head to St. Thomas for the next stage of his hockey life.

Austin Jouppi (’18 F) Perhaps surprisingly, the most impressive post-high school performance from a Class of 2018 Greyhound came from Jouppi, who carried his torrid finish to his high school career through into an impressive 41-point season with Bismarck of the NAHL. His performance earned plenty of accolades, and he’s played his way into a 30-man roster spot with Des Moines of the USHL this coming season, where he could play alongside three former East teammates: Worth, 2019 grad Hunter Paine, and early departure Logan Anderson.

Nick Lanigan (’18 F) Never a big scorer in high school, Lanigan scrapped his way to a very respectable 17-point season with the Magicians of the NAHL.

Will Fisher (’18 D) Fisher bounced around a bit in his first year of high school, as he played 16 games with Bismarck in the NAHL, followed by two with New Jersey and then a six-game stint with the Boston Junior Rangers of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League.

Porter Haney (’18 F) Haney, a part-timer on the 2018 Hounds runner-up squad, put up 31 points with the Rochester Grizzlies of the NA3HL.

Dropping from the list this past season: Jack Forbort (2 years at UW-Stout). Expect plenty of additions to this list next season as well.

A Duluth Neighborhood Typology

11 Aug

As I approach the three-year anniversary of my return to Duluth, I’m still poking around to understand it with different lenses. To that end, the most fruitful thing I’ve read in a while was a piece in American Affairs by Salim Furth, which tries to apply an economist’s perspective to neighborhoods to understand what it takes to make a strong neighborhood. Furth’s question is a salient one, particularly in a time when few people work in the neighborhood in which they live, and in which mass suburbanization across the country (and modest suburbanization in Duluth’s metro) have upended the notion of what a neighborhood is for a generation or two of Americans.

Duluth strikes me as well-suited to this sort of study of neighborhoods. Its neighborhoods tend to have more obvious boundaries than cities on a traditional grid, which makes it easier to identify the “egohoods,” as Furth calls them, that people use to understand their own surroundings. We know where they all are, and this city’s choppy economic history also lets us see successes and failures in a way less possible in areas with nonstop growth. This is also a timely discussion, as the city just rolled out a plan to explore greater development efforts on certain core investment areas. While correlation by no means implies causation—I’ve discussed elsewhere how Duluth’s neighborhoods came to be as they are in terms of income—it can give us some helpful guides to the future. So, I’ve divided Duluth’s neighborhoods as follows:

Traditional Neighborhoods

When people think of neighborhoods, this is what they imagine. West Duluth or Spirit Valley or Denfeld, or whatever you want to call it, with its own downtown and neighboring schools, is probably Duluth’s most robust example. Lakeside has its commercial node and a school not too far away that covers basically just that one neighborhood. Woodland’s school situation is a little blurrier, with Homecroft off to one side and a Montessori and private elementary option in the middle, but the basic idea still stands. Piedmont likewise has a school and a small commercial district at its heart. I’m also going to include the upper portions of East Hillside in this category: it has Myers-Wilkins Elementary, it has modest commercial corridors along 9th Street and 6th Avenue East, and it certainly has a distinctive character, with a concentration of homeowners not present further down the hill or in Central Hillside. Gary has most of the amenities as well, albeit more marginally, so I’ll put it here rather than somewhere else.

What do these neighborhoods have in common? They all date back to the start of the 20th century, though they’ve all seen at least some continued development. Most could be reasonably described as middle-income or upper-middle-income; this category includes neither Duluth’s wealthiest areas, nor its poorest. The first four are the purest examples, including the three that I’d put more on the upper side of middle class (Lakeside, Woodland, Piedmont). West Duluth, despite hosting the largest commercial district of the bunch, has been more constrained in its development and therefore has older housing and lower incomes. The Upper Hillside has blurrier boundaries and its school has a much wider reach than just the neighborhood, as does Stowe in Gary; these two commercial areas are also less developed, lacking grocery stores (excepting perhaps Whole Foods Co-Op, depending on where one draws the lines). As a result, they aren’t as wealthy, though they retain a strong sense of community.

