Tag Archives: duluth

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.

The Arsenal of Democracy

19 Sep

The Joe Biden campaign decamped on Duluth, Minnesota yesterday. Through an amusing series of rumor mill connections with its origins in the State Patrol, a few friends and I found ourselves on the patio of a café named Amazing Grace for the former vice president’s “spontaneous” appearance in the center of the city’s bustling Canal Park tourist district. I had my share of chances to brush up against political figures of all stripes in my DC days, so to see this scene from my dreamy college years dropped into my beloved backwater hometown was at once both familiar and surreal. It matched the mood of Biden’s presidential campaign, both a predictable capstone decades in the making and warped by the twisted house of horrors that is 2020. Reality slows down for no one.

Any sympathetic skeptics looking to find some inspiration in Biden’s slow-but-steady campaign for the presidency can now find it from an unlikely source: George Packer, the elegist of the broken American Dream. In “Make America Again,” published in the October edition of the Atlantic, he finds an unexpected hero who could just become the most consequential president since Reagan. Biden’s campaign, Packer says, “is not the stirring language of a visionary leader, or the doctrinaire rhetoric of an ideologue. It’s the prosaic talk of a career politician shrewd enough to realize that he might have greatness thrust upon him.”

In 2016, my sense was that Biden, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, was the most viable Democratic standard-bearer that year, the one person who could perhaps hold on to a fading part of the Democratic coalition that would prove pivotal in that year’s race. Clinton seemed too much a creature of the establishment, too devoid of charisma, to retain that demographic; I also didn’t quite buy the notion peddled at the time that an aging socialist would somehow speak to them, a position that the 2020 primary results seemed to vindicate. Biden chose not to run for both personal and political reasons, and we all saw what happened.

That confidence in Uncle Joe did not, in my mind, extend to the early primary season in the 2020 cycle. At 77, he seemed like a figure past his time, and he certainly looked it in the primary debates. The early Biden campaign seemed like a giant collective shrug, an effort that coasted on name recognition, vague Obama era good vibes, and the more acute weaknesses of some of his rivals. Just as his early pitch for the presidency was based on sketchy year-out polls that labeled him the most viable not-Trump, his ultimate triumph in the primary was by virtue of being the most viable not-Bernie. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, the Democrats showed off their institutional discipline and rallied behind their old vice president, a lowest common denominator that promised stability and maybe a few more of those white working-class votes in those crucial swing states. A van emblazoned with “Settle for Biden!” made its way up and down the streets of Canal Park on Friday afternoon.

The world has changed since Biden sewed up the nomination in early March, but in many ways, he is still an awkward fit for the moment. He is an old white man in an era when the Democratic Party spends most of its time celebrating racial and ethnic and gender diversity, a man who has spent the past 50 years in the swamp that both Trump and the rising left both claim to disdain. His age complicates campaigning during a pandemic. His handsiness and glad-handing are at best relics of a different era. There’s a legitimate concern that he will look at the Senate as the collegial institution it was in his early years, and not the bitterly partisan roadblock it has become since he left it, which could doom any legislative agenda. His well-cultivated image as a Scranton streetfighter squares awkwardly with the sprawling estate whose basement has been the base of operations for his campaign.

Biden, however, has two great strengths as a politician. First, he is adaptable, always responding to the tides; whether that makes him an opportunist or a careful listener who has his finger on the pulse of a nation is in the eye of the beholder, but because he isn’t beholden to any real platform, he can go wherever conditions lead him. Second, he knows what loss is, and is at his best when he speaks in raw, moving terms about it. In a time of death and plague, that knowledge of what it takes to overcome pain gives him an added gravitas. Watching his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, I remembered why I thought he could be the unifying force in 2016, and sure enough, pretty much everyone I know on the left is along for the ride, however begrudgingly. The internal warfare that plagued the 2016 campaign has been consigned to the sidelines, and the policy disputes that defined the primary race seem like quaint arguments of a different era. This is not a policy election. It is, as Biden has said from the start, the struggle for the soul of a nation.

As Packer notes, rarely have past great figures been perfect fits for their times. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were scions of old East Coast wealth who did more to break up concentrated wealth and build an inclusive economy than anyone in American history. Lyndon Johnson was a political creature with considerable, obvious flaws, but he also rode a moment of upheaval for long enough to ram through the most consequential legislative agenda of the postwar era. Just as Johnson followed the inspiring but ultimately rather tumultuous and technocratic Kennedy years, Biden could be the one who makes the promise of the Obama era real. Sometimes the people who know a system best are most able to change its trajectory.

I have frequently expressed exhaustion with Democrats’ efforts to resurrect the New Deal every time they try to roll out a semi-ambitious platform. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort, as Packer deftly notes, succeeded not because of the strength of its ideas, but because he found himself in a position of considerable power and had a mandate to test out an array of tools in a moment of crisis, some of which worked and stuck. Milton Friedman, of all people, understood this best: crises are the only times when real change happens, and “when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

After a momentary feint in the New Deal direction, the Biden campaign seems to have recognized this. Biden’s policies listed on his website aren’t what matter; what matter are the myriad ideas with popular support that have germinated in response to ongoing American crises over the past decade or two, and the possibility that we just might have a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a very narrowly Democratic Senate that is willing to kill the filibuster and go all in. This, at least, is Packer’s hope. It is a rare optimistic take from him, the “last best chance” of an effort to restore something resembling a participatory democracy.

