A Flagging Effort

18 May

I have just wasted the better part of a Saturday afternoon being thoroughly entertained by the submissions to Duluth’s flag redesign project. (The city has chosen 41 semifinalists and will announce finalists this Tuesday, though for maximum amusement I recommend perusing all 195 submitted designs plus some choice comments here.) The flag design debate is hardly Duluth’s most pressing issue, though symbolism has power, as anyone trying to figure out what to call the Minneapolis body of water south of Lake of the Isles and north of Lake Harriet can attest. Many of these seemingly benign symbolic debates have become hyper-politicized, largely to the exhaustion of someone who cares much more about outcomes than names, but symbols do have power, and as Duluth’s existing flag is unspeakably lame, the development of a new one is a worthwhile exercise.

The comments in the full document certainly show how this could become politicized if the flag committee isn’t careful. Does the flag honor Native Americans or Scandinavians or a French explorer, or none of the above? Do we choose a monument or two to highlight, or perhaps some historical moment or another? The options are endless, and the contest wisely began by sharing some good flag design principles and opening up the process to comment. (The best comment comes from the individual who wrote “This town is dying. Thanks.” Let it never be said that Duluthians aren’t unfailingly polite, even when in peak troll mode.) But, unlike the Minneapolis lake debate, this one has the potential to remain fun and creative, and with any luck, that is what it will remain. Any design critiques that follow are meant in that spirit.

An initial review of the nearly 200 submitted designs mostly left me exasperated that there were so many damn lift bridges. Too easy, and better left to seals or fun ornaments. (The flag numbered 56a in the document of all submissions is the only bridge design that remotely tempts me.) The contest also reinforced the notion that no one has any idea how many neighborhoods Duluth has, as attempts to include stars or stripes to acknowledge the city’s neighborhoods included wildly different numbers of neighborhoods. The submissions from students add some fantastic color to the offerings, including the Looming Loon of Doom (flag 10) and the meta flag-within-a-flag (20).

As someone with a reasonably strong knowledge of world geography and flags (I think my dad still has the placemat with all of the world flags on it that I ate off of us a child), some flags were also awkwardly close to real-world ones. If you told me that 1 or 15c were flags of sub-Saharan African nations, I’d believe you. I would naturally assume that 74 belongs to some Muslim-majority country, while I actually checked to see if 5 and 84a had been pilfered from some Pacific island micro-state. 55 made me think Duluth had suddenly acquired the Sydney Opera House.

Some logos can’t help but bring to mind certain associations in individuals’ own heads, too. For example, 94d looks like the logo for my favorite DC college bar, which has a nautical theme, and 59’s northern lights vibe also made me think of the antenna farm atop the hill, which may or may not be intentional but is not exactly the most thrilling symbol of the city. 55d can’t make me forget the leaked draft of a logo for Amy Klobuchar that came out before she announced her presidential run, even though I do kind of like that rusty red to acknowledge that side of Duluth’s history. The blue and green color scheme makes plenty of sense, both because of the city’s water and trees and because of those are the colors of the current city flag, but some versions get very close to the state of Minnesota’s branding, which I think is passable but tries too hard with the funky font. Likewise, 23 reminds me of a marvelous old logo for Lake County that had Split Rock Lighthouse illuminating the county on a map of Minnesota, all with some text in comic sans around it. Alas, I can’t find this beauty to share it with you all. I’m sure others will be similarly triggered by certain flags.

Some designs I don’t particularly like as flags, but they might make decent logos for someone or something. 93c’s rails and lakewalk design should go on the cover of some city small area plan, while I’m a fan of the agate Lake Superior in 50. The seagull-lighthouse combo variations in number 78 would make a slick logo for something, but seems a bit much here, and I have an aversion to honoring flying rats on our city flag.

Some flags just try too hard. If you read the description of the un-numbered flag that was presumably supposed to be 95, it does start to make sense, though my initial reaction to a chain on a flag was…not positive. The various 43s and 48, the varying shades of blue in the otherwise interesting 60, and any flags that start throwing in several symbols or pictures just don’t do it for me. 34 is a semifinalist that checks a lot of boxes I like, but still maybe just does too much, and I’m not sure that shade of orange will age well.

I’m still not sure if I love or hate the anchor de lis that appears in a few designs (and made the semifinals), and waffled on 6 as well (which didn’t). Of the several I jotted down as early choices, only the rather radical 2d made the semifinalist cut. After the deluge of blue and green, I liked some of the red and orange ones that threw in some real contrast. I also seemed drawn to ones with diagonal lines that seem to signal shoreline and Duluth’s ridges. For me, the clash of ridge against lake has always been the most striking feature of this city. To that end, I’d endorse 15a and maybe 21. A fun variant on this might be to go with a non-rectangular flag.

