Archive | October, 2016

Data on the State of Affairs: Duluth and the Iron Range

29 Oct

My new job has me hanging out with Census data some, and this spins nicely into a blog post that builds on some of my past studies of the Duluth area. Last time, I focused just on Duluth and outlying areas in St. Louis County. This time, I’ve expanded it beyond Duluth for a few reasons. One, there are parts of the Duluth ecosystem—most obviously Superior and Douglas County, Wisconsin, but also large parts of Carlton County and even bits of Lake County. The U.S. Census does publish statistics for metropolitan areas (MSAs), which they determine by county. However, when one of the counties in question is the size of Connecticut, as St. Louis County is, that’s going to wreck the data. As far as the Census is concerned, a cabin on Lake Kabetogama is in the Duluth Metro, and the area’s population lands around 280,000. For our purposes, I chop out everyone from the Iron Range on north, while also subtracting outlying bits of Carlton and Douglas Counties and adding Two Harbors, which the Census does not count as within the area. I was also curious about the Iron Range, a big region that I now work with on a near-daily basis, so I decided to pull its data, too. The end result: I have numbers on St. Louis, Douglas, Carlton, Lake, and Itasca Counties, and subdivide those five into regions so that we can draw some conclusions about different areas.

I subdivide the cities and regions in ways that try to explain a few things about them. To clarify this first table, “Outlying Towns” refers to communities like Cloquet, Proctor, and Two Harbors, which can stand alone as identifiable towns, but are within the Duluth commute shed. There are some differences between them, but they share a general trajectory. A separate, very large category is the wide swath of semi-rural area around Duluth and Superior, from townships to the north and south to Esko and Midway to the west. I include Hermantown and Rice Lake here because, unlike the cities in the previous category, they lack the defined town centers and history of planned development, and have indisputably arisen as outgrowths of the Duluth metro.

I divide the Range into four portions: Grand Rapids and its surrounding rural areas, the West Range (basically, from Coleraine to Chisholm), Central Range (Quad Cities and surrounding townships), and East Range (beginning with Biwabik and ranging all the way up to Ely). Apologies if anyone is offended by these groupings, deal with it; census tract names are also my own. Anything that doesn’t nest comfortably into any of the above categories gets lumped into the “Rural Areas” group, which I’m not going to devote a lot of attention to here: basically, they are shrinking, much older, and generally somewhat wealthier, probably due in part to the elevated age. Here are population, household income, and age statistics by region:


First off, for all the moaning about the struggles of northeast Minnesota in the current economy, the region modestly outperforms the nation in a lot of areas. Population growth may be lower, but income growth is higher, and household median income hovers above the national average. Some of this may be due in part to an older population; old people just generally make more money. But on the whole, I think these numbers are more of a reason for optimism about the area, at least when painting with the broadest strokes.

Also, to combat another common narrative, greater Duluth is not shrinking, nor flat in population growth. Since 1990, when the economy and population basically bottomed out, the region has had steady, modest growth, all driven by the outlying areas. Sure, it’s slower than national growth, but it’s real. The populations of Duluth and Superior have been remarkably stable over that 24-year stretch.


It’s not happy for everyone, though, and as Table Two shows, there is certainly evidence of divergence. Duluth, predictably, dominates both the top and the bottom of the income list, with pockets of great wealth and realms of substantial poverty. Those areas haven’t changed much since 1990—in fact, I was a bit surprised to see so little movement near the top, given the growth of the exurban areas—but the rich do seem to be getting richer while the poor get poorer. (See the table at the end for a breakdown by census tract.) This is less extreme on the Range, but it is noticeable in places, especially around Grand Rapids. It’s worth noting that the “Grand Rapids – South” tract split in two over this time period; I kept it together for consistency’s sake, but the southern, more rural part followed the trajectory of the wealthier areas around Pokegama Lake, while the more central parts slumped a bit.

The influence of Duluth’s colleges is also unavoidable. I split out East Duluth stats with and without UMD to show what an effect they have on incomes in that part of the city, while at the same time boosting an otherwise shrinking population, especially on the far west end of the area. Student housing has spread further afield, and the Census has also made more of a commitment to counting students where they live instead of counting them as living with their parents. (For my part, I’m not a fan of this decision, as I think it distorts things and gives an inaccurate account of the economic standing of students’ situations and of the area they live in, but no one asked me.) This leads university campuses to look like poverty-stricken wastelands; just check out the University of Minnesota campus sometime. Given the number of students, the income measured in a neighborhood like Lower Chester in Duluth is actually pretty substantial, even though it appears below average.

