Planning Park Point: Duluth City Council Notes, 5/27/14

I’ve sat through a year’s worth of Duluth City Council meetings now, and in that time, there has been plenty of tedium and mundane small-town political talk that inspires little community interest. There are some nights, however, when the community turns out in force to weigh in on a certain issue, and when the gravity of the debate can overwhelm those involved. Monday night was one of those nights.

It was standing room only in the Council Chamber, and yours truly was wedged between a whole bunch of people wearing caution tape and an unsympathetic armrest at the end of the pew. At least 20 employees from the city’s Public Works and Utilities departments lined the edges of the room, dressed in their blue uniforms; their speaker, Phil Fournier, gave a very brief demand that the City honor its contract and discuss seniority issues. (This took the Council by surprise, and both Mr. Fournier and CAO Montgomery promised to share their sides of the story.) There was also a long Committee of the Whole meeting before the formal meeting, in which the Development Authority, supported by a host of developers, gave their initial pitch for a hotel and related redevelopment along the currently vacant Pier B by Bayfront Park.

The real drama on Monday, though, all had to do with the Park Point small area plan. This plan, tabled at the previous meeting, had been separated into four individual resolutions. The most contentious of their number moved the current S-curve—the point at which the main flow of traffic shifts off Lake Avenue and on to Minnesota Avenue—from 13th Street to 8th Street. The second was an alternative to the first, which left the S-curve as is but made changes to 8th Street and Minnesota Ave. between 8th and 13th Streets to accommodate more traffic. While there were a variety of reasons given for the proposed changes, the most prominent involved further development along Minnesota Ave., as a hotel is about to open there, and there is potential for further expansion. (Still, any official changes would not take place until “at least 2021,” according to Community Development Manager Keith Hamre.) The third was a relatively benign resolution on utilities infrastructure, and the fourth provided more detail on public waterfront accesses, designating three “tier one” beach accesses for heavy public use at Franklin Park, Lafayette Square, and the beachouse and eight negotiable “tier two” accesses along both sides of the Point designed with locals in mind. To further clarify the tier two accesses, Councilor Gardner added a pair of amendments, one which barred these accesses from being advertised, and one that called for more discussion on the location of the access points.

(Full disclosure before I go any further: I have a family member who lives between the Lift Bridge and the S-curve, though said family member is a renter and is unlikely to still be living in this location when any proposed plan would go into effect, and has not voiced a strong opinion on the plan.)

There were nineteen speakers on the various Park Point resolutions, and only one, Garner Moffat, the first speaker and a member of the Planning Commission, was in support of them. He said the proposals were a reasonable compromise, and also offered several alternatives for the Council to choose from. The other eighteen, while united in their opposition, made for a diverse cast; they ranged from the indignant (Mr. Mike Medlin) to the questioning (Mr. Burke Edgerton) to those concerned about safety (Ms. Melanie Goldish) to the humorous (Mr. Roy Marlow). The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” made several appearances, and several people wondered why current Minnesota Avenue tenants such as the Army Corps of Engineers had not been consulted. A few worried that an S-curve closer to the Lift Bridge would cause more congestion, as people wouldn’t be able to see what was going on; others noted that the alternative plan to simply alter the streets had been last-minute and poorly vetted. Many cited deep roots on Park Point, sharing personal and family histories dating back to the day the first carriage crossed the Lift Bridge. While the tone was largely respectful—several speakers, including Mr. Bill Burns, thanked the Council for its responsiveness to questions and willingness to visit the affected area—it was obvious that any changes would have to be forced past an army of angry residents.

After the overwhelming display of opposition, someone had to take up the unenviable task of defending the plan, and Councilor Gardner seized the opportunity. She said the plan was the result of a year and a half of hard work, was “halfway decent,” and sought to preserve the neighborhood near the bridge in the event of future construction, not destroy it. She pointed out that keeping things the same may not be possible if traffic continues to increase on the Point—which it likely will—and that it was her goal to route traffic toward commercial activity. Her suggestion that opposition to the plan was not as uniform as it seemed because proponents were scared of speaking out inspired some derisive laughter and comments from the crowd. President Krug rose to her feet, banged her gavel, demanded respect after the Council had respected the citizens’ views, and said she would order any further rabble-rousers to leave; a handful of people promptly left.  (While I don’t doubt that the majority of people who care do not support the re-design, the reaction pretty much proved Councilor Gardner’s point. Who would want to endure that sort of reception?)

Most of the Councilors were respectful of the planning process, but slowly raised doubts. Even Councilor Sipress, who supported creating a small area plan for re-routing the S-curve, made it clear he would not vote for such a change if it came before the Council in the near future. Councilor Russ said her research suggested a change would not devalue affected houses if and when the city had to seize them to reroute traffic, but still was skeptical. The most pointed critic, unsurprisingly, was Councilor Fosle, who said the changes would put citizens in a “stranglehold” and that the city should not do anything until it is a “must.” He also made the suggestion (welcomed by Mr. Hamre) that the city convert the little-used tot lot at Franklin Park into a parking lot so as to accommodate more people at the 13th Street beach. President Krug suggested another such ad hoc fix, saying street parking on Lake Avenue north of the S-curve could be moved to the lake side of the avenue to make it easier to turn out of the side streets leading away from the development on Minnesota Avenue.

The debate also went to the core of several Councilors’ beliefs. “This is exactly why I ran for the Council,” said Councilor Fosle at the start of his comments. Councilor Julsrud asked deep questions, wondering “what does leadership look like?” in situations such as these. In this case, she declared, something that caused so much “consternation” ought to be sent back to the administration. Councilor Filipovich repeated his oft-used line on how “decisions are made by those who show up,” and both he and Councilor Russ pointed out that it could be brought back even if voted down. Councilor Sipress defended the very notion of long-term planning, making it clear he was no fan of extensive Park Point development, but that a re-routed S-curve would be a sensible contingency in the event of a future “traffic catastrophe” if the development continued. Councilor Larson, who is normally relentlessly positive, questioned the cost of the project. President Krug, who rarely goes against recommendations of city staff, came out in opposition, worrying about the narrow vote in the Planning Commission and the abruptness of the rerouted curve. Only Councilor Hanson kept his silence, though his votes—four ‘nos’—made his opinions abundantly clear.

In the end, the plan to re-route the S-curve failed 2-6-1, with Councilors Gardner and Sipress in support; Councilor Julsrud abstained, saying she didn’t want to vote against a good plan but wanted further discussion, and would rather it had been tabled. The alternative plan to widen streets drew even less support, with Council Russ as the lone ‘yes’ vote, and Councilor Julsrud again abstaining. The piecemeal approach to the plan did produce some results, though, as the utility infrastructure resolution and the shorefront access routes both passed 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Hanson in opposition. Exhausted but mostly satisfied, the Park Pointers made their way to the exits.

The Council, however, soldiered on, and while it tabled everything related to a possible street repair fee to next meeting so that the resolutions would come up at the same time as several related ordinances, there were a few speakers who stuck it out to voice their displeasure. Ms. Bev Massey wondered what the citizens would be taxed for next time, while a Mr. Woods (presented without first name) lashed out about unanswered questions and financial mismanagement. Most everything else sailed through unanimously and with minimal debate, though Councilor Fosle did lodge his usual protest vote against the purchase of a new, expensive vehicle.

After the three-hour marathon, the Council pulled things together. Councilor Larson was happy to announce that Council meetings are now live streamed online (mwahaha, now they’ll never be rid of me), and Councilor Fosle invited everyone to an ATV training later in the week. Then, finally, the Councilors could exhale—at least until they take up street repairs in two weeks.

