Tag Archives: east vs. west

The Zenith City’s Blurred Red Lines

12 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Living the Cakeater Life

25 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congdon/Hunters Park

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

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

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

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

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

Lakeside/Lester Park

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

Elementary School: Lester Park | Youth Rink: Portman

Woodland/Kenwood

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

Elementary Schools: Homecroft, Lowell | Youth Rink: Woodland

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

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

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

Chester Park/UMD

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

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

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

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

East Hillside/East End

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

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

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

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

*     *    *

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

Duluth’s Divisions, Revisited: 2015 Election Analysis

9 Nov

After a minor delay, here’s a dip into the details of the latest election. As you may notice, my map-making skills have come a long way since I last did this.

Oswald

School Board At-Large race, Alanna Oswald vs. Renee Van Nett (Shown in terms of Oswald’s vote share)

We’ll start with the closest race of the night, the battle between Alanna Oswald and Renee Van Nett for the at-large school board seat. Van Nett’s campaign had a more explicit emphasis on racial equity—even if it was a bit vague on how that was supposed to look in practice—which probably explains her success in the city’s most liberal districts on the east side and in the center of the city. She also may have benefitted from sharing a ticket with the popular David Kirby in District Two in the center-east part of the city. Oswald, meanwhile, focused more directly on east-west equity, which helped her carry the west side. Oswald’s more critical history of the administration and endorsements from the likes of Harry Welty also likely helped her out west, where skepticism of the administration is higher. Still, she was much more than an anti-establishment protest candidate, as evidenced by her success in places like Lakeside and the areas over the hill. She was a nuanced candidate who ran a strong campaign, and gave Duluth a rare upset of a DFL-endorsed candidate in a city-wide race.

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson's margin of victory over Chuck Horton

2015 Duluth Mayoral Race, shown as Emily Larson’s margin of victory over Chuck Horton

The main event of the evening doesn’t look all that thrilling; Emily Larson won every precinct in the city in the mayoral race. Still, the margin wasn’t consistent, and reveals the old east-west divide that has punctuated most two-horse races in this city for at least the past decade, if not longer. (Someone with a longer historical memory than a 25-year-old will have to weigh in on the older details.) These results suggest the east side is again driving the agenda, while the west comes along for the ride with varying levels of agreement.

Elissa Hansen's performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Elissa Hansen’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election.

Noah Hobbs' vote share, 2015 city council at large election.

Noah Hobbs’ performance, 2015 city council at large election.

In the city council at-large race, Elissa Hansen won all but four precincts, though her margins again tend to map on to the east-west divide. Like Larson, she is a poster child for continuing the Ness governing vision with her optimism, youth, and emphasis on inclusion. She lost three precincts to Noah Hobbs, and the two tied in the fourth. All four were pretty predictable: Hobbs, a recent UMD grad, carried the precinct on the UMD campus, and did the rest of his damage on the west side. Hobbs is a died-in-the-wool west-sider, so this only makes sense. (It wasn’t an accident that those lawn signs had Denfeld colors.) This is a second straight election that a younger person has eclipsed the establishment favorite on the west side, but I wouldn’t read anything too deep into this. Zack Filipovich simply had a stronger ground game than Barb Russ on the west side, and Hobbs’ ties carried the day on Tuesday.

Jim Booth's performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth’s performance, 2015 city council at-large election

Jim Booth, a Duluth Heights resident, did best up in that region. As the relative conservative in this race, I thought he might do somewhat better on the west side, and while his percentages were somewhat higher, he still ran behind Hobbs nearly everywhere. An explicit west side focus outweighs any ideological loyalty. Anyone who seeks to speak specifically for that side of the city will do well.

Sticking with the west side theme, these trends become more acute with if we hone in on the Fifth District race. Here, Jay Fosle beat Janet Kennedy by a fairly comfortable margin. Still, the district has two clear halves: in the Denfeld and Oneota areas, Kennedy kept things very competitive; she was within 21 votes in the four easternmost precincts in the district. However, she got whipped in the far west precincts, particularly in Fond-du-Lac, Gary-New Duluth, and Morgan Park. This is Fosle’s home base, so it’s not stunning, and across the board, these very far west areas were some of the strongest areas for the more conservative candidates in the field. To the extent that the west side now has an anti-establishment reputation, it is rooted in the very far west.

