Tag Archives: congdon

Congdon Living

29 Sep

An adjustment to homeownership after a decade of renting is an adjustment that runs the risk of leaving the new member of the housed gentry both drunk on and intimidated by the power one suddenly wields. Yes, I really can pound as many holes as I want in the walls. Yes, I really can plant whatever I want in the yard (providing that the conditions are right). That’s right, homeowners’ mortgage interest deduction, you regressive taxation scheme, you are now mine! And yes, I am most definitely on the hook when the hot water heater inevitably gives out in mid-January.

I have been a homeowner for two months now. In that time, I have managed not to break anything. I have successfully wielded a drill and invested in a chainsaw. I have spent inordinate amounts of time pondering paint palettes and improving my skills with a brush. I have faced my intimidating thermostat with a firm resolve and promptly dropped it to temperatures that will protect my wallet until I can replace the house’s aging windows. After much trepidation, I successfully started my lawnmower. I schedule my life around emptying the dehumidifier. I may even get a dining room table one of these months if the Covid era supply chains ever cooperate. Yes, I have most definitely entered middle age.

I have, with frequent self-doubt, cultivated my skills as an interior decorator. I turned the master bedroom into a beachscape and the room I’ve commandeered as an office into a worldly display of heavy non-fiction and literary art and artifacts from my time in Mexico. (You don’t want to know how long I spent curating my Zoom background. Not visible in the camera: a complete shelf of sports-related books and a rack of stray snapbacks favored by early 20s Karl.) The second floor sitting room currently lacks a real seat, but it does take visitors on travel around the globe through maps; the adjoining guest bedroom, meanwhile, maps out journeys closer to home. In the basement, a sort of proto-mancave is emerging, with stray baseball memorabilia on the walls and a hockey stick and some tennis balls I can use to amuse myself if I grow bored. The main room’s living space, meanwhile, is going in on the Congdon aesthetic: a mix of grand art over fireplaces and a showpiece bookcase alongside the bar and, of course, some hockey art. It takes all kinds.

Like most Duluth houses, my house is not new. The monster maple looming over the deck includes a time capsule from previous owners in a knot and includes a dog toy and a beer can and a frisbee and who knows what else beneath the leaves; I wonder vaguely what my own contribution will be. As long as the tree is still standing when I move on, that is: my greatest adventure to date involved the fall of a very large limb from said tree into the backyard. (Hence the chainsaw.) The home inspection revealed some necessary foundation work, which is now complete but has made a hash of my front yard. (Meh, it’s less grass to mow for now.) Evidence of the predecessors’ teenage boy lurks about, most amusingly in the pot-related art left behind in the attic. I’ve developed strong, and perhaps undeserved opinions on my predecessors and their seeming sloppiness. At least take down the curtain rod and the mounted TV when you paint. It’s not that hard.

My house is a 1950s mutt, a postwar part of a row that got lost on its way into some suburban subdivision and ended up nestling itself between the historic beauties of Congdon further down the hill and an array of later ramblers and McMansions further up in Hidden Valley. The interior is, thankfully, not very 1950s, with an open floorplan and a fresh kitchen and a spiral staircase and other fun perks that my predecessors have added in their more insipired moments. One neighbor, who has been in the neighborhood for a year or twenty, gave me the whole sordid history of my house’s recent owners and temporary life as a rental in the early 00s before it arrived in its current state. And so I take my place in a lineage straight out of the Book of Numbers, an heir not to a throne but to some crumbling drywall and a gaudy exhaust fan above the built-in bar and a garage built to withstand nuclear fallout and a marvelous autumn view out toward the stone beauty of a house across the street.

A pandemic is an awkward time to get to know one’s new neighbors, but I’ve managed a few chats over fences in the early going. I enjoy hosting a rotating cast on my new deck for housewarmings that accommodate others’ comfort with the conditions. The biggest adjustment to Congdon life after years in Endion and on Hennepin Avenue and right off a campus in DC is how magically quiet it is. When a couple of teenagers jawing loudly qualify as an evening disruption, the neighborhood is doing something right.

A lot went in to making Congdon the way it is, and my mind has spent some time dwelling on this move, as any introspective urban planner with Catholic guilt roots must. Buying real estate in one of Duluth’s most exclusive pockets (such as it is) just as the local market explodes feels uncomfortably like an insurance policy, and a retreat to the safe side of the drawbridge should the barbarians arrive. I’m the millennial who, despite a concerted effort to throw it all away in my early 20s, has gamed the system and come out, while not wealthy, at least on a clear road to comfort. So much more any youthful radicalism. But who are we kidding? The barbarians have been among us all along, and I can’t disown my own history. Accept that fate and use it for good, as the best of this neighborhood so often have.

I’m putting down roots, I think none too subtly as I push some dirt around a new baby tamarack in my front yard. I don’t think this is a forever house, but gives me the room I need to grow in this next phase, and will no doubt keep me occupied through pandemics and beyond. It blends so many things that are now a part of me: Duluth roots, East Coast class, easy trails into the woods, a short distance from northern Minnesota reality in all its complicated and tumultuous history, deference to grand old tradition and a nagging desire to stay forever fresh and young. Yes, it is home now.

