Archive | May, 2017

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

24 May

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy–apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor–but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of this blog will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a into a lament for things lost speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.

Despite this, I don’t consider myself a declinist. That golden past usually had its own ugly features, and nostalgia and selective memory whitewash the worst of it. Coping with change is also one of the greatest engines of human ingenuity and heroism, and if noting else, it’s remarkably educational for those of us looking not to repeat past errors. If we fixate only on decline, we become depressing, tiresome people who are locked into a single lens and not much fun to talk to at parties.

Still, Vance likes Janesville. Despite the oversaturation of the genre–porn is everywhere these days, after all–its author, Amy Goldstein, gets to the heart of the flawed human stories, and instead of merely lamenting loss, looks to assess the responses to it. This one would likely strike home for me, too: my earliest memories are of the short stint my family spent living in a small town just north of Janesville, Wisconsin, and my mother worked there for a time. Unfortunately, Goldstein comes to fairly depressing conclusions. The basic tools of the trade in economic development, Janesville argues, have done little good to stem the tide of decline. Neither have worker retraining efforts, a rare point of bipartisan consensus on putting communities back to work. It adds up to a depressing summation of post-industrial America, with no obvious way forward for anyone.

Unless, of course, there might be any exceptions to the trend out there. I happen to be living in one.

Duluth, Minnesota is not heaven on earth. Its economy is not booming, its poverty rate is high, and there has been a rash of opioid overdoses, as in so much of the America exposed so ubiquitously in decline porn. But I will submit that it’s important to think about what it could have been, and that Duluth’s story is as much a triumph as any medium-sized Rust Belt town. In the early 1980s, its unemployment rate was second only to Youngstown, Ohio, which is not exactly great company to have. Population plummeted, manufacturing packed up and left, and a billboard asked the last person to leave to turn out the lights.

Most Rust Belt cities remain mired in the post-industrial swamp; the few that have broken free, like Pittsburgh, are the large ones that operate on a very different scale. And yet Duluth has charted a respectable course since it hit rock bottom in the 80s. Unlike every other Rust Belt city, its population has been stable since 1990, instead of continued shrinkage. (See the table on this page for comparison cities.) The city is basically at full employment. Income growth around the greater Duluth area, while not on par with the booming coastal metros, does outpace the stagnant national average since 1990. The median income within the city itself, while not stellar ($40-some thousand), is a clear step above the Eries, Akrons, South Bends, and Scrantons of the world. The city’s image rehabilitation has been thorough, as it now comes off as an outdoorsy playground for Twin Cities residents on vacation. The Trump tide made little headway in the city proper (though precinct-level data challenges some aspects of the dominant media narrative, and suggests Trump was largely a rural and exurban phenomenon in Rust Belt states, not something that happened inside its former industrial engines). Sure, “we’re better than Flint!” isn’t exactly a winning slogan, but it’s important to understand what the odds were, and what could have been.

There are two ways to explain this.

The first is one of leadership and vision and a certain Duluthian exceptionalism, which us Duluthians would certainly like to believe. A lot of credit in this line of thinking goes to Don Ness, the young mayor who served from 2008-2016 and brought the city’s debt under control and led a massive rebranding effort. But he had some strong forerunners. At the height of the crisis in the 80s, Duluth elected 29-year-old John Fedo. Unlike the consensus-driven and generally beloved Ness, Fedo was a warrior who wasn’t afraid to make enemies to push through his vision, but he also operated in a very different environment, and push through his vision he did. Fedo’s strategy was Keynesianism par excellence, with a junkyard reinvented as a tourist district and work crews set to work rebuilding streets for the sake of work and little else. Those efforts endure in obvious ways. His more market-oriented successor, Gary Doty, tried a lot of things to revive the economy, and while not all of them stuck, the general thrust was positive, as the city landed companies that are the cornerstones of the aviation and healthcare clusters that remain among its most promising foundations for sustained success. Beyond those three mayors, there’s the political influence of some clever longtime political operators who knew how to bring in the benefits like Jim Oberstar and Willard Munger, who were ahead of their time with ideas for building trail networks and capping freeways.

