Tag Archives: duluth

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.

Gateways, Past and Future

7 Dec

Now that I am the proud owner of my very own fake Christmas tree, I’ve inherited some of the old ornaments that used to decorate the trees of my childhood. Amid the collection of silver balls, apples, eight-year-old Karl’s favorite cartoon characters, and Oscar the Grouch in a trashcan made out of a film canister (remember those things?) sits this ornament, with its rather bold claim:

20161205_202905

Gateway to the world? I guess we do have a big port and all, but this sounds like it’s straight out of that 1800s copy that called Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas” or whatever delightful hyperbole this city’s founders used. I couldn’t tell you where the ornament came from, or how long we’ve had it. And in spite of that, it’s still my favorite.  For me, it’s true. This city was my gateway to the world, and now I’m back here to make sure it remains a gateway to the world for generations to come.

The routines of Christmas always help to recall the past, and this history makes otherwise inane tasks warm and fuzzy. The music often tires me by mid-December, yet I’ll crank a recording of the Duluth East rendition of “Little Drummer Boy”—it somehow becomes tolerable when there are 800 people playing and singing it at once—any number of times this month. I find gaudy light displays tacky, yet I trim my own apartment with a bunch of strings of lights. I’m not much of a shopper and am now at a point where there are few affordable material things that I wouldn’t just go out and buy myself if I really wanted them, yet I feel duty-bound to participate in that side of things, at least to some extent. I’d add long car trips to the list, though I’ve learned over the past year that I actually enjoy long car trips on their own merits.

It’s easy to tire of all of this, and there’s an understandable instinct to withdraw from it at times. As an introvert, I’ll certainly have my moments this season. But participation in Christmas requires recognition that this holiday, whether in its religious form or even its secularized variants, is bigger than oneself, and as such requires surrender of oneself at times. We should always value in carrying something forward from the past, and perhaps—perhaps—losing touch with that past has played no small part in creating our present political moment. Credit Dickens for understanding how those Christmas ghosts past and future can loom over us, make us stop and think about what where we’ve come from, and where we’re going to end up. The opportunities to gain perspective on events great and small never end, and some of the more important revelations I’ve ever had have been somehow tied up in this holiday.

This blog has become politics-heavy over the past month, and it’s time to shake that up a bit. All these worries about affairs of state that matter so much distract us from things that endure; things that matter not just now, but mattered for our ancestors, and will matter again for our descendants. Also, it’s hockey season. It’s time to start another cycle.

Data on the State of Affairs: Duluth and the Iron Range

29 Oct

My new job has me hanging out with Census data some, and this spins nicely into a blog post that builds on some of my past studies of the Duluth area. Last time, I focused just on Duluth and outlying areas in St. Louis County. This time, I’ve expanded it beyond Duluth for a few reasons. One, there are parts of the Duluth ecosystem—most obviously Superior and Douglas County, Wisconsin, but also large parts of Carlton County and even bits of Lake County. The U.S. Census does publish statistics for metropolitan areas (MSAs), which they determine by county. However, when one of the counties in question is the size of Connecticut, as St. Louis County is, that’s going to wreck the data. As far as the Census is concerned, a cabin on Lake Kabetogama is in the Duluth Metro, and the area’s population lands around 280,000. For our purposes, I chop out everyone from the Iron Range on north, while also subtracting outlying bits of Carlton and Douglas Counties and adding Two Harbors, which the Census does not count as within the area. I was also curious about the Iron Range, a big region that I now work with on a near-daily basis, so I decided to pull its data, too. The end result: I have numbers on St. Louis, Douglas, Carlton, Lake, and Itasca Counties, and subdivide those five into regions so that we can draw some conclusions about different areas.