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle's vote share

2015 5th District city council race, Jay Fosle vs. Janet Kennedy, shown in terms of Fosle’s vote share

This may be a long-running trend, and the precincts in question are a small enough sample that personal ties for someone like Fosle can make a big difference. Still, this gap endures despite a very intentional effort by the Ness administration to launch a redevelopment effort in this particular corridor over the past two years. That’s significant, and shows that the west side, even if they like the leader of the River Corridor Coalition as a city councilor, still isn’t entirely on board. Once again, the west side wants to talk about west side issues, not the broader liberal ideas one tends to hear from the establishment candidates.

At the risk of conflating a mild political divide and a much deeper discussion, the west side’s demographics hew to a recent attention-grabbing study on the plight of working-class white men. This group feels increasing alienation from the people in power, and whether this involves suicide or more insidious forms such as heavy drinking or drug use—a concern that Fosle, to his great credit, was waving in the face of the Council several years ago—they are dying at a faster rate than before. It’s certainly not hard to see how this affects politics. (See Trump, Donald.) These are somewhat more existential questions on the fate of the American Dream, some of which I’ve explored before, and that theoretical discussion needs to continue. In the meantime, though, cleaning up that steel mill site and other post-industrial dreck, building some new housing on the site of a shuttered school, and bringing some jobs back to the west side will have to do.

In the big picture, however, Fosle’s constituents have themselves a protest vote. Don Ness was not running for office on Tuesday, but he loomed large over the whole race, and his ethos reigns supreme. The city’s government is younger, and solidly on the left side of the political spectrum. Ness’s legacy will last long beyond his eight years in office, and while it will be many years before we can cast final judgment, there’s certainly more cause for optimism now than there was eight years ago. For most Duluthians, the trajectory forward was so obvious that it wasn’t really up for debate in this election cycle.

Still, there is nuance here. Duluth rejected the vogue electoral system because it didn’t get caught up in the latest flashy trend with no actual evidence backing it, and that is a win. A mild upset in the school board at-large race shows some discontent with the direction of the school district, and a refusal to impose a single vision upon it without debate. There is room in the tent for east side liberals and west-side loyalists; for total believers in the Ness vision and a loyal opposition. The more open the process, the greater the odds that a portion of the city won’t get left behind. We’ll see what Emily Larson and friends do with that new mandate.

See two more maps in a follow-up here.

The Story of Duluth in Data, 1970-2010

1 Jul

How do we tell the story of a city? The most compelling way probably involves walking across it, listening to stories and using one’s eyes, letting the stories tell themselves. I’ve done that for Duluth before, and historians more learned (and aged) than I am could do a much better job of reaching back into history to create something far better than a simple blog post. No one can really claim expertise without truly getting lost in the woods—in Duluth’s case, quite literally.

And then there’s data. It has its limits. It’s been overhyped in an era when reams of it are available with a few easy clicks. Too often, it’s taken as destiny, its sweeping trends that elide the human dramas playing out every day, across the years and in ever little corner apartment or dead-end street on the hill. But it also takes all of those stories and boils them down into something we can see clearly, and allows us to better understand the broader forces that catalyze events in those lives. It lets us fly above the woods for a bit and see it all before coming back down to earth.

This post uses U.S. census data since to tell the story of Duluth since 1970. I use tract-level data, which usually lines up roughly with neighborhood boundaries. The official map for 2010 is here. I also include the suburbs and outlying townships in St. Louis County; these are an essential part of Duluth’s urban evolution, and using longstanding city boundaries makes for an unhelpful cut-off for a dynamic process. (Someday, I might throw Superior and eastern Carlton County into the hopper, but this will do for now.) I won’t bore casual readers with the methodology notes, but if you want to know how I made these categories, there’s a section on this in the follow-up to this post, which also includes a bunch of supplemental tables.

Actual billboard from Duluth, 1980s. Duluth News Tribune.

Actual billboard from Duluth, 1980s. Duluth News Tribune.

This forty-year span was not kind to Duluth. The area of study clocked in 121,398 residents in 1970; just 20 years later, it was down to 108,024. Poverty climbed across the board. This is also only a snapshot: the decline really begins in 1960, which was the high-water mark for the city’s population. Most of the second half of the 20th century was a depressing downhill slide, and stagnation followed before things began to tick upward again. To dig into the details, however, I’ve divided the city into four separate areas that tell different stories about the city and its changes: the east side, the center city, the west side, and the exurban areas. Each one reveals something different afoot in Duluth’s neighborhoods.