It was not a night that made it easy to maintain perspective. The Park Point plan was an issue that could seem like a life-or-death issue for some, and a silly waste of time for others. Perhaps it’s a display of civic engagement at its finest, and the power of people to make their voices heard; perhaps it’s NIMBYism at its worst, with a mob shouting down a fairly cautious and forward-thinking plan. It’s a reminder that democracy is never clean and efficient, for good or ill, and while I’m one of the bigger proponents of local-level politics you’ll find, it was also a reminder that these town meetings are often not idyllic exercises in harmonious community-building. It’s hard, it’s controversial, and someone is going to come away unhappy in the end.

Still, smart politicians know how to ride the waves of public sentiment, and the Council did so relatively well on Monday. It was never made entirely clear why the plan was necessary at this particular point in time—surely if current traffic patterns prove unsustainable, changes could be made in the future with or without a 2014 small area plan—and the hurry to push it through doomed things from the start. While a careful review suggested the plan wasn’t half as malicious as several of the speakers made it out to be, it had lost in the court of public opinion before it ever really came forward, and was effectively dead upon arrival. I’m not sure that more public engagement was necessarily the answer here—the public was obviously pretty engaged, and the people most affected were never going to be made happy. That said, the Council was wise to pull the issue apart into separate pieces and salvage some discussions for future planning, particularly on the beach access questions, which even the vocally opposed Councilor Fosle noted contained good “safeguards” for citizen input. Between those discussions and the eternal allure of further development along Park Point, these issues are never going to die. Future Councils will simply have to navigate these choppy waters as things develop, and ideally, Monday night’s concessions coupled with a handful of successful resolutions will be enough to sustain the necessary dialogue.

The Reign in Spain

Europe crowned a new champion on Saturday, as Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid clashed for the title in Lisbon. For a second straight year, the Champions League final featured two teams from the same country, with a feisty upstart taking on an established, incredibly wealthy power. Both years, the upstart has played brilliantly, gave it everything they could, been in good position to pull it off near the end of the game…and lost.

Stylistically, the upstarts were pretty different. Borussia Dortmund pushed the pace and went up and down the pitch with Bayern Munich last season, while Atlético Madrid’s approach was about as defensive as it gets. Led by the Man in Black, Diego Simeone, they brought a heavy dose of physicality, roughing up Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the early going and consigning him to a very minor role in the win. Their incisive interceptions frustrated the Real attack, and they pounced on Iker Casillas’s error in goal to grab the early lead. But their legs began to fail them as the game progressed, and despite countless narrow escapes, they couldn’t keep out a Sergio Ramos header in stoppage time. Spent, Atlético conceded twice in extra time, and after ten years and over a billion dollars spent in the effort, Real Madrid are champions of Europe once again.

Two players on this Real Madrid team get all the attention: Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the $100 million man who, after countless wasted chances, finally headed home the game-winner. But in reality, neither of these players makes Los Blancos go; that honor goes to the midfield duo of Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric, who had the most energy on the pitch by extra time, setting up Ronaldo and Bale time and time again before one of them finally hit paydirt. Goals are rare enough in high-level fútbol that the goal-scorers will always get outsize attention, and Ronaldo and Bale certainly have their moments of brilliance, but in so many games, the supporting cast gets far too little recognition.

If I may let my colors show some, there is nothing terribly inspiring in a Real championship, but in addition to the under-recognized midfielders, one other man deserves some credit: the patient, low-key Carlo Ancelotti, who did what the far more dynamic José Mourinho could not. The Real manager turned his players loose and let them use their prodigious skill, and in the end, it all paid off. Even with all of the resource advantages in the world, winning it all isn’t easy, and Ancelotti was willing to take some bumps in the early going to get it right in May. When the wealthy traditional powers win, it sets the standard for everyone else, and while there’s a risk of European soccer drifting toward oligarchy, things are still unpredictable enough that a team like Atlético can frustrate Real for 92 minutes. Their championship should only inspire everyone else to get on to their level.

The ending will long haunt Atlético, and with a payroll less than one third of Real’s, they’ll struggle to hold on to many of their top end players after this season. This was probably their great chance, and as impressive as their defense can be, it alone can’t win a championship. Still, it was a heroic performance from Simeone’s squad, which elevated the standard for tough play in Spain and won their first La Liga title in 18 years. Their coach is a rising star, and they played their two biggest games—the Liga season-ending, title-clinching draw with Barcelona and the Champions League final with Real—with near nothing from two of their finest players, Diego Costa and Arda Turan. With Simeone in charge and some smart personnel decisions, they’ll continue to put pressure on the two big guns in Spanish soccer.

This all brings us to the team left out of the party in Lisbon, Barcelona. The Catalan power, rulers of the European fútbol scene for the past six years, did not win a single trophy, falling to Real in the Copa del Rey and Atlético in La Liga and the Champions League. To be sure, the gap is a small one: they dismantled British champion Manchester City in the Champions League, tied Atlético five times and lost once (1-0) in six meetings, and went 2-1 against Real. They lost all three major trophies by a single goal, and with Bayern Munich looking like they were trying to shove square pegs into round holes in their first season with Pep Guardiola at the helm, it’s not hard to argue that the three best club teams in the world right now are all Spanish.

Yet the times are changing at Barça, with veteran keeper Victor Valdes and longtime captain Carlos Puyol headed for the exits, and Xavi no longer in his prime. Argentine coach Tata Martino got more flak than he deserved for his management of an injury-riddled squad, but while his tactics were competent, the consensus was that he didn’t do enough to light a fire under his stars, and he is one and done. Add in the kerfuffle over Neymar’s contract, a (temporarily suspended) transfer ban for violating stupid but clear rules in their handling of several players in their youth academy, and a lot of squabbling on the board, and it looks like a mess.

Barça has moved swiftly in the past week, bringing in fiery former star Luis Enrique to take the reins and tapping Marc Andre ter Stegen as Valdes’ successor. The board is likely to open up the pocketbook, and Real’s win only rubs more salt in the wound. Even in a “down” year, Lionel Messi is still better than pretty much anyone out there; with Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing at an extremely high level and younger players like Neymar and Jordi Alba in the fold, the core is there for a return to dominance.

In the end, though, the big winners of this European soccer season are the Spanish. Yes, La Liga is top-heavy, but Spanish teams were strong across all European competitions, and the imbalance is far worse in some other leagues. And when the big guns do clash, it makes for some of the most thrilling fútbol in the world, with the distinct styles and sheer star power on display. For all that bothers me about club soccer, from its inequities and questionable international oversight to its inane rumor mills to its viciously short leashes, these matches still offer some of the most compelling sports drama out there.


Since I’m writing about soccer, I’d be remiss not to mention the big news coming out of the U.S. National Team this past week: head coach Jurgen Klinsmann elected not to pick Landon Donovan, the longtime star and hero of the U.S.’s 2010 Cup run, for Brazil. It’s a gutty call, and earned him plenty of ire, especially among more casual fans, who see the 32-year-old as the face of U.S. soccer. It might just cost him his job if the U.S. doesn’t get out of the group stage—and that’s something I wouldn’t bet on happening at this point, with or without Donovan.

In principle, though, I’ll defend the decision. I don’t watch enough MLS to comment on Donovan’s form, but the reviews are generally not great, and, hard as it may be, there comes a time when teams have to move on. Klinsmann’s youth movement is a gamble, but it aims toward a brighter future, and in general, it’s a good sign to see that U.S. soccer is generating a bench deep in viable options instead of clinging to an aging fan favorite. I’m not sure I’d have done the same thing—I like the idea of a veteran, professional goal-scoring weapon off the bench—but in principle, this is a case where reasonable minds can disagree.