We can’t just credit the politicians, though. Duluth’s rehabilitation always had strong support from a loyal private sector, which continues to support changes through development and philanthropy. Pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci was a complicated figure with a complicated relationship with Fedo, but he did bankroll a lot of the changes in Canal Park. Several other big names in business left their mark, as did some of the legacy families whose early 20th century wealth continues to support local foundations and scholarships. That old money remains a boon to Duluth, as does a strong civic culture with its roots in Scandinavian immigration and a thriving arts scene that allows the city to punch far above its weight.

This, however, feeds into the other explanation, which has much more to do with structural factors than any brilliant maneuvering by the people in charge.

First off, geography has had its say. We call Duluth a Rust Belt city because it used to be a manufacturing center on the Great Lakes, and suffered the loss of that economic base and a drop in population comparable to other Rust Belt cities. But it’s isolated from the rest of them, and that may contain some spillover effects or a general sense that everything is going downhill. Instead, it sits in Minnesota, home to one of the wealthiest and most white collar metropolitan areas in the country in Minneapolis-St. Paul. As a regional center with a university and some hospitals, Duluth has some staying power that an Akron, just down the road from Cleveland, may not.

Local geography makes a difference, too. While Duluth isn’t overflowing with buildable land, it has had some pockets for new subdivisions that allowed for continued new home construction. Duluth has also proven somewhat resistant to the mass suburbanization of other Rust Belt cities; while there has certainly been growth beyond the city limits, it hasn’t come at major expense to the city’s tax base. A tour of the other Rust Belt cities will show that none of them has a Congdon: while some of the larger metro areas do have wealthy suburban neighbors, basically none of them have concentrations wealth of any size within the city limits. (The only real exception, surprisingly, is Charleston, West Virginia, which benefits from the machinery of a state government that most Rust Belt cities lack.) For that matter, precious few Rust Belt cities have many Lakesides, Woodlands, or Piedmonts, those stable, comfortably middle class neighborhoods that allow for upward mobility and keep perceptions of public schools afloat. Many of these neighborhoods (and even little nice blocks that don’t show up in census tract data) are fairly isolated, strung out along Duluth’s 27 miles of ridgeline and separated by streams and parks. Even though they are older, they feel fairly suburban, and the park-like nature of the whole city just makes it more resistant to changes that might march smoothly down more cohesive urban grids. It has so many different little pockets, and that diversity begets resilience.

Speaking of diversity, Duluth has always been a very white city–yes, a 1920 lynching probably played a role in that–and the relative lack of racial dynamics make it distinct from a lot of Rust Belt cities that convulsed with conflict in the mid-20th century.  White flight didn’t happen in Duluth on any meaningful scale, and while I wish I could claim this was due to some enlightened thinking on behalf of Duluthians, in reality there probably just weren’t enough people of color to set off that chain reaction. (Typically, this happens when the non-white population hits about 20%; Duluth remains over 90% white.) While the center of Duluth has hollowed out like basically every American city, Rust Belt or not, that probably had more to do with a declining old housing stock and poverty among white people. Other than perhaps some very recent school-driven outmigration, the growth in Duluth’s more suburban areas had much more to do with an abundance of buildable land and desire for space and newer homes than anything related to the people in Duluth itself. The city has been crawling toward greater diversity over recent decades, and if that trend continues or accelerates, Duluth’s response could well determine its future.

All of these factors are most likely intertwined in feedback loops, the causes impossible to separate from one another. There are few obvious lessons here, and some of Duluth’s strengths are accidents of geography in a city at the end of the line in the far north. But the relative successes are real, the leadership examples are real, and some of the things Duluth needs to do to remain an exemplar of Rust Belt success are clear, and cut across all such small cities. It needs to maintain its strong neighborhoods, keep its schools afloat, and prepare for an increasingly diverse future. Continued growth in diverse economic clusters will build a stronger safety net against future crashes. Concentration of poverty will only exacerbate divides and cut off pathways to eventual mobility. Duluth also needs to think on the level of a regional system, so that its future doesn’t devolve into squabbles between the city proper and the outlying areas. They’re all interconnected, part of one economy and one labor market, and their fates are intertwined.

As addicting as the decline porn may be, I’d much rather have an amorous adventure with something real, and with something that can learn from the past and grow into a future with me. It’s all right there before us.

Exit Dave Esse

13 May

In a spring of job-related bombshells in Cloquet, the fate of a high school hockey coach may seem like a minor affair compared to a controversy embroiling that city’s police department or the closure of an 85-employee match and toothpick factory, the last of its kind in America. But hockey is no small thing in Cloquet, and sometimes a coach’s plight can have far broader messages about the state of amateur sports and beyond. The tenure of Dave Esse, the hockey coach who amassed a 282-176-28 record over 17 seasons as the head coach of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, has come to an abrupt and highly suspect end.

