As I approach the three-year anniversary of my return to Duluth, I’m still poking around to understand it with different lenses. To that end, the most fruitful thing I’ve read in a while was a piece in American Affairs by Salim Furth, which tries to apply an economist’s perspective to neighborhoods to understand what it takes to make a strong neighborhood. Furth’s question is a salient one, particularly in a time when few people work in the neighborhood in which they live, and in which mass suburbanization across the country (and modest suburbanization in Duluth’s metro) have upended the notion of what a neighborhood is for a generation or two of Americans.
Duluth strikes me as well-suited to this sort of study of neighborhoods. Its neighborhoods tend to have more obvious boundaries than cities on a traditional grid, which makes it easier to identify the “egohoods,” as Furth calls them, that people use to understand their own surroundings. We know where they all are, and this city’s choppy economic history also lets us see successes and failures in a way less possible in areas with nonstop growth. This is also a timely discussion, as the city just rolled out a plan to explore greater development efforts on certain core investment areas. While correlation by no means implies causation—I’ve discussed elsewhere how Duluth’s neighborhoods came to be as they are in terms of income—it can give us some helpful guides to the future. So, I’ve divided Duluth’s neighborhoods as follows:
When people think of neighborhoods, this is what they imagine. West Duluth or Spirit Valley or Denfeld, or whatever you want to call it, with its own downtown and neighboring schools, is probably Duluth’s most robust example. Lakeside has its commercial node and a school not too far away that covers basically just that one neighborhood. Woodland’s school situation is a little blurrier, with Homecroft off to one side and a Montessori and private elementary option in the middle, but the basic idea still stands. Piedmont likewise has a school and a small commercial district at its heart. I’m also going to include the upper portions of East Hillside in this category: it has Myers-Wilkins Elementary, it has modest commercial corridors along 9th Street and 6th Avenue East, and it certainly has a distinctive character, with a concentration of homeowners not present further down the hill or in Central Hillside. Gary has most of the amenities as well, albeit more marginally, so I’ll put it here rather than somewhere else.
What do these neighborhoods have in common? They all date back to the start of the 20th century, though they’ve all seen at least some continued development. Most could be reasonably described as middle-income or upper-middle-income; this category includes neither Duluth’s wealthiest areas, nor its poorest. The first four are the purest examples, including the three that I’d put more on the upper side of middle class (Lakeside, Woodland, Piedmont). West Duluth, despite hosting the largest commercial district of the bunch, has been more constrained in its development and therefore has older housing and lower incomes. The Upper Hillside has blurrier boundaries and its school has a much wider reach than just the neighborhood, as does Stowe in Gary; these two commercial areas are also less developed, lacking grocery stores (excepting perhaps Whole Foods Co-Op, depending on where one draws the lines). As a result, they aren’t as wealthy, though they retain a strong sense of community.
College Town, Duluth Style
Three neighborhoods abut the University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, and they’ve all evolved in response to this reality. They have all lost their public elementary schools, but have developed commercial centers that help them thrive, and are solidly upper middle-class areas when one cuts out the college students, whose incomes are not reflective of socioeconomic status. Kenwood lost its school in 1993, but has a thriving commercial hub at Kenwood and Arrowhead that can provide about any basic need, and its many little pockets, whether renter-heavy or full of higher-end homes, feed right into that cluster. Likewise, the Mount Royal shopping center fits that function for the Hunters Park neighborhood, and has a community anchor in its library, plus a couple of other amenities like the Glen Avon sports complex that have kept the neighborhood identity (and higher property values) alive despite some college student outgrowth south of Arrowhead Road and the closure of the elementary school in that same 1993 consolidation. Just to the south, Chester Park lost its two schools in the early 00s but gained a commercial node at Bluestone, a late-stage adaptation to life as a neighborhood neighboring a college.
In the absence of a true college neighborhood like a Dinkytown or a State Street, Duluth has spawned three little commercial nodes around its two four-year institutions. It’s a funny arrangement that makes it difficult to do anything at scale, and has led college students to leapfrog down the hill into Endion and the Hillside, which I don’t think is optimal for anyone. (Count me among those who think UMD has historically shirked its responsibility to house students, with negative implications for all involved.) But it has also created some livable, amenity-filled neighborhoods around the colleges whose stability somewhat belies the ongoing concerns that the students are ruining the neighborhoods.
