Culture is a notoriously murky term, one that can be used to explain just about anything without actually proving causes or relationships or anything of the sort. Trying to define a culture is a frustrating exercise that throws a lot of unlike things into the hopper that then spits out a vague, abstract Thing that we claim has some substance. An awful lot of bad social analysis has used it to glorify or defame a group of people, and “cultural studies,” while potentially valuable, can also become repositories of mediocre thought and self-absorption. At its most fundamental level, culture is a shared identity, which just goes to show how hard it is to pin down; no one person’s identity can be summed up by a few simple words, and it’s only going to get worse as we add more people. There is also a good chance that, even at a time where people are more and more likely to surround themselves with others who share their views, half the people on one’s block wouldn’t qualify as sharing one’s culture. There are a million different ways to measure it, and it’s tough to argue that one has any more intrinsic value than another.
Just because it is hard to capture something, however, does not mean that it is not real, or that it does not have considerable power. Duluth, Minnesota has a very distinct culture, one that makes it undeniably unique, and just about everyone from the city who ventures out and thinks about this knows it.
We can try to list some stuff that makes up the culture. There’s a hardiness and stoicism in the face of long winters, with a strong Scandinavian ethos to it. There’s a blue-collar legacy of a transportation hub near the Iron Range in there, and there’s also a strong element of Congdon Old Money and its resultant noblesse oblige. There’s an outdoorsy ethic, from biking and boating in summer to skiing and pond hockey in winter. There is relative racial homogeneity, the ruling DFL coalition, and an obsession with talking about the weather. There are neighborhoods and schools and businesses, all generators of their own sub-cultures; some predictable, some less so.
Culture, however, is never static, and Duluth has undergone a considerable shift over the past decade. It didn’t begin with mayor Don Ness—before him, there was Canal Park and the Munger Trail and a number of other efforts (of varying success) to get Duluth past its 1980s post-industrial mire. But Ness’s cool Duluth energy is part and parcel with the surge of renewal in recent years. In his own words, it plays to “authentic strengths” of this city, instead of trying to pretend we’re something we’re not. And so we have booms in biking and beer and indie music, plus the rise of urban farming and the industrial chic architecture used to revive derelict lots and crumbling old buildings. All the artsy quality of life stuff is moving in tandem with legitimate economic expansion, from the aviation sector to engineering to some good, old-fashioned manufacturing. Duluth has character, and a genuine sense of direction, too.
Another of Duluth’s strengths is its civic engagement, which has fueled the recent renewal. People love this city and want it to succeed, and will spend endless hours prepping for public meetings on school and park plans and so on. At the same time, though, some of its greatest outbursts are in opposition to new planning, and that’s definitely not always a bad thing. It is an erratic and often untamed force, as evidenced by the overzealous attempt underway to recall city councilor Sharla Gardner. Still, it’s a force that slows some of the more harebrained schemes and preserves some of the better aspects of local culture. At its best it’s simply a direct application of common sense, a counterbalance to the plans from on high that manages a strong voice without going into excess. It’s exemplar at the moment is Jay Fosle, the west side city councilor whose populist conservatism stands in sharp but (usually) respectful contrast to the left-leaning visionaries. As I wrote in my account of the first Council meeting I attended, he can waver between wise insights and serious head-scratchers with little warning. But Fosle is not there simply to say no; he is willing to work with people, and no one does a better job of effectively organizing citizens and bringing them forward to speak to the Council. The authenticity of the voices on both sides of Duluth’s political debates keeps things from falling into the stale platitudes of national politics, and that complexity is another source of life.