College Town, Duluth Style

Three neighborhoods abut the University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, and they’ve all evolved in response to this reality. They have all lost their public elementary schools, but have developed commercial centers that help them thrive, and are solidly upper middle-class areas when one cuts out the college students, whose incomes are not reflective of socioeconomic status. Kenwood lost its school in 1993, but has a thriving commercial hub at Kenwood and Arrowhead that can provide about any basic need, and its many little pockets, whether renter-heavy or full of higher-end homes, feed right into that cluster. Likewise, the Mount Royal shopping center fits that function for the Hunters Park neighborhood, and has a community anchor in its library, plus a couple of other amenities like the Glen Avon sports complex that have kept the neighborhood identity (and higher property values) alive despite some college student outgrowth south of Arrowhead Road and the closure of the elementary school in that same 1993 consolidation.  Just to the south, Chester Park lost its two schools in the early 00s but gained a commercial node at Bluestone, a late-stage adaptation to life as a neighborhood neighboring a college.

In the absence of a true college neighborhood like a Dinkytown or a State Street, Duluth has spawned three little commercial nodes around its two four-year institutions. It’s a funny arrangement that makes it difficult to do anything at scale, and has led college students to leapfrog down the hill into Endion and the Hillside, which I don’t think is optimal for anyone. (Count me among those who think UMD has historically shirked its responsibility to house students, with negative implications for all involved.) But it has also created some livable, amenity-filled neighborhoods around the colleges whose stability somewhat belies the ongoing concerns that the students are ruining the neighborhoods.

Bedroom Enclaves

There are a couple of neighborhoods that are basically devoid of commercial uses, but have strong neighborhood identities. Congdon has no businesses to speak of (other than the country club, I guess), but has commercial areas on almost all sides and several well-regarded schools at the center, which keeps Duluth’s wealthiest district distinct in character. Park Point, for reasons of geography, is also a very distinct neighborhood, despite seeing its one mini commercial node at 19th Street slip away. Morley Heights, if not lumped in with Hunters Park, fits this mold also; it does have the Montessori school at its center. The wealthier portion of Duluth Heights that is thoroughly residential but within an easy drive of the mall area also fits this bill; it lost Birchwood Elementary some time ago, but Lowell is still right there for it.

These neighborhoods uniformly have the highest median family incomes in the city. The well-off like their relative peace and quiet, though neighboring commercial districts create a more accessible urban experience than, say, in Hermantown. Their futures are probably more of the same, as home age doesn’t much affect quality here, and while they might be able to handle a few more amenities, property values and natural features keep them what they are. They are also, on the whole, quite small population-wise.

Commerce First

Some parts of the city have notable commercial districts but have lost schools, or never had one to begin with. Central Hillside and the lower portions of East Hillside have commercial nodes at places along Fourth Street and at the Plaza shopping center; Central Hillside suffered a more recent loss of other institutions, like Historic Central High and Nettleton Elementary. Morgan Park, a pocket of unique history that lost its school in the Red Plan restructuring of the late aughts, also qualifies. We’ll see if it maintains enough commercial activity to stay here, or if it drifts into the next category I’ll describe. On the extreme side of spectrum is Downtown, which has a small population but is a major commercial hub. These neighborhoods are uniformly low-income, which says something about how schools and urban planning go hand-in-hand, though the causal arrows would require a much longer discourse.

A related concept, less a neighborhood but relevant here, using a concept of urbanist Charles Marohn via Furth, is the “stroad”: those commercial, fast-moving urban strips that combine the worst of many worlds. London Road above the east side on the freeway is obvious here, though with a recent uptick in development, maybe the road will catch up with its bike lanes and become more of a destination. (Can I lobby for a boulevard or some greenery to lessen the completely unnecessary suburban feel?) Central Entrance, a road whose name can’t hide its purpose of moving people to one place from another, also qualifies, and is apparently on the docket for some aesthetic enhancement. The entire mall area would seem to fall in this category. By any measure, these are successful commercial areas that generate wealth, but to date they have not invited much of anyone to live alongside them.