DuluthRegions

Click any image to enlarge it.

After rock-bottom around 1990, though, things start to change. There’s stagnation in some places and resiliency in others; growing gaps in some areas, and dramatic rises elsewhere. Sure, the city’s population has barely budged, and the neighborhood descriptions a mid-90s real estate map I recently discovered—something a map-obsessed kid kept from his parents’ move to Duluth when he was in first grade—could have been written yesterday, and I doubt anyone would know the difference. Yet there are subtle changes here and there, and one has to look beyond the city limits to understand things, too.

A couple of quick notes before we tour Duluth: I’ve tried to name the neighborhoods as they line up with census tracts, but I had to get creative in a few places. Apologies for any grave sins on that front, and check out the map linked to above to see actual boundaries. I’ll also add the necessary warning for all 2010 census data: most of it was collected in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, and it therefore tends to make things look a bit worse financially than overall trends would suggest.

East Side Steadiness

Like all of Duluth proper, the east side lost population over the 40 years, but the rate was much slower than in the rest of the city. Population loss is no great surprise in built-up neighborhoods, especially as family sizes decrease. The poverty rate has also held pretty steady, and the few changes have more to do with college students moving in than economic decline. With occasional variation in the difference, incomes stay ahead of the national average. The old streetcar suburbs of Lakeside/Lester Park and Woodland are steady bastions of middle-to-upper-middle-class comfort—I was surprised to see “Lakeside” (roughly 40th to 50th Avenues East) was the lowest-poverty tract in the city. Congdon, meanwhile, remains Duluth’s realm of highly concentrated affluence; if it were its own municipality, it would rank 13th in the state in per capita income, right behind some of the small, opulent enclaves along Lake Minnetonka. One of the more interesting tracts is East End, the area below 4th Street between 20th and 26th Avenues East, which lost a lot of population, but also saw a decrease in poverty and had distinct rise in per capita income. Many of the people who remain are in its grand old houses, and the longstanding Congdon area prestige has withstood Duluth’s post-industrial phase.

CongdonsGonnaCongdon

Congdon, summarized in one image.

There were noticeable increases in poverty in Hunters Park/Morley Heights and especially Chester Park, though I’d hazard to guess that most of these are the product of growing numbers of college rentals in these areas. I included UMD proper in the east zone, so the school’s growth may help hide some population loss on the east side, though the wider impact of off-campus housing has clearly changed neighborhood dynamics in that area. And while the colleges may cause some decline in the neighborhoods that immediately border them, they more than make up for this by providing very stable, well-paying jobs, both for their employees and their graduates. Time will tell if new apartment developments in the area will stem the tide of converting single-family homes into rentals.

DuluthChgPop

The east side may no longer be the home of many captains of industry, but it has become the home of white-collar professionals, from teachers to doctors for the growing hospitals to the financial and government workers who run the city. Its income may flatline somewhat; there’s not a whole lot of space for development left, and barring aggressive redevelopment—of which there has been some—home values tend to decline with age. But the key anchors are all still there, most indicators are healthy, and there is little reason to expect any changes to this anytime soon. East will remain east.

The Center Collapses

Central Duluth has been slowly hollowed out over the past forty years. It was at the bottom to begin with, but its poverty rate makes for a perfect scissors graph (to borrow a phrase from Robert Putnam), in which the plight of the poor gets steadily worse while the rich hold steady or do better. Duluth is often defined by its east-west gap, but its most glaring divide lies somewhere in the high teen Avenues East. The census tract with the highest poverty rate (Endion) borders the one with per capita income levels that would put it in the company of Edina and Minnetonka on a statewide list (East End).

DuluthPovByArea

A chunk of the Endion, East Hillside, and Lower Chester poverty is probably college-related, but those poverty rates glide easily into the neighborhoods in the center of the city, which are undeniably Duluth’s poorest. There’s really no way to spin the statistics for all of these neighborhoods in the center of the city; most were fairly poor in 1970, and are now very poor and continuing to shed population. The one obvious exception is Park Point, whose beachfront lots have only grown more attractive to developers; Observation Hill has also rebounded enough to escape the “lowest” lists, most likely thanks to those fancier houses up near the ridgeline. One other eye-popping statistic, Downtown’s increase in population, dates to the first decade of the study, meaning the likely cause was the construction of high-rises like the Gateway and Lenox towers. It’s been mostly flat ever since.

