Tag Archives: duluth

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.

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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.

An Alternative History

30 Aug

I have survived one year back in Duluth. My first year back, I think, has charted on to what a sober assessment of it would have looked at the start. When I look back on the “why I should and shouldn’t move back to Duluth” chart I drew up last summer, it’s all accurate, the good and the bad. Obviously I’m here, so the good outweighs the bad, but I won’t pretend this has been a flawless return, either. I didn’t expect it to be.

As I pondered one complete year of adult life during a weekend of fiction-writing and raindrop-dodging in northern Itasca County last weekend, I revisited the two essays I had ready to go at this time a year ago, as I awaited a decision on my current job: the one that appeared here, overflowing with pride that a quixotic path was cycling back home, and the concession speech that was left unpublished. Much as I love the success story that became reality, the more depressing version hit home in new ways. It was one of the most unsparing pieces of self-examination in a life rarely lacking in such examination. I share it here:

*   *    *

Like any good PR person, I had two blog posts written for today, a victory speech and a concession address. Alas, what you are about to read is the latter. Losing out on a dream job, for all its disappointment, gives me a chance to look back on these three months, and let out a little more than I normally do.

If nothing else, this period of post-grad school marginal employment has given me some understanding of life on the edge. I humor myself, of course: I have safety nets ready for me. Outwardly, I’ve probably seemed my usual self, and I’ve traveled some and stayed highly social and spent many a relaxing afternoon reading in a park or running around lakes. I’ve developed strong coping mechanisms to keep me from lapsing into depression, or the hyper-anxiety that was a feature of my uncertain prospects after my undergraduate days (this blog being one of them). Much of my frustration is blatantly of my own making, as the earnest desire to have a rewarding first post-grad school job unites with the entitlement of a Georgetown graduate to make me exceptionally picky, perhaps too disdainful of the entry-level work that would earn me my dues.

But the peaks and valleys are so much more extreme amid this waiting game, ranging from exhilaration over possible life courses to despair over a lack of breaks from one second to the next. One grad school professor, commenting on a survey he did of public housing residents, said the biggest takeaway from the survey was the uselessness of surveys: his subjects of study ran the gamut of emotions about their experience based on how their ever-so-tenuous financial, health, and emotional situations were playing out on a given day. Over the past three months, I’ve come to understand how violently a person can lurch from one extreme to the other.

My valleys usually take the form of detachment and removal, in long hours staring at a screen. Much of this procrastination is enlightened, as I survey reams of articles on the Trump campaign or the fate of Western Civilization or some distant conflict, but it loses touch with some of the more fundamental things I believe. It substitutes ivory tower analysis for opening up my eyes and seeing the world around me. I’m not getting out enough, and while finances are a fine excuse here, they are just that: an excuse.

I’m headed back to Duluth shortly, though it’s hardly the triumphant return of my dreams. My return may also prove very brief, depending on job prospects in different places. I love the place, but I also know not to make an idol of earthly things, and as time goes on, different options start to seem more attractive. I wonder vaguely if I’m invested too much in a fleeting dream for a childhood that never was. It may be time to soldier outward; perhaps to take full advantage of that Georgetown degree in certain circles, perhaps time for something a bit more unexpected. I’m open to ideas.

Near the end of my time in graduate school, on a day when I felt particularly drained by the onslaught of school and work and life-related stresses, I sent out an email to everyone in my program. Its premise was simple: I’d find time to meet with anyone who needed a beer, a coffee, or even just a walk around a lake. We could talk about these important decisions we needed to make in the coming months, or about nothing related to them at all; whatever the other person wanted. There were a handful of takers before it petered out, and while the sentiment was and is genuine, too often, it seems to fade as new issues emerge. The more I venture into the adult world, the more I marvel at how many things hinge on communication, and how often that communication winds up being so sadly incomplete, if not downright bad.

I’m writing about this not to show off my altruism, but to remind myself that this commitment didn’t die with commencement, and that it extends to my many connections beyond graduate school. These are the sorts of connections to reality that too many of us don’t exemplify often enough. On the verge of a new round of good-byes, however fleeting they might be, I often lament how little we know about each other, even if we’ve spent significant time together. It is these human stories, these genuine connections, that are still the foundation of everything I believe in and hope to work for someday, and if I can’t live that out, why am I here?