If there’s good news for the hyper-concentrations of commerce near the mall and even in Downtown, it’s that it’s much easier to build new housing in a commercial zone than it is to build new commercial uses in a residential zone, and we’re starting to see some new development that could help tip these areas toward more of a genuine neighborhood status, especially Downtown. The mall’s commercial success has been an accessory for growth and new housing, both in aforementioned Duluth Heights and in Hermantown. It’s just reflective of the paradox Furth details, in which a sense of neighborhood declines even as wealth increases and a suburban future takes hold.

Going forward, I’m curious to see if Hermantown is content to be a suburban strip with mostly high-income development tucked away on its township-style roads and cul-de-sacs, united by investment in a school system. If it wants grow at any faster rate, it’s either going to have to shift, either with more affordable levels of housing or some sort of New Urbanist style development that would turn it into something very different from the quasi-rural place it is now. Rice Lake, which lacks the Highway 53 commercial corridor and separate school system but shares Hermantown’s general demographics, also has some decisions to make. (And since we’re on the topic of Duluth’s neighbors, I suppose Proctor would qualify as a traditional neighborhood, with Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood as a residential appendage.)

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Duluth’s industrial zones: its working waterfront, its airpark, and its west side business parks. These areas understandably demand some separation from everything else, though the cleanliness of most modern industry makes these strict lines less necessary than they once were. They fulfill vital functions, and a healthy path forward keeps them around (and could even grow them with the old U.S. Steel site) while also allowing less intrusive industry into places like the Lincoln Park craft district, where it has thrived.

Neighborhoods Lost?

My own neighborhood, Endion, is something of a relic with no real identity: its school closed in 1977, and it has very few commercial uses above London Road. In reality, it’s a buffer state between Congdon and the Hillside, and it shares a commercial core with the lower Hillside and hospital areas. For many of these reasons, I don’t see it as a long-term home. Observation Hill lost Emerson Elementary in 1979, and while it’s got some fascinating relics of past eras, it is now mostly a collection of housing all over the income map wedged between Downtown and Lincoln Park. The portion lower portions of Duluth Heights probably fall in this category also, with the original Lowell Elementary and the new Central High no longer, and some very uniform new developments such as Boulder Ridge and a collection of townhomes below it.

On the west side, I see places like Fairmount and Irving in the same way: long-shuttered schools and little in the way of commerce, though Fairmount abuts a stroad-ish section of Grand Avenue and could conceivably drop into a few different categories here, and there is a charter school in the area to provide an option. There’s some potential to build something cohesive between these two neighborhoods, if they can unite and develop something resembling a commercial district instead of a strip along Grand; the city has done some small area planning, and it’s worth watching to see if anything comes of this.

Norton Park, Smithville, Riverside, and Fond du Lac are also distinct thanks to geography, lacking in any of the defining features used in this typology; they could, plausibly, become bedroom-type communities with greater development, but given their small size, they lack the critical mass that defines the higher-income bedroom neighborhoods or invite in a genuine commercial district. They are more tucked-away areas where people can live comfortably out of the way if they so choose, though on the whole they trend toward middle to lower incomes, quiet little escapes strung out along the river that neither show signs of decline nor bustle with new life.

Lincoln Park Gets Its Own Section

In the past, Lincoln Park would have fit naturally into the traditional neighborhood category, even if it was a rather hardscrabble one. But in no area of Duluth are greater changes afoot. The new Lincoln Park Middle School is on the neighborhood’s far west side in place of an elementary school at its core. Its old central node along Superior Street, meanwhile, is unrecognizable from what it was a decade or two ago. It is now a thriving commercial area, and it seems as if denser housing is coming along right behind it. If this commercial renaissance can continue on the other side of 53—and there are signs that this is happening, since there is a respectable commercial corridor along West Third and that oddly placed school for all its seeming travails—we could see a neighborhood change overnight. If not, we may see a divergence between a thriving commercial core and a left-behind version of that old traditional neighborhood, an area more two neighborhoods instead of one.