I subdivide the cities and regions in ways that try to explain a few things about them. To clarify this first table, “Outlying Towns” refers to communities like Cloquet, Proctor, and Two Harbors, which can stand alone as identifiable towns, but are within the Duluth commute shed. There are some differences between them, but they share a general trajectory. A separate, very large category is the wide swath of semi-rural area around Duluth and Superior, from townships to the north and south to Esko and Midway to the west. I include Hermantown and Rice Lake here because, unlike the cities in the previous category, they lack the defined town centers and history of planned development, and have indisputably arisen as outgrowths of the Duluth metro.

I divide the Range into four portions: Grand Rapids and its surrounding rural areas, the West Range (basically, from Coleraine to Chisholm), Central Range (Quad Cities and surrounding townships), and East Range (beginning with Biwabik and ranging all the way up to Ely). Apologies if anyone is offended by these groupings, deal with it; census tract names are also my own. Anything that doesn’t nest comfortably into any of the above categories gets lumped into the “Rural Areas” group, which I’m not going to devote a lot of attention to here: basically, they are shrinking, much older, and generally somewhat wealthier, probably due in part to the elevated age. Here are population, household income, and age statistics by region:

2014popincage

First off, for all the moaning about the struggles of northeast Minnesota in the current economy, the region modestly outperforms the nation in a lot of areas. Population growth may be lower, but income growth is higher, and household median income hovers above the national average. Some of this may be due in part to an older population; old people just generally make more money. But on the whole, I think these numbers are more of a reason for optimism about the area, at least when painting with the broadest strokes.

Also, to combat another common narrative, greater Duluth is not shrinking, nor flat in population growth. Since 1990, when the economy and population basically bottomed out, the region has had steady, modest growth, all driven by the outlying areas. Sure, it’s slower than national growth, but it’s real. The populations of Duluth and Superior have been remarkably stable over that 24-year stretch.

1990comparison

It’s not happy for everyone, though, and as Table Two shows, there is certainly evidence of divergence. Duluth, predictably, dominates both the top and the bottom of the income list, with pockets of great wealth and realms of substantial poverty. Those areas haven’t changed much since 1990—in fact, I was a bit surprised to see so little movement near the top, given the growth of the exurban areas—but the rich do seem to be getting richer while the poor get poorer. (See the table at the end for a breakdown by census tract.) This is less extreme on the Range, but it is noticeable in places, especially around Grand Rapids. It’s worth noting that the “Grand Rapids – South” tract split in two over this time period; I kept it together for consistency’s sake, but the southern, more rural part followed the trajectory of the wealthier areas around Pokegama Lake, while the more central parts slumped a bit.

The influence of Duluth’s colleges is also unavoidable. I split out East Duluth stats with and without UMD to show what an effect they have on incomes in that part of the city, while at the same time boosting an otherwise shrinking population, especially on the far west end of the area. Student housing has spread further afield, and the Census has also made more of a commitment to counting students where they live instead of counting them as living with their parents. (For my part, I’m not a fan of this decision, as I think it distorts things and gives an inaccurate account of the economic standing of students’ situations and of the area they live in, but no one asked me.) This leads university campuses to look like poverty-stricken wastelands; just check out the University of Minnesota campus sometime. Given the number of students, the income measured in a neighborhood like Lower Chester in Duluth is actually pretty substantial, even though it appears below average.

The Range, again predictably, is older and poorer than the Duluth area, and parts of it do worse than the national average. Grand Rapids—whose labeling as “Iron Range” is always a source of controversy anyway—also really carries the region economically. And while the East Range as a whole struggles, it could easily be split between the Ely and Lake Vermilion areas (which are growing in income, though still not rich, and fairly old) and East Range towns like Hoyt Lakes, Aurora, and Biwabik. These are among the worst-hit areas over this 24-year stretch, with the 2001 closure of LTV Steel in Hoyt Lakes looming large. Basically, the areas that have emerged as vacationlands are doing better than the more mining-dependent regions, and this is probably only even more true following the steel price downturn of the past two years.