The Range, again predictably, is older and poorer than the Duluth area, and parts of it do worse than the national average. Grand Rapids—whose labeling as “Iron Range” is always a source of controversy anyway—also really carries the region economically. And while the East Range as a whole struggles, it could easily be split between the Ely and Lake Vermilion areas (which are growing in income, though still not rich, and fairly old) and East Range towns like Hoyt Lakes, Aurora, and Biwabik. These are among the worst-hit areas over this 24-year stretch, with the 2001 closure of LTV Steel in Hoyt Lakes looming large. Basically, the areas that have emerged as vacationlands are doing better than the more mining-dependent regions, and this is probably only even more true following the steel price downturn of the past two years.

It’s true that hospitality jobs don’t pay a ton. Ely and Tower aren’t getting rich off their recent tourism growth. But diversification does allow them to do somewhat better than their neighbors, and have something to fall back on in difficult mining times. The advantages are real, and are even more real around Grand Rapids, which benefits from being somewhat closer to the Twin Cities and on a couple of major highways.

Now, we’ll boil it all down to census tracts, which usually have 2,000-6,000 people and are roughly aligned with neighborhoods and towns.


The tract with the greatest income growth was a surprise to me: Leech Lake Reservation west of Grand Rapids in Itasca County. The other reservation tract, Fond du Lac, also did quite well for itself. Granted, these native communities are both coming from very low starting points, but it’s worth acknowledging that success, and taking a broader look at outcomes across the board in these areas. The other big gainers are mostly exurban lake country and a handful of Duluth neighborhoods that have seen some growth on the fringes plus, I suspect, some turnover as an older generation fades and gets replaced by a younger, upwardly mobile one. The biggest drops are in UMD tracts, a few of Duluth’s poorest areas, and in mining communities.


The age table reinforces the effects of the colleges. I’m over the median age in my own Endion neighborhood, proving once again that I am an evil gentrifier who is ruining the neighborhood. The oldest tracts, excepting the two central Duluth areas with large retirement complexes, are all very rural, and the top of the list stays very rural beyond the top ten, too. Central Duluth also trends young, and this is worth watching: are the people here upwardly mobile, and will they move up in time, and perhaps move east or west? Or is this another generation of entrenched poverty?

Answers to a lot of these questions will have to wait, but our friends at the Census can give us some clues. I’ll continue this series at some point, too. As an appendix, I here add the table with income stats on all 98 census tracts in the five counties I looked at:


Slouching Toward Bethlehem

18 Oct

As usual, I try to avoid national politics on here; as usual, I can’t resist inserting myself. This cycle has drawn everyone in for more carnage, much in the way we fixate on train wrecks. I’m not much of an idealist, have no qualms for voting for the lesser of two evils; at the same time, I tend to believe apocalyptic thinking of any stripe is overstated, and am more inclined to laugh off ludicrous claims than to fear for the future of the country. But as I’ve let show, this is an instance in which I think the choice is a clear one. Donald Trump must lose.

I’m not opposed to Donald Trump because I think he’ll cause great calamity. The risks might be somewhat higher, but he’s strongly constrained by the inertia of a powerful state. Nor do I fear the content of his provocative language: I’ve never taken the “build the wall” rhetoric seriously, and ultimately, I don’t think minority groups will see their fates be much different under Trump than they would have been under a standard-issue Republican. I’m less afraid of him doubling down on some of his claims than of him getting bored and losing interest in the whole charade.

Frankly, I struggle to see how anyone who’s tracked his behavior over the course of this cycle can have any confidence that he will actually do any of the things he says. While thankful, I also struggle to resist rolling my eyes at anyone who jumped off the bandwagon recently, as if he didn’t exhibit the same patterns of volcanic behavior all along. I see a President Trump as a bumbling clown, nutty but at least capable of reading off a teleprompter from time to time, all at the behest of his handlers, who step in to do damage control when he devolves into another tweetstorm against someone who’s offended him. (How is it that people who claim to oppose political correctness are so often the most thin-skinned?) To date I have little faith in the handlers’ ability to do that, but it’s not totally implausible to imagine Trump as a blustering figurehead and spinmaster-in-chief while a cadre around him implements its policies of choice, thereby avoiding a train wreck. Whatever you think of said policies, this leaves us right back where we started, with a group of political insider technocrats Making America Great Again. So much for the revolution.