The most striking thing about Klinsmann’s squad, though, is its reliance on players with dual citizenship, some of whom barely qualify as “American.” It’s not that I’m chauvinistic about these things; it’s encouraging to see players excited to put on the red, white, and blue, and given my own roots, I’m rather partial to German-Americans. Plenty of other nations, including France and Germany, have had success with players who were born on different continents. Still, I can’t help but be reminded of Herb Brooks’s outrage when USA Hockey brass rushed to naturalize Canadians for U.S. Olympic hockey teams in the 1970s. U.S. hockey, Brooks argued, would never reach its potential so long as it relied on imports. Instead, it had to do the dirty work of training its own kids up from the youngest ages, building as broad a pyramid as possible to generate a self-sustaining pool of talented players. There’s no doubt Brooks’ strategy worked, and continues to work. To Klinsmann’s credit, he’s done some work on that front as well, and U.S. Soccer has given him a lot of time and freedom to do his thing. U.S. soccer doesn’t have much to lose, so it might as well let the man see out his contract and see what he can do. I appreciate Donovan’s career, but I also look forward to a day when the U.S.’s most illustrious goal on the international stage isn’t against Algeria.

Whatever one thinks of the Donovan saga, we’ve got less than three weeks until the World Cup. In Brazil. Need I say more?

Debating Duluth’s Gap: School Board Notes, 5/20/14

After a busy week of public commentary on school affairs, the ISD 709 School Board gathered for its May meeting Tuesday night. The opening stages included a heap of awards for former Student Member Eric Thibault, now a senior at East, and a somewhat amusing scholarship in which a single student from each high school was drawn from a large glass bowl containing the names of every senior in the graduating class. After these pleasantries, the Board got down to work.

The expected hot topic of the meeting was the concern about Denfeld curriculum I explored in Sunday’s post, and Superintendent Gronseth moved quickly to answer some of the worries. He first said that staffing decisions were far from final, and also brought on some applause when he said Denfeld would offer Spanish 5, in part thanks to federal funds for which the school qualifies that East does not. He also pointed out that East was currently slated to lose more courses than Denfeld, and pointed out some investments in music that will relieve some of the stress (though they do not appear address the single biggest strike against the District’s music programs, the 6-period day for 8th graders).

There were five public speakers, and all addressed the Denfeld curriculum issues. Four were parent-student combinations of Linda and Maria Puglisi and Andrew and Hans Slade, respectively; the fifth was another student, Lucy Billings. They all hit the same general notes, though all articulately, hammering the lack of equity between east and west and the steadily dwindling opportunities. They put a heavy emphasis on the enrollment gap between the schools; as Hans Slade noted, the 13 out of roughly 1000 Denfeld students who wanted to take German 5 actually made for a better ratio than the 20ish out out 1500 at East, but because East was so much larger it could field a class, while Denfeld could not. Andrew Slade worried about the perception these differences would have on families moving into Duluth, calling it an “achievement gap as serious as any other,” while Billings added that one’s “address should not determine the quality” of one’s education.

The Board floated a few possible solutions, though there were no concrete steps taken at this meeting. Several of the speakers mentioned teleconferenced classes—classes via Skype, essentially—as a solution; the District has tried this in the past, and Supt. Gronseth gave it mixed marks, and added that, while not ideal, online and post-secondary enrollment options also existed. Member Welty also proposed moving students back and forth between campuses a bit more, though this already happens to some degree, and would pose considerable logistical challenges if expanded. In the end there were few solid answers, with Supt. Gronseth adding that holding a small upper-level class in one subject would inevitably drive class sizes up somewhere else. The only concrete short-term answer, it seems, is to drive enrollments in these classes up to sustainable levels. (Obviously, this is difficult in, say, German 5 due to the prerequisites required, but my last post has some suggestions on this front.)

The Education Committee report was largely uneventful, consisting mostly of notifications on grants, field trips, and outside funding. The HR Committee was similarly quiet, with only a brief clarification: the numerous teachers who were being “terminated” are simply people who receive yearly contracts to teach less than half a load, most of whom are re-hired on a similar contract the next year, and often are retired former teachers coming back to lend a slight hand.

The drama was all reserved for the Business Committee, where Members Welty and Johnston pulled a pair of bylaw changes that increased the number of people needed to call a special meeting from two to three. This concerned these two Members for obvious reasons, which Member Welty came out and said explicitly: as the two of them were often in the minority on the Board, they worried it was a maneuver to limit their power. Member Welty said he felt “targeted,” and that these were strong signals the Board thought he “could not be trusted.” Chair Miernicki though this was “escalating” things and not very constructive, and there was some directionless talk about the number of meetings the Board had. Member Johnston demanded a reason for the change seven or eight times, being unsatisfied with the repeated answer: the Board was trying to standardize the number of people it needed to hold meetings, and to conform to a state statute.

Member Westholm thought this made things very clear, while Member Johnson countered, not without reason, that while state law sets parameters that the Board couldn’t exceed, it was entirely within the Board’s power to be more responsive to minority rights if it so chose. He said he’d written to the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) for clarification and awaited a response. He made several efforts to table and amend the resolutions; at first he had little luck, but the disinterest by the Board majority in awaiting the MSBA’s response troubled Member Harala. She reminded the Board of its relationship-building efforts over the previous several months, and thought rushing this measure through went against what they’d been working toward. Member Welty also said he’d happily abide by the MSBA’s interpretation, but the majority preferred to press on, and the changes both passed, 4-3.

Next came the monthly detour into WADM enrollment numbers. Member Johnston used this as a launching-off point for further discussion on Denfeld’s enrollment, and eventually was told he could get the data he wanted. There was the usual back-and-forth with Member Seliga-Punyko again insisting that the enrollment declines were natural population decline, and Member Johnston hinting something else (Red Plan fallout) was also part of the picture. While he invited people to disprove him if he was wrong, he complained that the committee meeting had mostly been spent “bashing me” instead of having a serious conversation. This led to an apologetic exchange between he and Chair Miernicki, in which Member Johnston made it clear the “bashing” was limited to one particular Member (Seliga-Punyko, presumably). Still, he returned to his main point, saying enrollment figures were only good—contra the contentions of Members Westholm and Loeffler-Kemp—by very low standards. (I’m reminded of a favorite line of mine, which I present not as a comment on this particular debate, but simply because I like it: optimism is the product of low standards and a long time horizon.) He said he wished the Board would be “more civil” and “police its own members” in this regard, while claiming that everyone in the room, including the Board and the administration was “dysfunctional.” Member Loeffler-Kemp took “personal offense” on behalf of the administrative staff, saying they’d always been a help to her. It was life as usual in WADM. After a few other minor questions, the entirety of the Business Committee report passed 6-1, with Member Johnston in opposition.

Member Johnston asked for a committee of the whole on Denfeld’s curriculum questions in the closing comments, saying the east-west disparity was the biggest thing on the Board’s table at the moment. Chair Miernicki concurred, and suggested that numerous student groups could be brought into the conversation. Member Welty grumbled about the lack of financial information he’d been receiving; while Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth questioned this characterization, he did get himself further meetings with Business Services Director Bill Hansen, and shared his now-familiar warnings about standard operating debt without a change in course. Member Seliga-Punyko had a whole heap of questions for Supt. Gronseth that he promised to answer in greater detail later on, including questions about classes being lost at East, the transfer appeal process between high schools (which she seemed to suspect of worsening the enrollment gap), the future of the music programs, and where the District would direct additional state funding.

The Board wrapped up the meeting with a few last words on Denfeld, as Member Johnston bemoaned the “despairing remarks” about Denfeld despite its “noble history,” saying it was “imperative” the school did not slide further behind, and asking to know what caused the numbers disparity. After some sympathetic on the troubles with perception, Member Harala had the beginnings of an answer, and it was an important one: the Board does not operate in a vacuum, and there were many factors beyond their purview at play. She suggested a meeting with the City Council to work through some of the issues, and emphasized the importance of trust over suspicion. Chair Miernicki concluded everything with suggesting the District gather data on where students live to further their understanding.