An Endion Appreciation

28 Jun

“So what part of town do you live in?”

“The Endion neighborhood.”

“The what?”

“Endion.”

“Where’s that?”

“Uh…kind of between the Hillside and Congdon. Below Chester Park.”

“Oh! That place. I didn’t know it had a name.”

I’ve had some version of this conversation on a few dozen occasions over the past four years. In time, I learned just to give my street corner, an easy source of context on Duluth’s gridded streets, and perhaps even engage in a guilt-inducing act of appropriation and say “just off 21st, near Congdon.” My neighborhood has been a source of mystery even for many longtime Duluthians.

In a month or so I will decamp for some neighborhood a little ways to the east, but before I bid Endion farewell, I figured I’d direct a little appreciation at this sometimes forgotten wedge of Duluth. In many ways Endion is a relic of a time long past, but it isn’t one of those Duluth neighborhoods that has been swallowed up by another or seen its name change in the collective consciousness. Nor does it have any easy analogues. It’s still distinctly its own thing, a funny transition zone between some of Duluth’s wealthiest and most impoverished enclaves, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Endion came of age with grand designs. At the turn of the 20th century, Duluth’s elite left Ashtabula Heights (around 4th Street and 6th Avenue East, a jarring fact to consider today) for the broader expanses between Chester Creek and the ridge that rises in the mid-20s Avenues East, the mansion district once known as East End that most people now just consider an extension of Congdon. For a flash of history, this was one of the wealthiest places in the land. As early as the HOLC maps of the 1930s and 1940s, though, it was deemed in decline by the real estate powers that be. Its grand old homes with servants’ quarters were no longer practical for most families, and Duluth’s wealthy worked their way over to Congdon, where they settled and have mostly stayed put. Endion has been in a permanent limbo between privilege and poverty and the fascinating in-between state that is college life ever since.

I can understand why few people think of Endion as much of a neighborhood. It lacks a commercial node; most of its businesses are along a London Road strip with poor connections to the rest of it, and the Plaza Shopping Center lies just beyond its boundaries. Its eponymous elementary school closed several generations ago, with few to remember what a neighborhood center it might have been. (I had a fascinating exchange on a street corner a couple years back with an elderly man who’d driven in to visit Duluth for the first time in decades and was trying to piece together some dimly remembered locations from his childhood, including his days at the Endion school.) In a city of exceptional parks, it has an acceptable but unremarkable one at its center on the block of the Temple Israel; anyone who wants to recreate locally will venture either over to the Chester Creek corridor or down to the Lakewalk. Endion’s iconic train station, while spared the wrecking ball when I-35 punched its way through, moved down to Canal Park, where it is now a micro-hotel. Many of its residents are transient young renters–it has one of the youngest median ages of any Duluth neighborhood–and few put down roots here. It is mostly a smattering of homes that serve as a waystation for a few years of life before moving on to other things, and that is exactly what it has been for me, too.

That temporary status grants Endion its value. People need places to land for a few years of life, and it’s probably best that these places not be placid residential neighborhoods where residents have some right not to expect loud parties on random Tuesdays. In an ideal world this sort of district would be more centrally located and offer easier walks to a strip of nightlife or an iconic park, but we make do with what we have. Endion’s reuse of its old homes is exemplary, exactly what my urban planner friends have in mind when they dream of incremental increases in density, creating those fourplexes without needing to build anew. The trouble comes when the Endions of the world become a permanent state, lives trapped in limbo for eternity, the failure of late modernity to move people out and up on trajectories that give them meaning.

Endion is a grab bag of character types, rarely exciting but also never quite dull. Directly across the street is a family with young kids in one of the old beauties that remains a single-family home; in the two smaller adjacent houses, a few doddering old ladies sit out on their stoops for their fresh air. The rental kitty-corner from mine has turned over every year, and mostly remained tame, though the dirtbag boys who took it over in 2019 had me grumbling through a few sleepless nights. I still haven’t quite figured out what is going on in the home across the avenue, which clearly has a few permanent residents beneath its towering Queen Anne gables, but also enjoys a constantly rotating cast through its backyard bonfires. A block up, a halfway house adds some grit, but never any real drama. My own abode, a grand estate from another time now carved up into seven tasteful, separate units, caters to a crowd of grad students and young parents and a few young drifters who make enough money to enjoy general comforts but not enough to take any leaps beyond. It’s not a particularly communal place, as we meandering millennials connect only in stray hallway encounters or in shared struggles to scrape off our cars and shovel each other out every winter. It could be a great little neighborhood, but as I’ve observed before, Duluth has strangely weak formal neighborhood structures for a city that is strongly defined by them.

It is most definitely time to move on from those noisy college parties, that lack of a garage, the neighbors who don’t offer much of a greeting when one passes by. But there are parts of it I will miss. I will miss making popcorn on snowy winter nights and watching naive college students flail about as they try to drive up the avenue despite having access to much better-plowed streets just a block away. I will miss my grand columned front porch and massive picture windows and gaudy (though inoperable) fireplace. I regret that I am moving right before the city converts First Street to the two-way street it ought to be and tames the traffic into something that might be conducive to a neighborhood where one can settle into place. I will miss its easy acceptance of a phase of life where one could park out on the front porch and make a casual acquaintance over cheap beers.