My own sense is that reality lies somewhere between the declinist picture Packer has painted so strikingly in his writing over the past 15 years and the tired but sustainable decadence diagnosed by the likes of Ross Douthat. When I read Douthat’s book I agreed with his diagnosis of Trump era white nationalism as right-wing cosplay, and I’m intrigued by an argument advanced by Bruno Maçães in an upcoming book, History Has Begun (excerpted in New York magazine here) that the Trump era is just a drift of politics into virtual reality; not that it doesn’t have real-world consequences, but Trump is an entertainer using politics to peddle his product, delighting his fans by owning the libs instead of enacting any serious policy. (And, lest it sound like we’re blaming one side of the spectrum exclusively for this drift, a left that settles solely for social media activism and reading Robin DiAngelo probably isn’t much different.) “America is not poised to become a place like Russia or Iran, but rather is mirroring a television show about a place becoming like Russia or Iran,” Maçães concludes. We are all caught up in a performative charade.

This seems true up to a point, and we are right to ask questions about the implications of our increasingly virtual future. But the more people live out a fantasy world, the more the lines will blur, and the greater the risk that people will actually believe their roles in this fantasy are reality. People will accept their typecast roles in this left-versus-right squabble, and the slow burn in the streets of American cities of this summer will turn into a low-grade, steady war in which more and more people die. There is no fantasy in death.

Joe Biden, of course, knows death. He also recognizes that the country needs to mobilize, with World War Two as a better analogue for the effort necessary than the New Deal. Maçães rightly diagnoses the long-running weakness of Western liberalism: its lack of muscle, its contentedness with thinking that giving people health care and a base level of material wealth will fill the hole in the American soul. It’s a start, of course; far better than many alternatives. But it will never fulfill the more aspirational corners human psyche. The answer is not a march in the streets (though they can help) but a government led by the Scranton streetfighter that Biden purports to be, a potential lurch back to reality from a figure who has no desire to inhabit Trump’s world of performance as politics.

As he left Amazing Grace on Friday afternoon, Biden made his way over to the two hecklers in MAGA hats on the edge of the crowd. Told to stay put by the Secret Service, my friends and I couldn’t hear what he said. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, however, captured the moment: “Biden approached the man from the alternate reality, elbow bumped him, chuckled and assured him that if he does win, Biden would work for him, too.” It shouldn’t be refreshing to hear a presidential candidate aspire to be on the side of people who disagree with him, but this is where we are.

I don’t know if Joe Biden will be the transformational figure George Packer imagines he can be. Even if he wins in November, even if the United States pulls through this election without disputed results and violence in the streets, he’ll face a forbidding and sclerotic political environment. He could go down as a strange detour, a last gasp of a fading old order—just like Trump, from a different part of the political spectrum. But if—if—there is a way out of this troubling lurch in American democracy, it will most likely start in a basement in Delaware, and in the minds of enough Americans who see a pause in the performance as a worthy endeavor.

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.

Living History on Empty Streets

3 May

“Duluth is a bit off-center, both literally and figuratively—something most Duluthians don’t seem to mind at all. After all, this is the city whose skyway system runs partially underground, where the West End is located in the city’s geographic center, and whose annual Christmas City of the North parade is held a week before Thanksgiving. Duluth may be a little bit off-center, but part of what makes Duluth Duluth is that here, true north isn’t always where you’d expect it to be.”

-Tony Dierckins, Duluth: An Urban Biography

Sheltering in place gives a devotee to a city even more time to learn it intimately. I read Tony Dierckins’ new biography of the city, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on this blog some while back. The Biography really only left me hungry for more: it clocks in at just under 170 pages and could easily have been double that length if it were to thoroughly explore structural forces and the lives of prominent figures beyond a series of mayors and those who crossed their paths. Still, the Biography was welcome step beyond Tony’s previous fun vignettes and collections, most of which peter out somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Granted, Duluth’s history becomes somewhat less romantic in that stretch; the great turn-of-the-century wealth faded, the growth stalled, and the architecture wandered away from an eclectic opulence to something much more mundane. Still, the Biography is a reminder that this city’s history has always been one of awkward lurches, of rises and falls, and a quest for some sort of stability in the aftermath.

Dierckins, citing Arthur W. Baum, likens Duluth to a stumbling prizefighter. (I would have used a hockey analogy, but this one will certainly do.) This city has been battered and bloodied by history: shock after economic shock, a lynch mob that killed its diversity, leadership both bold and questionable. Only rarely has Duluth seemed in control of its own fate, as when its early residents dug the shipping canal (a much more professional and mundane process than some local legends would have you believe), or when late 20th century leadership slowly turned the city back toward first Lake Superior and later the St. Louis River as centerpieces. So often Duluth’s fortunes depend on the whims of others, or no human at all: distant creditors, the American steel industry, the shifts in transportation that came with the interstate highway system. As the coronavirus now ravages the city’s economy, we embark on yet another lurch.

And so I set out to soak up Duluth’s living, breathing history, my mental record of this moment in time. I go for a run—with the sporadic hike on an off day—every day for a month and a half, and never aimed to take the same route twice. At first there was no real rhyme or reason to my wanderings, but once I realized I’d covered all but a handful of Duluth neighborhoods, I decided to knock out the rest over the span of a week and a half. I checked off the last one this morning when I plowed up Vinland Street to Bayview Heights this morning, just far enough to catch a glimpse of the promised land of Proctor across Boundary Avenue. I’m not one to track my distance religiously as I run, nor to lose myself in music or a podcast: I’m just here to run, and to drink in the world around me with my eyes.