Despite the lack of obvious steps taken, it was an important meeting for the Board, and it offered the beginnings of an honest discussion on the east-west dynamics of this city that I’ve been pining for over and over again on this blog, and on all sorts of issues. Duluth is not a one-size-fits-all city, and anyone with any vision for it has to take its constituent parts one by one. Once again, I was especially impressed by Member Harala, who showed some leadership in standing up for a minority she does not necessarily agree with, and for being the only Member who outwardly acknowledges the scope of the challenges facing the district without reverting to Red Plan-era ideological lines to frame her views. There are intelligent and caring people on both sides of that divide, and in the end, they do have a common goal here. I may have a long time horizon, but I’m not going to abandon my high standards, and even then, I still find some room for optimism: for all that divides the ten people on the dais, discussion seems to be lurching closer and closer to something resembling a transparent reality, from fiscal issues to Duluth’s divisions. Let’s hope that process continues.

Dissonance in a District Divided

On Saturday, the Duluth News Tribune’s Jana Hollingsworth wrote the paper’s best piece about ISD 709 in my memory. It was thorough, powerful, and on the depressing side. As usual, this is one of the few things that drives me up on to a soapbox. Here I go.

The article is primarily about the struggles of ISD 709’s music programs, which have taken a big hit in recent years. The number of music educators in the district has been halved since my graduation just six years ago, to say nothing of the private and small-group lessons that were already in decline. I wrote about this a little bit after the school board meeting two months ago (see the notes after the stars toward the end): a six-period middle school day makes for some ugly choices by students, and music is the natural victim. The suggestion in a letter by Superintendent Gronseth to parents that students don’t really need to study a foreign language in eighth grade, while true to the extent that it corrects a false rumor, would irk me if I were a parent. Shut up and eat your broccoli, kids!

What makes this article impressive, though, is that it digs a bit deeper, and acknowledges that elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about: Duluth’s east-west divide. Duluth is a split city; the new two high school set-up may make that distinction more obvious, but wasn’t any less real before the Red Plan. We have an east side that is home to the financial and intellectual elite of northeastern Minnesota, and while not everyone in the East attendance area is a cakeater, the ancillary benefits of wealth and stable neighborhoods can make all the difference in the world. The east side has the cultural capital to withstand budget crises and large class sizes, and its involved parents will fight hard to make sure the money keeps flowing into the coffers. Meanwhile, we have a west side that has a shrinking student population, more than double the number of kids on free and reduced lunch, and—perhaps most damagingly—a “far more transient” population. How can a District ever make real progress when kids are here one year and gone the next?

Sure, there are bureaucratic ways of getting around this, but it’s tough, given Duluth’s geography. Something like one half of the student-aged population now lives east of 21st Avenue. Elaborate line-drawing and busing schemes are an option, but as we reflect on the 60 years since Brown v. Board, we’ve learned that, however noble the intent, busing alone cannot correct the inequities in a city, and in general has simply proven another catalyst for white flight to the suburbs. Duluth’s dynamics in this regard are far less racial, but there’s no reason not to think that a number of those with the means to do so wouldn’t follow the incentives and create their own solutions if their children are forced into the “weaker” school in a search for equity. Like it or not, reality demands that Duluth confront the incentives that exist in the current system. No PR operation is going to change them. The solutions here are primarily in the realm of economics and urban planning, not school buses.

I’ve said this numerous times when talking about this divide, and I’ll stress it again here: the west side of Duluth is no ghetto. It has some quality neighborhoods and a strong sense of identity. It’s not beyond repair, and some people on the west side would take issue with the suggestion that it even needs repair. To the extent that it does, much of it is beyond the purview of a school district. It can’t give parents jobs or repair broken families or generate homeownership, and educational struggles will probably forever follow issues such as those. It makes no sense to force students district-wide into the same box and expect the same outcomes. Solutions must work with the reality on the ground.

ISD 709 has, quietly, acknowledged this. From the singular focus on math and reading at Laura Macarthur to the intensive programs at Lincoln Park detailed in this latest article, the District has put extra emphasis on basic skills. This is in many regards a practical decision, both in the need to raise test scores for funding purposes and in the need to have kids who can function at reasonable levels. Obviously, this isn’t without its trade-offs, sometimes potentially very negative ones. The most familiar is mentioned by Member Seliga-Punyko: things like music, athletics, and elective classes give kids reasons to be excited about school, and want to be there. If they don’t get this stuff early in their lives, is there any reason to expect they ever will?

There is another danger, here, though, something underscored even further by the recent elimination of Spanish 5 at Denfeld: there needs to be a track for the high-achieving kids on the west side to keep up with their peers on the east. The benefits are manifold: it sets a high bar that can give students a reason to strive in school. Those high-achieving students, many of them from stable families with deep roots in the area, are the glue that holds these schools together, and the foundation necessary for any broader scheme to rebuild that side of the city after thirty years of industrial decline. If options for those students get squeezed out, odds are they’re going to leave, and that only worsens the trickle-down effect. The west side’s test scores drop further, more resources get shipped out there to prop them up, and in time the east side starts to feel the strain, too, and suddenly we’re all going down the drain together. If that means devoting some extra resources to the west side to prop up certain options, as Clare Chopp suggests, then this kid who bleeds red and grey says “make it happen.”

This isn’t a big city. ISD 709 can’t just close low-performing schools left and right as in large urban districts, especially not in the wake of the Red Plan. (Though even that isn’t guaranteed to work; see this striking piece on school reform in Newark in last week’s New Yorker.) For all their differences, the east and west sides are intricately interconnected. It is not the job of school districts to make war on geography, and while they can be a source of social change—and probably should be, to the extent that they can—it’s delusional to think schools can do it alone, or even that they are the primary factor. Instead, the District has to work with what it has. There is only so much the schools can control, and I certainly have plenty of sympathy for the School Board members and principals as they make painful decisions on what must be cut. In the end, it all comes back to incentives: a few gentle pushes can make sure students have all of the opportunities they deserve.

To that end, here’s one idea: actively pressure kids to take tougher classes so that they can generate the numbers necessary to sustain them. Much too big of a deal is made out of the AP label in ISD 709. Just about anywhere else in the country, AP is a relative commonplace. If inner-city schools can cram a host of poorly-prepared students through the AP curriculum every year—as many do—Duluth most definitely can come up with a single class of AP World History students at Denfeld. Even a half-assed AP class that doesn’t quite teach to the test is better than a “regular” course (though it should, of course, aim for the top—push the kids, and who knows what might happen).

I understand that AP is not the be-all, end-all, and six years removed, I can see what a rat race the fight for a good high school résumé was. However, this is not something you lessen by lecturing from on high on what one needs to take to go to college, nor by lopping off options and saying “eh, you’ll turn out alright in the end.” AP is not for everyone, just as college is not for everyone, and there is no shame in finding stable employment in, say, a trade profession. (To ISD 709’s credit, its programs in this department are strong, and it should be commended for standing by them, despite this not doing much for those all-important test scores.) CITS covers most of what kids need for local colleges and can even ready kids for AP tests adequately with just some minor tweaks, and I’m naturally bit skeptical of blanket standards imposed by the College Board. Still, AP is the common language spoken at strong colleges across the country, and I would have been dead in the water at Georgetown without the skills I learned in the AP classes I had. I can’t speak for Denfeld, but when I was at East, I was impressed with the school’s ability to prepare students for a variety of paths, from elite colleges to the local ones to the trade professions. There was a healthy diversity there, and in my mind, that is more important than relentless pursuit of higher test scores.