The chance of new investment across the full swath of a low-income area invites a debate over gentrification, which is a new concept in Duluth. Gentrification is an overused word that can mean a lot of different things, and I personally try to avoid it because I don’t think it advances our understanding. As we assess the changes in Lincoln Park, I’d ask the following questions: are rising property values actively displacing people? (The evidence for displacement, even in cities where change moves much more quickly, is often scant.) Are longtime residents benefitting from, or at least appreciative of, some of the changes that may follow? Is the city losing cultural touchstones whose loss would be a tragedy, particularly for certain communities?

What Next?

Aside from the Lincoln Park questions, I see a few obvious areas of focus as we think about the future of Duluth’s neighborhoods.  For starters, this analysis is an unabashed endorsement of the core investment areas. Cultivating those neighborhood centers should create a virtuous cycle of community involvement and social capital. Not every Duluth neighborhood can be a Congdon, but many can come closer to approximating Piedmont or Lakeside with enough cultivation of resources that can lift all boats.

Second, future planners need to consider schools as central to the urban future, and make sure any future building and boundary decisions accordingly. “Schools, more than any remaining American institution, bring people together on the basis of geography,” Furth writes, and he’s right. It’s stunning to see how many of Duluth’s neighborhood names, even and especially the ones that seem incoherent now, have their roots in the location of an elementary school. (Even Lakeside/Lester Park, which basically everyone now considers one neighborhood, retains those two old names because, until 1993, there was a Lakeside and a Lester Park public elementary school.) In an age of declining civic involvement, we need to reinforce those cores we do have.

A lot of good neighborhoods are driven by things far beyond schools and commercial nodes, from geography to the efforts of a handful of very committed people who I won’t try to assess in a blog post. I also didn’t mention parks because basically every Duluth neighborhood has good parks, but keeping them fresh and bringing back programming can go a long way. Things besides can construct thick networks that create pleasant lives and support people instead of holding them back, but fundamentally, the neighborhood still matters in so many aspects of life. Intelligent public policy needs to support them and move them forward, not just in immediate response to needs or complaints, but in a coherent vision for what comes next.

Time and a Place: Good Writing, 8/7/19

7 Aug

A return to my good journalism series, which I’ll open with a quote from a Wallace Stegner short story, “Beyond the Glass Mountain,” in which the narrator returns to his college campus years later:

The light over the whole hill was pure, pale, of an exaggerated clarity, as if all the good days of his youth had been distilled down into this one day, and the whole coltish ascendant time when he was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, had been handed back to him briefly, intact and precious. That was the time when there had been more hours in the day, and every hour precious enough so that it could be fooled away. By the time a man got into the high thirties the hours became more frantic and less precious, more carefully hoarded and more fully used, but less loved and less enjoyed.

I’m reading Stegner’s complete short stories now, so this blog may suffer something of a Wally barrage in the coming weeks. As for the journalism, I’ll start with the Literary Review, where Helen Pearson reviews a book called Where Does It All Go? It discusses contemporary time usage, and the trend over time toward this sense Stegner identifies. Humans are now busier, more stressed, and more prone to multitask, right?

Wrong. Aside from some gender roles that have shifted somewhat (but are still far from equal), it hasn’t changed much since Stegner wrote 50 years ago. What have changed are the habits of the highly educated, professionally successful, and general status seekers, who do work a lot more, and are more likely to get featured in articles about how people use their time. Pearson also accurately diagnoses the ways in which people in these circles sometimes use busyness as a form of status, a way to convey that they are important and their time is therefore valuable (and yours is probably less so). It is something I have always hated, and am not fond to find it creeping into my own language at times. It also raises some serious questions about what exactly this class of people is achieving other than higher levels of stress.