But my winner, I think, is 98e: striking, deep colors that capture that clash of ridge and lake with a big north star hanging over it all. I can look at that flag and feel like I’m wandering along the lakeshore or atop the ridge on a clear summer night. Its symmetry will hold up as it gets buffeted by a November gale, it doesn’t feel like it’s wasting any space to fill out that rectangle. Focusing on natural features gives us something all Duluthians share and spares us any descent into a debate over whose ancestors or which parts of the economy we are or aren’t honoring. It also doesn’t look like any other flag or symbol I’m aware of. I’d gladly run that one up a flagpole someday.

Or we can just go all in on 80 and embrace our inner Lowell Lion.

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Interesting Reading, 5/11/19

11 May

A return of the sporadic feature in which I highlight interesting articles I’ve read this weekend:

First, I was floored by a piece by an anonymous DC-area mother in the Washingtonian that detailed her 13-year-old’s descent into the world of the alt-right. The author is a witness fragility of a childhood in an online environment, a victim of so many of the worst aspects of contemporary life. First, call-out culture and a bunch of sorry bureaucrats wreck her son, and his depression finds an outlet in chats with people he’s never met and tumbles down into an algorithm-reinforced echo chamber. The son drags his mother through a horror story that culminates with an alt-right rally on the National Mall, a sequence that reminded me of George Packer’s biting summation of the absurdity of the Covington Catholic incident, and by extension the entire national mood, earlier this year. But the author’s ability to recognize that absurdity, and draw out her son’s nascent recognition of it as well, starts to show us the way out. How many adolescent lives, and in turn entire lives, go off the rails because no one takes a kid seriously, whether out of clueless condescension or well-meaning protectiveness?

I’m also a sucker for articles that validate my wariness of a childhood spent glued to electronic devices and communities that do not meet in person. I’m young enough that an early online world was available for me to fall into as a teenager, though I took the much more benign path of living countless hours in online forums discussing a baseball team. It was harmless and was even the source of my college admissions essay, though if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would get out a lot more. (I would not label my online hockey commentary the same way: that has produced many genuine real-world connections and brought me into a genuine real-world community; one, probably not coincidentally, where the high school kids involved seem to do a better job than many of not living out their lives online.) This is only the latest that makes me believe that the online world, while with many benefits, has left us with a new form of malaise that we are only beginning to understand.

Speaking of George Packer, he’s out with a new book, one that will shoot to the top of my summer reading list. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is a sprawling portrait of Holbrooke, one of the most iconic diplomats of his era before his untimely death in 2010. “[I]f you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it,” writes Walter Isaacson in a New York Times review. From Vietnam to the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure who tried to re-write world history, and Packer’s take on his ambition and hubris make this a book that combines sweeping history and an incisive character study. When my favorite social commentator writes an authoritative work on my own road not taken, how can I not be absorbed?

As for the road I did take, here’s Addison Del Mastro in The American Conservative riffing on a new book on Midwestern industrial decline, Tim Carney’s Alienated America. Carney laments the demise of civil society in Middle America; while sympathetic to their value in creating strong communities, Del Mastro doesn’t think a few new churches will fix anything. He instead points to the social contract that built these place: one or several dominant companies endowed pretty much everything in the company towns, and when the companies contracted or died, the towns did with them. They arose in an era of corporate benevolence and hard-won labor peace, but that consensus is now long dead, crushed by the rise of global competition and corporate thinking. At the end of the day, places need “to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them,” lest they become places left behind by history.

The world is more complex than it may look from Del Mastro’s perch in Washington. My own city is part company town, but also part pretty lakeside retreat and part later suburban outgrowth, and has diversified reasonably well, both through the “eds and meds” new gloss that Del Mastro mentions rather dismissively and as a regional center that still enjoys the benefits of a working port. That isn’t enough to keep a substantial chunk of a city out of poverty, but it has been enough to generate some sense of collective hope about the future, which, as he notes, can make a real difference. So what, then, constitutes death for a city? If the old industry dies but it bounces back thoroughly, as with Pittsburgh, is that still a death? Maybe we should stop trying to anthropomorphize something that by its very nature includes tens if not hundreds of thousands people all in various stages of living, dying, thriving, and struggling.

What is true, however, is that the road back for most of these old industrial cities and towns, if there is one, will look very different from the corporate dominance and benevolence of the 1950s and 1960s. Those days had their glories and also their downsides, but we are now several generations removed from them, and while there’s value in preserving some history, that part of the past is not prelude to the future. Nor, perhaps, should it be. But, more on that later.

The Darkest Roots of Civilization

6 May

I concluded my last post with two lines from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’ve never read the thing, but it was one of those passages I once saw someone else quote somewhere that I felt compelled to copy down for my own later use. Here is the passage in full. Pimlico, for the curious, is a district of London that, when Chesterton wrote around the turn of the 20th century, was a downtrodden corner of the city. Neighboring Chelsea was (and still is) a high-income district.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

For what it’s worth, it seems some people came to love Pimlico. It was the home base for the Labour Party as it rose to prominence in the early 20th century, the home base of the Free French during the Second World War, and became home to many MPs, including Winston Churchill. Like much of London, it is now home to some fabulously expensive real estate, though it also retains a substantial public housing development, Churchill Gardens.