In my adventures I find a few more off-center quirks, like the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue tucked in next to the paper mill deep on the west side. The top of the hill, somehow, is just one monstrous swamp, enlivened by a springtime frog chorus; a few boys in Piedmont splash through the muck in pursuit of the peepers. Duluth is a college town without college neighborhoods, a tourist town whose great landmark came about thanks to some grumpy residents of a sandbar who were peeved their city built the channel that was the source of all its early wealth. One of our showpiece parks is named for an explorer who never came within a thousand miles of the place. As the wind blows, so goes my comfort, at turns frigid or sweaty, guided by a tailwind or slowed by a blast from straight ahead.

Early Superiorites derided Duluthians as cliff-dwellers, and I could see why as I shot up and down the Point of Rocks at the center of the city. I relish the punishment of the runs that just go straight up into Kenwood or the top of the hill in Woodland or up to Lincoln Middle or that nameless bit of the Hillside by the old Summit School. Even a run along the seemingly more level northeast-to-southwest axis offers up an aggressive climb over the Point of Rocks and a more subtle but equally draining rise up to the ridge at about 24th Avenue East. (It’s easier to see now why Duluth’s old money chose this bit of land to throw up its enduring monuments.) When I moved back to Duluth a few years ago, I noticed a change in my leg muscles as my then-sporadic running routine adjusted to constant slopes.

“Duluth is turning into Chicago,” someone groused to me over the phone recently as he griped about crime and undesirables. I cringed at the lack of perspective and the racial undertones, and in mild defensiveness as a Duluthian with Chicago roots. Still, my runs remind me of what a divided city Duluth can be. I witness a drug deal off Portland Square, while a woman in Endion goes through a tearful break-up on the sidewalk over the phone. A kid on the west side tries to hide his cigarette from passersby as he supervises a younger sibling in the yard. In one of the more modest corners of Duluth Heights, a teenager storms out of a house amid loud shouts, and a neighbor edges down his driveway as he looks on in worry. The coronavirus strain is evident everywhere, but most obvious in places where people have little space to escape from the others in their lives, or where they rely on tenuous networks to prop themselves up. Crises like this strain the threads of our social fabric, and the thicker the weave, the better.

Jane Jacobs’ world is in a coma: all social life is now intentional. Downtown takes on a new bleakness without its weekday street life, middling as it may be. Lincoln Park is as dead as it was fifteen years ago, the virus bringing a sad reversion to a lifeless state in which I only pass two other people on the streets, both of whom may live on the streets. Around Denfeld I brush up against a certain charm, a bit dated but comfortable, pride still evident in most quarters, a sense that we’ll be back to normal before long. Old corner stores, most now turned to small houses, lurk here and there, give a sense of past commerce might have been. Fairmount and Irving inspire different reactions as I cruise through them in a sunny snow squall: a corner of the world aging away, lost to time, or at least any seeming need to keep up with it. Part of me is sympathetic, but the rules of the real estate game are rather less forgiving.

I oversimplify. Morgan Park, that fascinating time capsule, spawns new life in a giant townhome project rising into being on the site of its former school. Down the street, a kid blasts away at puck after hockey puck, and calls out a forlorn, human-contact-craving greeting as I pass. Whatever Gary’s giant trailer park may be, it is not old or tired, and that neighborhood’s industrious residents keep adding new features to the public land next to Stowe school. On the day I head down Highway 23 clear out to Chambers Grove Park, the westernmost tip of the westernmost city on the Great Lakes, a diverse, socially-distanced smattering of people explores the site of Duluth’s earliest settlement here at the base of the dalles of the St. Louis.

The classic narrative pits Duluth’s divides in a battle of east versus west, but anyone who knows the city well knows it’s more complicated. The real dividing line, if there is one, is east of center, maybe starting at Chester Creek and fully turning over at 21st Avenue East. But even that is an oversimplification. Duluth is a city of pockets, of unexpected streets of dodge their ways up hills that I’m still finding after years and years of exploration. I find blocks in my native Lakeside I never knew existed, serene riverfront homes in the far west, new twists in Kenwood, and come across a little of everything up in the Heights. A pocket of Piedmont has more McMansions than I knew Duluth could hold, this neighborhood much more divided between new construction and stellar views on the south side of its eponymous avenue and aging bungalows on the north side than I ever knew. Nothing is uniform.

Even on the east side blocks I’ve now run countless times, there’s more to explore. I suss out the different gradations of Lakeside and Woodland, see which blocks fit my vibe more than others. Still, the relative lack of an edge in the lands beyond Endion is apparent. On a socially distanced walk around Chester Park, a friend and I muse on the east side bubble we inhabited as children, our impression of Duluth as a haven of Subaru-driving cross-country skiers, its most glaring disruptions in the exploits of some hockey players or the antics of some college students up the street. I grew up thinking rich people live in grand old Congdon or London Road estates, not McMansions off cul-de-sacs in swamps over the hill, and my taste will probably always reflect that bias. I’ve come to believe that sensibility is a very Duluth attitude: a little maintenance probably required, but worth the effort, more capable of inspiring genuine loyalty and rootedness, not just the disposable products of a liquid modernity. Taste, intricacy, detail, and maybe some subtlety lurk in these woods.

My runs provide a vivid reminder: this city is old, an age all the more obvious with fewer current residents out and about. Of course in the grand scheme Duluth is young, hundreds of years younger even than so-called cities of the future like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we live history more here because we have less of the new. Duluth has seen glory and its loss, the narrative arc one needs to tell a good story, and the evidence is all around us if we know where to look for it. Relics of different eras abound: grand old Endion homes converted to apartments, empty thoroughfares like pre-freeway Cody Street, the downtown areas where property values tend to push toward either renovation or demolition to keep the engines going. Duluth’s rebellion against totalizing trends requires upkeep, requires care, requires knowing when something is beyond any further practical use and might be better off just fading back into the hillsides.