It’s true that hospitality jobs don’t pay a ton. Ely and Tower aren’t getting rich off their recent tourism growth. But diversification does allow them to do somewhat better than their neighbors, and have something to fall back on in difficult mining times. The advantages are real, and are even more real around Grand Rapids, which benefits from being somewhat closer to the Twin Cities and on a couple of major highways.

Now, we’ll boil it all down to census tracts, which usually have 2,000-6,000 people and are roughly aligned with neighborhoods and towns.

ChgsinIncome.JPG

The tract with the greatest income growth was a surprise to me: Leech Lake Reservation west of Grand Rapids in Itasca County. The other reservation tract, Fond du Lac, also did quite well for itself. Granted, these native communities are both coming from very low starting points, but it’s worth acknowledging that success, and taking a broader look at outcomes across the board in these areas. The other big gainers are mostly exurban lake country and a handful of Duluth neighborhoods that have seen some growth on the fringes plus, I suspect, some turnover as an older generation fades and gets replaced by a younger, upwardly mobile one. The biggest drops are in UMD tracts, a few of Duluth’s poorest areas, and in mining communities.

youngestoldest

The age table reinforces the effects of the colleges. I’m over the median age in my own Endion neighborhood, proving once again that I am an evil gentrifier who is ruining the neighborhood. The oldest tracts, excepting the two central Duluth areas with large retirement complexes, are all very rural, and the top of the list stays very rural beyond the top ten, too. Central Duluth also trends young, and this is worth watching: are the people here upwardly mobile, and will they move up in time, and perhaps move east or west? Or is this another generation of entrenched poverty?

Answers to a lot of these questions will have to wait, but our friends at the Census can give us some clues. I’ll continue this series at some point, too. As an appendix, I here add the table with income stats on all 98 census tracts in the five counties I looked at:

AllTractsDLH.png

Utopia III

8 Oct

If the instinct toward perfection is an essential piece of human nature, it’s hidden itself pretty well this year. This presidential election cycle alone is enough to paint a dark picture, and that’s not even touching the rest of the world. Even the supposedly hopeful candidate in the Democratic primary spent most of his time calling for a sort of class war. The road to revolution isn’t always bright or happy.

Given this climate, one could forgive people for yearning for utopia anew. A piece in the most recent New Yorker explores some favorable books that favor the concept before landing in my preferred territory of skepticism of grand ideas and defense of gradually moving the chains. There need not be an ideal vision; merely a general direction, and confidence in the steps taken in that direction.

For me, this is a fitting time to reflect on that dream of perfection. The past month and a half has been pretty good to me, basically aligning with my hopes. I’ve gone home again. I have a secure job that I like, and that aligns with both my interests and my general sense of what I want to do with my life. I’m not going to be rich anytime soon, but I’m certainly living comfortably for someone my age. I’m back among some of my favorite people, ready to live a life in the same place as them, and work with them to build whatever comes next. I live in a big old house that nails the details for what I look for in a home. For years so much of this seemed so far away, and now, all of the sudden, it’s all here.

It’s a good time to be back. Autumn in Duluth is one of its more spectacular seasons, as these waning golden days invite us out to marvel in the tapestries lain across the landscape. I hike or run the rugged ridges of the countless parks, wreathed in orange and red and gold and orange. I savor the warmer evenings, sit out on my new front porch with a glass of wine and read some. My book choice for the weekend revisits an old favorite: Amartya Sen, an anti-utopian economist nonetheless filled with hope for gradual movement toward justice. The football field at East is packed when I go by on Friday nights, I watch Verne Lundquist (born in Duluth!) call SEC games on Saturday for one final year, all adding to a sense of timelessness. Well, I suppose some things change: the Yankees are sitting at home in October, and the Cubs of all teams are favored. No matter: there’s a haze of rightness about it all.

I’m not resting on my laurels. I’m too restless to do that, and while I can ground myself for stretches, there’s always another cycle outward. No need for congratulations, either: this is only the beginning, and there’s lots of work to do. Things are moving. Not toward utopia, and toward a state that’s slightly better than where we were before. Now that I’m settled in, it’s time to see what we can do to fight the cynical instinct: not to reach back up to utopia, but simply to reach out with the utmost effort, enough that we can come home content at the end of the day. Onward.