So, going forward: I’m not busy. I’m just doing what I do.

Speaking of those busy urban elites, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes a look at the rebirth of many large American cities and finds one group of people conspicuous in its absence: children. Cities have become playgrounds for urban professionals, and market forces and public policy have made it harder and harder for people with families to build a happy life in said cities. This specialization of life–young urban professionals in some areas, young families moving out to the suburbs, immigrants over here and rich homeowners over there–fits in with broader forces within a self-sorting society that is often aided and abetted by public policy. It also creates serious issues for tax bases, school quality, and humans’ sex lives, and feeds into questions about the welfare state and immigration policy.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that long-term solutions to American urban issues are going to need to take a serious look at regional planning, property tax apportionment, and a more fundamental re-orientation toward ideas of what exactly communities are for. (Presumably, we put down roots in them and invest in them because we want them to be vehicles for the futures of ourselves and people around us.) Of course, I also think that more people should abandon the rat race and make lives in small cities, whose merits I have plugged, for obvious reasons, in past writings: if the market is so overheated in certain major cities, it is overdue for a correction, and the best way to achieve that may not be a turn to the suburbs, but to another way of thinking entirely. But to the extent that some of our more significant modern maladies have policy solutions, this is one of the most fertile grounds that we need to explore.

To the extent that there are policy solutions, that is. This is perhaps why Ross Douthat’s latest on the Trump phenomenon resonated with me: policy alone, while necessary and helpful, cannot resolve the things ailing our busy lives or our cities or our politics today. That requires the more fundamental framing I mentioned earlier, a more total pursuit of a sensible framework to support policy goals. Without that backdrop, our arguments miss the forest for the trees. We become the blind chasers, we become “busy,” we concede too much to the forces that can just bear lives along and leave us in places we’re not sure we want to be. There are better ways.

FOMO

27 Jul

An ode to those of us who struggle to say no, to the vets of meta-regret, the inadvertent pursuers of paralysis who know neurosis all too well. There was a time when the answer was all the above, though now I’ve given that whole instinct a shove. And yet here it stays, unwelcome and grating, yet there may be some good past all of this waiting.

And so it is now, these things that won’t happen. A rowhouse in Georgetown, a flat in Manhattan; a summer place on the cape, or likely even the lake. No as well to the Wisconsin front porch, the tropical retreat, or that elegant burb of the American Dream, Edina or Winnetka or a Grosse Pointe estate: I’ve found my place, though don’t tell me I can’t still escape. Too much a city kid to head for the hills, too tied to the wilds to take up all the city frills.

I will never have a Big Four consultant’s finesse, nor will I have a chance to dole out mass largesse, will cut myself off before the PhD or the law degree. State is a pipe dream, fading into the fog, Foggy Bottom or Superior shores, it’s all just some bog. So much for a Rhodes, for a fellowship, for the MFA. What this means for my career I can’t really say. Maybe something I write will cause someone to sway. Seize the chances as they come, I pray, and hope that keeps the doubt at bay.

Forget the perfect test score, forget those paths I never trod; I gave up any childhood fancies of running roughshod. If I strap on a pack to take the world as my stage, it will only come when I reach a great age. There will be no firm checklist of places or things, just chances for adventure, whatever they may bring. The political dream is modest at best, pull a few strings and set things up for the rest. Just make new beginnings, as Arendt wrote, stave off the ruin and keep humanity afloat.

I will not have children before I turn thirty, will have to wait more time before my house that’s all dirty. The house, I suppose, isn’t here yet either, biding its time as I grasp at new levers. I’ve lost a few people, things I wished I’d said; all lovers have regrets, but can still come out ahead. Patience, kid, your hour is near, and in the meantime let’s bury your every last fear.