DuluthPov

A tour of the Hillside today will reveal a few changes, from a few new apartments and urban gardens to some serious reclamation efforts of historic buildings, both by the city (as on downtown East Superior Street) and by intrepid owners. I don’t think it’s coincidental that some of Duluth’s most committed public servants, including current mayor Don Ness and his likely successor, Emily Larson, are Hillsiders: these people see several different paths for Duluth around them every day, and are committed to making things right. Things seem to be moving in the center now, with some new low-income housing that will do nothing to disperse poverty, but should at least improve living conditions. Downtowns around the United States are largely on the rebound, and Duluth may someday follow suit. Still, it won’t happen overnight.

The West Side: Post-Industrial Variety

There are a lot of things going on in the data out west, and it’s hard to find an overarching story. The most basic rule to the west side is that wealth gathers on top of the hill: Piedmont ranks right up there with the middle-class east side neighborhoods in 1970 and isn’t far behind in 2010, Cody and the area just above Denfeld does alright for itself, and Bayview Heights saw considerable new development, flipping from the high-poverty list in 1970 to the low-poverty list in 2010. (There’s a decent case for lumping Bayview in with the exurbs, given its greater proximity to Proctor than any part of Duluth.) Lincoln Park mostly behaves like the center of the city, though its poverty has crept outward over time. Denfeld/Oneota, Spirit Valley, Irving, and Morgan Park are on the lower end of things, though not on the level of the center city. Smithville/Riverside/Norton Park, able to reap the benefits of the riverfront without any industry in the area, is somewhat better off, while Gary New Duluth/Fon-du-Lac has grown some, too. The city’s west side redevelopment plan calls for taking advantage of the river, but the neighborhoods with good river access are already doing relatively well compared to the rest of the west side. (I’m not saying there’s an easy policy solution to that, but it’s worth noting.)

DuluthIPC

The most telling west side statistics may come in a comparison of poverty rates across time. In 1970, poverty was pretty evenly distributed on the east and west sides; two of the four lowest-poverty tracts were out west, and with a couple of exceptions, they are low across the board. The west side wasn’t rich in 1970, but most everyone had access to decent-paying jobs and could stay out of poverty. In 2010, the script has flipped: only a handful of holdouts still have those low poverty rates. While not as extreme as the center, the gaps persist and grow.

DuluthPCIByArea

Things came apart with the collapse of the manufacturing base in the 1970s and 1980s. A comparison of per capita incomes over time shows fairly steady lines for most of the regions (and the nation as a whole), but the west side takes a sudden detour downhill in the 70s and especially the 80s, the decade in which the U.S. Steel mill in Morgan Park shut down. The west side has bounced back some since, but on the whole, it subtle scissors graphs show a trajectory closer to that of the poverty-stricken center than the steady east or the rising exurbs. This is the demise of blue-collar America in one simple graph.

The Rise of the Hinterlands

A glance at Duluth’s population stats would suggest the city has had flat growth for a long time now, but in reality, the region has been growing since the population bottomed out in 1990. Some growth has happened in areas up “Over the Hill,” but most of the growth has happened beyond the city limits, in a number of townships and Duluth’s two incorporated neighbors, Hermantown and Proctor. Excepting central Proctor and the part of Hermantown that bleeds into Miller Hill Mall, these areas are very sparsely populated; this is why I’ve called them “exurbs” rather than “suburbs.”

DuluthPopByArea

In 1970, these exurban areas had low poverty rates, but also low income rates; they were mostly basic rural areas where not much was happening. That means they’ve had plenty of room to go up, and have indeed dominated the lists of greatest ‘climbers’ ever since, both in population and income. Proctor and Midway Township have had modest population losses since 1970, and Rice Lake Township, which was already somewhat built up, has only grown slightly. Otherwise, these areas have all grown by 20 percent or more, and this growth has been accompanied by concurrent gains in wealth. (The only exception to that is the sprawling Kenwood census tract, which has the college population to contend with.) Especially impressive is the strong rise in income between 2000 and 2010, despite the effects of the recession. (The Duluth area as a whole actually held up quite well through the recession, as the center and west declined less than the national average and the east stayed even.) While only a few of them have cracked the “highest income per capita” list, they are on the way up, and poverty remains universally low. Duluth’s middle class, so hollowed out by the industrial decline, has been able to rebound somewhat in the exurbs, where land is cheap and taxes tend to be lower.