Granted, Pimlico has the perk of sitting a stone’s throw from Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Not every town or neighborhood that qualifies as a “desperate thing” has such convenient neighbors. But there are more roads to greatness than through proximity to power, and communities are more than their median incomes. For that matter, people may have very different ideas of what exactly constitutes desperation.

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s Catholic apologetics in other contexts, this is one spot where his use of religious language adds a necessary dimension to his point. Rootedness really is in many ways a sacred act: while I’m always one to caution against the worship of temporal things, commitment to place goes deeper than commitment to so many of the other obligations that can come along in a life. Jobs come and go, institutions and beliefs evolve and undergo some drastic shifts, people are vital but mortal and equipped with agency that can lead them in any number of ways. But while their characters can change, cities and towns and neighborhoods almost always stay.

Relative permanence allows a place to develop a history: a language about itself, or a smattering of languages all feeding in to one sprawling, complex narrative. They may all be radically different, but they all share a place, and that is enough to give it a sense of direction through time. And people in these places can write themselves into these histories, whether as Chesterton’s worshipers pursuing greatness or simply as people who are content in a place where they can contribute in small ways. It starts with a commitment and grows from there, from a little community up to a civilization, with all the splendor and horror and contradictions that these human constructs entail.

Not everyone falls for places the way some of us do. We all have our objects of worship, and I don’t begrudge many others for theirs, especially if they are clear-eyed as to the limitations of these objects of affection. For me, though, the foundations of human possibility, of Hannah Arendt’s new beginnings, seem best grounded in a place. So let us all give a little more love to our Pimlicos: they need not rise up to be Florence, but they can be better versions of themselves, and that, for now, is enough.

Prodigal Pete

24 Apr

Normally the political biography isn’t a genre toward the top of my reading list. These books tend to be fluff pieces that don’t delve too deeply into existential questions; they’re vehicles for votes, not serious plans for governance. Much of that is true of the one I just finished, which I read not because I’m looking to hitch myself to a particular wagon, but because I’d been told it was relevant for people looking for some ideas on how to make things happen in local government. (It was.) But, much to the dismay of my reflexive resistance to zeitgeisty political trends, Pete Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home fascinated me in ways I didn’t expect.

Sure, I will confess a fondness to millennials with short first names and unpronounceable last names. For some odd reason, I feel an affinity for children of academics who grew up in Rust Belt midwestern cities; those who left for snobby East Coast colleges on what felt like perfectly natural paths, and then sorted out their intellectual worldviews on the road to graduate school. I also can relate to people who took jobs in consulting, spent their 20s in an intellectual and work-driven tunnel that basically closed off dating life, and made their way back to their hometowns out of a commitment to the place and its rebirth. My life story, apparently, is just a knockoff version of Buttigieg’s, though I’m not using this blog post to announce I’m joining the naval reserve or coming out of the closet or running for office. But, hell, I’ve even been told I look like him.

Mayor Pete is having himself a moment right now, and that stems from his ability to bridge across categories. His roots are in Rust Belt America, that swath of the country the Democratic Party forgot in 2016, and he’s a military reservist and a devout Catholic: in many ways, the consummate heartlander. But he’s also a gay millennial who talks of intergenerational justice, one who tries to tap into that authentic hope for the future that has been at the heart of the most successful liberal campaigns of the past half century. He’s at home in a past America and yet a clear step toward a different one, which no other candidate in the Democratic field may be able to say to the same degree. He has less baggage than Joe Biden, more genuine accomplishments to his name than Beto O’Rourke; he is more personable than Elizabeth Warren, more attuned to Democrats who have fallen by the wayside than Kamala Harris, unencumbered by Bernie Sanders’ socialist label, not committed to moderation for the sake of seeming moderate as with Amy Klobuchar.

Still, despite our commonalities, I share David Brooks’ conclusion at the end of his column on Mayor Pete’s momentum: why, given all of his seeming reasonableness, does he think the moment calls for a 37-year-old with no elected experience beyond the local level, the equivalent of Duluth ex-mayor Don Ness deciding he’s going to enter the race tomorrow? (Spare me the Donald Trump whataboutisms, please.) Much of his allure comes from being a blank slate, and the careful relationship-building that makes one a successful local politician has little to do with the partisan war that the national brand has become. It’s easy to project all sorts of hopes and desires on to this type of figure (Barack Obama was a somewhat different flavor of this), and in the right political situation, it can win. It would flatter me to believe this skillset will transfer well to governance at a higher level, but is there any empirical proof of that?

The other critique of Mayor Pete, a somewhat more scathing one, holds him up as the anointed last gasp of a failing meritocracy. People in positions of power like him because his whole biography is one of someone who has done everything right in their eyes: climb the ladder, Harvard, Oxford, McKinsey, the smartest kid in the room taking his natural place. But people who climb that ladder are exceptional, not the norm; can they really govern with any hold on reality for the rest? Is a culture based on merit doomed to sneer down on those who don’t achieve such merit, the natural outcome of a society that has replaced inherited status with a Darwinian race to the top?