Endion is Duluth is a nutshell: faded grandeur, scrapping youth, a few anchors holding fast amid the steady change. A bit anonymous in the face of things, but stable and memorable and often even beautiful. It has served its purpose, and I wish it the best as I find my escape from this stage. But some nostalgia will linger for those front porch nights, those times I packed my apartment with visitors from afar, those seasonal views down to the greatest of lakes. May Endion continue to afford future generations such delights, and may it continue to offer pathways onward and upward.

Primaries, Facebook Fights, and Park Planning: A Duluth September Political Roundup

17 Sep

When I can sit out on my front porch in mid-September and write, rest my sore knees beneath trees frosted in hints of red and orange, bask in sun and Lake Superior breeze, that’s Duluth at its finest. Writing about politics seems vaguely dirty for a day like this, but I am nothing if not duty-bound, and have a document with some fiction in it open right now too. Here, then, is a roundup of recent political happenings in Duluth, which is an example of Duluth at its finest, not at its finest, and various places in between, depending on where one sits.

A Few Primary Election Comments

Busy life events kept me from making an immediate response to last week’s primaries, so I’ll toss out a few comments on the results here. The major takeaway was the dominance of the Duluth DFL, despite my rumblings about possible cracks last week. Zack Filipovich, the only at-large city council candidate to receive a party endorsement, was well clear of the field; in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett, who was not DFL-endorsed but was two years ago as a school board candidate and certainly was the closest to the center of the party of the three candidates, ran comfortably ahead of incumbent Howie Hanson and Tom Furman, and as she’s certainly better positioned to collect the votes of the eliminated Furman, Hanson is probably toast. At-large incumbent Barb Russ, who was not DFL-endorsed this time but was four years ago and is certainly more of an established DFL figure than any of the others in the field, surprised me by running second. And while her margin over Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove was slim, and promises a tight fight in November, it’s certainly a strong showing.

The only other point I’ll make is a repeat of an old mantra that lawn signs do not win elections. Signage for Updegrove would make one think he was going to compete with Filipovich for the top spot instead of finishing fourth; Jan Swanson, who had some strong concentrations of signs in certain neighborhoods, did not build on that support elsewhere. On my reconnaissance run through a bunch of west side neighborhoods, it was hard not to think Loren Martell would make it out of the primaries in the school board at-large race, while Dana Krivogorsky was doomed. Instead, she eked past him.

I’m not sure how much good it will do her: while Martell’s voters will almost certainly flip to Krivogorsky and Harry Welty, those two ran far behind the two DFL-endorsed candidates. As noted in my preview, I find it more than a little paradoxical that people in DFL circles think this district has serious equity issues and is suffering for its six-period days, and then proceed to summarily ignore, if not straight-up denigrate, the only candidates who are actually proposing concrete solutions to these problems. I’m not saying I agree with their solutions across the board, but the rigidity with which people inhabit their camps based on old Red Plan fault lines—whether they supported or opposed it—is sad.

This Is Why We Don’t Waste Our Time on Internet Rants, Kids

The other bit of Duluth political news last week, if it can really be called that, was a flap between city council president Joel Sipress and DFL district chairman Justin Perpich. Sipress and Perpich exemplify one of the fault lines in the DFL that I thought could fracture this coalition, as they are on opposite sides of the debates over the merits of mining projects on the Iron Range. I’m sure there is some backstory as to how things got to this point, and I don’t really care to know all the details; in short, Perpich criticized the failure of the anti-mining group Duluth for Clean Water to disclose its campaign spending on a Facebook post by Sipress’s wife, and the council president, who found the characterization of Duluth for Clean Water as some sort of dark money organization misleading, told Perpich to “go fuck himself,” among other things. Perpich promptly shared this private Facebook message with the press.

No one really looks good here. Perpich’s posts seem awfully petty, and the ultimate financial disclosure does appear to debunk any claim that Duluth for Clean Water is getting lots of money poured into it by non-Duluthians. (Unsolicited advice to pro-mining camp: trying to sound like you’re the resource-poor is side in this debate is…not going to get you much sympathy with the general public.) On the other hand, this was also a city council that recently generated enough pressure to get Linda Krug to step down from the council presidency when she used her bully pulpit to harangue a colleague on the council. Difficult as this may be to remember in the Trump Era, we traditionally have had higher standards for politician conduct in public, though of course this runs into the question of whether or not a form of messaging that Facebook calls “private” is actually private. Hence the lesson that was beaten into me from a young age, which Sipress has just learned the hard way: never, ever, ever assume that anything you share with anyone on the internet will remain private.

Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly offended to learn that a politician uses the occasional vulgarity, but other people have different standards, and anyone in the public eye should probably be aware of that. (And, since I’m on a roll, some unsolicited advice for the anti-mining camp: gallivanting up to the Range to tell people you do not know that their lives aren’t *that bad*  or treating anyone who supports mining as an idiotic simpleton seems like a pretty safe formula for turning onetime union Democrats into Trump voters. How each side in this debate frames its case can make all the difference in the world.)