So long as the regional economy grows, this trend should carry on. There’s still plenty of space out there, with the caveat that much of its allure stems from its rural character, and that could change as it gets built up. Poverty has made its move toward the inner suburbs in many larger cities, so it will be interesting to see if Duluth follows suit at all; Duluth doesn’t really have inner-ring suburbs, as it had stopped growing at the time most of those arose nationally. That may actually wind up being an asset, as neighborhoods with uniform housing stocks all decay at the same rate, and many Duluth neighborhoods (probably by accident) do a decent job of avoiding that. And while the exurbs have nearly closed the gap in income with the east side, I also suspect that may level off at some point; it’s not as if Duluth has a booming class of nouveau riche, and the pace of development isn’t enough to justify an explosion of McMansions that could topple Congdon from the top of the income list anytime soon.

ShutUpProctor

Thanks a lot, Proctor.

Duluth coexists awkwardly with its exurbs. Township members have forcefully rebuffed occasional attempts to annex territory, and the city has been largely inelastic over the past century. Predictably, township residents have little interest in paying taxes to prop up Duluth’s underclass, and predictably, Duluth points out how much these townships enjoy jobs, shopping, and cultural opportunities without paying to support them. It’s an endless cycle that has been played out in countless cities, though the state of the squabble is usually a good indicator of the economic health of the metro area. When the area is growing, everyone does better, and growth in one area need not come at the expense of another; when things are more stagnant, one’s neighbors become the easy targets for blame. During the worst of the downturn in the 1980s, the exurban areas lost population, just like the rest of the city. Exurban growth is now reality, but stands to gain even more if the more downtrodden parts of Duluth can get back on their feet. It is not a zero-sum game.

Conclusions

Not much here is wildly surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to these things around Duluth, but the numbers and trends throw things into sharp relief. It also fits pretty cleanly with the dominant narrative of American cities since 1970: widening gaps, the isolation of the super-wealthy, the hollowing out of the center, the loss of blue-collar jobs, the rise of the exurbs, and a new creative class. Duluth fits the general mold and that is unlikely to change, though it will be interesting to see if some of the Don Ness Era innovations can push Duluth to the vanguard of the changes instead of trailing along behind the rest of the country. The City of Eternal Air Conditioning is beyond the point where it can just ape the narrative of other mid-sized cities on the Great Lakes. It has to write its own.

See Part II (Tables and Methodology) here.

Denfeld’s Missing Students

15 Jun

Less than ten years ago, Duluth embarked on a controversial school restructuring plan. I won’t rehash the bitter debate here, but the decision to close Duluth Central High did bring one promise with it: the new, two-school arrangement would help make sure that one Duluth public high school wouldn’t seem to dwarf the other, as Duluth East so often did to Central and Denfeld, both in terms of enrollment and in academic and athletic achievement. Yet here we are in 2015: Duluth East’s enrollment has been climbing steadily higher over the past half-decade, while Denfeld’s has sagged. East now clocks in around 1,500 students, while Denfeld can’t scrape up 900. How on earth did things get so lopsided? I dove into some census data to find out.

First, though, I should start with the things that the census can’t explain in full detail. The first is the poverty rate, which, while imperfect, tends to have very strong implications for how likely kids are to finish school. I calculate the poverty rates at 14.0 percent for East and 21.3 percent for Denfeld, respectively; that’s a pretty substantial difference. Moreover, I suspect the data over-reports actual poverty on the east side due to its large population of college students; for example, the poverty rate for the Hunter’s Park and Hartley areas, which I would have guessed are among the most well-off in the city, is actually over 15 percent, or nearly triple that of neighboring Woodland. Unity High School, the District’s alternative high school option, almost certainly draws in more west side kids, further driving down the numbers. Transience, which is not well-studied, also plays a huge role, with the constant disruption in students’ lives preventing lasting commitments to schools. Simply based on its demographics, Denfeld is going to end up with fewer students than East, even if the lines are drawn to give east and west side schools the same number of students.