Funnily enough, there are things about Trump’s policies (such as they are) that intrigue me. Foreign policy motivates me more than most voters, and I have deep reservations about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, which has been pretty reliably wrong over the past 15 years. On diplomacy, I prefer the calculating deal-makers to the liberal hawks, and while I have deep concerns about Vladimir Putin, he’s also a necessary partner in the Middle East and in other spheres, and handling him requires a bit more nuance than displayed in some Democratic Party circles recently. (How strange the world now seems: the Democrats are the hard-liners on Russian autocrats, while the Republicans are cozy with them.) While my takes on trade and economics are nuanced, I appreciate that Trump has prompted some good reflections on the state of the white working class, and an opportunity to have genuine debate about our blind assumptions about the Washington Consensus that have dominated both parties since the end of the Cold War. (I suppose Bernie Sanders gets an assist here, too.) A more polished version of Trump would have at least piqued my interest.

These are just a few of the policy areas where Trump sheds some light before going ten feet overboard. Arguments that immigrants hurt native-born Americans’ economic prospects are basically bunk, and I am glad to see many of the barriers to LGBTQ equality come down. But I’m also capable of putting myself in the shoes of people watching their world change so rapidly and feeling some sympathy. The immigration system does need careful management instead of wishful idealism, and people do need to be vetted some; religious conservatives have a right to worship as they choose, and raise their children in the ways they see fit. I don’t see the Clinton campaign acknowledging this reality. Her campaign makes occasional overtures toward a big-tent coalition, particularly during the Democratic National Convention, but so often appears motivated by a bunker mentality brought on by its candidate’s baggage. It fails to inspire, and the strategy seems to involve checking off boxes with all the interest groups it needs to keep happy.

My objections to Trump have much more to do with the way he has shifted the window for political debate in the United States. Or, rather, the way he’s shattered the window altogether. To be fair, Trump didn’t start this. Most popular media and cable news has been superficial garbage for a long time, and we can blame some of the toxicity on both a Republican Party that has subtly played off racial divisions since Nixon and a Democratic Party that has increasingly come to resemble a scattershot coalition of identity-based interest groups all trying to make a narrow claim at the table. But Trump has accelerated this, and brought it into the open with no apologies. Elements  of the left have sunk to his level, and political discourse, never pleasant, has degraded into self-reinforcing horror show. No figure is more responsible for this than Donald Trump.

We have the politics we deserve, and we can’t say the Greeks didn’t warn us. These are the timeless dangers of democracy, though I hastily add that I still find it the worst choice except for all the others. (I can see the Trump tweet now: “Korrupt Karl hates democracy. Sad!”) These are the consequences of dumbed-down celebrity politics, with messaging aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s a reduction of elections to a binary choice in which it is somehow our patriotic duty to choose, red team versus blue team, more about winning and losing elections than the tricky work of governance. It needs some inherent dignity to avoid collapsing into an entertainment complex. Trump exemplifies politics as the reality TV show, and his continued presence on the political stage would only set off a downward spiral of degradation. I don’t predict the imminent collapse of American democracy, but each spin down the toilet increases the odds that it won’t quite be the same afterwards.

Trumpism, to the extent that it exists, taps into a Nietzschean energy: the world, instead of three interlocking circles that explain everything, is reduced to winners and losers, with sharp lines between them. Its most fertile intellectual ground is in the dark corners of the internet, where young men, probably around my age, assume ridiculous Latin pseudonyms and peddle their profound ressentiment of those who oppose them. (Oh, the Nietzschean irony.) Trump’s election wouldn’t bring them to power, nor would his defeat silence them. But the whole Trump phenomenon runs the risk of normalizing them, of empowering this narrative of fire and brimstone, of tribe and ideology over common American future.