The path to tougher classes could be further incentivized by weighting grades. That would give students added reason to challenge themselves, and also might break up some of the grade inflation that can happen in ISD 709. Fifteen people in my East graduating class had 4.0s, which is kind of ridiculous. Everyone gets a medal! Not that there weren’t plenty of very smart people in that group, but there were surely some different paths to those high GPAs, to say nothing of the hyper-competitiveness fostered by the fear that a single B could drop a person 15 spots in their class rank. It would be cute if we could get kids to take high-level courses simply for the love of learning, but a little push never hurts, and getting into the deeper stuff isn’t a bad way to hook people, so long as it’s well-taught.

All of this brings us back to music, and there really is only one solution to that conundrum: get that seventh period restored to the middle school day. I don’t want to hear anyone blaming the Red Plan, and I don’t want to hear anyone blaming state or federal mandates. There are plenty of things I dislike about both of them, but framing all of this District’s issues through them amounts to a whiny denial of responsibility in the here and now. We have to confront reality, not a world of wishful thinking in which things are not as they are. Whatever Supt. Gronseth might plead in a letter, there is no sustainable future for the music programs with a six-period day. I was impressed by his admission in the article that some of the things the District tries to save money “don’t work out so well.” That’s an essential review process, and there is no shame in that admission. We could use more of it in many fields, and no one is above it.

Of course, this is all easy for me to say; we’ll see what can feasibly be done. Tuesday’s Board meeting should be an interesting one: do the Members rehash the same old talking points and past wars, or do they confront the existing problems with both the seriousness and the humility necessary? Their actions over the first few months of this new term have given me some hope. As usual, I’ll be on hand to see if they hit the right notes.

Six Wild Myths

The Minnesota Wild’s season is over, with a funny bounce and that platonic ideal of the hockey bro, Patrick Kane, spelling its doom in the sixth game of the Western Conference semifinals. While it was a second straight defeat at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, it was also the second-best finish in franchise history, and a clear improvement on the team that got steamrolled by Chicago in the first round a year ago. To wrap it all up, here are six things that were said about this Wild team or the players on it that were either proven false, or should not be taken as gospel:

Mike Yeo is in over his head.

This might be the most obvious one: any midseason worries about the Wild’s young head coach were overwrought, and he deserves some time to see what he can do with this equally young, exciting core of emerging players. He had them playing a style that matched their skill set, and for the most part it was positive, possession-focused hockey, not the endless traps of the Lemaire Era. The “same old Wild” storyline from some in the national media was laughable; Colorado trapped more than the Wild did, and even the Blackhawks did so with some regularity. The Wild’s cycles aren’t exactly up-tempo hockey, and can sometimes lend themselves to inane passing, but they usually did a good job of generating chances for a team not blessed with an overload of offensive firepower.

Yeo can go a bit overboard with his line shuffling, and it was aggravating to see Dany Healtey oozing about the ice in game situations while the likes of Erik Haula rode the bench. Like his young players, he has some learning to do. But he has shown he can learn from mistakes, and there’s no reason to think he can’t be this team’s coach for years to come.

The Wild couldn’t win with Ilya Bryzgalov in net.

Bryz is no star, and his playoff stats are nothing to write home about. He is also definitely not the Wild’s future. But for a fourth-string goalie pressed into a very difficult situation, he wasn’t half bad: on the list of things that went wrong in the postseason, Bryzgalov’s performance is not near the top. Competent coaches can design game plans that lighten the burden on questionable netminders, and Mike Yeo did just that this postseason. The most you can ask of a goalie in Bryz’s situation is to give the team a chance to win, and he did just that.

It would be great for the Wild to have a goalie who can legitimately steal a game, as Corey Crawford did for Chicago in Game 6. They just don’t right now. Darcy Kuemper has probably done enough to earn a chance to be that man, though they need to have a realistic Plan B going forward, too.

Zach Parisé had a poor postseason.

As of this writing, Parisé’s 14 points in 13 games are tied for second-most of anyone in the playoffs. That’s more points than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, and several other players who Parisé’s equals or superiors. That’s also a higher rate of points per game than he had during the regular season, and also comes in higher than most of his seasons in the NHL. True, his performance wasn’t incredibly consistent, and only 4 of those 14 points were goals. But, as with Bryzgalov, this is not among the major reasons the Wild lost. Parisé’s work ethic was superb as always, and his line was always the focus of the opposition’s most intense attention. No, he didn’t put the team on his back, but he was good enough.

Of bigger concern was the performance of Mikko Koivu. Sure, he was hurt, but it showed in his play, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. That’s not to say he can’t continue to be a productive player for the Wild, but his days as a top line center are probably in the past. It sure didn’t seem to help much when Yeo did put him on a line with Parisé.

There is an easy narrative about Matt Cooke.

After Cooke took out Tyson Barrie’s knee in the first round, people outside Minnesota were quick to label him a goon, this incident only being the latest in a long history of indefensible play. Wild fans, on the other hand, tended to see a player who’d made a serious dent in his penalty minutes, and for the most part cleaned up his act; the 7-game suspension, they argued, was an unfair punishment for a distant past. There’s some truth to both stories.

Cooke is tough to handle because he is more than a simple goon; he really is a productive player who brought excellent energy to the Wild third line. But no matter how much he seems to have left that past behind, there will always be that risk, and any team that signs him (and its fan base) will have to understand that. Such is life with Matt Cooke.

With all of their youth, the Wild are guaranteed a bright future.

Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Wild over the next few years. Mikael Granlund looks like a star in the making, and Erik Haula was arguably the Wild’s best player in the Chicago series. Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Justin Fontaine…the list of youngsters with serious potential goes on and on. The three young members of the defensive corps, while wobbly at times, held its own against the much more experienced Blackhawks and contributed some to the offense, usually in the form of Jared Spurgeon.

Still, there’s room for some cautionary notes. Many of these players only played a fraction of a long season, and a couple of flashes in the playoffs shouldn’t be taken as signs of future stardom. Reality is that a few of them probably won’t pan out, and there will be further growing pains and a need for patience. There is a Minnesota sports tendency to fetishize some of these homegrown kids, too (the flip side of this being the excessive expectations directed at the few high-priced free agents they do bring in, like Parisé). The Wild can’t let that cloud its judgment of these players’ progression, and they need to keep on bringing in quality youngsters if they want this to be more than a small window of contention.

The Wild MUST Get Thomas Vanek.

Vanek is a great player who would liven up a rather paltry power play, and might be enough to make the Wild’s offense truly formidable. The Wild does need another top-flight forward or two, and shouldn’t rely solely on the young stars’ progression to find them. I’ve got nothing against him. But the moment a team starts to convince itself that it has to have a certain player, they usually end up overpaying or otherwise behaving rashly. This team has needs beyond its top two lines, most notably on defense: I dream of a team on which Ryan Suter doesn’t have to play absurd minutes for the team to win. Again, the improving kids can help, but defensive depth was a weakness this past season. If they waste too much on one player, the trickle-down effects on depth could prove more of a hindrance than a help.

Another thing to understand about Vanek: he’s 30. If there’s a time to splurge on a free agent in his prime, it’s now: the Wild has every reason to load up for a run over the next few years, with Parisé and Suter in their primes and all the kids growing up. But fans also need to realize that he’s not going to get any better than he is now, and will almost certainly be overpaid by the end of his contract. It’ll all be worth it if he helps get the Wild to the promised land, but it can’t let other needs slide if they want to build a complete, championship team. Vanek, or a comparable forward, is just one piece of the puzzle.


The road to success is slow and long, but the Wild look to be on it, and had this otherwise erstwhile NHL fan glued to every game over the past month. There’s a lot of potential here, and this franchise finally looks to be coming into its own. The future is now, and it’s time for the Wild brain trust to seize this opportunity and run with it.