Esse was a true throwback coach who demanded excellence at every turn, and would say so when players did not give their all. He was a street fighter, and not just in a metaphorical sense: once, following an on-ice altercation between Duluth East and Cloquet, he challenged Mike Randolph to a fight in the parking lot. His teams were rigidly defensive-minded and tough warriors, no matter the talent level. It was Esse’s way or the highway. He was a schemer of the highest order; it is Esse, not Randolph, who deserves Elk River’s ire for some of the more questionable decisions to come out of 7AA seeding meetings over the years. And when he got a team to buy in, they matched their coach’s image, as pesky and sure of themselves as anyone out there.

Esse’s tenure was a tale of two halves. His early years were a glowing success: six section final trips in eight years, four playoff wins in six tries against archrival Duluth East (despite usually being the underdog), and two State Tournament trips. In neither of those Tourney years were his Jacks the most talented team in 7AA, but they found ways, both through Josh Johnson’s goaltending and David Brown’s goal-scoring binge. This was Cloquet’s longest run of sustained quality, and the Jacks pulled it out with a combination of star power and feisty, relentless effort.

The later years were less kind, but this had much more to do with a precipitous drop-off in talent than anything behind the bench. The Jacks still put up a serious fight over those nine seasons, pulling a memorable playoff upset over Grand Rapids and twice taking 1- or 2-seed Elk River to overtime. Lists of the best coaches in the state often align with their teams’ on-ice accomplishments, leading some to wonder whether the praises heaped upon a Curt Giles or a Lee Smith are really due to any brilliant coaching maneuvers or merely the good fortune of having many skilled players come through their system. If those critics ever wanted an example of someone whose talent level wasn’t always there, but routinely got teams to play as more than the sum of their collective parts, Esse was their man.

If there was a knock on Esse, it was that some of his most talented teams didn’t quite find a way to get it done. The mid-2000s teams, more talented than 2005 Duluth East and deeper than 2006 and 2007 Grand Rapids, really should have found a way to win another section title or two. And with a coach so completely committed to a team system, parents of star players didn’t always think their kids were getting their due. This all blew up during the 2012-2013 season, when Esse had his one post-2008 team that was a realistic contender for a section crown. This attempted firing, an amusing scenario in which politically powerful father of two talented players tried to accuse the good old boys’ network of denying his goalie step-son playing time, ultimately amounted to nothing. The team, however, seemed remarkably flat after that flare-up. Its aftereffects lingered, too: not only did the sons of the father in question leave for juniors after that year, but so did Karson Kuhlman, the best player on that squad.

The incident that drove Esse out this past week bears some obvious similarities. The instigator in this case was the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Cloquet, a 16-season NHLer who came home after retirement to raise his kids. Said hockey player and his family built something of a reputation for themselves in youth hockey, earning ejections from arenas for their antics. But when the player’s son made it to high school this season, Esse decided to bring his old man on board as an assistant coach.

I was immediately skeptical. Was there any way this would end well? Perhaps Esse, as canny an operator as there was in high school hockey, thought his best chance was to bring the father into the fold, rather than having him grumbling from the outside. From the press clippings, it seemed like it worked out last season, and everyone said the right things. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The facts as we know them now are thus: Esse dismissed his troublesome assistant last week, and while the details aren’t all out here yet, retribution was, clearly, swift. “With great sadness,” Esse stepped down on Friday morning. At this point, I don’t blame the man for moving on.

The timing of this saga throws Cloquet hockey into tumult. After a run of successful youth teams, it looked as if the Jacks were about to announce their arrival back on the state scene. Now, their future is unclear, especially since a couple of the rising talents are the offspring of the man responsible for Esse’s ouster. Their father, after all, was one of the first Minnesotans to leave high school early for other hockey opportunities. Will they follow suit?

There will be plenty of time to sort out that drama, and to see who will want this job opening, given both the potential and the toxic dynamics surrounding it. This is a time to reflect on 17 memorable years of hockey in a town that loves the sport, whether Cloquet was going toe-to-toe with Duluth East and Grand Rapids for 7AA titles or fighting to prove that it could hang with more talented opponents. But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the ending of his tenure, either: Dave Esse’s fate is a sorry statement on the state of high school sports, and yet another incident of political power trumping a track record of exemplary efforts. He created some enemies, as any strong-willed person will over such a long time period, but he also has a legion of loyal former players who appreciate what he instilled in them. He deserved far better.