50 Things I’ve Missed About Duluth

4 Sep

I’ve been back here a week now. Here are 50 distinctly Duluth things I have enjoyed since then, or plan to enjoy in the not-so-distant future.

  1. Ridiculously perfect summer weather.
  2. Topography. In Minneapolis, I would go out of my way to find hills when running because it was so damn flat.
  3. Marvelously cheap real estate.
  4. Rush “hours” in which the traffic doesn’t actually get any slower.
  5. Not really caring about leaving ground floor windows or doors open or unlocked.
  6. Bike/running paths that do not require constantly trying to dodge other people on said path.
  7. That slightly wild edge to the green spaces. Which are everywhere.
  8. Walking across the lift bridge, which is inevitably cold even when it is warm everywhere else.
  9. Lake views. Everywhere.
  10. A really big, sandy beach.
  11. Lots of craft beer with no hint of pretension.
  12. 75-cent bus fare.
  13. Silence as I sleep.
  14. Duluth Grill lunches.
  15. Pacing the concourse at the Heritage Center.
  16. Easy day trips to the North Shore, the Boundary Waters, or just the middle of nowhere in the woods.
  17. The India Palace buffet.
  18. The Thirsty Pagan. (Okay, I guess that’s Superior. But for as much fun as we Duluthians poke at Superior, it does have some very good food options, and I’m kinda curious to explore its bar scene in all its glory.)
  19. Being entertained by tourists in Canal Park.
  20. Having Duluth to ourselves again after all the tourists leave.
  21. Grandma’s Sports Garden…eh, maybe not, I’m not 22 anymore.
  22. Knowing the politicians who represent me. (Or, at least, being able to get to know them with relative ease.)
  23. Not having Comcast in my life.
  24. Basically any establishment on East Superior Street between Tycoons and Sir Ben’s.
  25. Seeing stars at night.
  26. Boat horns.
  27. Neighborhood hockey rinks.
  28. Parties in Bayfront.
  29. A breeze off the lake. Well, sometimes.
  30. The tap water.
  31. The Breeze Inn.
  32. Ice cream after a walk on the Lakewalk.
  33. Refurbished turn-of-the-century downtown buildings.
  34. Getting bridged.
  35. Ski trails everywhere.
  36. Congdon homes.
  37. The Duluth arts community.
  38. Enger Park.
  39. The Red Herring.
  40. Amsoil Arena.
  41. The St. Louis River.
  42. That Christmas parade we have in mid-November.
  43. Smelt.
  44. Huskies games.
  45. Sidewalk Days.
  46. The Rose Garden.
  47. Cruising down Skyline Parkway.
  48. Vikre.
  49. Greyhounds.
  50. Late nights on the lakeshore, or on the ridge up above.

Farewell, Minneapolis

29 Aug

I’m settling back into life in Duluth right now, temporarily back in my childhood bedroom as I find my own place and make some other purchases to prepare me for working life. Before I completely turn the page, though, I’ll say a fond farewell to Minneapolis, my home for the past two years. I only ever expected it to be a short stay; a stint that would simply prepare me for an eventual return to Duluth. I didn’t invest myself too deeply in its politics or inner workings, and kept my attention fixed to the north. One can only handle so many political sagas at a time, though I was there for long enough that I certainly know the lay of the land now. Things went according to plan, so this post won’t approximate my “Farewell Duluth” saga from August 2014. But I did fall for much of Minneapolis in my time here, and I will miss parts of it.