Let’s Argue About Downtown Housing: Duluth City Council Notes, 5/12/14

City Hall was, apparently, the place to be in Duluth on Monday night. Most of the residents of Park Point relocated themselves to the Council Chamber, with a number wearing red “danger” tape armbands in protest of the proposed small area plan for the spit of land; it looked to be the most raucous crowd in years. President Krug, however, decided to deprive us of all the drama by announcing the plan would be tabled before the meeting even started. The Park Pointers moved their powwow out into the hallway, though a sizeable crowd remained in the chamber. The tabling of the measure meant we only had to deal with a 2-hour, 45-minute meeting instead of going past midnight.

As has been the case recently, there was a substantial, eclectic group of citizen speakers. Two came to talk up a “meet on the street” sort of block party planned for 3rd St. in Lincoln Park on July 13, where they hoped to build community; another highlighted a few events related to Bus, Bike, and Walk Month. A familiar visitor also came up to demand further information on the direction of the conversation on street repair, repeating his opposition to any tax increases to pay for it.

There was a whole heap of resolutions related to the new maurices Tower in Downtown Duluth. (Useless grammatical fact for the day: maurices is not capitalized.) They all passed unanimously, though President Krug abstained due to personal connections, and there was much celebration of the project and all of its ancillary benefits. Two Councilors, despite noting their general leeriness of excessing Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Districts, said this was very good use of TIF Districts.

The highlights of the night were three requests to endorse housing projects seeking state low-income housing credits for downtown developments. Planning Director Keith Hamre explained that they amounted to ten-year tax credits, and Councilor Larson added that this was an application process that did not cost the city, but instead asked the Council to endorse project readiness.

The first plan on the docket was the redevelopment of the existing Gateway Tower, and it was the least controversial of the three. Councilor Julsrud noted that maintaining the Gateway was much cheaper than building things from scratch, while Councilor Filipovich pointed out its “sheer mass size,” with 150 units in the building, including 50 for low-income housing. Councilor Gardner expressed tepid support due to some concerns about the management, while Councilor Folse foresaw nothing but debt. Councilor Hanson claimed he was unable to “do due diligence” on the project based on the information presented, and said the plan was “not firm in foundation.” Carla Schneider, the deputy director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, tried to explain how the ownership consortium would work, but failed to convince Councilor Hanson it was “shovel ready,” and he joined Councilor Fosle in opposition. The plan passed, 7-2.

Next up was a proposal to redevelop the historic Burnham Apartments, better known as the old county jail located behind Government Plaza, into low-income housing. On this project, the Councilors were almost all of one mind: the design required a lot more work before it would earn Council support. Councilor Larson said she hadn’t seen much of anything on it before tonight, while Councilor Gardner voiced concerns about the location. Still, the Councilors had kind words for the developer, a Mr. Grant Carlson, and invited him to work with them to produce a better future plan for his property. Councilor Fosle added that he’d been a “big meanie” who’d voted to have the building torn down some years before, but was pleasantly surprised there was interest in using it now; Councilor Hanson thought enough of Mr. Carlson that he ventured to be the lone vote in favor of the plan, which failed, 8-1.

The final and most controversial project involved the burned-out Pastoret Terrace, better known as the old Kozy Bar. A plan by the same developer (led by former city planner Mike Conlan) failed the previous year; this modified plan had considerably more “workforce housing” than last year’s, which was primarily low-income units. Given the building’s history and place in its neighborhood, there were plenty of strong opinions; as Councilor Gardner noted, the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East has been a “problem since 1918.” Councilor Sipress reminded everyone of the building’s architectural value, while Councilor Fosle again insisted that he would never support anything owned by Eric Ringsred, as Mr. Ringsred had once suggested the City was culpable for his business partner’s suicide. Councilor Julsrud echoed the worries about Mr. Ringsred, saying the past did not predict a happy future; as much as she wanted to be hopeful and see something “literally rise from the ashes” on that site, she said that “we can hope all we want, but we’re the City Council, not a church.”

There were concerns about the project’s role in a broader vision for downtown Duluth as well. CAO Montgomery said the Administration would prefer market-rate housing on the site, and posed a broader question on the concentration of housing downtown. Councilor Hanson picked up on this theme, saying low-income housing was far too heavily concentrated in that area; “is that all we have going for us?” he asked, and wondered about the impact on the police. He also shared a “personal antidote” [sic] about what he saw as inconsistent standards in the city’s evaluation of blighted properties.

The project’s chief defender was Councilor Gardner, who commended the developers for having their “ducks in a row” this time around. She said the Pastoret building was in jeopardy after several harsh winters in its burned-out state, and that its developers ought to be held to the same standards as the others. She noted that the immediate neighborhood was “practically dead,” and bemoaned some of the unsavory activities taking place at the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial across the street. Councilor Filipovich joined her in exhorting the Council to pass the plan, noting it was their big chance to revitalize the corner, and that the LLC in charge of the project had a “proven track record.” Councilor Sipress noted that there was plenty of focus on low-income and more upscale housing in Duluth, but that the working class was largely being left out, and the majority of the Pastoret units, aimed at single individuals making 25 to 30 thousand dollars a year, would help fill that need.

There was an amendment to give this particular a top priority tag; this was mostly forgotten as the Councilors rushed to debate the merits of the project, and in the end it ultimately failed 6-3, with Councilor Larson explaining that it might be “confusing,” and that the state should do its due diligence to vet the projects. The project itself passed by a 6-3 margin, with Councilors Fosle, Julsrud, and Hanson in opposition.

There was also a pair of items on the agenda that were not immediate City Council business, per se: a resolution supporting the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) moving through the state legislature, and another taking a stand against a proposed Canadian nuclear waste facility near Lake Huron (thus potentially polluting the Great Lakes). Both issues brought out several passionate speakers who all asked the Council to move the initiatives forward. The resolutions prompted the expected grumblings from Councilor Fosle, who said they were out of the Council’s jurisdiction, and would be better advocated by direct personal letter; while he’d play along tonight, he said, he’d never support such a measure again. The WESA was made somewhat more confusing by the fact that it had already been signed into law the day before by Governor Dayton; for her part, Councilor Gardner claimed it did not go far enough in expanding things such as child care and sick leave. Still, it brought out some impassioned defenses by several Councilors, including a personal antidote (sorry) from Councilor Julsrud, who told of her father’s refusal to allow her to work in the family construction business when she was 18. Councilor Sipress told of the process behind the nuclear waste resolution, saying Duluth would be one of many Great Lakes cities and organizations to join the protest, and that it would be passed along to numerous Canadian governmental and regulatory bodies during a required comment period, not “tossed in a wastebasket,” as Councilor Fosle said it would. The WESA resolution passed unanimously, and only President Krug voted against the nuclear waste resolution, labeling it “too broad.”

By the end of the meeting President Krug was trying to hustle things through to end the long night, and even Councilor Gardner was “running out of words.” A grant related to something called “tactical urbanism” was deemed “cool” and passed unanimously, as did a couple of land transfers and a thrilling sprinkler ordinance. Councilor Larson took a brief moment to talk up many things happening at the library, including a functioning elevator (hooray!), a new digital microfilm machine, and a novel seed library idea.

Despite everyone’s exhaustion, there was a lengthy and rather contentious comment period at the end that involved much muttering. Councilor Larson updated everyone on the city’s street repair plan, explaining that it was an $8.50 per month fee that will sunset, and that the unpopular street light fee will also be phased out. This had CAO Montgomery wondering how exactly the Council planned to replace these funds if they seriously wanted to focus on road repair, leading Councilor Gardner to scoff at the notion that the city couldn’t come up with those $2.1 million over three years. In response, CAO Montgomery warned that this was turning into the casino issue all over again.