And so I head north to continue this absurd quest to live out a life of virtue in a world that barely knows what the word means anymore. My appeal to virtue may be the fallback of an uncertain kid; God knows I’d rather be making a solid salary than go the way of Diogenes. But the choice isn’t always mine to make, and I’ve approached most interviews under the assumption that my questioners would rather hear more about skills than a meticulously argued philosophy on life. That may be a mistake: there is no substitute for sincerity.

This could have been a triumph, but things are never so easy, even for us careful planners: the virtuous road is a murky one. My summer wanderings, whether in a car across the country or around my Chain of Lakes here in Minneapolis, have provided little clarity beyond short-term spurts. I must continue to make peace with uncertainty, to depose of false idols, and to reach always toward that excellence that I always aspire to but, too often lately, have fallen short of. I can only hope to recover the wonder, still there beneath all these layers of frustration and cynicism, but just not visible often enough. What other choice do I have?

*   *    *

Heavy, but true. If there is a lesson from my first year in the working world, it’s that being a member of that world does not answer any of those more existential questions I asked in this history that wasn’t. I’m very good at critiquing, but my record at putting a positive vision into place is a bit more mixed. So, if you’re in Duluth, let me know if you’re in the mood for a beer or a coffee or a walk, and if you’re not, you’re always welcome here. I still have a lot of work to do, and need a lot more people to be part of it.

Think Local, Act Regional

2 Aug

Local election season is starting to heat up, with Election Day now three months away here in Duluth. I won’t tip my cards yet, if I ever do; in many cases I’m not even sure who I’ll vote for at this point. But there are a couple of things that the people I do end up voting for will need to have. One is a sense of regional consciousness, and another is an emphasis on the particulars of local affairs rather than adherence to some outside platform.  At first blush these may seem like contradictory strains of thought, but both are necessary for effective statecraft, whatever one’s political orientation.

I focus on a regional perspective because it is all too rare in politicians. It always has been, and probably always will be. When it comes to questions of scale, many see themselves strictly as representatives of the constituents who elect them, meaning their city or district within a city and the arbitrary boundaries that such divisions normally imply. Sometimes this comes with a genuine effort to give a personal touch to the small group of people one represents, while at other times it can just be territorial. But when local leaders block out their neighbors, either intentionally or through benign neglect, they only hurt the people they claim to represent.

Take Duluth, for example. I see a lot of Duluth-centrism in local political rhetoric today; that is, Duluth politicians who are fixated only on things happening within Duluth boundaries. To an extent, I admire this attempt to hold Duluth to a higher standard. But we also can’t pretend that Duluth is an island, or not deeply interconnected with its neighbors and its state. Nearly 60 percent of the people who work in Duluth do not live in it, while over 30 percent of Duluthians work outside its boundaries.

This applies to both city councilors and school board members. On the council side, it applies to the labor market, which is a complicated thing to define but should pretty clearly include Superior, Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake, Esko, and Cloquet—at the very least. Attempts to regulate it, however well-intentioned, should recognize how interconnected all of this is. Leaving aside the merits of something like earned sick and safe leave, has there been any effort at all to recognize this interconnectedness in this debate? If there is, I sure haven’t seen it.

Education “markets,” so to speak, expand beyond single districts, a trend we see all too clearly in families voting with their feet and open enrolling across boundaries or into private or charter schools. My scare quotes there show my leeriness about referring to education as a market—and public schools, by dint of requirements that they educate all comers, including those who come from families with no initiative to seek out alternatives, will always look worse than some of the alternatives and give a very warped view of what actually goes on inside the buildings. But this is the environment in which people make their decisions. East-west equity has become a central concern in this year’s ISD 709 school board races, and there are certainly good reasons to fixate on that. But any sort of solution will not come from pitting one side of the city against the other, or gutting one side to prop up the other. If any candidates want to make this upcoming race about east-west equity alone, they’re missing the forest for the trees.