For starters, my apartment and neighborhood were ideal for my situation. I lived in a spacious apartment in an old red brick building with hardwood floors, though the building’s greatest feature was Frances, the elderly, vivacious building manager who kept us all in line. My friend in the apartment’s other bedroom, a fellow Georgetown grad, provided a necessary sounding board, as two people who had their critiques of the Minneapolis mystique could vent freely while pursuing our goals, divergent as they were, with typical Hoya ambition. Lowry Hill East, despite its hopelessly dysfunctional neighborhood board and historic renovation slush fund, gave excellent access to the whole city. It was right between Uptown and Downtown, both a short ride or a long walk away, and express buses to the U took me there in less than ten minutes. A short run was all I needed to reach many of my favorite parts of the city: the lakes, the sculpture garden (RIP), and my favorite refuge here, Theodore Wirth Park. And, next door, Liquor Lyle’s, that magical den where you can find a little something of everything.

I saw nearly every corner of the city in my time here. Downtown, where I worked for a year, threading the skyway hive and watching as the beast of a new Vikings stadium arose day by day. The North Loop, its warehouses all freshly renovated, home to happy hours and Twins games. Northeast, with its ever-expanding network of breweries and dive bars that put Lyle’s to shame. St. Paul, which I frequented on bike rides up Summit Avenue to a winnable trivia, and of course that southwest corner of downtown, which I’ll continue to visit every March. Lowry Hill, Linden Hills, Bryn Mawr, and the Chain of Lakes, where I sized up grand old houses and dreamed of the future. North, site of many a run, and subsequent reflection on race and poverty in this otherwise gleaming city. Quirky, crunchy Seward; the looming towers of Cedar-Riverside. The riverfront, always a convenient escape, whether down along the southern bluffs or from a bar on St. Anthony Main with that incomparable view. All those hockey rinks out in the suburbs that became frequent haunts in the winter months. I could trail on.

The University of Minnesota campus isn’t an aesthetic masterpiece; that’s especially true on the droll modernist West Bank, where I spent most of my days. I enjoyed being part of a power conference school (albeit one that doesn’t win much in the big sports), with all the attendant atmosphere and that infectious buzz of spirit. Comparing it to Georgetown naturally dooms it: they serve different purposes, and of course a large, sprawling research school is going to spawn a few more weak instructors and a bureaucracy that often left me in disgust. Thankfully, they were outshone by handful of committed leaders, and their numbers seemed to grow in my time as a Gopher.

What the U may have lacked in institutional efficiency, however, it made up for in the community it built in my graduate program. My fellow students of cities will stay friends for a very long time, and saying goodbye wasn’t easy. Our social calendar was nearly nonstop, and I’m sure I’ll be watching it forlornly from a distance for a while. I spent so much of my time in this city on the couch in the MURP Lab, where I rarely ever got anything done, but rarely regretted the detour. It was the prefect venue for coming into one’s own.

This is, of course, a brief goodbye. There will be many return visits for nights with old friends, for trips to suburban ice rinks and Orchestra Hall and Target Field. I’m excited to show off my hometown and my new life to many of them, and am ready to open up a mini boarding house for any Minneapolitans in need of an escape northward. Wherever I end up living, there will be plenty of space for guests. (After miserable DC and inflating Minneapolis, Duluth real estate is dreamy.) Thanks for serving me well, Minneapolis, and I expect you’ll always be a pleasant home away from home.

A few housekeeping notes: blogging may be a bit sparse as I settle in to a new job and home. Since I try to maintain a pretty strict work-blog separation—in over three years at this, you’ll never find more than a passing mention of any of my jobs—I also might not resume my Duluth politics coverage on the same level I was at a couple of years ago. Now that I have a job that can have some effect on these affairs, I’ll aim to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest. But I certainly won’t cut myself off entirely, either, and I expect to have some openings for comment now when I’m back in the thick of this cozy political world, where there’s little space to hide. On the hockey side of the ledger, I’m naturally excited to be back in my alma mater’s backyard, and also look forward to touring a number of northern Minnesota rinks this winter. Rest assured that I’ll make a few well-timed weekend visits to the metro, and the podcast should be able to go on with me as a call-in correspondent. If anything, our network is just expanding, and the future looks bright on many fronts. Stay tuned.