Nowhere in Duluth do worlds collide more than on Observation Hill, that steep incline just west of downtown dotted with staircases to nowhere and crumbling foundations, the remains of a past Duluth that sprung up along the Point of Rocks and set some of its first foundations here. My first memories of the city are from atop this hill—my mom lived here, briefly, while my dad tidied up affairs in southern Wisconsin before we moved here for good when I was six—and a quarter century later, it still feels like some realm of mystery for a child to explore. A few incongruous modern homes now lord over parts of this hillside, sharing space with some hardscrabble rowhouses and a smattering of aging urban farmers with Bernie signs still lurking in their yards. Here is Duluth in all its complicated glory, past and future and wealth and poverty all intertwined, all on a stunning perch over the most superior of lakes. Duluth’s budgets may rise and fall, and economic forces it cannot control may drive its prosperity or its struggles, but it will always have that view, and because of that it will always have its allure.

Us Duluth loyalists, however, can’t coast on allure alone. I come back to the prizefighter analogy: we need to learn to scrap again, to believe in a place not just for what it has been but what it can be. I admire the sentiment that we all just get along, and the all-in-this-together solidarity that a pandemic inspires. But Duluth arose not through gentility but by a dose of raw ambition that made such future leisure possible. The coronavirus is as good a reminder as any that we can’t hide from history, that it will come for us all at some point or another, and we can only run for so long. If Duluth is to continue punching above its weight, we children of a city freighted with history should know we have a role to play.

The Recesses of Downtown Duluth

15 Oct

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.

A Duluth Neighborhood Typology

11 Aug

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:

Traditional Neighborhoods

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.

Bedroom Enclaves

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.

Commerce First

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.

Neighborhoods Lost?

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?

What Next?

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.

The Zenith City’s Blurred Red Lines

12 Apr

As someone known to paper walls with maps, I’m loath to recognize that these representations of world beyond us can cause serious problems. But some maps have had lasting, serious consequences, perhaps none more so over the past century of American life than the residential 1930s redlining maps preserved by the University of Richmond, a collection that includes the map of Duluth that inspired this piece. (I was routed here by one of the city’s annual Housing Indicator Reports, which often involve fun research digressions beyond the rote reporting of statistics for various planning areas.) The urban planning field has, for some time now, been on a noble quest to educate the world about what these maps have wrought.

These maps come from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC. HOLC drew up these maps to designate the safety of making loans in certain neighborhoods in cities across the country. It was part of a New Deal push to create consistent, predictable, non-predatory lending practices for home sales, thereby avoiding the disastrous wave of foreclosures that came along with the Depression. Its maps were also one of the most effective non-coercive tools for racial and income-based segregation ever devised by any government anywhere.

These maps, which color-coded neighborhoods by their desirability, basically walled off certain areas for development (“redlining,” in planning parlance), all under the guise of a well-intentioned program to help homeowners. They also included brazen designations of neighborhood desirability based on the race or ethnicity of their inhabitants. The HOLC-enabled postwar suburban housing boom was one of the least free markets ever devised, and it had a fascinating jumble of consequences to both lift the wealth of a vast swath of the (white) working class and shut out a portion of the country from ever enjoying those benefits.

Some parts of Duluth’s urban history follow standard narratives on HOLC-age development. The ring around downtown, where significant early construction happened, remains one of the poorest areas of the city today. From there, the east side follows a fairly steady transition up the income ladder into Congdon, a change I can still see every day when I go for runs around my current home in Endion. (It’s amusing to see Endion get labeled “generally…declining, many of the old houses being transformed into small apartments and duplexes.” I’ve heard some people bemoan the neighborhood’s transitional status as if it were a trend brought on by college students in the past 20 years, when in fact it is a stable equilibrium dating back nearly a century.) But at the same time, as the little chart next to the map shows, Duluth’s urban form breaks down from the prescribed theory more than in many other cities. A substantial part of Duluth a certain distance from the core that is supposed to be “in transition” is not actually in transition, and the outlying “residential zone” saw basically no new development at this time, with its only housing being stuff in the lowest tier out in Gary-New Duluth and Fond du Lac.

Some parts of the city have also changed substantially since the New Deal era, and not always in predictable ways. I was fascinated to see that the bit of Lakeside where I grew up in a 1920s mini-foursquare, which now is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, was “definitely declining” at this time. A chunk of Duluth Heights, which now also ranks fairly high on the income scale, was a total no-go zone for HOLC loans, as was Park Point. A number of other red zones on this map are basically non-residential now. The I-35 corridor follows a series of red zones, as interstate highways did in most urban areas; poor people are always the easiest to displace for massive infrastructure projects, and the U.S. became very good at that in the 50s and 60s. There is very little correlation between yellow districts and the current quality of the housing stock; yes, some remain, but just as many have flipped into comfortable middle-income areas, and not just those on the east side. It’s not unfair to conclude that the boundaries drawn on this map, while sometimes predictive, were in no way destiny for Duluth’s ultimate housing development.

As usual with Duluth, the simplest explanation for this is geography. Duluth grew outward along the ridge and lakeshore instead of in concentric rings, with development squeezing out here and there where terrain allowed. The city also absorbed a few older towns such as Fond du Lac and Lakeside, which may explain HOLC’s skepticism of their housing stocks even though those would normally be destinations for the next wave of development. The neighborhoods that had some room to grow outward from their 1930s limits, like Lakeside and Woodland and the Heights, had a chance to diversify their housing stock and evolve. The plodding pace of Duluth’s growth over the 20th century, oddly enough, kept some neighborhoods from filling out too quickly, and also invited updates to the existing stock to keep it viable for a sale. Those complex neighborhoods are a vital part of Duluth’s story, and a reason why this city has not gone down the road of a Flint or a Youngstown, where nearly all of the money fled the city proper.