South Bend’s mayor is aware he runs some risk of losing touch. He relates one story of a critic who compared his data-driven efforts to those of Robert McNamara, another so-called smartest kid in the room who made a mess of the Vietnam War. I don’t think we yet know enough about Pete Buttigieg to know where he falls on the liberal elitism spectrum, but it’s an interesting critique, and one I’ve commented on before. For that matter, let us not forget that many of the most powerful progressive icons in American history were wealthy traitors to their own class. But to succeed, Buttigieg is going to have to surround himself with people who don’t worship his credentials or intellect for their own sake.

Still, in spite of his obvious shortcomings as a candidate for the highest office in the land, I think there are a couple of other reasons why Mayor Pete is particularly attuned to this current political moment. These three facets are all related.

First, he recognizes that different political instincts are appropriate for different political times. Like a lot of people whose understanding of politics formed as a student of foreign policy (another commonality I share with him), he has a very nuanced understanding of power. His own deployment, his college-era theses, and a fondness for Graham Greene led him to recognize the naïve innocence of the democratizing crusades of a previous era of American government. But today, he recognizes that nihilism, not innocence, is the more pressing moral threat to American political life. Different excesses call for different responses, and Buttigieg strikes me as someone who will want to understand deep root causes before he starts throwing around ideas on how to fix things. His lack of policy detail isn’t necessarily an evasion.

Second is an early appreciation of American decline. It didn’t set in right away: I found myself dutifully copying down Buttigieg’s descriptions of childhood in a post-industrial town, these tales of how he went past abandoned Studebaker factories every day but never registered what they meant, because they rang so true. But as soon as we developed our consciousness of that decline—something I expect Pete found in his Harvard days, but didn’t quite examine in the way I would have liked him to in the book—we know that it can’t come back, and that we have to build something decidedly different.

I won’t claim to know what this looks like as a national platform yet, and it doesn’t seem like Pete entirely does either, but it’s become increasingly clear that neither a return to some socialist ideal nor Clintonite third way progressivism is enough to build a governing majority. The unifying story has to be some out-of-the-ashes sort of narrative that admits all is not well—Donald Trump, after all, understood this superbly in 2016—and re-invigorates it with some optimism. This is why I think the meritocratic critique of Buttigieg may be inadequate: he got off the blind achievement train, found his loyalty to a place that needed fixing, and his ideas of good and bad governance stem from the immediate solutions he found (or, occasionally, failed to find) in South Bend. He is grounded in a way that a wishy-washy moderate is not, and the answer to the nihilist challenge requires that.

Third, Buttigieg understands the primacy of culture over policy. He will certainly need to flesh out his platform if he hopes to go anywhere; he can’t float above the fray between the hardened Hillary and Bernie camps that still divide his party forever. But by focusing on stories instead of the minutiae of policy proposals, he has a chance to bring along many more people than the Elizabeth Warrens of the world ever will. This distinction is especially important for Democrats, who are much more of a cultural quilt than the Republicans are, and need to bridge more gaps to build that governing majority. Like it or not, this is an essential first step to winning a democratic election in a sprawling nation. The policy details are secondary.

I’m not convinced Pete Buttigieg should be the next president of the United States. He has a lot still to prove there. I am, however, far more convinced that lots of small and mid-sized American cities need some Pete Buttigiegs: people who commit themselves to places. People who go out and see what the world has to offer, then bring what they learned home, and do it in a manner marked by humility, not as the golden boys or girls returning home as saviors of the unwashed masses. People who go home because roots are the right things to tend to, because they believe in more than that blind meritocratic chase, and because the grass isn’t really all that much greener in DC or New York or the Bay Area. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Doggedness

15 Apr

The University of Minnesota Duluth claimed its third national championship this past Saturday, its second in a row in a run of three straight national title game appearances. Unlike many Duluthians, I have no personal ties to UMD save living in the same city as its campus, and as I’m still eagerly awaiting the creation of a hockey program at my alma mater (I expect I’ll be waiting a while), their exploits provide reliable entertainment in the meantime. College hockey, in my book, will never match the intensity and the pageantry of the high school game, but I make a handful of Bulldog games each season, and when two-thirds of the national champion’s roster is comprised of Minnesotans, I’ll know a thing or two about the players on the ice.

Several of their key players were true Minnesota high school stars who I saw many times in their glory days. Hunter Shepard put together some of the most dominant goaltending performances I’ve ever seen when in high school at Grand Rapids. (Anyone looking to beat him really should hire Mike Randolph as a temporary consultant.) I first saw Scott Perunovich when he was a sophomore at Hibbing, where he immediately awed me by saucing passing on to the tape of his teammates’ sticks from 100 feet away. This didn’t stop the Hibbing mom in front of me from informing him he was a puck hog all game long, but his boundless talent was obvious. But there was also Nick Wolff, who lit up a couple of Musketeers in the championship game; I remember his Eagan coach, Mike Taylor, calling him a “human rain delay” when he wandered into a press conference a bit behind schedule. Dylan Samberg emulated Kyle Schmidt’s 2011 NCAA championship snow angel after he scored an overtime championship-winner of his own for Hermantown in 2017, and between his two titles as a Hawk and two at UMD, his past four seasons have ended in championships. Not a bad run.