Athletic glory has passed me by, though these two legs still have plenty of paths they long to try. I will never skate for a varsity squad, though I did jump in the fountain in Dahlgren Quad. I will never be the finest beer judge or sommelier, though I’ll do my part, for as long as I care. Though, though, though: any literary dreams are far down the road, my writing life still in search of its most fruitful abode. Fits and starts and gaps and frustration, does everyone who tries this encounter such damnation?

Farewell to the kibbutz and commune, wishful dreams still; utopia is impossible, though chase it we will. Untold thousands of books go unread, and TV shows or movies or music? don’t get me started, it’s all sheer dread. Hours and days lost to mindless staring at screens; nostalgia lies, it was the same in my teens. Could I have done more, what did I miss, at what point do we draw value from that monotonous bliss? Overachievers have more fun, or so Stegner said, but maybe that’s just a thought that helped get him to bed.

I won’t be the one with the snappy answer, a truth-seeker well-bred; I never quite understood why I should opine on any stray thing in my head. A wide-ranging ponderer I remain, picking up any stray fact for my gain; but even with doors open, so many close, yet there are still enough there to stay on my toes. Sometimes too free, sometimes constrained, truth somewhere in the middle, drifting each day. A world of possibility becomes a world of regret, the paralyzing fear of a generation in debt.

So here’s to uncertainty, to the things we’ll never do, and the struggle to know, a blog or a poem, thought vomit from a kid who but briefly saw Rome. But those glimpses we get, they power us through, and someday we may get a more lasting view. Maybe it comes over drinks in some energized state, maybe it’s those lonely nights to which we can all relate. Here’s to the struggle, the upward climb, while true to where we came from, windows unto the divine.

With nods to Roger Cohen and Roz Chast.

Golden Land

19 Jul

This is the second in a two-part series on my recent trip to California. Here is part I.

The main attractions of my recent trips to California were its mountains and shorelines and deserts, but I devoted half of my adventure last week to the more populated portions of the Golden State. The jarring riches and contradictions of its natural environment match those of its people, who luxuriate in opulence or live in massive tent cities on its streets, extremes that a Midwesterner accustomed to a semblance of order needs some time to process. But all halfway decent chroniclers of travel revel in the dualities and contradictions they see, witnesses to the rich vastness of human experience. We can dive into urban chaos and venture off the grid and chew on it over time, slow thought exemplified after the mad rush in the moment.

I’m not very good at travel at leisurely paces, and in San Francisco, I have the perfect guide to facilitate a rush to drink in everything this city has to offer. My cousin Rob, an artist at his craft, gives my fellow Lost Coast hikers and I the grand tour. This is my third time in San Francisco in four years, and despite the inauspicious theft of all my camping gear on the first visit, it continues to deliver thanks to Rob’s curation. My first visit featured an unexpected visit to Pride Weekend and an escape to wine country, while the second was a moped-powered kickoff to another great adventure. San Francisco is a temperate city populated by extremes, stunning beauty and endless fog banks, mind-boggling wealth and its trappings twinned with the extreme poverty of tent cities where my old Eureka may yet live on. It starts with a Women’s World Cup watch party, meanders through botanical gardens and the cable car museum, and crosses that famous Art Deco bridge a couple of times, all before dumping me back at the airport all too quickly for everything but my wallet.

San Francisco’s true greatness comes through the things one consumes while in the city, and this is where Rob’s expertise is most useful. The crowning meal is the seafood feast at Bar Crudo on our full day in San Francisco after the Lost Coast hike, octopus and wine and crudo and oysters. But we also enjoy a decadent brunch at Brenda’s French Soul Food, with beignets and shrimp and grits, and a Greek fast casual rush to salads after four days of freeze-dried delicacies. For drinks, it’s an even wider-ranging tour: a mezcal bar, a cocktail bar on Russian Hill, a couple of neighborhood establishments, and a failed visit to the Hilton’s 43rd story, shrouded in fog. At its most ridiculous, there’s the Tonga Room: a former pool in the basement of a luxurious Fairmont hotel that now has a band on a moving boat in the pool, which enjoys periodic rain showers with thunder and lightning. A full pirate ship sprawls across the bar as a dance floor (complete with real reclaimed masts), there are tiki huts and real dugout canoes scattered about, and we have the privilege of tasting $17 mediocre mai tais. After bidding our older companions farewell on the final night, Rob and I wrap up with a nightcap at a beer bar from a group headquartered in Copenhagen. I’ve drunk it all in, all too literally.