Another explanation comes in the racial and country of origin stats tucked away to the right of the map. Despite the map text’s frequent concern about “negroes” occupying certain areas, this shows Duluth was over 99 percent white in the 30s and 40s. But in 1930, fully a quarter of Duluth’s residents were foreign-born, and while that figure had dropped to 20 percent by 1940, that is still far higher than it is today. Duluth was a city of immigrants. Idle speculation might lead one to suspect that steady decline in the immigrant population over the middle of the 20th century (which correlates with statewide and national trends, as driven by U.S. immigration policy and global economics and politics), coupled with a fairly negligible rise in the population of people of color, would have been an equalizing force in Duluth’s housing market. By the 1970s, there was nowhere in town where there was much of the immigrant stigma that comes out in a few of the HOLC descriptions of west side laborer neighborhoods. Duluth at that time was the perfect all-white control in a national experiment in urban housing markets. And yet, the 2016 Duluth HIR report lays it bare: every one of those neighborhoods that had a description about immigrants or African-Americans in the 1930s remains low-income, even if many others that were in the same class as them back then have now flipped. That legacy, somehow, endures.

I would still, however, venture that the greatest reason for Duluth’s divergent neighborhood paths, one that captures both its old HOLC maps and its current east-west divide, is a structural economic change. Pre-war Duluth wasn’t some bastion of equality, but there were two distinct economies: an immigrant-heavy industrial working port on the west side, and a downtown and east side dominated by a white-collar class and its attendant lower-income service economy. One of these got absolutely decimated in the 1970s and 1980s. The other plugged along, certainly damaged by the trend on the other side, but had much more staying power and adaptability.

Now that it’s unrecognizable from what it was a couple of generations ago, I don’t think many of us moderns fully appreciate the complexity of Duluth’s old blue-collar economy. People with some sense of the history can tell you that Morgan Park (which doesn’t even register a color on the map) was a company town for U.S. Steel, but the map text describes Gary in much the same way. People actually used to live down in the port and industrial areas below the freeway near Denfeld, in a neighborhood known as Oneota. But I was most fascinated by the note in the area around Denfeld, which outranks places like Lakeside and Woodland and Hunter’s Park on the HOLC map. The residents of the Denfeld area, the text explains, are “salaried persons from nearby industrial plants, business and professional men of the west side of the city.”

That line about West Duluth reminded me of the extensive time I spent doing some interviews in Silver Bay, a company town built by what was then the Reserve Mining Company. We have this habit of thinking of blue-collar work as providing stable working-class jobs with modest incomes that allowed a family to get by, but to hear the Silver Bay old-timers tell it, company towns were some of the most rigidly segregated in America, at least in terms of income. Subtle features set apart seemingly identical homes, and management clustered in certain areas. There have been, and continue to be, many very lucrative jobs in industrial work; what set the pre-war era apart was that management was on the ground nearby, not out in relative suburbia (or in some other state or country at a hedge fund or holding company, though even in Duluth, there’s an old line about the city being Pittsburgh’s westernmost suburb). In industrial Duluth, that area for the blue-collar elite was the West Duluth neighborhood surrounding Denfeld High School.

Nowadays, the very notion of a blue-collar elite seems bizarre, and a perfect storm of conditions weighs on the west side housing market. If neighborhoods that age at different rates are far more likely to hold up over time, the more uniform ones—which company towns tend to be—have the misfortune of aging into obsolescence at the same rate. Those west side neighborhoods were also trapped between a river and a ridge, unable to find easy escape valves for steady outward development as in Lakeside or the Heights; instead, it had to leap up the hill to Piedmont (another neighborhood with well-diversified housing that doesn’t register on the HOLC map) or beyond the city limits. Most of those immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, where stigmas apparently lingered in ways they did not for areas occupied by native-born Americans in similar job classes, were toward the west side. It’s also just easier to commute from further away now. Throw in a two-decade crisis of mass layoffs and unemployment and plant closures, and it all starts to come together.

This isn’t all doom and gloom. The area around Denfeld is still comparatively wealthy for West Duluth, with some historic older homes. Eastern Lincoln Park, colored a respectable blue in the times of HOLC, has seen real estate values start to rise again after many decades of stagnation. Some growth along the river corridor has occurred, and room for more remains. As my friends at the Port Authority would ask me to remind the world, Duluth’s blue-collar economy is also far from dead: it may look very different, but the city still moves vast volumes of cargo and has a thriving industrial sector that usually pays a solid salary. The changing nature of industrial work, combined with the attractiveness of well-paying jobs that do not require vast loads of student debt, are starting to change some narratives about a once-stigmatized line of work.

But the ravages of deindustrialization tell a story that HOLC maps alone cannot, and join up with cultural clashes and geographic barriers to explain why cities come to be the way they are. Causes are rarely singular, and momentum did the rest. While real estate agents no longer use maps with explicit racial or immigrant-skeptic language, there’s no shortage of coded ways in which the real estate market designates the desirability of certain neighborhoods. These tools range from practical concerns about returns on investment to the asinine practice of grading everything that goes into public schools on a 1-10 scale, a tool now ubiquitous on any real estate aggregation site. We still live with the consequences of century-old maps, but the ways in which we build our economies and the stories we tell about our towns will decide their futures.