This Frozen Four, the Bulldogs forsook the Schmidt-style drama and just overpowered opponents. Their games in the regional final in Allentown were more stressful than the final two in Buffalo; lulled into a trap, it appeared they might face the exits against scrappy Bowling Green in the first round. But after a convenient bounce knotted it up, the game never seemed in doubt. This group has a superb record in close games in recent playoff games, a testament to both a lack of panic and a steady system that relies on the team’s depth to grind opponents into submission. Once they’d staked themselves to an early lead in the national championship game, they settled into a sequence of steady offensive zone cycles that we Duluth East fans watch all season long, controlling the puck and probing for more. I’m biased, but I can’t name a more appealing style of hockey than that steady, physical brand of northern Minnesota control.

The title cements UMD’s place atop the college hockey ladder for the time being. Scott Sandelin has built a powerhouse on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, and he has done it through a steady process that draws attention only via the results on the ice. While his first two Frozen Fours had a handful of standout players who really elevated the team, that 2011 title put the Dogs on elite recruiting footing. Their depth now is such that no single Bulldog really stands out above the rest, and they can bring a relentless assault from four lines and six defensemen. They can afford to absorb good-but-not-great point totals from the likes of a Riley Tufte, who’s a reliable contributor but not the Casey Middelstadt-level first-rounder some expected him to be. And while they lose a few players to the pros early, as all college teams now do, there’s also some tradition of sticking around that players like Andy Welinski, Alex Iafallo, and Dom Toninato established in the years preceding these titles. Winning culture feeds on itself.

UMD also sits in one of the most attractive recruiting grounds in college hockey, and Sandelin has taken full advantage. While they’ll never claim every local star, they now keep many who previously might have looked elsewhere. (As one who left and came back myself, I will never begrudge the Dave Spehars and Ryder Donovans of the world for trying different paths.) The Bulldogs run a drama-free program, which is no small feat. Sandelin’s accolades are piling up now that he’s joined an elite group of coaches with three national titles, and opportunity may come knocking, though I could also see him being too content with what he’s built at UMD to consider moving on. He’s become an unassuming local legend, and I may even forgive him for choosing to live in Hermantown. (All joking aside, that relationship has been a beneficial match, both as a recruiting pipeline for the Bulldogs and as an attraction to that city in a swamp behind the mall.)

For now, even us Duluthians who aren’t born-and-bred Bulldogs (or, perhaps, bulldogs of a different litter) can thank this group for bringing glory to our city. They’ve done it the right way, they’ve done it with style, and while NCAA playoff hockey can be the ficklest of the major college sports, on paper, there’s no reason to think the success will slow down anytime soon. Right now, Duluth can stake a claim to the hockey capital of America, and don’t think we won’t revel in that crown for as long as we can.

The Zenith City’s Blurred Red Lines

12 Apr

As someone known to paper walls with maps, I’m loath to recognize that these representations of world beyond us can cause serious problems. But some maps have had lasting, serious consequences, perhaps none more so over the past century of American life than the residential 1930s redlining maps preserved by the University of Richmond, a collection that includes the map of Duluth that inspired this piece. (I was routed here by one of the city’s annual Housing Indicator Reports, which often involve fun research digressions beyond the rote reporting of statistics for various planning areas.) The urban planning field has, for some time now, been on a noble quest to educate the world about what these maps have wrought.

These maps come from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC. HOLC drew up these maps to designate the safety of making loans in certain neighborhoods in cities across the country. It was part of a New Deal push to create consistent, predictable, non-predatory lending practices for home sales, thereby avoiding the disastrous wave of foreclosures that came along with the Depression. Its maps were also one of the most effective non-coercive tools for racial and income-based segregation ever devised by any government anywhere.

These maps, which color-coded neighborhoods by their desirability, basically walled off certain areas for development (“redlining,” in planning parlance), all under the guise of a well-intentioned program to help homeowners. They also included brazen designations of neighborhood desirability based on the race or ethnicity of their inhabitants. The HOLC-enabled postwar suburban housing boom was one of the least free markets ever devised, and it had a fascinating jumble of consequences to both lift the wealth of a vast swath of the (white) working class and shut out a portion of the country from ever enjoying those benefits.

Some parts of Duluth’s urban history follow standard narratives on HOLC-age development. The ring around downtown, where significant early construction happened, remains one of the poorest areas of the city today. From there, the east side follows a fairly steady transition up the income ladder into Congdon, a change I can still see every day when I go for runs around my current home in Endion. (It’s amusing to see Endion get labeled “generally…declining, many of the old houses being transformed into small apartments and duplexes.” I’ve heard some people bemoan the neighborhood’s transitional status as if it were a trend brought on by college students in the past 20 years, when in fact it is a stable equilibrium dating back nearly a century.) But at the same time, as the little chart next to the map shows, Duluth’s urban form breaks down from the prescribed theory more than in many other cities. A substantial part of Duluth a certain distance from the core that is supposed to be “in transition” is not actually in transition, and the outlying “residential zone” saw basically no new development at this time, with its only housing being stuff in the lowest tier out in Gary-New Duluth and Fond du Lac.