There are a couple of neighborhoods that are basically devoid of commercial uses, but have strong neighborhood identities. Congdon has no businesses to speak of (other than the country club, I guess), but has commercial areas on almost all sides and several well-regarded schools at the center, which keeps Duluth’s wealthiest district distinct in character. Park Point, for reasons of geography, is also a very distinct neighborhood, despite seeing its one mini commercial node at 19th Street slip away. Morley Heights, if not lumped in with Hunters Park, fits this mold also; it does have the Montessori school at its center. The wealthier portion of Duluth Heights that is thoroughly residential but within an easy drive of the mall area also fits this bill; it lost Birchwood Elementary some time ago, but Lowell is still right there for it.
These neighborhoods uniformly have the highest median family incomes in the city. The well-off like their relative peace and quiet, though neighboring commercial districts create a more accessible urban experience than, say, in Hermantown. Their futures are probably more of the same, as home age doesn’t much affect quality here, and while they might be able to handle a few more amenities, property values and natural features keep them what they are. They are also, on the whole, quite small population-wise.
Some parts of the city have notable commercial districts but have lost schools, or never had one to begin with. Central Hillside and the lower portions of East Hillside have commercial nodes at places along Fourth Street and at the Plaza shopping center; Central Hillside suffered a more recent loss of other institutions, like Historic Central High and Nettleton Elementary. Morgan Park, a pocket of unique history that lost its school in the Red Plan restructuring of the late aughts, also qualifies. We’ll see if it maintains enough commercial activity to stay here, or if it drifts into the next category I’ll describe. On the extreme side of spectrum is Downtown, which has a small population but is a major commercial hub. These neighborhoods are uniformly low-income, which says something about how schools and urban planning go hand-in-hand, though the causal arrows would require a much longer discourse.
A related concept, less a neighborhood but relevant here, using a term from urbanist Charles Marohn via Furth, is the “stroad”: those commercial, fast-moving urban strips that combine the worst of many worlds. London Road above the east side on the freeway is obvious here, though with a recent uptick in development, maybe the road will catch up with its bike lanes and become more of a destination. (Can I lobby for a boulevard or some greenery to lessen the completely unnecessary suburban feel?) Central Entrance, a road whose name can’t hide its purpose of moving people to one place from another, also qualifies, and is apparently on the docket for some aesthetic enhancement. The entire mall area would seem to fall in this category. By any measure, these are successful commercial areas that generate wealth, but to date they have not invited much of anyone to live alongside them.
If there’s good news for the hyper-concentrations of commerce near the mall and even in Downtown, it’s that it’s much easier to build new housing in a commercial zone than it is to build new commercial uses in a residential zone, and we’re starting to see some new development that could help tip these areas toward more of a genuine neighborhood status, especially Downtown. The mall’s commercial success has been an accessory for growth and new housing, both in aforementioned Duluth Heights and in Hermantown. It’s just reflective of the paradox Furth details, in which a sense of neighborhood declines even as wealth increases and a suburban future takes hold.
Going forward, I’m curious to see if Hermantown is content to be a suburban strip with mostly high-income development tucked away on its township-style roads and cul-de-sacs, united by investment in a school system. If it wants grow at any faster rate, it’s either going to have to shift, either with more affordable levels of housing or some sort of New Urbanist style development that would turn it into something very different from the quasi-rural place it is now. Rice Lake, which lacks the Highway 53 commercial corridor and separate school system but shares Hermantown’s general demographics, also has some decisions to make. (And since we’re on the topic of Duluth’s neighbors, I suppose Proctor would qualify as a traditional neighborhood, with Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood as a residential appendage.)
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Duluth’s industrial zones: its working waterfront, its airpark, and its west side business parks. These areas understandably demand some separation from everything else, though the cleanliness of most modern industry makes these strict lines less necessary than they once were. They fulfill vital functions, and a healthy path forward keeps them around (and could even grow them with the old U.S. Steel site) while also allowing less intrusive industry into places like the Lincoln Park craft district, where it has thrived.