How to Write Terrible Trump Era Journalism

22 Jun

There is a lot of terrible journalism out there, and normally I don’t bother my time with it. Ana Marie Cox of Rolling Stone, however, made the mistake of writing a piece of terrible journalism about Duluth, and will thus endure the full wrath of this blog. I know nothing of Ms. Cox’s work; who knows what she was directed to do by editors or higher-ups, or what wound up on the cutting room floor, or if she just had a bad day. I write, so I get it. The rest of her work may be sterling. But she has produced a remarkably lazy and awful piece, and while Mayor Emily Larson has already offered a much politer response than mine, City Pages responded with its usual elegance of a drunken elephant, and Perfect Duluth Day has devised a brilliant creative writing contest around it, it deserves to be dissected, line by line. Some opportunities are just too golden to miss.

The original article is in bold; my comments are in normal text.

Minnesota’s lonely island of electoral blue in the midst of Donald Trump’s upper Midwest Republican bloodbath was on the minds of nearly everyone inside Duluth’s Amsoil Arena Wednesday night. Every speaker, including President Trump, referred to it, though perhaps no one quite as dramatically as state GOP chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who warned the thousands in attendance about a “red tsunami rolling across Lake Superior.” (Just add it to the list of greasy Wisconsin imports, I guess.) 

Most of the eastern end of Lake Superior is Canada, which has interesting implications for both Ms. Carnahan’s claim and Ms. Cox’s witty repartee, but let’s not quibble with that stuff.

Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his – blue states that fail to jibe with his hoary recitation of Election Night. If you’re wondering why the president came to Minnesota anyway, that’s because Trump did come within just a couple percentage points of taking the state. (He told the crowd this, of course.) If you’re wondering why Trump came to Duluth, that’s because Duluth is a reverse oasis in a place known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living. Like the more prosperous areas of Minnesota, Duluth is strikingly white. Look deeper than skin and you’ll find Duluth is a struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state. U.S. Steel closed its gigantic Morgan Park plant in 1981, causing a slow cascade of desolation that stilled the concrete and hardboard plants and emptied out the grain elevators.

I wonder if Ms. Cox was time-warped to 1984 while on her visit. Duluth has certainly been to hell and back over the past few decades, and the opioid epidemic is real. I also understand how someone who drives in on I-35 from Minneapolis, winds past the paper mill and the port area, and stops only at Amsoil for a Trump rally before heading back south could come to this sort of conclusion. (Knock down some big retaining walls and put up a hill to block the view of downtown, and someone driving into Minneapolis from the west on I-94 would probably conclude the same thing.) An effort to attack these problems is no small part of why I chose to move back to Duluth and try to do some good. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere when discussing Decline Porn, Duluth is in many ways an exceptional Rust Belt city for the road it has traveled since the depths of the 80s. Some of this is probably just due to dumb luck and accidents of history, but it’s reality.

A few other blown details: as far as steel mills go, the Morgan Park operation was not large. Grain shipping trends have approximately nothing to do with the loss of the steel plant, and the regional wood products industry does only insofar as it fits into a concurrent rush of deindustrialization. Correlation is not causation.

Today, the small city of 80,000 scrapes by on tourism and as a port. There’s a paper plant that has been on the verge of closing for 10 years. Duluth has a poverty rate (21 percent) that would rank it among the most desperate counties in West Virginia and per capita income just below that of Wheeling.

This is a great example of bad use of statistics. Minneapolis (where Ms. Cox lives) and St. Paul both have poverty rates that are a tiny bit higher than Duluth. Other semi-comparable regional centers such as Mankato and St. Cloud have even higher poverty rates. If one knows anything about how urban development works, this is not a remotely surprising statistic, and comparing cities (instead of, say, metro areas) is pretty disingenuous. This is perhaps even more true for income statistics, which, if viewed in proper context, will show that Duluth is perhaps slightly below the average for other small Midwestern regional centers, nestling just below much faster-growing places like St. Cloud and Fargo, but hardly destitute.

Oh, crap. With this next paragraph, we have to go sentence by sentence.

Lake Superior’s merciless beauty crashes up against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent.

This amateur architecture student is very curious to learn where these examples of brutalist architecture are in Duluth. The Holiday Center, there’s one, sure. A few buildings on the UMD campus? Maybe the Radisson, though I’d say that’s more modernist inflected. The vast majority of the buildings in downtown and along the waterfront long predate brutalism as an architectural trend, and our handful of later-stage office buildings are fairly tame. Otherwise, yeah, grain elevators do in fact look like grain elevators. Ore docks are ore docks no matter where they are, and Duluth’s are pretty busy these days, with the exception of the one that’s under consideration for some pretty fun ideas.

But, if you want a catchphrase for how liberal America has completely lost any sense of what people in the working class actually do with their lives, “industrial shipping contraptions” does a pretty good job of capturing it. How lazy can you get?

Downtown, every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime.

Every day when I walk out of my office downtown, I brush off a layer of grime off of myself and wonder why I live here.

It is, in other words, potential Trump Country.

This is already a revision on Ms. Cox’s behalf: she added the word “potential” after a few people pointed out that Duluth went 2-to-1 for Clinton in 2016. However, even the revised version is bizarre and difficult to defend. Census estimates show Duluth has grown somewhat more diverse and somewhat younger in recent years, neither of which would predict a drift toward Trumpism. If anything, city politics have taken a noticeable left turn over the past few years. What exactly about this city makes it potential Trump country, then? The simple fact of whiteness? The fact that it has some things in common with other cities in other states that broke for Trump?