And while they’re not on the ballot this year, I’d say the same thing about regional legislators. It’s great if the Duluth delegation is aligned in St. Paul, but it includes all of five people, two of whom have much larger constituencies outside the city than in it. Duluth’s unique situation within the state should put its members in a position of influence. On the one hand, Duluth is part of Greater Minnesota, and there are a number of cases where it makes more sense to align with the more rural delegation, including others in northeastern Minnesota who would seem to make obvious allies. There is enough interconnectivity with the North Shore and the Iron Range that support for certain initiatives, from broadband to education to infrastructure, should drive Arrowhead legislators to vote as a bloc. But on the flip side, Duluth’s urbanity at times makes the city look much more like Minneapolis or St. Paul, where equity concerns and redevelopment are central issues—and, indeed, its legislators usually vote along with those in the central cities. (In a year that was fairly good for economic development funding, redevelopment dollars were mysteriously absent from the budgets that came from a legislature controlled by rural and exurban GOPers.) In a tightly divided government, there should be scenarios in which Duluth’s legislators have the power to play kingmaker, and if they’re not exploring opportunities to do so, they’re missing the boat.

Without regional action, the Duluth area won’t ever live up to its potential. I’m not necessarily saying greater Duluth should formalize this through government and move in the direction of a Twin Cities-style Metropolitan Council. But there should be venues for greater regional conversations, where appropriate. There are some such conversations, but they are scattered, and not every organization that has the power to make an impact here is using it to its fullest extent. Too often, we see Duluth boldly pursuing some bold and well-meaning push that ultimately has a limited or even perverse impact because it is constrained by its boundaries and lack of broader context, while the outlying areas lapse into a reflexive rejection of those vaguely urban problems beyond their reach. We can do better than this.

Perhaps a more immediately pressing concern of mine is a rise in candidates who define themselves less by the places they serve and more by the principles or political platform with which they identify. These politicians have their lenses and preferred policies, and look to apply those within the region over which they have control (and beyond, whenever possible). It can come in any stripe, from the limited government Republicans loyally following certain tax pledges to platforms promoted by the left. A recent example: while all other candidates balked at a questionnaire asking them to fall in line with a group’s demands, Ray Dehn, the leading vote-getter in the DFL primary in the Minneapolis mayoral race, caused a stir when he said he couldn’t imagine not voting in line with Our Revolution, the leftist organizing movement that has grown out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Whatever Dehn’s merits may be relative to the two other frontrunners in that race (a troubled incumbent in Betsy Hodges and a hungry climber in Jacob Frey), this is an immediate red flag for anyone with an appreciation for the ins and outs of local governance. While any number of groups from unions to clean water advocates will make demands from leading candidates, and have every right to do so, any adoption of said platforms should be critically vetted for their particular context, not just aped talking points embraced out of convenience.

Implicit throughout this post has been a mild critique of the Duluth DFL, which is often the only real player in local politics. I don’t mean to trash it; it’s a heterodox bunch, and I know, respect, and am friends with various members of it. But one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Duluth politics, especially in comparison to other cities I’ve lived in such as Minneapolis or D.C., is that it has an independent streak to it that can usually recognize some of the excesses of its dominant party and avoid jumping on the train. Instead of the vicious division in some other places, we see general community consensus on such topics as community policing practices (granting that our demographics limit the centrality of certain racial questions to the Duluth experience) and, at least until the Red Plan, in education. We’ve rejected some vogue ideas with questionable actual evidence in their favor like ranked choice voting, and our campuses have not become hopelessly politicized in a manner that shuts out half the country and drives it to question the very value of higher education. The continued presence of labor in the DFL coalition is also notable, and while I have my critiques of labor, the ability to retain that political base has kept the Duluth DFL from becoming an institution totally out of touch with the working class, as the national party has gone. I groan when I hear some of the petty things that divide members of the local political class, but at the very least these conflicts tend to stay under the table.

Willingness to buck trends and not blindly follow a party line is one of the most admirable traits possible in a politician, and until recently, most city councilors, even if elected behind the full weight of the DFL and labor endorsements, get that to some level. And while I recognize that the Democratic base is fired up in the age of Trump, I hope they’re not losing track of the nuts and bolts and a basic ability to manage neighborhood relationships that drive local politics, which are far more relevant than one’s stance on the source of outrage du jour in D.C.

If I have a goal here, it is to give new life to that old claim that all politics is local. I wouldn’t go that far; some things obviously require state or national action. But I would like to return to a phrase that may seem tautological at first, but that few stop to ponder properly: policy should be made on the level most appropriate for such policy. Some things are genuinely local; some are completely outside the purview of a city council. This sense has eroded in an era in which people get their politics from their favorite network of choice or whatever dark recesses of the internet one’s social media acquaintances happen to inhabit. It is easy to try to simplify the world by imposing national narratives, but the realities zoning disputes and school funding decisions and search for pathways to the American Dream rarely conform to those national platforms. The world is a complicated place, and deserves our respect as such.