Moving the Line

The boundaries, of course, are not even. The current line, which heads up 6th Avenue East and Kenwood Avenue, gives a majority of Duluth’s land area to Denfeld. Even so, East’s attendance area has about 1,000 more K-12-aged kids (6,900 versus 5,900) in the area it draws from. This hardly explains the whole difference, but it certainly explains some of it. As one west-side politician frustrated with the imbalance once told me, just move the line east!

If only it were that easy. When the Red Plan was put into place, 6th Avenue wasn’t the dividing line. It was noticeably further east, at 14th Avenue East, and having it in that rough area would effectively equalize the populations (6,394 in the East area versus 6,427 in Denfeld’s). However, some people quickly noted that 14th Avenue East was the old red-lining boundary in Duluth—that is, the line used to enforce a racial zoning code that prevented minorities from buying houses on the east side. Understandably squeamish about harkening back to that legacy, the District moved the line to 6th Avenue. The neighborhoods between those avenues are among Duluth’s poorest, with poverty rates all in excess of 30 percent; the 6th Avenue line made East more diverse and gave it a greater number of low-income students. While reverting back to a line somewhere in the mid-teen avenues would perhaps be the easiest fix for the enrollment disparity, it would only exacerbate the have-have not dynamic between East and Denfeld, lowering East’s poverty rate to 10.5 percent and raising Denfeld’s to 23.6 percent.

The only alternative line-drawing method to equalize populations would likely have to go north, reaching into Rice Lake Township and perhaps beyond. It’s a bit of a gerrymander that would make for some long bus rides or drives, but it would still make some geographic sense, and has the added benefit of pulling from a fairly wealthy township with a relatively large student population. But exactly for that reason, it might prove less politically possible: hell hath no fury like wealthy members of a township who are threatened with possible contact with other types of people, especially when it comes from the dictates of an urban bureaucracy. This is the planner’s paradox, as they aim for both equity and public participation, and often find that the two are at odds.

Bad Projections?

The school district might also have incorrectly predicted future population trends. In my digging, I stumbled across a very detailed mid-2000s population projection requested by then-Superintendent Julio Almanza. In typical ISD 709 fashion, it was a total mess: upon receiving it he chose not to share it with anyone because it was “confusing,” which understandably had the School Board feeling a bit insulted, and everyone was left in disagreement and nothing got done. (Some related press clippings are at the end of the PDF.) The researcher expects a loss of over 30 percent of the school-age population in East’s attendance area between 2000 and 2015, while the rest of the city loses maybe 10-15 percent. If this seems baffling, well, it should: my calculations show that Denfeld lost slightly more between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, with both hovering around an 18 percent drop. The narrative does flip some if we use the (somewhat less reliable) 2013 ACS data; East’s decline rate increases a tiny bit to 20 percent, while Denfeld suddenly adds a few potential students thanks to growth in Duluth Heights, and its 2000-2013 decline rate is only 15 percent. Still, one data point that breaks from longtime trends is hardly vindication, and with the reports of overcrowding in east side elementaries, I remain a skeptic that this uptick in the Heights will lead to a sizable shift in high school populations down the road. Whether or not the Keith Dixon administration employed these stats in the making of the Red Plan, they do not appear to be a reliable guide.

I’m not trashing the researchers; their methods are standard and solid, and they hit all the right caveats. The thing they can’t account for is human nature. This includes internal migration trends, and the extent to which the east side remains the home of Duluth cake while the west side retains a Rust Belt stigma. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in school choice, where people flock to the “good” schools and flee the “struggling” ones. The fate of one’s own children is often where the faith of some of the greatest believers in equity goes to die—and, to an extent, I can’t fault anyone for that.

The Weakness of Boundaries

Still, if this is why East is gaining students while Denfeld sheds them, it must be coming from people who physically move; the District’s internal open enrollment numbers show only a very modest net gain for East. Marshall doesn’t seem a likely culprit for imbalance either, given its hefty price tag more easily paid by east side families. Charter schools might explain some elementary disparities, but Harbor City is Duluth’s lone charter high, and it too draws from both sides. Of course, that will change when the new Edison behemoth opens up on Rice Lake Road, most likely furthering the disproportionate whacking of Denfeld’s numbers. If it can make its enrollment projections (and this is no guarantee), it may be as large as Denfeld once the dust has settled.