But, if you bother to look closely, places like Flint and Youngstown and Scranton remain strikingly blue on election maps. Rust Belt cities themselves did not carry Trump to victory in Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania. The suburbs to which some of their former residents fled, on the other hand, are a different story, and deeply rural areas another story still. Duluth has not experienced much suburbanization (see the decline porn piece linked to above), so that’s perhaps of interest; maybe there’s a good article that could be written about Hermantown, the suburban home of the Republican candidate in this year’s eighth congressional district race. Or maybe not; I believe Hermantown still went for Clinton by a pretty solid margin. But that might, at least, be worth exploring. Instead, we get a lazy narrative that is also flat-out wrong pretty much everywhere.

“I can’t believe he’s here in DULUTH,” one woman at the rally told me. When I asked another if she’d been to any other rallies, she thought for a moment and said, “Reagan. When I was little.” Another gentleman told me he’d seen Bush.

Um, okay. Why are these people’s past presidential sightings relevant?

Unlike other parts of official Trump Country, Duluth hasn’t received the disproportionate attention that comes with strategic electoral or even symbolic import.

Does this mean we’re a part of “Official Trump country?” Woohoo! That said, Minnesota’s eighth congressional district has gotten a fair amount of play in national media for its role as a swing district. The parties sure noticed too, given that it was the most expensive congressional race in the country in 2016. Its result also bucked the narrative Ms. Cox is trying to write, at least temporarily.

There haven’t been any deep dives into the local psyche by national reporters and it is far afield of any normal campaign trail.

As Mayor Larson noted, the Fallowses with CBS and Outside magazine have weighed in on the local psyche. I’m not saying they’re dead-on, but the claim as made here is untrue. Maybe there haven’t been any political exposés because…Duluth’s politics are pretty much unchanged? And because, only now that Trump has brought it to their attention, the national media is starting to recognize that Minnesota has a serious chance to flip to the GOP column in 2020? (I don’t totally blame the media for that; Clinton’s narrow escape here in 2016 wasn’t exactly the headline on election night.)

The next few paragraphs aren’t really about Duluth, so they don’t get my hackles up. Instead, they are standard fare of liberal reporting in the Trump era, in which our brave correspondent ventures in among the unwashed Trump masses to report back to the liberal denizens of metropolitan areas who are safe from contact with such mysterious people. Nothing we haven’t heard or seen before, but certainly not horrible journalism by any stretch. Moving on:

[The crowd] knew their [sic] lines: “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”and “CNN sucks!” all rang out at the appropriate cues. When Trump indicated a pause for laughter – it’s hard to describe anything he says as a “joke” – they delivered the syllables with disciplined crispness, like we were on the set of a studio in Burbank and not in a musty arena named for a small-time lubricant manufacturer. Then again, there’s the Amsoil slogan: “First in synthetics.” 

A moment ago, Ms. Cox said the attendees “weren’t even especially practiced Trump supporters.” Now they are well-trained actors. Which is it?

Also, Amsoil Arena opened in 2011, and has typically been lauded as one of the nicer college hockey arenas in the country. (If we’re really measuring, these people even call it #1; I can’t attest to many out east, but I’d agree it’s equal to or better than most of the other Midwestern ones that inhabit the top of the list.) Amsoil pays homage to Duluth’s industrial past through an intentionally industrial feel with the exposed concrete blocks, but any mustiness is an awfully new development.

And Amsoil the company, for what it’s worth, is doing well, and provides over 300 fairly good jobs to people in the Duluth area. It’s the sort of enterprise we should celebrate if we want to see small cities succeed. But of course if Trump sets foot in an arena it sponsors, it’s important that a national audience’s exposure to it come through a quick potshot.

By the time Trump reached the end of his speech, it felt familiar even if you hadn’t heard it before. The phrases had the too-neat, predictable parallelism of a jingle: “We will never give in, we will never give up … we will never stop fighting for our flag, or our freedom. We are one people, and one family, and one nation under God.” The last lines were chanted out in half-unison, half-hum, the way you might mumble-vamp through the verse of “Sweet Caroline” only to land with ecstasy at the chorus: “We will make America safe AGAIN! We will make America strong AGAIN! We will make America GREAT AGAIN!”

That’s the way the end of democracy sounds, I think: People so eager to join a chant they do it before they know all the words.

I award a few points for poignancy here, though the actual words quoted sound like something any president ever has always said when firing up a crowd at the end of a speech.

There is a domestic violence center in the shadow of the Amsoil arena. When I stopped in on the afternoon of the rally, a mildly harried woman manning the desk behind the bulletproof glass did not need to tell me they were busy. A string of women were buzzed in and out the security doors in the 15 minutes I visited. Someone was picking up a set of dishes. Another wanted to know about the free dental clinic. Someone asked if her advocate was in – she needed to know if the restraining order had come through. The woman who worked there told me the beds at the center were always full and they get 12-to-14 referrals a night. 

This seemed impossibly high for such a town not much bigger than the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington, but I checked the city’s crime statistics – an imperfect measure, since referrals don’t necessarily come from the police or involve an arrest. But still: In 2016 in Duluth, there were over 900 arrests for what Minnesota terms “violence against families/children.” There were 84 such arrests in Bloomington.

I asked the woman at the center what she thought of the scene at the border. Did she think it was fair to be paying so much attention to that, given what she was dealing with? Did she think what Trump was doing to those families was abuse? 

She looked at me gravely: “Trauma is trauma.”