Going Home

19 Aug

Like any good PR person, I had two blog posts written for today, a victory speech and a concession address. This, I’m pleased to announce, is the former. After a long, sometimes dismal summer in which pickiness over potential jobs led to a lot of painful waiting, my patience has paid off. I’m going home, back to Duluth to work a job whose description might as well have wandered out of a dream of mine from two years ago when I started my grad school odyssey. I’ll be working for a consultant on business and community development across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. I try to be skeptical of things like destiny, but I’m still prone to strong hunches, and if there ever were such a tale of fate in my life, this was it.

It’s a move 20 years in the making: this very week in 1996, I first came to Duluth in a moving van. The story twists through long formative years and an unexpected two-year return, and culminates in one of the best interviews I’ve ever done, easy because it was so genuinely sincere. It took no act, no conscious airs, to convey how badly I wanted this, and how much I believed in my ability to do it, despite my relative inexperience. I don’t consider myself a great actor, but as a kid well-versed in Minnesota Nice and East Coast gentility and a natural introversion, deep expression can be rare. Here, it all came gushing forth.

I’ve had a number of guides in this trip back; some may be aware of their roles, others less so. First off, there are my parents, ever my supports, even if I’ve never properly expressed my gratitude to them. I think back to some of my Georgetown professors; one who opened my eyes to the full array of options before me, and one who told a moody senior who was scared to go home that, indeed, “Duluth needs people like you.” (I’m not sure if it does, but I’m glad to be of service to it.) There’s my grad school friend P., who, over beers at Acadia, made the comment that “I’m not sure that Minneapolis needs me,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly agreed with: while the Twin Cities need work, I think they are in good hands, and I’m in a position to make more of an impact back home, where I have easier access to levers that can make a difference, and which I still know far more intimately than anywhere on earth. If I have any ideals on how to perform public service, they come through rooting oneself in a community and understanding it from the bottom up, and I now get to do that. I have plenty of other friends to thank for their encouragement along the way, with special credit to a handful of old Duluth colleagues who went to bat for me over the past two weeks.

It is strange, I think, to be wedded to a city in the way I am to Duluth. Sure, I’ve built some contingencies, and try not to idolize earthly things, but the nagging call was always there. It flies in the face of some other forces in my life, and I try to view my attachment to a place with clear-eyed dispassion. I’m leaving behind a tight-knit network of good friends in Minneapolis, and I will miss them. A lot. (For those of you reading this, I’ll be down often, and you are all required to visit. Seriously.) Any good-bye, no matter how brief, makes me lament lost chances to go deeper with people I know in a place. I’m not sure what Duluth will be like for a 26-year-old single kid who is now out of excuses for tarrying and ready to find someone to share in, and make her own contributions to, a vision for the future. Beyond that, I’m going to need to find some partners in crime in a small city where it’s hard to keep secrets or stay in the shadows. And, of course, I will have to reacquaint myself with blankets of fog, vicious winds, driving on snow-covered hills, and the unspeakably gross time of year in Duluth that in other places is called “spring.”

I now have an adult life to put in order, and will face my share of challenges in doing so. On the one hand, my path appears routine: kid goes away for college, goes home, accepts solid job, settles down. On the other hand, it’s a bit countercultural for someone who had a ticket to some exotic position in Washington DC or some other major city, but chose not to board that train. Whatever it was that led me down this road, it has always felt natural, and I’m content with that much. There’s a lot of work to do, too. Duluth and some pockets of northeastern Minnesota are doing better now than they have been for most of my life, but that’s not true of the whole region that my work will now cover, and even the successes to date are only a basic foundation. It’s an exciting time to head back and begin anew on an effort to support a regional economy and the people who are its heart and soul.

To everyone who’s been a part of this journey, thank you: you’ve all fed in, often in ways you may not know. I’ve been blessed, and am more than ready to set out on the next journey, on to new heights. Let the work begin.