This also led to a spat between President Krug and Councilor Hanson, who was frustrated by what he believed to be a lack of information and transparency in the whole street planning process. He said the council was “not inclusive,” with people leading certain projects while others were left out, and wanted to know where he could get his questions answered. President Krug, tired of it all, gave a halfhearted lecture before finally pushing everyone to the exits. (It was, frankly, a difficult meeting for Councilor Hanson, who gave the impression that he was in over his head on several issues. To his credit, he is aware of this, and seems to want to do something about it.)

To wrap things up, I apologize for any typos, as I wrote most of this while also watching the Wild game and intermittently yelling things and hyperventilating. Damn you, Patrick Kane.

Defining Ourselves

As many Duluthians—or, at least, the ones who are likely to read a blog like this one—know, Duluth has a weekly newspaper called the Reader Weekly. It is a staple in the local media; it is known to inhabit areas just inside the doors of restaurants, and is read by people riding the local bus system. On more than one occasion, I’ve felt a bit of awkward elitism when my seatmate is reading the Reader and I whip out my New Yorker. But, loyal Duluthian that I am, there’s a reason you won’t find me buried in the Reader during my commute.  I find large parts of it predictable, exhausting, and not worth reading.

Okay, that’s harsh. It’s a free paper; you take what you can get. The Reader does some things well. It has a nice calendar of local events, their reviews and nature pieces can be good, and some of the syndicated columnists they bring in are alright. There is some good, campy humor, especially in the April Fools’ Day issue, which is one I do make sure to read. John Gilbert’s sports columns are an institution, and every now and then, someone stumbles into something intelligent. It helps fill in some of the gaps that our venerable daily, the News Tribune, cannot as it continues its noble but desperate fight to stay afloat in an era of collapsing newspaper revenue. (Aside from the obvious shrinking content, am I the only one who’s noticed a serious drop-off in the editing recently?) The Reader, on the other hand, is beefing up its local content with a bunch of new hires, some of whom will be covering the local political meetings. Welcome to the club, boys. (They are all boys.)

The Reader is also self-consciously alternative. It says so, right there on the cover. It’s trying to give perspectives you may not see in the traditional media. It’s more critical, gives editorial freedom to fringe figures, and covers some things that would otherwise slip aside. It lets people who would otherwise be ignored have a platform. Most of this is cool by me; diverse voices are my thing. Problem is, many of these people are painful to read.

I offer some cautionary notes here, too. Personae that come out in writing may be nothing like the ones people display in person—and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve read of some columnists who get their hackles up in writing on a weekly basis and drive me nuts, but in person are utterly charming and lovely company. I make no judgments on these writers as people, but merely on how they come across in writing.

The thing that comes out in so many of these writers, however, is how they define themselves. They appear in opposition to something. They have gone and learned about something, and they just hammer on those same few hobbyhorses, over and over again. Their worldview is set in stone, and they must expose those who cloud it. There is no intellectual curiosity here, no exploring of new ways of thinking. It is just “I know a lot about X. The people in X are stupid and/or evil.” A policy prescription may or may not follow, but if it does, it is probably either vague or completely divorced from reality, or both.

They aren’t necessarily wrong, mind you. Sometimes they are, but there’s often at least a grain of truth in what they write. Take Loren Martell, for example. (For the unenlightened, he’s a Duluth man who’s spent the past six years railing against a school restructuring plan at every public meeting imaginable, school-related or not, and now writes for the Reader.) I’ve belittled him for his obsession numerous times on here, but he has some fair points to make, and his passion is obvious. I could probably find some common ground with him if the two of us sat down together. The man also really needs an editor, both for his prepared remarks and for his writing; he is so hit-or-miss that I’d sooner go hunting with Dick Cheney than with him. But whether we agree or disagree, whether he speaks cogently or in a muddle, I still find him grating, and I no longer bother to pay much attention to him. His perspective is locked, his revolt unending, and the end result is neither pleasant nor compelling, except in the eyes of a handful of fellow revolutionaries.

This way of thinking afflicts every political stance imaginable. There are some marvelously hypocritical conservatives out there who rant about liberal victimization politics while also claiming to be victimized by the liberal overlords at every turn.  (For example, I once had the pleasure of attending an event for wealthy conservative donors designed to call out the liberal bias in the media. To their credit, it actually was pretty funny and delightfully irreverent, though liberal doses of wine do help.) It’s just as bad on the left, though, where a few theories on legitimate oppression have been hijacked and applied to every human interaction imaginable. At the Reader, most of the animus is directed at the Republican Party and people in local government. This can seem like a funny juxtaposition, since there are very few Republicans in local government, but in the end it amounts to a power play: those distant people in power are controlling things, and we’re powerless to stop them, so let’s yell at them in a free weekly newspaper.

I’m not the first person to gripe about this phenomenon, and plenty have tried to figure out where it comes from. Nietzsche blamed Christianity and the grace peddled by priests; modern-day conservatives blame Marx and his stoking of class divisions, leading to narratives of oppressors and oppressed. I’d just blame a gut human instinct that usually emerges sometime in adolescence, when we see things in life we don’t like and define ourselves against them.

God only knows I’ve done this. There was a time in my life—let’s call it my quarter-life crisis—when I allowed my concept of myself to be defined by the things that have gone wrong in my 24 years on this earth. I wasted a lot of ink (well, pixels, mostly) ranting about things that had wronged me, and humanity in general. I don’t think that was entirely misguided; I’ve had a few life events that demand a thorough reflection, and I had to make peace with some of those demons. I had to bottom out to see the whole picture, and a few of the things I learned in that unpleasant place now manifest themselves in deeply held values. This whole process, whatever you call it, defines life, and is a big reason why coming-of-age stories usually make for my favorite books and movies.

But that’s the thing: it’s a process, not something we ever stop doing. Time passes, things change, thoughts evolve, and our narratives keep on writing themselves. I’ve written before that people can’t throw away their pasts, but clinging to one rigid worldview to explain that past is just as bad. And when people cling to a worldview, when there are no more questions, of course they’re going to end up sounding grumpy: they’ve reduced the absurd complexity of it all to one simple formula, and try as they might to jam things in, they just won’t fit. It is a mindset trapped in adolescence.

The way out, curiously enough, involves holding on to certain things associated with youth: a sense of wonder, and a willingness to have fun with it all. The world becomes a plaything to explore, not a charged partisan environment driven by an agenda; even if that searching doesn’t change our thoughts, it should at least give us some respect for the complexity of it all. And while I won’t be so pretentious as to try to sort legitimate grievances out from the rest of the noise, I will say this: letting some of that resentment go can be wonderfully liberating. Instead of defining ourselves by the things that have made us victims, we define ourselves by the things that truly animate us, the things that are more in keeping with the sides of ourselves we like best. At the very least, it’s a mindset worth exploring.

In the end, I wish the Reader all the best for its continued growth. It has potential. I just wish a few of its writers would aspire to something more.

Side note, for clarity’s sake: this takedown is not directed at John Ramos.

Exit Jim Oberstar

Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep on Friday night, ending a 79-year life of political service. Love or hate his views, the Chisholm native was a giant on the northeast Minnesota political stage over the past forty years, and his impact spans generations. The eighteen-term representative and former Transportation Committee chairman was arguably the most powerful Minnesotan congressman of the last half century, though unlike some of his better-known contemporaries, he did most of his work behind the scenes. His time was not a happy one for the region he represented, and most of that for reasons beyond his control, as the mines shut down and the manufacturing jobs dwindled, a decline that was followed by a long period of stasis. Like any good long-tenured congressman, he brought home the bacon and did some work to stop the bleeding. Many of the little factors that have helped spur Duluth’s burgeoning optimism, from its emergence as an aviation industry hub to its networks of trails, have their roots in Oberstar’s work.