Our trip to the Lost Coast involves a three-and-a-half hour meander up the 101, a highway that runs down the coastal spine of California. It’s a somewhat confused highway, ranging from six lanes to two on its trek northward based on what the topography will allow. It starts in ritzy Marin County, wanders up through Sonoma, and eventually arrives on the north coast. The road trip brings two familiar stops, the Russian River brewery on the way north and the Locals wine cooperative on the way south; I fly home with a few bottles stuffed inside my sleeping bag. Rob and I drive separately of the rest, freeing us to talk of baseball and music and for him to share the sad tale of Pete Buttigieg’s iMac. (Fresh off his Rhodes Scholarship, the future mayor gifted it to a teacher at his high school, who in turn passed it on to the sort of kid who might make use of it, a future Bay Area engineer; alas, it fell victim to a recent purge of the attic storage area by his parents.) The south end of redwood country is both as a dramatic and as kitschy as we’d hoped for, and we’re easily distracted by an endless array of entertaining sights. We spontaneously divert to drive through the Drive Thru Tree, a 2,400-year-old Redwood that some enterprising entrepreneur cut a car-sized hole through in some less environmentally sensitive era.

Big tree tourism aside, the economy of northern California is sustained principally by mind-altering substances. Somewhere in Mendocino County, the vineyards of wine country give way to businesses making puns about the herbal substances grown in greenhouses up in the hills. Over dinner in Garberville on the night before our hike, we share a cantina—the last place open in town, and still open only because they can make some money off of us—with a herd of Mexicans in stoner garb who populate the neighboring table. Connor, our Lost Coast Adventure Tours shuttle driver, regales us with tales of the marijuana industry and points out greenhouses not-so-secretly tucked away in the woods off the miserable washed out roads of this backcountry. He had teachers in high school growing plants on the side, he explains, and those smashed-in cars that litter the roadside here and there are the product of a land that doesn’t want many intruders. Connor speaks of Brazilian and Bulgarian incursions, all in pursuit of this ideal pot-growing climate, and laments the one-sided portrait of Humboldt County that came out of HBO’s Murder Mountain, a series that points out the region’s nation-leading disappearance rate and the places where the authorities will not go. Tales of rural Mexico come back to me, and not for the first time, I think the borders between our countries are sometimes far more arbitrary than many Americans would like to believe. Whatever one’s take on actual use of the drug, my two-hour meander through the hills only fuels my weirded-out feeling by the marijuana industry, both for its insufferable lazy stoner culture and the dark side of its industrial-scale cultivation that will likely go on whether pot itself is illegal or legal but regulated.

At its core, California is a state of escapes. It was the end of the line for Manifest Destiny, the Promised Land beyond the frontier. Its cities have always been some of America’s most alluring, even as they descend into crisis; one friend calls San Francisco utopia gone wrong, and Los Angeles dystopia gone right. And while we’ve tamed nearly every corner of it now save for a few Lost Coasts, that push to the brink is a constant, whether in Sacramento’s gold rush yesterday or the Bay Area’s tech industry today, or in the form of kids who try to pursue illusory dreams of stardom in LA. For all of California’s cool pretense, it is as neurotic a state as one can find, and if worldly glory isn’t there for the taking, it offers direct escapes to wine or IPAs or weed. California lives in the future, and that is not altogether a reassuring thought. The myth was long ago obvious to Joan Didion, and like anything built on a mythical future it neglects realities of history that formed it. Its myth was the American myth taken to its logical extreme, and its myth, like America’s, is coming due. At times I’m repulsed by the whole spectacle, but I can’t stop coming back for more hits.