Highway 61 Revisited

7 May

When I was a small child who wouldn’t shut up, my parents would just strap me into the car seat and take me for a drive. It worked every time, and put Baby Karl to sleep. As I learned on my whirlwind West Coast road trip last summer, a good, long drive still has the power to lull me into a satisfied place. Perhaps no road can do this better than the one lining Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, a pathway woven through childhood memories that also looms up in vague visions of the future.

Minnesota Highway 61 runs some 150 miles from the end of Interstate 35 in Duluth to the Canadian border. It was decommissioned from federal highway status a few decades ago and is no longer the continuous highway that ran from Bob Dylan’s birthplace down through the heart of Blues Country to New Orleans, but it remains the only connection between the U.S. and Canada through Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The highway is an engineering achievement, often blasting its way through the thick Duluth Complex and the volcanic extrusions that jumble together in the headlands on the Shore. I drive this road with some regularity; no year is complete few trips up the Shore for hikes, runs, and skis. Work takes me up this way at times as well, including a trip to Silver Bay and the old Finland airbase site just this past Wednesday. But while this voyage has a few ulterior motives, it’s primarily dedicated to the ribbon of road.

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The view from Mount Josephine toward Canada

The North Shore is a tourist playground of rocky beaches and cascading streams, rustic beauty frozen in time. Resorts and vacation homes that range from humble cabins to palatal lodges with floor-to-ceiling windows out on the lake dot the way along 61. The greatest of these is the house atop Silver Creek Cliff that was once rumored to belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, that illustrious alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. I’ll have to dust off an unfinished short story that took place in a house modeled after this one. But that castle is just one of the retreat homes on the Shore. There are also the homes of the Encampment River People, the residents of a cloistered community north of Two Harbors whose sole purpose in life appears to be yelling at people who disturb their peace; north of Ilgen “City,” I pass a house on the market for $5.5 million that looks worth every penny on its Sotheby’s listing. Real estate now excites me. I’m getting old.

These vacation homes are a far cry from some of the Shore’s most distinctive markers: the ore docks of Two Harbors, the taconite plant in Silver Bay, and the ghost town of Taconite Harbor, home to a now-idled power plant. These and the occasional logging truck are the only vestiges of the industry that led people to first settle on the Shore. While doing my homework before my visit to the Finland airbase, I stumbled across a forum devoted to these shuttered military installations, where a few aging former servicemen and their children who lived their early years on the base at the height of the Cold War reminisced on their time atop a hill in rural Lake County. Despite the desolation and cold—many of them were not native Minnesotans—they almost universally called it the best years of their lives. Now, the base sits vacant aside from a few apparent squatters, a superfund site at the end of a crumbling, precarious road. In place of the solidarity of years on the base, the Shore has now often become a playground for people who live somewhere else.

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Intermingling rocks at a wayside south of Grand Marais

I’m guilty as charged today. This road trip emerged from a plan to test out a new pair of trail running shoes, and their maiden voyage commences at Oberg and LeVeaux Mountains, two peaks that flank the Onion River and its eponymous road just south of the Lutsen ski resort. I start with LeVeaux, the longer hike up an oblong bluff rising 900 feet above the lake. I don’t see anyone else on this 3.5-mile loop, which features some muddy slop to mar my new shoes, a bridge over the rushing Onion, and a climb up the north face, some lingering drifts of snow tucked in at its base. The stark solitude here exudes both a complete rightness and a wistful loneliness, two peaks twinned in my first eight months back home. The trail that circles the summit doesn’t offer nearly as many views as other hilltops in the Sawtooths, but there is a superb look back to the south and west at its far end, as clear as one will ever see it with no leaves on the trees quite yet.

Oberg, meanwhile, is bustling with hikers, including a father who, when asked by his young daughter why that guy was running, immediately replies that “he’s being chased by bears.” The run here is easier than on LeVeaux, so it’s easy to bounce along and repeat those old clichés about climbs and endless pursuit. Yes, I need more of this. The views fan out in each direction as I make the circuit, with long looks down at both Superior and inland Oberg Lake. I do, however, opt to skip the overlook at which a man with his significant other appears to be pulling down his pants. I careen back into the parking lot, both tired and wishing I’d found myself a longer route.