At the risk of sounding like the grumpy young millennial scolding the old people around him on how to use the internet, this sort of thing is exactly why I go to great lengths to avoid political junk on Facebook. This isn’t to say I never engage, and the line between politics and the rest of life isn’t always clear. We all need some cathartic moments, too. But these days I find myself increasingly frustrated with the number of people I observe spending large parts of their day devoted to internet political drivel, no matter the flavor.

In an effort to generate something resembling positive discourse out of this rant-fest, I recommend the following litmus test for anyone who wants to post anything political on Facebook:

  1. Is my post a call to immediate action, or is it more of a general lament detached from any ability to influence anything?
  2. How many times have I made this same exact point in recent memory?
  3. Does this post contribute anything new or insightful, or am I merely regurgitating someone else’s work, or an opinion that anyone who actually knows me knows I already hold?
  4. Will this post inspire hard feelings (particularly of the personal variety) from people who will see it, and if so, is this cause so important to me that I am willing to risk that relationship?
  5. Are the people I am engaging colleagues or good friends/family who I know will take my opinion seriously and respond in kind, or is this Fred who I haven’t seen since high school graduation?
  6. Is the voice I am using in this discourse the same I would be willing to use to the face of someone who is the subject of my rant?
  7. Have I ever been guilty of whatever it is I’m currently charging my political opponents with?

Or you could, you know, just close Facebook and go outside or read a book or something. Or, if you really must stare at political things on screens, just explore the archives of a much more interesting and nuanced blog.

On the Flip Side: Democracy in Action

Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at the Lower Chester warming house to discuss the future of that small park tucked in between 15th Ave. East and Chester Creek. In winters, it is currently home to several rinks run by the Congdon hockey association, which needed a new home when the Red Plan paved paradise and put up a parking lot next to Congdon Elementary. In summer, the main rink becomes a skate park, while the rest of it sits rather forlorn and patchy; a few neighbors spared no details in describing the lurid activity that takes place there some nights. There was a hint of everyone crammed into this grossly inadequate space: neighbors with kids who wanted the playground, some with said kids in tow; hockey parents, with a few hockey player kids also in tow and wandering the park; older neighbors who’d lived next to the park since the Wilson Administration or something like that; plus some kid for whom this sort of meeting is a perfect confluence of interests. Someone took it upon themselves to engage the skateboarders rolling around the rink, too. (The neighbors, incidentally, said the park’s upkeep had improved immensely since they moved in a few years back.)

The plan presented by the Parks Department went a long way toward accommodating all parties. The details aren’t all settled yet: the pleasure rink is not in the current plan, the playground location was the subject of some debate, and anything that emerges here is going to take money, none of which is currently budgeted. But when one attendee suggested closing down 15th Ave. in front of the park to create more space that could accommodate everyone, there seemed genuine consensus from all parties. (Except, perhaps, the city’s Public Works Department, but we can work on them.) It was a heartening moment, and a reminder that democracy really does work best in cramped little town halls, not in the far more cramped world of the things pecked out by internet warriors on a cell phone keyboard at odd hours of the night. Once again, Duluth provides a renewal of faith.

Correction: A previous version of this blog post stated that Renee Van Nett received the DFL endorsement in the 4th District race. She did not, and the text has been updated to reflect this.

Save Youth Hockey at the Lower Chester Rinks

3 Feb

Every now and then, my work life and my hockey life collide. This is one of those times, as I learned this afternoon that there is at least some threat that the Congdon youth hockey program will lose the use of the Lower Chester rinks. This is a call to arms to defend Congdon youth hockey at Lower Chester.

The well-written Change.org petition makes a solid case, so I won’t re-hash the whole history or re-open my gripes about how the Red Plan blew up a neighborhood institution and one of the best-used public outdoor rinks in the city. (Oops, I just did.) But, out of that wreckage, some good came: the Lower Chester rinks, which had stopped fielding youth teams some time ago, found new life as the home for Congdon hockey. Lower Chester is perhaps the most storied youth rink in a town littered with hockey history. The Williams family, pioneers of American hockey, have their roots here; Mike Randolph and many in his great generation came from Lower Chester, too. Congdon hockey has seen its numbers grow, not shrink, since it moved to Lower Chester, so this isn’t an issue of declining numbers or lack of demand.

I won’t pretend to know much about the Neighbors of Lower Chester Park, the volunteer group that oversees the park that hosts the rinks. However, some of its members seem to think the rinks inhibit the park’s year-round usefulness. (In summer, it currently hosts a skate park that seems to do decent business, though  there seem to be grander plans of a playground or something in what little I can glean from the group’s meeting minutes.) Joel Sipress, the city councilor who represents the area, also alludes to some past tension between the hockey and the Neighbors in his response to the petition. If so, that’s unfortunate, and there are some bridges to mend. But it would be far more unfortunate if the Neighbors took out some spat with hockey association members on the dozens of kids who need a place to play.

