On a balmy Wednesday in October, I join some fifty members of my Leadership Duluth class on a walking tour of downtown Duluth. This day of Leadership Duluth is no stray leadership lecture: it’s a day that forces us to confront reality in our city. From the CHUM shelter and food shelf to the Damiano Center food kitchen, from the Safe Haven domestic violence shelter to an open house of social service organizations, this day forces us to see people we otherwise might not see.
A one-day orientation doesn’t allow for much close contact with the people who use these resources; that’s not the point of this day. Instead, we hear from those who spend all of their time working here, the personifications of the leadership this program aims to show us. Among the most deeply embedded is Deb at CHUM, who spends her days reaching out to people on the streets of Duluth, always in some effort to bring them back in. She and her colleagues navigate the tortured paths of love and frustration, of empathy and inability to understand what motivates people to lives on the streets, the drastic turns that a life on the edge can take in a few quick minutes. It is at once both impossible and thoroughly believable to follow the logic that leads a person to the transient inconsistency of a life defined by moves from couch to couch, the transactional life on the street, the turn toward some substance to blunt the cold or pain or demons in the brain.
Whether thanks to inspired leadership or the relative ease of convincing donors to support children, Life House, the city’s largest youth shelter, boasts a warm and welcoming modern space so rare among social service nonprofits that target the poorest of the poor. As families crumble and supportive networks fray, the struggles for Duluth’s youth tick upward. And as I approach the start of my fourth decade on this planet, I now find myself looking at kids and seeing some sense of what they might become, a haunted sense that some of these fresh-faced teens loitering around downtown will someday become CHUM’s clients. A place like Life House may be the last hope for rescuing any of them.
As we walk about, it’s hard not to notice the changing face of First Street. On the west end, the News Tribune and Board of Trade Buildings are both moving toward redevelopment; on the east end, Essentia Health’s massive new hospital project stirs to life. In the middle, scaffolding covers a building at Lake and First, another conversion to housing as Duluth’s downtown catches up with where other cities’ centers were development-wise twenty years ago. Even the bland ARDC building, where I officed for a couple of years before my firm struck out on its own, is getting a facelift, its new façade a marvelously depressing shade of grey.
Another potential project looms on the near east side of First, where the city’s Human Rights Officer, Carl Crawford, delivers the tale of the 1920 Duluth lynchings in his stirring baritone. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial plaza frequently bustles with activity, often from visitors to the Union Gospel Mission up the street; today, we share it with just one young woman, who blasts some pop songs as backdrop to Carl’s sermon and sings along in painful off-key tones. None too quietly, she mutters about the white people who have invaded her space. Just the day before, a county court ruled that the Duluth Economic Development Authority may proceed with the demolition of the Pastoret Terrace building across the street, a sad but necessary ending for an architectural icon that has long since crumbled away beyond repair. First Street’s face will change yet again, and I wonder what this woman will think of it when it comes.
Carl asks us to pick out a favorite quotation on the memorial wall. Many are poignant, from Rumi to Oscar Wilde, but I pick out the Martin Luther King quote that stuck with me when I first set eyes on this then-revolutionary memorial over a decade ago: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Of all the sentiments on the wall, it seems most absent in our current discourse.
King’s words are grounded in a certain Christian theology, a legacy of service on my mind when we walk up to the Damiano Center on Fourth Street. The Damiano is on the site of an old Catholic campus in the heart of the city: it was Cathedral Elementary School before it became a food kitchen. The site of Cathedral High across the street is now a parking lot, while Sacred Heart Cathedral has become a music venue and the priests’ and nuns’ residences are now housing. Even the church has fled downtown in search of new digs, whether east to Congdon and the Holy Rosary campus or up the hill to the Marshall School, now stripped of any religious affiliation.
No doubt faith can feel absent here, and the tale of the Adas Israel congregation, Duluth’s oldest surviving synagogue and a longtime downtown inhabitant, offers a chilling metaphor for those inclined to that line of thought. Their house of worship went up in flames in September, and initial fears of a hate crime fizzled into a much sadder story of a man without a home who set a small blaze next to the building in order to keep warm. I had reached for some thundering quotes from Eichmann in Jerusalem but was left instead back in the pages of The Human Condition, ever in search of meaning in a corner of the world where life risks becoming a tautology.
The scaffolding and wrecking balls across downtown Duluth hint toward a new future, and I am an unabashed supporter: downtown Duluth above Superior Street is largely a relic of a Rust Belt city center, completely at odds with a city looking for a spurt of fresh life. For that matter, it is at odds with a more humane environment for those who drift about it because they have no other choice, and only a narrow, reflexive idea of community would reject this new development as if the status quo were in some way worth preserving. But if it does go, it will take a few stories with it, and we need to keep those stories somewhere if we are to have a true understanding of our past. Whether the it comes from the Adas Israel congregation rising from the ashes or the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial ensuring we never forget the acts of 1920 or a kid at Life House finding stability in a life that previously had none, our knowledge of the darkest moments gives us that much more appreciation for the light.