Sacramento, my first destination on this trip and the last I’ll write about in my account, stands at some remove from this edge while still imbibing some of it, which may be why I liked the place. Sacramento is one of the thirty largest metropolitan areas in the country by any measure, larger than more culturally prominent peers like Pittsburgh or Vegas. Culturally, however, it’s dwarfed by the Bay Area and Los Angeles in its own state, and even San Diego in many ways. It is a seat of government with little in the way of major private industry, the rare California metro whose brushes with national attention, like John Sutter and the Folsom prison, are relics of the past. Its culture, my hosts explained, is a mash-up of Central Valley agriculture, Bay Area spillover, and a more rugged foothill culture stemming from the nearby Sierras. It’s also an ethnic melting pot, by some measures among the most integrated cities in the U.S., with large white and black and Asian and Hispanic populations. Syncretic places that don’t try too hard to be different have something going for them.

Compared to the chaos of San Francisco, Sacramento is a breath of fresh, if very hot, air. Its streets sit on a clear, leafy, clean grid. This is California, so it’s not cheap by any stretch, but it is still far more livable than the larger metros. It’s a flat city, with large swaths lower than the nearby Sacramento River, kept out of the city by levees. My host for the weekend recommends I drive up via a road along the levees of the Sacramento, and my journey feels like a warp into Southern bayou country with some citrus groves thrown in along the side, my rental car yelling at me every time I drift too far to the side in the narrow lanes atop the embankment. Rural agricultural poverty collides with riverfront vacation homes here, though the defining feature for most of Sacramento’s population is not one of these extremes but instead the identical suburban tracts in which I temporarily lose myself in Elk Grove on my drive in, and a heap of other cities I pass through the next day on I-80 on the way up to some breweries in the foothills. The extremes tell only part of the story.

My two hosts in Sacramento live different California dreams. My Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne, plus 2-year-old Ella and baby Bo, host me both nights. Ben is the rare Hoya who settled down right away with a girl from back home, and while they have solid professional jobs and live in a pleasant East Sacramento neighborhood, their lives have a steady rhythm, child-rearing and delicious cooking and walks or bike rides around the pleasant grid. With them, I can lose myself playing with Ella, any uptight worries gone, back to the cradle, an instinct my inner cynic will always doubt but which my cyclical life will always turn back to contentment when I do my final accounting of pleasures and frustrations. Their deliberate domestic life, the California Dream of generations before, feels more and more like a bold or even radical choice, an attempt to restore the lingering wisdom of an old order that may or may not still be welcome here.

Meanwhile, Parker, a fellow University of Minnesota-trained urban planner, took the same prodigal son’s path and I did and found his way back to his hometown for a job in affordable housing development. If there is any dream of rescuing semi-affordable housing in California, it’s probably here, and in him I could see the same zeal that other non-locals ascribe to me when I gush about Duluth. He lives the urban single life in trendy Midtown, cultivates his status as a music connoisseur, and is my guide to quality Midtown bars and some breweries up in Auburn and Rocklin that meet with Rob’s approval as some of California’s best. They take different paths, but Ben and Parker are both exceptionally well-read, reflective people who are finding their purpose as they go. My people.

On a trip that featured a stunning hike and a dive straight in to one of the world’s great cities, some of my favorite moments came when we settled into Ben and Etienne’s porch, the kids in bed and the four of us free to debate this city and this state and what it means to find our ways in the world, the breeze pouring up the delta keeping us cool as we work through a few beers. I may not know who I am but I know where I am from, and that place, whether Duluth or Sacramento or Georgetown or Madison or Phoenix or a beach in Puerto Escondido, has nights like this at its soul.