In a way, I’m sympathetic. I get that urge to rise up in a crusade for greatness through politics. It’s what drove my eighteen-year-old self to Washington. I understand that longing to smash the day-to-day drudgery we inhabit and unleashed a repressed inner soul in all its erotic glory. It’s hard to beat that rush, and that side of human nature never will—and never should—go away. But channeling it in ways that trump up a mediocre establishment as an existential threat endangers American exceptionalism in the best sense of the phrase, this belief in a national project that won’t ever die. Lord knows this project has had its dark patches through history, but through it all, we are all awfully lucky to be here in this day in age. It’s cute to think we’re standing on some precipice of looming demise, and probably empowering to pretend one man can change it, but, alas, real heroism for the vast majority of us probably involves something both much closer to home and much more radical than checking a box on a Tuesday in November.

Some argue it’s a good thing that certain political currents, long suppressed, are now out in the open. I’m skeptical. One often hears Trump supporters say they’re glad he tells it like it is. I hate this phrase as much as I did when I first heard a public figure in Duluth utter it some years ago.  A layer of civilization is necessary for governance within political systems—especially the American one, with all its checks and balances—and there’s a need for consensus instead of silos of self-affirming certainty about what one already believes. No one has a monopoly on truth. Our elites have failed us many times, certainly, but we are blind to how far we have to fall. It’s more than a little disconcerting to witness the sort of political awakening one expects out of dispossessed young men in the Middle East coming out of a middle-aged couple in Youngstown.

And so I turn to Hillary Clinton: embattled, dogged by scandal, uninspiringly wonkish, too far to the left to sweep to a broad mandate, but too ensconced in her establishment cadre to inspire the energy to advance a more progressive agenda. She promises four more years of technocratic plodding, vicious right-wing opposition to anything she proposes, and shady, sheltered practices that, whether justified or not, will continue to court media attention. This only drags Washington further into the muck, perhaps ups the odds of a stronger counter-reaction in two or four years.

I reassure myself in a few ways. One, whatever Clinton’s flaws, they are predictable, and nothing in her political history suggests she will do anything unexpected or drastic. Give me a mediocre status quo over the revolution any day. Two, while she certainly won’t devolve power from Washington, she has neither the charisma nor the political capital to centralize it much more either, and at least pays lip service to bringing everyone to the table instead of saying “I alone can fix it.” Three, while the Republican Party has a very complicated reckoning to come, there is at least some hope that the coming dust-up allows the party to salvage itself in a way that it never could with a floundering President Trump at the top. In the long run, his defeat may do more good for the more sanely-grounded elements of his cause, since they’ll be part of the national conversation, but not tied to an absurd, distracting figure.

I sometimes say my time in Washington jaded me, but I think a more accurate summation my takeaway from four years there was a revelation over the smallness of it all: how much life could go on without worrying about it, and how much the people in charge are stumbling in the dark and guessing, just as we all are. This doesn’t mean that some political rookie can roll in and shake it up, though. It also takes experience, and knowledge of how to play the game to at least move policy, which does still matter enough that we can’t laugh the whole thing off. Only in reality TV shows do Trump-like figures march in and prove effective.

The Yeats poem that gives this post its title, oft-quoted this election cycle among intellectuals lamenting our political fate, claims the best lack conviction. Maybe, instead, the best know that obsessive conviction is misplaced. For my part, it’s time to stop reading FiveThirtyEight, make peace with the Clinton slouch, and get back to work here at home.

A Hawkish Outlook

12 Oct

Just a couple of years ago, the Hermantown Hawks were the darlings of the Class A Tournament, the last public school bastion of defense against the march of Twin Cities private school machines. How quickly the tables turn: the longest-running and incessant debate on the hockey forum this offseason has been about Hermantown’s dominance over Class A, and the competitive imbalance it creates. As with St. Thomas Academy before them, the Hawks’ consistent ability to pump out elite teams has prompted frustrated reactions from those who are stuck going up against them and lose, year after year: shouldn’t this high-powered team move up to AA?

As long as they kept losing state championship games, as they did for six consecutive seasons, they had an easy counterargument: for all their success, the Hawks clearly weren’t on the level of a St. Thomas or a Breck. But on the seventh year of consecutive title game appearances, God rested in his torment of Hermantown, and the Duluth suburb took home its second state title in ten years. With a loaded team coming back this coming season, anything less than a convincing repeat would be stunning. The Hawks are the undisputed superpower of Class A, and no one is even close.