Some parts of the city have also changed substantially since the New Deal era, and not always in predictable ways. I was fascinated to see that the bit of Lakeside where I grew up in a 1920s mini-foursquare, which now is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, was “definitely declining” at this time. A chunk of Duluth Heights, which now also ranks fairly high on the income scale, was a total no-go zone for HOLC loans, as was Park Point. A number of other red zones on this map are basically non-residential now. The I-35 corridor follows a series of red zones, as interstate highways did in most urban areas; poor people are always the easiest to displace for massive infrastructure projects, and the U.S. became very good at that in the 50s and 60s. There is very little correlation between yellow districts and the current quality of the housing stock; yes, some remain, but just as many have flipped into comfortable middle-income areas, and not just those on the east side. It’s not unfair to conclude that the boundaries drawn on this map, while sometimes predictive, were in no way destiny for Duluth’s ultimate housing development.

As usual with Duluth, the simplest explanation for this is geography. Duluth grew outward along the ridge and lakeshore instead of in concentric rings, with development squeezing out here and there where terrain allowed. The city also absorbed a few older towns such as Fond du Lac and Lakeside, which may explain HOLC’s skepticism of their housing stocks even though those would normally be destinations for the next wave of development. The neighborhoods that had some room to grow outward from their 1930s limits, like Lakeside and Woodland and the Heights, had a chance to diversify their housing stock and evolve. The plodding pace of Duluth’s growth over the 20th century, oddly enough, kept some neighborhoods from filling out too quickly, and also invited updates to the existing stock to keep it viable for a sale. Those complex neighborhoods are a vital part of Duluth’s story, and a reason why this city has not gone down the road of a Flint or a Youngstown, where nearly all of the money fled the city proper.

Another explanation comes in the racial and country of origin stats tucked away to the right of the map. Despite the map text’s frequent concern about “negroes” occupying certain areas, this shows Duluth was over 99 percent white in the 30s and 40s. But in 1930, fully a quarter of Duluth’s residents were foreign-born, and while that figure had dropped to 20 percent by 1940, that is still far higher than it is today. Duluth was a city of immigrants. Idle speculation might lead one to suspect that steady decline in the immigrant population over the middle of the 20th century (which correlates with statewide and national trends, as driven by U.S. immigration policy and global economics and politics), coupled with a fairly negligible rise in the population of people of color, would have been an equalizing force in Duluth’s housing market. By the 1970s, there was nowhere in town where there was much of the immigrant stigma that comes out in a few of the HOLC descriptions of west side laborer neighborhoods. Duluth at that time was the perfect all-white control in a national experiment in urban housing markets. And yet, the 2016 Duluth HIR report lays it bare: every one of those neighborhoods that had a description about immigrants or African-Americans in the 1930s remains low-income, even if many others that were in the same class as them back then have now flipped. That legacy, somehow, endures.

I would still, however, venture that the greatest reason for Duluth’s divergent neighborhood paths, one that captures both its old HOLC maps and its current east-west divide, is a structural economic change. Pre-war Duluth wasn’t some bastion of equality, but there were two distinct economies: an immigrant-heavy industrial working port on the west side, and a downtown and east side dominated by a white-collar class and its attendant lower-income service economy. One of these got absolutely decimated in the 1970s and 1980s. The other plugged along, certainly damaged by the trend on the other side, but had much more staying power and adaptability.

Now that it’s unrecognizable from what it was a couple of generations ago, I don’t think many of us moderns fully appreciate the complexity of Duluth’s old blue-collar economy. People with some sense of the history can tell you that Morgan Park (which doesn’t even register a color on the map) was a company town for U.S. Steel, but the map text describes Gary in much the same way. People actually used to live down in the port and industrial areas below the freeway near Denfeld, in a neighborhood known as Oneota. But I was most fascinated by the note in the area around Denfeld, which outranks places like Lakeside and Woodland and Hunter’s Park on the HOLC map. The residents of the Denfeld area, the text explains, are “salaried persons from nearby industrial plants, business and professional men of the west side of the city.”

That line about West Duluth reminded me of the extensive time I spent doing some interviews in Silver Bay, a company town built by what was then the Reserve Mining Company. We have this habit of thinking of blue-collar work as providing stable working-class jobs with modest incomes that allowed a family to get by, but to hear the Silver Bay old-timers tell it, company towns were some of the most rigidly segregated in America, at least in terms of income. Subtle features set apart seemingly identical homes, and management clustered in certain areas. There have been, and continue to be, many very lucrative jobs in industrial work; what set the pre-war era apart was that management was on the ground nearby, not out in relative suburbia (or in some other state or country at a hedge fund or holding company, though even in Duluth, there’s an old line about the city being Pittsburgh’s westernmost suburb). In industrial Duluth, that area for the blue-collar elite was the West Duluth neighborhood surrounding Denfeld High School.