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

24 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two ways to explain this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Vacation Rentals and Density Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/10/17

11 Apr

The Duluth city council was on the forefront of urban planning debates this past Monday, as it discussed vacation rentals and density within the city limits on the same night. In both cases, I’m going to poke at urban planning orthodoxy mildly, not because I think it is wrong, exactly, but because I think Duluth needs to ask some questions rather than simply accepting trendy thinking. The details:

Vacation Dwelling Units and Neighborhood Effects

The first debate involved a permit to allow a vacation dwelling unit (VDU; think Airbnb) on Berwick Court, a cul-de-sac off of Arrowhead Road near Hartley Park not far before Kenwood Avenue as one heads west. John Ramos at the Reader covered this one in detail when it was before the Planning Commission, so I won’t belabor the background. At Monday’s meeting, several neighbors said the VDU was wrong for many reasons, though they gave only one concrete one beyond the vague “character of the neighborhood” stuff one always hears on this sort of issue: an immediate neighbor is old and not exactly in possession of all of her faculties, and may have some unfortunate run-ins with VDU guests. Council President Joel Sipress delicately described his interaction with her as “challenging” when he went up to do his due diligence on the property. As a result, he and Councilor Em Westerlund amended the permit to require the addition of a screen between the VDU and the elderly neighbor. Both the amendment and the permit passed 8-1, with Councilor Noah Hobbs preferring to stick with the original screenless recommendation from the Planning Commission, and Councilor Howie Hanson opposing the thing entirely in a screed against an the “erosion of neighborhoods.”

This was an issue that blew up normal battle lines and inspired good debate. As with the Uber debate two weeks prior, the normally solidly progressive Sipress expressed considerable leeriness of this supposed progress, and went into his nuanced monologue mode to worry about the effect on neighborhoods. Councilor Barb Russ seconded this, and suggested the city revisit the criteria for VDUs and find some way to limit dramatic changes. Councilor Jay Fosle, normally the voice of no to this sort of newfangled scheme, showered love on VDUs, saying they created economic activity and scoffing at the suggestion that “a bunch of nasty people will come and rent the house.” Hobbs, meanwhile, brought up the biggest sticking point with any neighborhood-based policy: how on earth do we devise a “hierarchy of neighborhoods” for awarding of VDUs without making some potentially prejudicial decisions? Sipress and Russ both readily conceded this point. Anyone who’s observed city politics knows this runs the risk of just opening up a door for whoever yells loudest to get permits denied, and that these people are inevitably going to be older, more affluent people who have the time and resources to devote to hammering city councils.

If the city does revisit this and sees a need for continued limits of VDUs, I would advocate for quotas within neighborhoods, set by some blanket standard such as population. This would remove the influence of well-connected neighbors and prevent the emergence of “vacation rental ghettoes.” That phrase sounds silly as I write it, which perhaps betrays my natural bias here: in principle I think VDUs make a lot of sense. However, I prefer not to make unfounded assumptions about how their consequences at a large scale, and while this is a different phenomenon from the fashion in which neighborhoods tip from majority homeownership to long-term rentals, a neighborhood that achieves some critical mass of homes without long-term residents does probably start to erode some. (No, one or two houses on a cul-de-sac do not represent that sort of critical mass.) I also think decisions that take good single family housing stock off the market may pose some problems in a city like Duluth, as the council’s next great planning debate showed all too clearly.

The Great Density Debate

The other hot button issue involved a resolution that, as initially worded, would have encouraged the city to consider “high density zoning”—basically, taller buildings—in its ongoing comprehensive plan process. Councilor Zack Filipovich brought it forward, and took a beating for his trouble. A big part of the issue was the process, which Filipovich conceded: this resolution appeared seemingly out of the blue immediately before the previous week’s agenda session, and Hobbs seemed to speak for many on the council when he said he’d wished they’d had a chance to debate this before it came before them all as a whole. He and Sipress, who once again seemed quite presidential in his ability to give a nuanced take on the concerns of the council writ large, offered an amendment which dramatically reworked the resolution, and instead pitched it as a call for greater density using all potential development tools, from infill to redevelopment to townhomes.