I’ve been mostly agnostic in the A vs. AA debate, as I have no strong Class A loyalties. I respect teams’ rights to run their own programs as they see fit, and prefer not to throw stones when my own team makes scheduling decisions based on what it believes is right for its situation. Any complaints that spurted out of my Twitter feed were from an aesthetic standpoint; I want to watch competitive hockey at Class A State, not giant blowouts, and grew bored with some of the Hawks’ men-versus-boys contests last season. Sure, I think it’s fun when historic Range teams head to State, and as a northern boy, I’d appreciate another northern squad in 7AA so as to boot Elk River to a different section and carry the regional torch at State if they earn it. But this was not among the things keeping me up at night or making me mutter under my breath.

Hermantown defenders are right to make a few points. The school is playing where it was assigned, and its enrollment is nowhere near the AA cutoff. Nor are most of Hermantown’s advantages the product of an evil recruiting scheme, even if there may be isolated incidents here or there. (I’m not close enough to say whether those rumors have any teeth.) The school boundaries around Hermantown do lend themselves to open enrollment. Townships to the west and northwest of are in the Proctor school district, despite being closer to Hermantown and not touching Proctor. (Numbers from these townships help keep Proctor a decent-sized school for an otherwise tiny community.) The closure of Duluth Central also pushed a decent number of Duluth Heights residents to open enroll across the border, as Hermantown was both convenient, and higher-performing than those students’ new West Duluth schools. (Of course, it’s worth asking how much of this has to do with anything unique to Hermantown, and how much of it is just demographic inertia.)

That said, Hermantown does have its share of advantages that most small hockey programs in the state do not enjoy. It is an exurban community in a respectably-sized metropolitan area of about 200,000. That’s not huge, but it’s substantial, especially when accounting for the wealth of local hockey history and the presence of a prominent D-I program, many of whose graduates stick around. It’s growing, and adding young families. It’s not the wealthiest part of the Duluth area, but it’s certainly toward the upper end. Its basic urban design—large, sprawling wooded lots—does not lend itself to much density of lower-income residents, even if it also limits its economic and population growth potential. If we remember our lessons about urbanism and high school hockey, that tends to be good for hockey success, at least in the short run while the community is still growing.

The small size of the Duluth metro area also magnifies the Hawks’ position. The closest comparison to Hermantown in the Twin Cities is probably something like Delano, which is starting to surge toward hockey relevance. Delano, however, doesn’t have neighbors who aren’t also affluent and growing; no one is open enrolling there to flee the shuttering or struggling schools of Plymouth or Minnetonka, or to dodge bizarre borders with other Wright County towns. In an area that can only support a handful of options, just a handful of player moves can throw things out of whack. Unlike some Twin Cities schools that may lose a bunch of players to open enrollment or private schools, places like Proctor or Denfeld aren’t losing players all over the place; there are only two or three places that stand to benefit, and those places are likely in the same section. Duluth’s smallness and the extent to which everyone knows each other make it obvious who the winners and losers of player movement are, and make the scapegoats easy to identify. (We Duluth East fans know a thing or two about this.)

The advantages that some schools have over each other are blurry, and there are gradations of advantage and disadvantage all over Class A. East Grand Forks also benefits from a decent-sized metro and a convenient D-I school; Mahtomedi lurks just under the cutoff bar for AA and thereby builds some of the deeper A teams out there. Even small, relatively isolated towns aren’t all cookie-cutter; Luverne has surged to relevance in recent years, while nearby Worthington is at the bottom of the barrel, largely due to an immigrant-heavy population with no knowledge of hockey that has been drawn to its meat packing plant. The fans of the true small towns in Section 1A could probably gripe about how it’s been dominated by schools in larger towns (Rochester Lourdes, the Mankatos), or towns on the growing exurban fringe (New Prague). It’s worth remembering that even St. Thomas Academy was a Class A doormat at one time, and that it took years for Greg and Tom Vannelli to turn it into a consistent contender. These different levels of advantage are reality, and any assessment of a team can’t be a snapshot at one point in time, but needs to understand its long-term record and accomplishments to date.