Nowadays, the very notion of a blue-collar elite seems bizarre, and a perfect storm of conditions weighs on the west side housing market. If neighborhoods that age at different rates are far more likely to hold up over time, the more uniform ones—which company towns tend to be—have the misfortune of aging into obsolescence at the same rate. Those west side neighborhoods were also trapped between a river and a ridge, unable to find easy escape valves for steady outward development as in Lakeside or the Heights; instead, it had to leap up the hill to Piedmont (another neighborhood with well-diversified housing that doesn’t register on the HOLC map) or beyond the city limits. Most of those immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, where stigmas apparently lingered in ways they did not for areas occupied by native-born Americans in similar job classes, were toward the west side. It’s also just easier to commute from further away now. Throw in a two-decade crisis of mass layoffs and unemployment and plant closures, and it all starts to come together.

This isn’t all doom and gloom. The area around Denfeld is still comparatively wealthy for West Duluth, with some historic older homes. Eastern Lincoln Park, colored a respectable blue in the times of HOLC, has seen real estate values start to rise again after many decades of stagnation. Some growth along the river corridor has occurred, and room for more remains. As my friends at the Port Authority would ask me to remind the world, Duluth’s blue-collar economy is also far from dead: it may look very different, but the city still moves vast volumes of cargo and has a thriving industrial sector that usually pays a solid salary. The changing nature of industrial work, combined with the attractiveness of well-paying jobs that do not require vast loads of student debt, are starting to change some narratives about a once-stigmatized line of work.

But the ravages of deindustrialization tell a story that HOLC maps alone cannot, and join up with cultural clashes and geographic barriers to explain why cities come to be the way they are. Causes are rarely singular, and momentum did the rest. While real estate agents no longer use maps with explicit racial or immigrant-skeptic language, there’s no shortage of coded ways in which the real estate market designates the desirability of certain neighborhoods. These tools range from practical concerns about returns on investment to the asinine practice of grading everything that goes into public schools on a 1-10 scale, a tool now ubiquitous on any real estate aggregation site. We still live with the consequences of century-old maps, but the ways in which we build our economies and the stories we tell about our towns will decide their futures.

Shards of a Broken Sublime

22 Mar

I have been a writer, in some sense of the word, for over a decade now. On paper, this development was no great surprise. I’m the son of an academic and a librarian, and one side of my family has a strong literary strain to it. I read voraciously as a kid, and had snobby tastes even then. I invented worlds throughout my childhood, some of which endure in recesses of my brain like long-lost friends or fondly remembered vacations. Sometimes I wrote these worlds down, and sometimes they lived only in my mind, but never did I imagine myself a writer as an adult. I was just a somewhat creative kid who grew up in a literary milieu.

That all changed during my freshman year at Georgetown. One night, in the dark of a New South dorm room long after my roommate had passed out, I began to pound out a few lines of a novel. For the next year and a half, I continued to chip away at it every day. While I finished that draft and made some halfhearted efforts to edit it, I immediately undertook additional writing projects as well. My fictional universes grew. I invented people, towns, races, even full-blown theologies, all of which fed on themselves and grew outward even as I went about my daily life as a student. I quietly churned out hundreds of thousands of words that I shared with no one.

My writing birth came at a time when I had no shortage of material. I was astute enough to recognize that, decades later, I might look back on my eighteenth year as the most dramatic of my own life. (I had an older fictional character share this possibility with a teenage protagonist.) From my own journey out of high school to the East Coast to family upheaval to broader a political drama in which I was a bit player, I careened across a full range of emotion, and I had to write about it, both to process what it all meant and to capture it all for my memory. My twentieth year, which included four months in Mexico, brought forth a similar sense of urgency. The intensity of life demanded an outlet, and I’m not sure I would have found it if I hadn’t gone through or done some of the things I did in those handful of years where ambition became reality.

In retrospect, I am in awe of how naturally all of that came. While I still finish most of my nights writing or rereading some of my past writing, my output is a fraction of what it was in those prolific early years. For a long time, I had no concept of writer’s block, no sense of what it was like to ever sit down to write and fail to produce. It was absolutely uninhibited, which may have been the source of its ease. While there were vague pretensions of publication floating around in my mind, I was writing strictly for myself. Not a soul knew about my little project, and there were no expectations.

Maybe some unconscious awareness that I’d lose that freedom was the reason I told no one of my writing life for years. When I finally did start my halting explanations of my efforts, that ease came crashing down, and I began suffering from the aggravating blocks that still plague me to this day. I’d gone from a person who wrote in secret to someone who aspired to the title of writer, and I had to perform. There was no turning back, though: it had become too much a part of my life to hide, and if my writing had half the insight within it that I thought it had, it deserved more than one reader. My writing life aged out of carefree childhood and found its teenage angst.

Recently, as I transferred files from an old laptop to a new one, I took some time to revisit some of those old musings. They had their moments of insight and their moments that don’t deserve to ever be read by anyone else, but above all I was struck by the intensity of the emotion of that teenage author. At that point I was still entranced by the possibility of everything that Georgetown represented to me, still had a sense of unquestioned destiny and a certainty that I would write history. In time I came to doubt this sense, but it never truly left me. That captivation with the power of words and with my youthful dreams has, with distance, returned with renewed strength, albeit through a world-weary recognition of how ephemeral it can all be.