Removing the rinks from Lower Chester would toss aside piece of history, and damage the truly unique outdoor neighborhood youth hockey model draws praise from non-Duluthian hockey people in all corners of the state. It would force out an association that has already gotten a raw deal from decision-makers, and force it to choose among such unsavory options as sharing an already busy rink like Glen Avon or Portman, raising the capital and finding the land to build new rinks somewhere, or disbanding altogether. As the city learned on a greater scale with the Red Plan, schemes that disrupt neighborhood hubs and ship kids off to wherever seems convenient wind up being disruptive, and are at odds  with any plan to build cohesive communities with kids at the center of their vision for the future. Tossing out a successful youth organization would make people like me who are looking to settle in this general area question whether the neighborhood actually wants young people who expect to have kids here. And while the Congdon youth program certainly draws from Duluth’s wealthiest pockets, its boundaries extend all the way into downtown; Lower Chester is basically the only rink remaining anywhere near the center of the city. If city leaders value any sense of equity in access to a key piece of Duluth’s cultural legacy, this rink is important.

There has to be a way to find common ground here. And if you need someone to bridge the planning and hockey worlds, I’m happy to help…

Living the Cakeater Life

25 Jan

No, this isn’t a post about hockey; it’s about the future of one half of a city. The west side of Duluth has gotten a lot of deserved attention in politics and in the press in recent years. Rarely, however, do we hear much about the east side as a whole, except as a foil when comparing trends between the two ends of the city. This post will take some time to think about the area where I grew up, and plot out its future.

This isn’t some cry for attention or investment; some fairly substantial development (by Duluth standards) is happening naturally on the east side, and not much screams for immediate intervention. There’s no real cohesive east side identity like there is with the west, except perhaps a relationship to Duluth East High School, though it draws from areas beyond the city limits and its alumni scatter far more than Denfeld’s. Sure, there a few scions of old money families who carry on the tradition of that old east side cakeater stereotype, but while they may be large in influence, they’re relatively few in number. (Sidenote for the uninitiated: the term “cakeater” is indeed a Marie Antoinette allusion used to denigrate the spoiled rich kids, and achieved immortality thanks to the Mighty Ducks movies. Edina is home to the original cakeaters, but it’s long been thrown at the east side of Duluth, too.)

This post came to my mind when I observed to a friend, half surprising myself as I did so, that I might well spend the rest of my life within a mile or two of where I live now. I’m probably going to be an east side lifer, and while I’m a big believer in roots and tradition and so on, the ties go beyond a lingering loyalty to the streets I ran while growing up. I’m a sucker for historic homes. I like having the easy access to transportation and cultural amenities that come with living in a city, but I also like to have yards and green space. I like being on a hill, though not necessarily on a slope that renders the yard difficult to use. I want to be around people who share my  general ethos while at the same time not cutting myself off from those who are not like me. I’m loyal to the east side’s public schools, which I think provide as desirable a blend of high-achieving culture and exposure to reality as one is likely to find anywhere out there; I don’t know what they’ll look like in this balkanizing education world by the time I have kids to send to them, but I’d at least like to preserve that option. The St. Louis River has much to recommend it, but I’ve grown up looking at that lake, and I want to continue to have views of that lake.

My main aim in doing this, though, is to make sure we don’t sink solely into a binary east-west way of thinking for all political discussion and reporting about issues in Duluth. I’ve certainly picked on that divide before; it’s real, and I’ll likely do it again. But it isn’t the only way of looking at things, and it runs the risk of ignoring other views that might be just as valuable.

Part and parcel with this is the danger of thinking of Duluth alone, or as if the goal of balancing east and west must be the sole goal. Less than half of the people living within thirty miles of downtown Duluth live within its city limits, and any solution to its various issues needs to consider the whole ecosystem. That requires both regional thinking, with an acknowledgment that noble measures in the name of balance could create perverse incentives for spillover or even flight into neighboring communities, and local thinking, with plans for specific neighborhoods instead of lumping entire sides of the city under one umbrella.

The east side’s less defined identity may have something to do with the sheer variety that exists between 6th Avenue East and the Lester River. While the west side certainly has its variants as well, it doesn’t have quite as many dimensions as the east side. I’ve divided it into four areas, which I’ll summarize quickly with some essential information, then offer up my thoughts on where they should go in the coming years.

Congdon/Hunters Park

Population: 7,471 | Median Income: $96,860

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

We’ll start in the heart of the east side. Congdon is the source of the old stereotype, and it is indeed a neighborhood placid streets and beautiful old homes, albeit with some shifts in the largest of houses that no longer serve as plausible single-family abodes. The city has done a reasonably good job of allowing for creative uses (bed and breakfasts, granny flats, a few apartments), though I think it has been excessively regulatory when it comes to things like AirBnB. (Please, please don’t do the same thing to Uber, City Council friends.)

This is the wealthiest patch of northern Minnesota, and that won’t change anytime soon. In a different place I might argue for less concentration of wealth, but in Duluth and at this time, I will defend letting Congdon be Congdon. Its roots run deep, historical deference preserves part of the city’s character, and it’s not so large that it can be an isolated enclave. (Congdon Elementary actually has more kids in poverty than Lester Park, as it draws from some neighborhoods further west.) It’s worth having a showpiece neighborhood, and also an aspirational one.

This isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement, and I think the city is particularly primed to cash in on the potential of some of the east side’s commercial corridors. There’s money to be spent in this area, and I expect many east siders from Congdon and beyond would welcome an excuse to do their shopping nearby instead of trekking up to the mall area. As I’ve written before, there’s so much room for improvement along London Road, and a chance to make it an actual destination instead of a bland suburban strip of medical offices and fast food. The new infusions of life with developments like Endi and BlueStone are great signs, as they offer convenient, accessible commercial options and housing for certain stages of life that don’t always get much attention. It’s no coincidence this is happening on the edges of Congdon, and it adds some healthy fresh life to the area.

Lakeside/Lester Park

Population: 9,374 | Median Income: $68,449

Elementary School: Lester Park | Youth Rink: Portman

Woodland/Kenwood

Population: 9,448 | Median Income: $61,120

Elementary Schools: Homecroft, Lowell | Youth Rink: Woodland

Next, there are the Woodland and Lakeside, old streetcar suburbs that I would argue are, by and large, exemplary neighborhoods. While they are wealthier than most of the rest of the area, they are hardly homes to lots of pretention. There’s variety, too: little downtowns with business districts, connections to both big parks and the rest of the city; some large lakefront or ridgetop homes for the wealthy and some naturally occurring affordable housing for the poor, comfortable homes for families and smaller ranches or ramblers for those in the starter-home market or the mobility-impaired. They both have neighborhood schools (though Lakeside’s is better integrated into the neighborhood), and even their own Catholic schools (though the diocese appears hell-bent on creating its very own little Red Plan and closing one of them). I grew up in Lakeside, and found it to be an excellent place to spend a childhood, with plenty of room to run free and a very healthy overall environment.

These neighborhoods have enough in common that I put them together here, but they’re not identical; there are no lakefront properties in Woodland, and the college students in the Kenwood area drag down the median income up there. Maintaining the health shouldn’t be overly difficult, and simply involves keeping the housing stock fresh and gradually phasing in new stuff so it doesn’t age at a uniform rate. It sounds like some renewed emphasis on neighborhood downtowns will worm its way into the city’s new comprehensive plan, which would be a nice boost for these areas that are doing alright, but do have a few noticeable vacancies.

Also, for the curious: Hermantown’s demographics are very similar to Lakeside’s.

Chester Park/UMD

Population: 7,073 | Median Income: $40,594

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

Duluth is a college town, and while a bunch of students scatter across the Hillside, Kenwood, and Duluth Heights, this is the big concentration. For an area including a decent-sized university, that’s actually a reasonably high median income. (The area around the University of Minnesota campus, for example, looks nearly as poor on a median income map as neighboring, poverty-stricken Cedar-Riverside; this gives me another opportunity to grumble about how the Census counts college students.) This goes to show the curious mix within Chester Park, and how quickly areas east of 21st Avenue go from apartments to very large and expensive homes.

Good things have been happening in this area lately. Development of nice new apartment buildings and an actual businesses for college students to patronize (perhaps even—gasp—by foot!) has brought the area around campus out of the Stone Age. Continued efforts to make the universities more walkable self-contained will improve town-gown relations and improve the student experience. In all parts of the city, I’d support aggressive redevelopment of aged or declining housing stock; there’s a lot of crap out there, and I think this is the area where clearing some of that out and throwing up newer, better-planned stuff is least controversial for everyone. More apartments would get rid of some of these clown car homes-turned-apartments, could ease the parking problem with intelligent construction of lots or garages, and likely make upkeep easier.

East Hillside/East End

Population: 7,512 | Median Income: $25,499

Elementary Schools: Congdon, Myers-Wilkins | Youth Rink: Congdon

Then there’s the part of the east side that isn’t anyone’s idea of a den of cakeaters. Its borders aren’t rigid; I’ve written about the melting pot in my own Endion neighborhood, which wedges in between Congdon and Chester Creek, before. As with much of the west side, the elevation divide maps on to the income divide, and the housing stock gets progressively better as one goes up the hill. (In calculating the numbers, I chose not to include the awkward census tract that includes some stuff by upper Chester Creek, upper downtown, and that neighborhood above Skyline around Summit School; if I had, it would pull the median income up nearly $10,000.) Here, apartment buildings mix in with rowhouses and bigger homes that have seen better days, many now subdivided into apartments themselves. It includes the rather suburbanized Plaza shopping district, a little more scattered commercial activity than in the other neighborhoods, and one of the two large medical campuses in town.

Here, the housing issue is more complicated: Duluth needs affordable housing, and Duluth also gains nothing from people living like sardines in rotting or collapsing pieces of junk. Hopefully the city’s newly announced plans to step up code enforcement can lead to cooperative solutions for everyone. If not, call in the wrecking ball for anything vacant, and set up a pathway for residents into safe housing that is up to code. There is some prime real estate in this area, and the dynamics of the local economy are such that I don’t think there’s any serious threat of displacement if the city does move to clear out the worst of it. There just isn’t enough money out there to cause a spate of teardowns followed by McMansion construction. Some selective clean-up, on the other hand, could improve a tight housing market and re-invigorate a neighborhood that too often feels on the shabby side.

*     *    *

Those are just my thoughts, though, and perhaps the start of a conversation or two. Above all, my goal here is to acknowledge the complexity of the east side, and to get some thoughts moving on where its various parts go next, and how that fits into a regional plan. I’ve only got a lifetime ahead of me to see where it all goes, and offer my two cents along the way.