Ms. Cox also made a correction to this part of the piece to fix another earlier error. But aside from how pedantic we could be about “being in the shadow” of an arena that is across a several parking lots, a freeway, and most of downtown from the location described, this is actually the hint of a good article. The facts about domestic violence are jarring and real, and she gives a bit of nuance to her crime statistics, though they are still crappy. (Don’t compare suburbs to central cities, please.) Juxtaposing a festive political rally with nearby trauma can be compelling. Weighing concern for people thousands of miles away against forgotten people just down the street is an interesting philosophical question. There are the makings of a very good piece here.

Unfortunately, that good piece is not the one Ms. Cox wrote. Instead, it is a cheap shot at a city that gets so much of its context so fundamentally wrong that no number of little edits here and there could possibly rescue it. It is exactly the sort of thing that a Trump supporter can hold up to show how out of touch those Metro Elites are from the places they breeze through and attempt to describe. I doubt Ms. Cox intended to do that, but the fact that it came off this way just shows how out of touch she was when she wrote it. It is emblematic of many of this country’s divides, and only reinforces them.  It is a shame it was published.

If Ms. Cox ever returns to Duluth, I’d be happy to give her a tour that includes equal parts decline porn and rebirth, and all of the murky ground in between. I hope that, then, she could write something more attuned to reality. In the meantime, I’m going to head out on to my porch and have a beer on a perfectly air-conditioned Duluth evening, and maybe wander down to the lake while I’m at it.

After I wipe the grime off my chair, of course.

A History of Duluth?

7 Jun

A friend who recently moved to Duluth for a job in Superior posed a question to me upon her arrival: how did Duluth become Duluth and Superior become Superior, so to speak? I looked through some of the Duluth history books I have sitting around, browsed the shelves at the Zenith Bookstore, and reached out to my inside source at the Duluth Public Library’s reference department (aka my mother). I didn’t really find a satisfying answer, other than a throwaway line somewhere suggesting that the digging of the Duluth ship canal sealed the two towns’ fates. I could also speculate about the role of iron ore wealth, which came down from points north in Minnesota and had little need to cross the bay. But my friend’s question, and my inability to answer it, left me pondering another thought: where can we find a true, full history of Duluth? Because I think someone needs to write it.

Any such effort would stand on the shoulders of people who have already done a lot of good work. Thanks to people like Tony Dierckins and Maryanne Norton, we have a wealth of resources on historical Duluth details such as historical and lost buildings, and a decent account of the founding and growth of many of the city’s neighborhoods. Their book Lost Duluth does a good job of capturing Duluth’s early days and the first half of the twentieth century, though most of the things highlighted in the book are, well, lost, and by definition not part of its current urban fabric. Others have also tracked the city’s rich architectural resources, and its park system justifiably gets some good ink, too. This city is pretty photogenic, so there are some good contributions in more of a coffee table book format. We can also find books on some prominent Duluthians such as the Congdons, and the Zenith City Online people have once again done a good job collecting scattered stories here and there of prominent Duluthians and other fond tales associated with the city. Perfect Duluth Day reliably spits out some interesting tidbits; there’s clearly no shortage of people dabbling in Duluth history.

But, as someone who often writes and thinks in grand, sweeping narratives, I think there’s a gap for someone to write a true history of Duluth. I don’t really mean a definitive history—can there be any such thing?—but I would love to see an effort to weave together some of these disparate stories and colorful characters into a trajectory, something along the lines of Tony Judt’s Postwar or even The Power Broker, which is almost as much a history of New York as it is a biography of Robert Moses. The thing doesn’t need to be a thousand pages long, but it does need to make a bold effort to capture the totality of history, even as it humbly admits the impossibility of its task.

Such a history would not only need to say a lot about the past, but also feed into the present day, and even give some hints as to the future. A lot of the existing historical perspectives on Duluth end sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, perhaps only with some passing references to declining industry and a handful of urban renewal projects (Gateway, I-35 extension, Canal Park) thereafter. I recognize that some of this is because the late 20th century is still pretty recent history in the grand scheme of things; good historians usually let the dust settle some before passing too much judgment. Duluth’s economic fate over that time frame coupled with a fairly bleak architectural era leaves us with relatively little to commemorate fondly from the 60s to the 80s. As someone who carefully avoided the 1980s, however, I think the time is ripe for a history that gets us members of younger generations up to the point where we appeared on the scene. Where are the definitive accounts of Duluth-style suburbanization, of Jeno Paulucci and John Fedo, and of the lurching changes in an industrial economy?

I’ve gestured in this direction with a long, data-driven post on this blog detailing some changes since 1970, and have followed up on that some, too. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, and well-used data is only ever a piece of evidence to support some broader framing. In addition to the focus on the past half century, a good history would tell Duluth’s stories both through its prominent figures and its lesser-known characters, and explain how it fits in with its surrounding communities and greater region. That way we can answer my friend’s Superior question, explore the intricate dance between Duluth and the Iron Range, and figure out what it means to be a small city on a Great Lake in the North Star State.

So, yes, I could see myself getting suckered into some sort of project here—though certainly not one I would undertake alone. Don’t expect anything overnight, or a diversion from some of my other projects. But the wheels are turning here. If you have any thoughts, or if I am blissfully unaware of someone else who is already moving in this direction, feel free to reach out.

A Saturday Essay

31 Mar

Today, I offer up a piece for the Saturday Essay feature on Perfect Duluth Day in which I discuss my undying love for spring in Duluth. You can read it here:

https://www.perfectduluthday.com/2018/03/31/imperfect-duluth-days/

This is two cheater posts in a row now. We’ll have to fix that next week.