Still, as I’ve said many times—here in culture, here in politics, here in education—there’s an elephant in the room that threatens the whole project. This is, of course, the east-west divide. It’s always been there, of course. But the most obvious thrust of the current renewal, with its cultural enrichment and “creative class” cultivation, does not produce evenly spread results. If things just plug along as they are, it’s not hard to predict a split in which east side (and Hermantown) reap the benefits of a vibrant city, while the west side sinks into stagnation, a place without a future. Families with children are an excellent bellwether, and nothing is more haunting than this map of the city’s last school board levy. It’s also what makes Don Ness’s seeds of a vision for the west side so worth watching: if Duluth is going to transcend the common narratives of renewal by gentrification, this is where it will have to take place. It won’t be easy.
The plight of the debate around Duluth’s public schools is a sign of what can go wrong when the enlightened planners impose their vision while dodging public debate. Many of the critiques of that plan and its opaqueness had merit, even though I have little patience left with many of its foremost critics. Duluth’s echo chamber of education debate is a bizarre and unpleasant place, filled with catfights and resentment and overblown egos. Funnily enough, through it all, Duluth remains a pretty good place to raise some kids. It has enough big city stuff to be interesting and keep them engaged, has just enough variety to show them all walks of life, yet is small enough that they still get that much-hyped small-town feel. Every week, someone in the media laments the fact that kids don’t get to play freely anymore, but that’s not what I see when I look out my window. Children roaming and playing are one of the most obvious signs of communal health, and it was heartening to hear a recent visitor to the economic development agency where I intern gushing about all of the families she saw out and about on Duluth’s streets. A little part of me died when the Congdon hockey rinks got cleared out to make room for a parking lot.
This discussion of education and childrearing brings me back to the thrust of this post: the primacy of culture, from which everything else follows. Set things in motion early on, build a supportive environment, and your odds are as good as any, even if your background isn’t one of great wealth or education. Duluth does that well for most people, but as with anywhere, there are exceptions, and when they’re relatively few in number, the contrast can be glaring. There is still a substantial amount of poverty in Duluth, and while I’ll leave aside most of that debate about subcultures and pathologies and other things that bog people down, poverty and its associated ills often leave people incapable of participating fully in the broader culture and reaping its benefits.
To be sure, part of this problem comes from the culture itself. Aspects of culture can be both good and bad when it comes to business climate, and despite Duluth’s attentiveness to many of its ills, good intentions do not always beget good results; sometimes it can make things worse. Minority populations here (racial and otherwise) are so small that it’s hard for them to generate their own vibrant, self-sustaining cultures; they can either assimilate into the general culture, or be alone. It’s hard to know what can be done about this; if we did know, we’d have solved a lot of problems long ago. (Perhaps the most important point here is that these are not problems to be solved, but the stories of lives of real people to be unspooled into the fabric of a community.) Duluth has no shortage of well-intentioned people who want to overcome these troubles, and with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie group and a vocal group of activists, there are real dialogues, though it’s not hard to ignore them, either. In time, demography will probably make these questions more relevant. One would hope that Duluth’s general tolerance will make this smoother than in other places, but it’s easy to claim tolerance when it’s rarely put to the test. Culture will always divide us, for good and ill.
In the eyes of some, the divisions coming out of culture are reasons for its dismissal. Better to cast away these things that tie us to imperfect places and people. An afterlife or some ideal form of human life takes precedent. Doing this, however, chokes off many of the greatest sources of earthly happiness. There are things I could do without in Duluth’s culture, but, in looking around the world, there is so much here that is worth preserving and enhancing. It has a strong sense of self, and now it also has a trajectory to match. It’s fighting the standard narratives of decline and measurements of success in cities, and these days, more often than not, it’s winning.
That makes Duluth unique, and explains why some people who aren’t native Duluthians find it hard to ever quite settle in here. But it works for Duluth, and it is, of course, never static. It goes along, guided by both inertia and a lot of hands that have claimed it as their own. It is a city with a soul, a sheer sense of being; a sense of motion through time, cyclical, coming and going, life and death flowing in and among one another. It has a rhythm, a pace, perhaps unique to each who walks its streets, yet felt like a beating heart, grounding one within it, leaving no doubt: a sense of place. It’s home.