My own neighborhood, Endion, is something of a relic with no real identity: its school closed in 1977, and it has very few commercial uses above London Road. In reality, it’s a buffer state between Congdon and the Hillside, and it shares a commercial core with the lower Hillside and hospital areas. For many of these reasons, I don’t see it as a long-term home. Observation Hill lost Emerson Elementary in 1979, and while it’s got some fascinating relics of past eras, it is now mostly a collection of housing all over the income map wedged between Downtown and Lincoln Park. The portion lower portions of Duluth Heights probably fall in this category also, with the original Lowell Elementary and the new Central High no longer, and some very uniform new developments such as Boulder Ridge and a collection of townhomes below it.
On the west side, I see places like Fairmount and Irving in the same way: long-shuttered schools and little in the way of commerce, though Fairmount abuts a stroad-ish section of Grand Avenue and could conceivably drop into a few different categories here, and there is a charter school in the area to provide an option. There’s some potential to build something cohesive between these two neighborhoods if they can unite and develop something resembling a commercial district instead of a strip along Grand; the city has done some small area planning, and it’s worth watching to see if anything comes of this.
Norton Park, Smithville, Riverside, and Fond du Lac are also distinct thanks to geography, lacking in any of the defining features used in this typology; they could, plausibly, become bedroom-type communities with greater development, but given their small size, they lack the critical mass that defines the higher-income bedroom neighborhoods or invite in a genuine commercial district. They are more tucked-away areas where people can live comfortably out of the way if they so choose, though on the whole they trend toward middle to lower incomes, quiet little escapes strung out along the river that neither show signs of decline nor bustle with new life.
Lincoln Park Gets Its Own Section
In the past, Lincoln Park would have fit naturally into the traditional neighborhood category, even if it was a rather hardscrabble one. But in no area of Duluth are greater changes afoot. The new Lincoln Park Middle School is on the neighborhood’s far west side in place of an elementary school at its core. Its old central node along Superior Street, meanwhile, is unrecognizable from what it was a decade or two ago. It is now a thriving commercial area, and it seems as if denser housing is coming along right behind it. If this commercial renaissance can continue on the other side of 53—and there are signs that this is happening, since there is a respectable commercial corridor along West Third and that oddly placed school for all its seeming travails—we could see a neighborhood change overnight. If not, we may see a divergence between a thriving commercial core and a left-behind version of that old traditional neighborhood, an area more two neighborhoods instead of one.
The chance of new investment across the full swath of a low-income area invites a debate over gentrification, which is a new concept in Duluth. Gentrification is an overused word that can mean a lot of different things, and I personally try to avoid it because I don’t think it advances our understanding. As we assess the changes in Lincoln Park, I’d ask the following questions: are rising property values actively displacing people? (The evidence for displacement, even in cities where change moves much more quickly, is often scant.) Are longtime residents benefitting from, or at least appreciative of, some of the changes that may follow? Is the city losing cultural touchstones whose loss would be a tragedy, particularly for certain communities?
Aside from the Lincoln Park questions, I see a few obvious areas of focus as we think about the future of Duluth’s neighborhoods. For starters, this analysis is an unabashed endorsement of the core investment areas. Cultivating those neighborhood centers should create a virtuous cycle of community involvement and social capital. Not every Duluth neighborhood can be a Congdon, but many can come closer to approximating Piedmont or Lakeside with enough cultivation of resources that can lift all boats.
Second, future planners need to consider schools as central to the urban future, and make any future building and boundary decisions accordingly. “Schools, more than any remaining American institution, bring people together on the basis of geography,” Furth writes, and he’s right. It’s stunning to see how many of Duluth’s neighborhood names, even and especially the ones that seem incoherent now, have their roots in the location of an elementary school. (Even Lakeside/Lester Park, which basically everyone now considers one neighborhood, retains those two old names because, until 1993, there was a Lakeside and a Lester Park public elementary school.) In an age of declining civic involvement, we need to reinforce those cores we do have.
A lot of good neighborhoods are driven by things far beyond schools and commercial nodes, from geography to the efforts of a handful of very committed people who I won’t try to assess in a blog post. I also didn’t mention parks because basically every Duluth neighborhood has good parks, but keeping them fresh and bringing back programming can go a long way. Things besides neighborhoods can construct thick networks that create pleasant lives and support people instead of holding them back, but fundamentally, the neighborhood still matters in so many aspects of life. Intelligent public policy needs to support them and move them forward, not just in immediate response to needs or complaints, but in a coherent vision for what comes next.