No one found this broader emphasis controversial, though Filipovich tried again to get at his original point, which seemed to come out of his conversations with city planning staff: they think the city is already doing what it needs to do on the infill and redevelopment fronts (which is mostly true), but needed this added pitch to encourage height. The rest of the council balked at this, given the political sensitivity of views; Hanson went off about how this might be in response to specific projects (which Filipovich roundly denied), while Fosle found the whole debate much ado about nothing, as it is the unified development code, not the comp plan, that ultimately settles these questions. While there is probably some merit to further outlining standards for upward growth, Duluth’s planners need to do a much better sales job instead of ramming a quick resolution through. In the end, the councilors tabled the whole mess.

Discussion strayed far and wide and to interesting points, though, and one of the more frequent topics was Hermantown. Filipovich first noted that it is the fastest growing city in the region (which is true), even as its prices are not inflating, whereas Duluth’s are doing so despite the fact the city isn’t growing. Real estate listings in Hermantown are up considerably, whereas Duluth’s market only seems to get tighter and tighter. Hobbs countered that this was a bad analogy for this resolution, as Hermantown’s growth was anything but upward: instead, it sprawls outward far more so than Duluth. Given Duluth’s relative lack of available land and aging infrastructure that is difficult to maintain, let alone extend, that sort of growth pattern is not a realistic option at any sort of scale.

The Hermantown debate also illuminated the battle lines between those who we might call the critics of the happy talk about Duluth’s direction in recent years (Fosle and Hanson) and the liberal optimists’ club. I will counter one of Fosle’s critiques, in which he wondered where this supposed job growth was coming from in a city with a stagnant population: while the Duluth metro area may not be getting dramatically larger, its job growth over the past decade is reasonably good, and relative to its population growth is actually very good when compared to most peer cities. (If someone wants numbers to back this up, I can oblige.) As I’ve been at pains to note in other posts, the metro area has been growing steadily since 1990—not quickly, but steadily—and basically all of this growth is beyond the city limits, namely in Hermantown. As Hobbs noted, these outlying areas have the obvious perk of having a lot of available land, and Fosle and Hanson tagged on a few additional concerns that may lead people to move beyond the city limits, such as perceptions of crime or newer infrastructure or a desire for space. (No one mentioned the other major driver I’d put up next to land availability, though. Hint: it involves a different Duluth elected body that I cover on this blog from time to time.)

Still, I think the Hermantown-Duluth comparison is illuminating, though perhaps not in the way councilors thought it was. Whatever the benefits of density, large new apartment or condo complexes do little to make Duluth appealing to a lot of the people who are electing to move to Hermantown and its ilk. To the extent that housing decisions drive this move—and they certainly do—any response by Duluth to try to stem that tide will require an expansion of the single-family housing stock. Given the relative lack of buildable land within city limits, that’s going to mean renovation (or teardowns) and infill or bust. That isn’t cheap, and requires further study to understand the costs, but if the city does want to retain younger families and build the tax base through housing development—a goal I firmly support—I see no other option at this point.

This doesn’t invalidate the broader emphasis on density, which is spot on, especially when it comes to commercial property. On the residential side, I think the city can handle a few more Bluestones and Endis, and would wholeheartedly support them. However, I’m skeptical that the market justifies a broader glut of market-rate apartment complexes that would build the tax base. Duluth doesn’t have a ton of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, and those who are tend to get on the marriage-and-kids train faster than in other cities; for that matter, there is still a reasonably affordable single-family housing stock. (Yes, options are tight, but the market here still looks heavenly for this soon-to-be-house-hunting 27-year-old when compared to Minneapolis, to say nothing of anything on the coasts.) And while there have been some increases in other populations that lend themselves to density—seniors, low-income people—the sort of dense housing they need isn’t going to prove a windfall for city coffers.

I’ll quickly note that I’m not saying Duluth shouldn’t build dense housing for these populations; the city does have some real affordability concerns, and I applaud the recent push to get more lower-income units in a development in Duluth Heights, which is both near jobs and may help de-concentrate poverty. We do need to be clear-eyed about the realities of who uses dense development, though, and recognize that there’s a clear role for the Hermantowns of the world to house some of these people, too. The density gospel in contemporary urban planning gets a lot right, but it’s not a panacea, either. We need to think beyond that to get to the heart of issues.