Hermantown is clearly pretty far along on this spectrum of success now, and that’s to their credit. I don’t think any team should ever be forced to opt up, and any pressure to do so should only come after a long period of dominance. I want to see good teams and players in Class A, and more than one or two new opt-ups due to Class A success in a decade would quickly drain the field. That said, when a program is consistently putting other top five teams in its class in running time, it’s a clear sign of a mismatch, and the point at which even diehard supporters should see a case for a move.

There’s no doubt Hermantown could compete in AA, and rumors suggest the program may make the leap after this coming season. The move may come a year too late: this year’s squad, with a pair of potential Mr. Hockey candidates and depth across the board, could have easily contended for a AA title. While people might be able to cherry-pick a regular season result or two to claim they’re better than a bunch of AA Tourney entrants, we’ll never really know how good they are. (The AA playoff gauntlet is an entirely different animal from what the Hawks now face; just ask STA about its first three years in AA.) Beyond this year, Hermantown looks good, but perhaps not as good as last year and this year, and will face the 7AA minefield. If they do make that move, I’ll welcome them in and look forward to the battles; if they don’t, I’ll be disappointed, but life will go on. Much as I’d love to see some success out of Range teams, they face their share of internal obstacles in the search for a return to glory.

The whole debate relates back to a deeper question: what’s the whole purpose of the two-class tournament? The generic State High School League response will tell you that it gives more players a chance to play at State. That’s true, but from a hockey development standpoint, its true benefit is in giving more players a chance to aim for State: to grow hockey in areas that haven’t traditionally seen success, and to revive it in areas where it might otherwise have faded or died. Hermantown is as obvious a success story as any in 25 years of two-class hockey; it went from an afterthought to an unstoppable force, and probably wouldn’t have done so without being able to take the baby steps allowed by Class A. The Hawks have succeeded. Now we’ll see if they’ll let someone follow in their footsteps.

Utopia III

8 Oct

If the instinct toward perfection is an essential piece of human nature, it’s hidden itself pretty well this year. This presidential election cycle alone is enough to paint a dark picture, and that’s not even touching the rest of the world. Even the supposedly hopeful candidate in the Democratic primary spent most of his time calling for a sort of class war. The road to revolution isn’t always bright or happy.

Given this climate, one could forgive people for yearning for utopia anew. A piece in the most recent New Yorker explores some favorable books that favor the concept before landing in my preferred territory of skepticism of grand ideas and defense of gradually moving the chains. There need not be an ideal vision; merely a general direction, and confidence in the steps taken in that direction.

For me, this is a fitting time to reflect on that dream of perfection. The past month and a half has been pretty good to me, basically aligning with my hopes. I’ve gone home again. I have a secure job that I like, and that aligns with both my interests and my general sense of what I want to do with my life. I’m not going to be rich anytime soon, but I’m certainly living comfortably for someone my age. I’m back among some of my favorite people, ready to live a life in the same place as them, and work with them to build whatever comes next. I live in a big old house that nails the details for what I look for in a home. For years so much of this seemed so far away, and now, all of the sudden, it’s all here.

It’s a good time to be back. Autumn in Duluth is one of its more spectacular seasons, as these waning golden days invite us out to marvel in the tapestries lain across the landscape. I hike or run the rugged ridges of the countless parks, wreathed in orange and red and gold and orange. I savor the warmer evenings, sit out on my new front porch with a glass of wine and read some. My book choice for the weekend revisits an old favorite: Amartya Sen, an anti-utopian economist nonetheless filled with hope for gradual movement toward justice. The football field at East is packed when I go by on Friday nights, I watch Verne Lundquist (born in Duluth!) call SEC games on Saturday for one final year, all adding to a sense of timelessness. Well, I suppose some things change: the Yankees are sitting at home in October, and the Cubs of all teams are favored. No matter: there’s a haze of rightness about it all.

I’m not resting on my laurels. I’m too restless to do that, and while I can ground myself for stretches, there’s always another cycle outward. No need for congratulations, either: this is only the beginning, and there’s lots of work to do. Things are moving. Not toward utopia, and toward a state that’s slightly better than where we were before. Now that I’m settled in, it’s time to see what we can do to fight the cynical instinct: not to reach back up to utopia, but simply to reach out with the utmost effort, enough that we can come home content at the end of the day. Onward.