Farewell Duluth IV: The Walk

17 Aug

Eighteen years ago Saturday, a moving van bearing my father and I rolled into Duluth to join my mother, who’d already made the trek. I now have less than a week left here—this time around, anyway. My departures are never very permanent. Even so, a proper good-bye was in order. So I headed out the front door and started walking.

I begin in Lakeside, an idyllic middle-class neighborhood on the far east end, and my home for most of my life. It isn’t uniform; there are some gaudy houses along the lakeshore and scattered about, and many of the homes are older, bringing with them some character and occasionally some shabbiness as well. It just seems healthy, my own childhood repeated before my eyes from block to block. At times perhaps too sheltering, as evidenced ongoing temperance 80 years after the 21st Amendment, but it’s also easy to escape out into the woods or up the shore and find some freedom. The business district has hollowed out some over the years; the second grocery store and the pharmacy is gone now, though many of them plug along, and a new coffee shop is set to come in. For the most part, it seems timeless.

DSCF0002

At the end of Lakeside is the new Duluth East, in the building where I went to middle school; the setting is second to none, with the expansive views of the lake. The building itself, though, can’t quite match the old one, which I come to in a short while: that old gothic brick academy with giant windows perched right in the heart of Congdon Park. To the west, Duluth’s mansions and old money core, tucked beneath the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Longview tennis courts. Say what you will about Duluth’s elite, but their commitment to this community down the years has been unquestioned, and that Congdon sensibility rubbed off on me during my time at East. Class, unapologetic appreciation for high culture, and sympathy for that noble approach to the world: political wars and resentment are so below us, and instead it is all our plaything, here to be enjoyed in all its finery. A defense of time-honored traditions and inheritances worth passing down, stewarding, and bringing to fruition. It has its shortcomings, of course, and I’ve got enough Wisconsin farm boy in me that it’ll never quite be me. It is a fine place to call home, though, and I have its largesse to thank for so much.

I leave the mansions behind, and a protest is afoot on 4th Street: the towering maples lining the route are on the chopping block due to planned street repairs, so the neighbors have wrapped them in clothes arranged to look like tree-hugging people and added some speech bubbles from the trees themselves. I grab their flier, turn north off 4th, and slide into the Hillside. This is often Duluth’s cutting edge, with many possible futures on display: incoming college students, the growing gardens of those who want to raise their families in the heart of a walkable city, lower-income rentals, and the sudden appearance of minorities, all in relatively close proximity. Variety begets vivacity, though it comes at the expense of some stability. The strength of neighborhoods such as this will be the bellwether for the future, not only in Duluth but across the nation: how do we adapt to the thinning of the middle class? How do we make do with our roles in life, knowing most of us aren’t destined for those Congdon mansions, and how do we adjust to neighbors who may not share our culture? The Hillside likely holds the answers to these questions.

20140816_102857

I swing down around a reservoir, past a slope where I once went to count butterflies, now overgrown, and reach the Lower Chester hockey rinks. The place where the Williams brothers and Mike Randolph learned to skate has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the closure of the rinks in Congdon; it looks sharp, though today its only occupants are a couple of skateboarders. I pause to admire the towering building across the street; ex-mansion or some great hall I do not know, but it’s hard to tell if it’s occupied today. I plunge down the hill, through the tangle of the Hillside, and there is the lake: this walk wouldn’t be complete without a brief venture into the realm of the tourists. There’s the Armory and the walls of the old Duluth Arena beneath the Super One, and there is the brick next to the Rose Garden fountain where I must kneel and brush off the dirt. Onward, past two statues: one of a man who had nothing to do with Duluth but is honored here anyway (Leif Erickson), and the other of a robber baron who had everything to do with Duluth (Jay Cooke). How curious our historical memories can be.

I head down Superior Street, past bustling Fitgers and into the east end of Downtown. It’s come a long way since I last made this walk: Duluth has outlasted the Last Place on Earth, and the Kozy Bar offers no respite. Now, a Sheraton, classy restaurants, and a shiny independent theater. (As if I needed another trigger for childhood nostalgia and rumination on the passage of time, “Boyhood” has just opened here.) This is looking more and more like a cultured downtown, the commercial hub of northern Minnesota, many of the buildings lining its brick streets still graced with turn-of-the-century detail. It’s not a steady march into the future, though: the Fond Du Luth Casino’s lurid lights still flash all over the place, and a walk one block up to First Street is a step back into a different Duluth. The memorial to the 1920 lynchings sits vacant opposite the burned-out shell of the Kozy, and a woman stumbling up the street in an apparent drugged daze offers a halfhearted hello.

DSCF0029

A light mist has kept the crowds at bay, and now as I get into the very heart of the city, it begins to rain properly. I seek brief shelter amid the ever-intriguing crowds in the Holiday Center, people who have caught my attention since my youth, left me to puzzle out lives that are not mine. I do a few stretches, then take to the skywalk for a brief spell. I can’t get far on a Saturday, but by the time I step out next to the Missabe Building, it’s all stopped, and I can admire the façade there and on the Board of Trade before plodding on to City Hall. I’ve spent my share of time in the halls of power over the past two years, but Duluth is too small for anyone to live in a bubble here. A block away, the ore ship of a library sits in port with its cargo of knowledge and collection of unsavory characters who needed a new home after the Last Place on Earth closed its doors, and beyond it, the real harbor, ever the root source of this city’s identity.