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Oberg Lake

I stop for a spell at a wayside to put some thoughts on paper at a bend in the highway where I can enjoy views all the way north to the breakwater in Grand Marais. I press on to that town whose name is better left untranslated, which stirs to life at the start of another tourist season. Downtown bustles with the precise pace of a place that knows what it is and makes it work. I’m tempted to stop in a gallery to find some local art to check off one of the boxes on my ever-expanding apartment decoration checklist, but restrain myself and settle for a sandwich from the Java Moose. (Alas, the tamale cart is nowhere to be seen.) It’s been a good five years since I was last in Grand Marais, and that last visit mostly involved the hospital after a friend separated his shoulder on a Boundary Waters trip, but it’s just as vibrant and quirky as I remember.

My plan had been to turn around at the Devil’s Kettle at Magney State Park a short ways north of Grand Marais, but then I decide, what the hell, I’ll go to the border. I’ve only crossed here once before, on a childhood vacation to Thunder Bay most memorable for the words my mother uttered when faced with the hike up Sleeping Giant. I have a vague memory of Mount Josephine, which towers over the last settlement in Minnesota, Grand Portage; I’d forgotten how much the highway climbs to cross this final rampart before the Pigeon River. If we ever decide to build a wall with Canada, this portion of the border is already covered. I’m rewarded with a stellar view from the wayside, with Pigeon Point and a few islands at the mouth of the river dotting the azure lake.

The last stop on Highway 61 is a few hundred feet from the customs booth at Grand Portage State Park. A paved path traces its way along the Pigeon, which bursts its banks with spring rains. I am spattered with spray long before I see High Falls, a torrent down into the ravine that separates two nations. When the sun emerges, rainbows proliferate, and the torrents thunder with such power that water rockets back upward in fountains off the rocks below. It’s the most impressive waterfall in the Midwest (even if half of it is in Canada), and it’s not hard to imagine the misery of the Voyageurs as they struggled to find a way around it. This is the end of the road.

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The gateway to Canada

After one last glance at the land of maple leaves, Tim Hortons, and Justin Trudeau, I turn around and head south, past the signs telling me how to translate kilometers into miles. I swing off 61 in Grand Portage and search for a hiking trail up Mount Josephine, but its parking lot has spawned a sixth Great Lake, and with some clouds rolling in, I’m not too disappointed to head on my way. I meander through the heart of the Grand Portage Reservation, which boasts a shiny new school whose playground teems with children, alive on this otherwise desolate stretch of shore. Much more alive, at least, than the old Voyageur fort at the Grand Portage National Monument. It sits in sad in repose, still closed for the season; in one part, orange construction fencing stands in place of the wooden palisade.

I get another dose of the Shore’s limited brushes with history beyond this little corner of the planet when I stop in the hamlet of Colvill to wander along the beach. This was the old summer home of Col. William Colvill, the commander of the First Minnesota regiment whose suicidal charge at Gettysburg ranks among the most crucial military maneuvers in American history. The First Minnesota suffered an 80 percent casualty rate, but stuffed the Rebel advance and may just have saved the nation as we know it. Shot twice and left with a wrecked ankle, Colvill found solitude here as he gimped down this rocky beach, recovering from the horror of war. I follow in his footsteps, any of my more plaintive musings paling in comparison to what weighed on the old Union hero.

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Nowadays, elsewhere in northern Minnesota, I’ve seen a surge in the number of Confederate flags flying from pickup trucks. History is rarely as decisive as we’d like to imagine. What endures a century and a half later is the sense of duty of a man like Colvill, who was the first Minnesotan to enlist when the War Between the States broke out. That sense of compunction, unfathomable until we realize there are things that we, too, would fancy to think we’d drive to the end of the earth to achieve. It’s all somewhere in the pursuit, I muse as I brush a little mud off my leg.

The return trip drags more than the venture northward, as I’m repeatedly stuck in columns of slow-moving traffic. Tourist season is indeed upon us. By the time I’m passing Gooseberry Falls I decide I deserve a beer, and swing down to the Castle Danger brewery in Two Harbors. I sit at the bar and unwind, even as I remind myself how much I have to do to align dreams and reality. Along one road, however, they already blend, and I head home with little doubt that I could just drive this highway into eternity.