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.

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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.

Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it twice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we edge over on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the trip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camp and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people on this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

Part 2 is here.

The Life of a Not-So-Angry Millennial

30 Jun

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Rural Economic Development (RED) Group in Minneapolis that focused on my much-maligned generation. (Or, rather, one of my millennial colleagues and I saw that we were on the agenda and invited ourselves, entitled millennials that we are.) Media narratives about millennials are dominated by discussions of highly educated urbanites who made social media over-sharing, excessive student debt, and avocado toast go mainstream. That life isn’t reality for most of the millennials we talk about in a forum on rural economic development, and any discussion of this age groups usually involves the objects of study griping about how they’ve been painted with an absurdly broad brush. Even so, it’s certainly true that generations, formed by certain common experiences and changing demographics, and many millennials have developed a righteous sense of anger over our inheritance from past generations.

Unlike some panel discussions in which people talk about issues faced by certain groups of people without inviting said people into the room, this room featured real life rural millennials as the main focus. We listened as nine of our colleagues, including several whom I work with regularly, shared their life experiences to date. Almost all operate somewhere in the community development world or are otherwise very active in public service, so they aren’t a representative cross-section of a generation either, but there was enough variety to give the enterprise some weight. Some of these rural millennials are rooted in communities they’ve never left, others left for a spell but found their way home, and others came as immigrants and have looked to build a new life. Their stories were compelling, and the subsequent report-out session was cathartic, as participants reveled in a forum where they could speak freely.

In broad terms, the panel revealed a generation in search of places to put down roots but struggling to do so. Financial anxiety underlined many of their considerations, and they were often willing to make sudden job leaps or commute long distances in search of something that worked. Housing and job markets pulled them in different directions. People of color struggled to resist both loneliness and tokenism. And most fundamentally, the millennials were frustrated when they found themselves shut out of certain situations, their youthful ambition to join community groups at best a curious novelty and at worst a play to steal their elders’ positions. With the 30-year career path at a single employer largely dead, there need to be new ways up and forward, and millennials therefore require conscious engagement in a way their predecessors perhaps did not.

The torrent of millennial passion at the forum had the effect making me feel ridiculously well-off, unable to say much as others spoke eloquently about their travails. I am the rare millennial for whom the system more or less worked. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied dude. By and large, my rewards in life have followed my effort. I’ve taken a few odd turns, perhaps, but my wandering journey of self-discovery was very much an inward, self-inflicted thing for which I hold no grudge against broader society. The pay sacrifices I’ve made in my career path are the consequences of conscious choices, and I’m fortunate to have a light enough debt load to be able to do that.

While my path more or less worked for me and can for other people, I also recognize that I can’t project it too far. I had a lot going for me, and was lucky enough to have the freedom to dabble along a few different paths before diving in to my current course. Some of our most powerful motivators are the bad things that happen in life, and I also have some more unique experiences to draw from there as well. The worst characteristic of any generational analysis is the belief that one person’s success is somehow a model for everyone else, when instead it was often the product of particular circumstances that made it possible.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my laments about millennial life. We’re right to have serious economic and ecological concerns, and our troubles run the risk of lapsing into despair. I’m something of a tech skeptic. I have a bit of student debt, and if I were in a particularly self-pitying mood, I’m sure I could muster up some woe-is-me tale about modern love. (Note to fellow millennials: acknowledgement of challenges is valuable, but wallowing in such places is not attractive.) I think critics who have characterized my generation as drowning in freedom are on to something, and many millennials live out a tension between wanting to be given direction by some outside force and also not wanting anyone to tell us how they think the world works. An old David Brooks column captures this paradox as it attacks the stupidity of the “follow your dreams” advice that proliferated when we millennials were graduating from college (the 35-40 percent of us who did graduate from college, anyway): our lives were often very structured until they suddenly weren’t, and we came out ill-prepared for a world that is far more competitive and unpredictable than the one our parents inhabited.

The need to resolve this millennial paradox is the reason I’m a fierce defender of the liberal arts and a holistic education, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably when economic development panels start bashing the utility of four-year degrees in favor the trades, as they often do. The value that comes from learning how to think instead of just learning to perform tasks has myriad benefits both in career and in life, and while there are high-demand trades that pay well and bachelor’s programs that are questionable paths to gainful employment, the statistics on the lifetime earnings gap between the two are still stark. Viewing education as an accumulation of skills is a bankrupt idea of what it means to be a human moving through life. The fact that many people may not have the means to pursue knowledge and virtue through education does not invalidate that path as a worthy goal.

We’re probably nearing the end of the millennial thinkpiece era, as Generation Z is starting to render us as old news. If you believe the broad-brush pictures, Gen Z has learned from some millennial flailing and takes a more practical, stability-focused approach to career and life decisions, and has lower rates of drug abuse and teen pregnancy. (Some of this is probably generational: we millennials are the children of Boomers formed by 60s tumult and radicalism, while Gen Z members are the kids of allegedly apathetic Gen Xers.) We millennials have some memory of a rosy world before tech seemed ubiquitous and before the late 00s recession, while both loom large in Gen Z members’ lives. Their world is also even more hyper-competitive, more fraught by winner-take-all competition, more economically uncertain. Rising teenage anxiety and suicide rates are symptoms of these extremes, and point to a malaise that public policy alone cannot solve.

The consistent response to the troubles of contemporary life, both from my millennial peers and our Gen Z successors, has been one of anger. Anger has value as a motivator, clearly, and we certainly have a right to lash out at commentators who trade in cheap, context-free generalizations. But anger alone can lead people to blame vague past others, and too often today, even many practitioners of the humanities are more interested in judging the past by contemporary standards than learning from the mess of past successes and failures. If those of us who have come out of the millennial coming-of-age travails with few scars have something to offer, it might be some stability here: in place of anger, we can offer a steadfast commitment to gauging the emotion around us and putting it to productive use. We can isolate root causes amid all of the noise and go to work. And we can live in ways that make sure we model lives that aspire toward knowledge, toward decency, and toward constructive ends for more and more people.

21 Years

20 Jun

As I so often do on this day, I share an Octavio Paz Poem.

Coda

Perhaps to love is to learn
to walk through this world.
To learn to be silent
like the oak and the linden of the fable.
To learn to see.
Your glance scattered seeds.
It planted a tree.
        I talk
because you shake its leaves.

Happy 21st, bro. Your first one is on me, though I’m probably already complicit in your corruption.