20140816_113444

It’s time to head up. Fifth Avenue West is Duluth’s steepest street, but I conquer it with the help of the sidewalk railing, and stop to admire the view down toward the harbor and the DECC, another place where I’ve seemed to practically live at times, from hockey to concerts to other formal functions from high school on up. I hike the crest of Observation Hill, observing that house where my mother stayed when she first moved here ahead of the family seventeen years ago, and come to the Twin Ponds and Enger Tower. The park is busy, but I don’t linger for the view. Instead, I retreat to the woods, and head down the Superior Hiking Trail. Here, too, there is great variety: a stand of pines, an alpine meadow with views of the harbor, a babbling stream to hop across, and a forgotten old basketball court and baseball diamond, slowly being swallowed up by the woods. I cross Piedmont Avenue, then descend through Lincoln Park. As a ribbon of greenery it’s similar to the more familiar Lester Park, but it seems a bit less tamed, a bit more wild, and I have the upper reaches to myself.

20140816_121608

Down below, in the heart of the park, there are a handful of picnickers and two fishermen; a pair of young lovers guide each other across the bridge. Then, back out to civilization, and a host of worn-out rental properties, some legitimately blighted. A little festival at a mid-block church apparently requires the presence of three police cars, and “Beware of the Dog” signs proliferate. More than anything now, I want lunch, and the Duluth Grill, that quintessential local restaurant, calls out. Even in the midst of Lincoln Park, a beloved restaurant of locally sourced food thrives, one of a few signs of change here. It’s packed as always, but it’s not hard to find a spot for one at the counter, and I recharge with a salmon burger.

My next steps take me along West Michigan Street, up to the Heritage Arena, my usual winter haunt and another of those signs of life out here. For once, the parking lot is empty, and I only briefly peek into the lobby. I’ll be back here in December and January, no doubt. Then it’s back along the backside of Lincoln Park, all industrial storage space and the like; lifeless on a Saturday. Up above, the gaudy new west side middle school lords over it all. I go underneath the railroad bridges and come to Wade Stadium, the ballpark in desperate need of the forthcoming state aid. The Huskies’ season has just come to an end, though I never did make it out there this year; what this park really inspires are fond memories of the Dukes, that old independent professional team that had a couple of entertaining title runs in my childhood. It’s one good remodeling away from being a real gem.

DSCF0061

I step out on to Grand Avenue, the main artery of the west side and a simple summation of the plight of working-class America. It’s not blighted, but there’s nothing to make anything stand out here, either. It’s just uniform, everything of the same age and showing that age. The neighborhood around Denfeld offers a bit more, with the high school serving as the anchor. The houses here could all be in Lakeside, though the streets are in worse shape, and there’s action in the businesses. The girls’ soccer team is practicing on the field, the high school season just around the corner, and there’s a party in Memorial Park, too. Plenty of people come and go in the West Duluth downtown, but no one really lingers anywhere, so I don’t, either. On past the businesses, through the library parking lot, and down into Irving. Here again the housing stock takes a dip downward, though the street is pleasantly leafy, and there’s a herd of screaming children running along. The street suddenly fades into a dirt track through a copse, and I have to skirt a little stream that makes its slow way down to the St. Louis River.

Here is the west side charter elementary school, undergoing some summertime renovation, and I weave a bit more, dodging a kid on a bike and drawing closer to the river, where the houses are newer. The last time I was here, the far end of the Western Waterfront Trail was closed for pollution clean-up; now it’s open again, though I skip the first loop of the trail before joining it on Indian Point. I wind around the campground, breaking into a jog just to show myself I can do it as I close in on 17 miles. A family spends a sleepy afternoon on a pier jutting into the river, while I am accosted by a sudden swarm of mystery insects.

DSCF0066

I’m nearing the end. It would be nice to plow on out to Gary, ruminate on the old steel mill and Morgan Park, and end it all by running up Ely’s Peak one last time, but it’s growing late, and I have a goodbye party to throw for myself. The destination for now is the former home of a high school teacher and Denfeld grad who, despite marrying a wealthy lawyer, remained true to the West Side, and had a point to prove about this city’s east-west divide. She doesn’t live here anymore, but it still seems like a fitting endpoint: a grand, modern house on the river, a sign of what might be to come in the redevelopment for the river corridor imagined by Mayor Don Ness. As I look around, I see the vision is already a fait accompli on the lower side of Norton Park: there’s a whole subdivision of nice, newer houses across the bay. Perhaps it won’t be as hard as it had seemed, though this budding urban planner has no illusions about the road ahead. There is much work to be done.

That is a debate for another time, though. My rescue wagon awaits me. I need to head home and freshen up, and after that, it’ll be time for one last Canal Park dinner and one last bit of mild debauchery on the Park Point beach. I’ll miss it, of course. But I’ve seen so much of it that I can’t help but leave satisfied. It’s all there, right before our eyes, and even after eighteen years, there’s always something new to find.