As I looked for an easier outlet for my writing than unmanageably large works of fiction, I started to blog. Or, more accurately, I became an essayist, and had the good fortune to come of age as an essayist when it became the easiest it’s ever been to do so, thanks to a platform that allows for easy dissemination. I wrote my earliest essays from the perspectives of my various fictional characters, an attempt to respond to developments in the 2010 elections from a number of different angles. In time, the stronger of those writing voices emerged as my own, and I decided I had enough material to share on a semi-regular basis. On to a WordPress platform it all went, and has stayed ever since.

As I’ve shared before, blogging comes with its challenges, but is a welcome outlet. Essays allow for much more precise reflection on specific topics, which did a lot of good for the writing development of someone whose fiction tends toward the all-encompassing. (I write novels that look to explore a full swath of society! That plumb the depths of the human psyche! And meta-allegories! And coming-of-age stories! And…you get the idea.) Essays were a valuable bridge between the academic writing I’d honed in school and the fiction I’d honed in isolation. They taught me to be far more precise and concise, two qualities that I have since sought to infuse into both my fiction and my research-related writing in my work life (and really just into life in general). All those styles come with distinct voices, but the fundamentals beneath them never change.

Once I gave up the idea of making a living as a writer, certain things grew easier again. While I still sought to perform for an audience, it was a slightly less existential push, though existential it remained. I also just got older, and developed some maturity as I moved from a passionate sharer of all emotions toward a craftsman trying to perfect his art. Such a claim comes with a certain pretension, clearly, but so, too, does any attempt at authorship. The privilege of writing is accessible to all with a certain level of comfort with the ideas they seek to share; the privilege of being read comes to those who have found some way to consistently craft something memorable.

My writing life was made possible by good fortune and support from parents willing to put up with literary experimentation, and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours since. I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but it doesn’t. Standards rise, the critical eye grows ever more discerning, and when it becomes an expectation, failure to write is a burden. I suspect many writers must first learn how to over-write and over-share, and only with time come to learn how to cut out the excess and hone in on the core message with a deliberate precision.

Good writing, I think, benefits from a natural reticence. There’s a reason we writers have chosen the written word to express our thoughts instead of saying it all aloud to anyone around us. I don’t like to over-share, and while I think stream-of-consciousness has its virtues, the good stuff isn’t something I’d idly write on a lazy Tuesday night. At our best, we find ways to cut through the clutter and form coherent story arcs, and impose order on a world that otherwise can so often lack it. One of my first posts on this blog quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I can’t think of any truer words on the function of good written storytelling.

My writing life, after some time out in the working world, is now at a crossroads. I’m perfectly content to write for myself, and will probably continue to do so on some level for as long as I am able. It’s a method of processing, a method of exploration, a cathartic release. But if I am going to write for an audience beyond my hockey work (where I’ve got my little cult following) or the occasional reaction to a life event (which gets reliably read by people who know me), it needs to evoke a reaction.

Writers may respond differently to the array of responses their work inspires, but for me, nothing is more aggravating than silence. Straight praise, while welcome, also often feels incomplete. My writing has never been a claim to perfection but instead a struggle toward it, a struggle that demands engagement and criticism, and without it, writers are left guessing, or worse, looking at view counts and turning their output into a crass popularity contest. Did we make you think? What about our writing draws you in, or puts you to sleep? On which topics are we at our best or worst? Where to next? If we didn’t want people to engage with us, we would have left our writings in those vast unpublished archives of our minds.

This rambling setup is all a way of saying that I’m going to invest some time over the next few months to see if my writing life can progress beyond the state it’s inhabited for several years now. I don’t know quite what this means yet beyond a certain level of time commitment. I have no shortage of material that is probably a good editor away from publication, from things I could adapt from past essays to a novel draft I finished before grad school to the episodic story collection that I put out on this blog. I need to explore the worlds of writing submissions and publishing, which is foreign to me, and apparently requires one to be comfortable with rejection, which has never been one of my strong suits. I also need to do all of this while keeping up my day job and a couple of other pursuits that will still be central to my life.

No matter where this little experiment goes, though, I will go on writing. The title of this post comes from the New Yorker review of one of my favorite films, Y tu mamá también: the protagonists, writes Anthony Lane, “may spill over with sauce and silliness, but that is the privilege of the young; and it is the job of the adult artist to dig back into that time, and to unearth, from the ridiculous, the shards of a broken sublime.”

Aside from capturing the theme of so much of my writing, that sentiment sums up my writing itself. If I have a task, perhaps even a calling, well, that’s it. Unreason and entropy threaten to drag down lives into despair or apathy, but we have the power to take those downward spirals and turn them to insight, to humor, and to those glimmers of revelation that allow us to reclaim that sublime. It’s time for me to try to share that, such as I can.