Oberstar began as a classic northern Minnesota DFLer, a proud member of that generation of Minnesota liberals who gave the state its national political face. As the son of an Iron Range miner, he captured the DFL’s base with his emphasis on labor and taxation on the wealthy. He traveled far beyond the Range in life, though, studying in Belgium, Quebec, and at Georgetown, and was fluent in French. Never much of a revolutionary, by the time I came along Oberstar had the air of a patrician doing what he could to gently steward his district. Still, he never entirely abandoned his working class roots, and there were wrinkles in his platform—most notably, his consistent pro-life stances—that cut against the grain of the liberal elite. His ability to balance his ambitions and worldliness with his Iron Range core was perhaps his most admirable trait, and he made that balance work for a very long time.

Oberstar’s political career came to a stunning end in 2010, when he was taken down in one of the greatest coups of the Tea Party wave election. With its population in decline, Minnesota’s Eighth District had slowly leached south into Michele Bachmann territory, and political rookie Chip Cravaack took advantage of the changing demographics. The real nail in Oberstar’s political coffin, though, probably had more to do with his declining support in his home territory up on the Range. His patient, piecemeal approach and congeniality clashed with growing frustration over decades of economic stagnation, and there was a notion that his balancing act had finally fallen, that he had lost touch after so many years in Washington. Setting aside Cravaack’s own hypocrisy on that front, it was a critique with some merit: every political era must come to an end, and 36 years is quite the tenure. The time for fresh blood had come.

His passing is just another in a slow but steady series of markers of the end of an era. Northeastern Minnesota’s influence on the state political scene has dwindled some—witness Gov. Mark Dayton’s apparent “suburban strategy” for re-election—and the current congressman, Rick Nolan, a DFLer of Oberstar’s generation, is probably only a placeholder. It’s possible that someone of a similar disposition will come along, much as Amy Klobuchar has taken up the torch of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in the Senate. But the man best positioned to fill that DFL vacuum, Duluth mayor Don Ness, has taken the cautionary tales of Oberstar’s disconnect to heart. As a profound family man, he seems unlikely to run.

Beyond Ness, the regional DFL machine is in a complicated place in the post-Oberstar era. As the name implies, it’s a coalition with some unusual constituents, from Duluth’s east side elite to the fraying but enduring big labor camp, from the environmental activists to the working-class Rangers who support new mining projects. There might be a window for some new coalitions to emerge, though the inertia of the existing parties may be enough to hold things together, and any challenge from the right will need to develop a coherent policy agenda to gain any traction north of Hinckley. It’s hard to know quite what will come next for the politics of the region, but whatever happens, it will all be somewhere in the shadow Jim Oberstar.

Yeo-man’s Work

The Minnesota Wild is headed to the second round of the playoffs, drifting in after a thrilling Game 7 overtime victory over the favored Colorado Avalanche. The man orchestrating this run from behind the bench is Mike Yeo, a sprightly 40-year-old with an unfortunate look of uncertainty seemingly stuck on his face. (I suspect it’s the glasses.) He’s had his ups and downs, and there were cries for his head during some of the team’s in-season slumps.  Still, it’s hard to fight the sense that he’s on to something. After the second half collapse in his first season, the Wild have twice improved their playoff result, and this is already the second-best finish in the Wild’s short and not-so-illustrious history. Three years in, he has them looking like a real contender.

I know, I know: all that improvement also traces back to July 4, 2012, the day the Wild opened the checkbook and brought in two legitimate stars, Ryan Suter and Zach Parisé. The front office has made a pair of trades to bring in two more top-six forwards, and for the first time in a while, the young talent really is flowing in. 21-year-old Charlie Coyle has established himself as a top-six forward, and two of the other young guns, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, were the overtime heroes of the series with the Avs. This team has a solid veteran core and a good group of rising young talent, and they have a window for serious contention over the next few years. Any coach should be able to show some improvement now that the Wild actually have good players.

Still, the shortcomings aren’t hard to find. Only one of their top four defensemen (Suter) is over 23, and while they all have their flashes—Jared Spurgeon in particular—they are not yet a real strength. Sure, the forward corps is deep; Granlund and Niederreiter look like stars in the making, and of course Parisé’s work rate is second to none. But it’s hard to pretend the Wild belong in a category with Chicago or Pittsburgh and their ilk when it comes to skill, and the lower lines never were—and still really aren’t—settled. The Wild’s goaltending odyssey, meanwhile, has been the stuff of nightmares. Can someone actually keep the job for more than two weeks?

And yet here they are, in the second round for the first time in eleven years. The credit goes to the gameplan, which was ideal for this series with the Avs, and for the Wild’s skill set: possess the puck. The Wild held it for long stretches, putting up lopsided shot counts in a number of games, giving that decent collection of forwards as many cracks at Semyon Varlamov as it could, while keeping the action away from the question marks on the back end. When a team plays like that, they don’t need their goalie to be, well, Patrick Roy; they just need him to make the saves they need to make. While there were a few breakdowns and maddening stretches of failed clearances, the Wild tenders didn’t break, and the team managed to control the flow of play more often than not. If you don’t let the other team dictate the pace and go to work in the offensive zone, the results will usually follow.

The Wild were once again Patrick Roy’s bête noire, as they repeated the 7th-game overtime knockout that ended his storied playing career in 2003. The rookie Avs coach deserves much of the praise he’s had this season for turning a floundering franchise into a division winner, but there is a learning curve here, especially in the playoffs. In Game 7 he played into the Wild’s hands by switching to a passive forecheck after grabbing the early lead, and while good defensive hockey is obviously a must in the playoffs, it should never come at the expense of a team’s real strengths. The Avs are at their best when flying up and down the rink, and when they made their concession to the trap, they let the Wild set the pace. Minnesota’s growing confidence was evident from there, and they came from behind four times before pulling off the win. The heroes were on the re-worked third line, which was on the ice for the last three goals, plus chipped in another just after a power play by the oft-maligned Dany Heatley. Unable to use that line to match with Colorado’s best as he had in the home games, Yeo instead went with three guys who could generate some offensive pressure, and they did just that.

It was a real triumph for Minnesota, both in the final results and in the style column, with Yeo’s patient cycles eclipsing the Avs’ trap. Moreover, one gets the sense that this franchise, now in its 14th season, is finally coming into its own. While Jacques Lemaire will always have a well-deserved place in Wild history for his early efforts, his imported, dull style and (mostly) ragtag collection of players never had the verve of this group. This Wild team has a couple of stars as its faces, a rising group of homegrown youngsters, and some hard-working depth players whose efforts keep the team on the attack and able to recover from short-term setbacks. It’s a fitting formula for a Minnesota team, and one its fans should have no trouble embracing: it’s not flashy, but it can still be very pretty, and with enough work thrown in, it produces results. After decades of wandering in the wilderness in the pros while the amateurs carry the load, the self-proclaimed State of Hockey may finally have an NHL team worthy of the title.

Of course, it could easily come to a crashing halt in the next round. Some have contended that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t as good as they were a year ago, when they disposed of the Wild in five tidy games. I’m not buying it. It’s the exact same group, most of them are still in their primes, and they’re all playoff-tested; when they turned it on after going down 2-0 to St. Louis, they looked just like their old selves. The Hawks are the Avalanche on steroids, with depth, experience, and some overwhelming elite talent.

This Wild is certainly better than last year’s Wild, though, and they’ll have a fighting chance if they can continue to limit the burden on their goalies and defensemen not named Suter. Yeo will need to find a comfort zone with his line-juggling act, and perhaps add a few wrinkles in his chess match with Joel Quenneville. He’s not the second coming of Scotty Bowman; he has his flaws, and though he had some experience on Roy, he’s still a kid in the game. But he does have his team moving in the right direction, and when his back’s been up to the wall, he’s found a way. By Minnesota Wild standards, that’s a real achievement, and he’s done enough to earn some time to prove what he can do.