The real cause of the missing Denfeld students has to be open enrollment out of ISD 709 and into neighboring communities. The only readily available numbers are from 2010, which was probably the top year for bailing on Duluth amid Red Plan upheaval, but they are stark. (I suppose I could ask for newer data, but considering the District’s record on data sharing, I might get it by 2047 if I begged really nicely.) The biggest beneficiary of open enrollment is affluent Hermantown, which is at capacity and building its own new facilities to accommodate more Duluth transplants. They alone gained over 200 Duluthians (grades K-12) in 2010, many of them from Piedmont and Duluth Heights, where some homes are closer to the Hermantown schools than they are to Denfeld. But there’s also open enrollment into Proctor, which is well over half Denfeld’s size despite drawing from an area that has at best one-quarter the population. It goes into Esko, the wealthiest municipality in northern Minnesota (yes, you read that right). And into tiny Wrenshall, practically kept afloat by Duluth flight. There’s a steady drain out of the District and into these neighboring towns, and demographic analysis has serious limits in this era of free school movement. By their nature, open markets create winners and losers; in Duluth’s case, the loser is obvious, and it is up to each person to decide if the gains are worth the costs that will be borne by the losers.

The Red Plan’s Shadow

I suspect Duluth would have lost kids regardless, but it probably didn’t have to be this way, and this hints at what is, ultimately, the most enduring damage of the Red Plan saga. It’s not the price tag; without re-opening the debate over the various plans, Duluth needed a fix, and it wasn’t going to be cheap. That, along with the refusal to put the Red Plan on the ballot, has largely blown over, as the results of recent elections show. It’s not the architecture, much as we amateur critics may complain. It’s not quite the decision to sacrifice Central, that ugly and inefficient box on an isolating piece of prime real estate, though that’s getting closer to the truth. It’s not in an exacerbated east-west divide; East’s shadow over the other high schools has always been long, and moving its boundaries further into the Hillside actually made East more economically diverse than it had been.

The Red Plan’s greatest damage came in the disruption it caused for so many students, fostering just enough chaos to drive many from it for good. The vicious cycle goes from there. It was school restructuring as shock therapy, as it took the axe to neighborhood schools and gave Duluth a bunch of pretty, hulking shells with large attendance areas. (What better exemplar of the trend than the new Lincoln Park, which lords over the west side at the top of its steep hill, nearly inaccessible by foot and drawing from Kenwood to Fon du Lac.) In a laboratory the new lines and divides would have been fine, but the Dixon Administration and its allies failed to account for how their drastic plan would disrupt families’ incentives. The old order may not have been sustainable, but the rollout of the new one was poor, especially on the west side, where students were jostled from Denfeld to Central and back to Denfeld to accommodate construction. But even now that the dust has settled, East has added students in recent years, while Denfeld dwindles. The damage has been done.

Still, the Red Plan happened, and it’s done now. Readers of my past ISD 709 stuff will know that there’s nothing I hate more than continued belaboring of that old, stupid argument. Duluth needs to hope that the surge was temporary, and not the start of a snowball rolling down a west side ridge. But more than hope, it needs action. There have been baby steps, from some of the events at Lincoln Park to the intense focus on Laura MacArthur. Perhaps if more data were readily available, it would help us amateur students of ISD 709 and lift the perceived veil of secrecy deployed by the District. Ideas like exit interviews and further studies get tossed around at Board meetings in the rare moments that people behave like adults, but those moments are frustratingly rare, and usually buried behind ledes about the dumb things people are yelling at one another. I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of perpetuating that, and would love to see other people who cover the local education scene focus on what really matters instead of the ongoing personal battles. I’m also not sure that either of those would help; while exit interviews wouldn’t hurt, I don’t think the reasons behind departure are any great secret for anyone with their ears to the ground, and the District definitely shouldn’t waste money on consultants when a lazy grad student can bang out an analysis like this in a couple of days.

What Next?

Even if the recent uptick in school-aged kids on the west side is a blip on the radar, its long-term prospects are probably the best they’ve been in a quarter-century. Duluth is shaking off its long era of decline and stagnation, and with an active focus on west side development and some large chunks of undeveloped land, there’s good reason to suspect the school-age population on the west side will grow in the coming years. The question is, in an era of high-volume student movement that is unlikely to change, can the west side schools stem the flow outward into alternative destinations? A bit more leadership from the top would obviously help, and there are certainly opportunities to better connect with the opportunity and raise test scores. There are no excuses for the District not doing everything it can.

Still, there are only so many top-down things the District can do. Fundamentally, it comes down to parents believing in Denfeld and investing themselves in a school that, traditionally, has overcome demographic destiny and built a solid community. If that goes, the school will fail. This is hardly a brilliant policy prescription, but I have some faith in it, and I think it’s the only one that can counteract the existing incentives. The solution must come from within. Otherwise, the steady losses will continue, the vicious cycle will feed on itself, and those who have the means to get out will do so. It would be a loss for the west side, a loss for any sort of belief in public education, and one could only pity the kids left behind.

Duluth News Roundup: March 2015

15 Mar

Over the past couple months, this blog has neglected any mention of Duluth affairs unrelated to the exploits of one particular hockey team. Time to fix that. I just spent a weekend back home, and Duluth is basking in sunny repose in mid-March, a rare feat that had everyone out enjoying the brownness of it all. (Why do these nice springs only happen when I’m elsewhere?) So, let’s see what’s been in the headlines over the past couple weeks, shall we?

Surprise! Art Johnston Is Suing ISD 709

Okay, maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and everything has, depressingly, played out according to plan.

I go back and forth on what I think will happen if this does play its way through the courts. Harry Welty, who is the only person providing any insight beyond the most basic talking points, thinks Art has a very strong case in that his freedom of speech has been violated. That said, it’s not hard to see Harry’s biases here, and as the tone of his blog has shown recently, he can’t be trusted to be objective when he has an obvious stake in the outcome. From my very limited perspective, I’m not sure the Johnston camp has a good counterargument to the most salient point against him—that he used his influence as a school board member gave him undue power and a conflict of interest in representing his partner, Ms. Jane Bushey, in discussions with district administration. (Johnston supporters are quick to point out that no police report was ever filed against Johnston’s alleged “assault” of Supt. Gronseth, and I agree that it sounds like a fishy and trumped-up charge, but the “bullying” of Ms. Bushey is just as unsubstantiated at this point.)

I’ll agree with Art and Harry that the state’s law allowing school boards to remove members seems way too loose. I’d support the effort to change that, and bring it in line with the standards used for other elected bodies. But unless his lawyers can prove unconstitutionality, a fight that would involve some very high-level courts, the School Board was within its right to exercise its power of removal so long as it found “proper cause.” The Rice Report as written gave them proper cause, and while Art and Harry have questioned Atty. Rice’s character, they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that. This leaves them with the possibility of questioning some of the testimony she relied on to develop that proper cause. Harry enjoys making dark allusions to the actions of one school administrator, but this would tip the case into a number of accusations in the shadows and he-said, she-saids. Is that really a winning case, especially when the other side actually gets to tell its story? I’m not very convinced. And frankly, if the accused party needs character witnesses, she’ll have some good ones. I could be one of them.

I still think it was dumb of the School Board to go down this road against a mostly powerless Member, as Art will only drag this out in the courts forever and make it an even greater PR nightmare. I don’t know why any sentient voter would support any of the seven incumbents based on their conduct at the moment. But I also don’t think this debacle will prove the vindication that the anti-Red Plan camp seems to hope it will become, either. The whole affair is a pox on everyone’s house.

I should’ve gone into education law. Seems like an awfully lucrative field.

Howie Backs Out

As you might guess, I am crushed, simply crushed, to learn that Howie Hanson has withdrawn from the mayoral race.

It’s actually a pretty shrewd move on Howie’s part, and one that lets him get out of the race with dignity before it gets too heated. His odds were low, and this was not the stage for him. This allows him to dedicate himself to his seat on the City Council. Not having watched much lately I don’t know if he’s getting better or if it’s Same Old Howie, but he means well, cares for his residents, and, as one voice among nine, cannot do too much damage.

This leaves Emily Larson alone in the race at the moment, though we still have eight months before the election. Names like Yvonne Prettner-Solon and Chris Dahlberg continue to drift about, but they’ll need to decide fairly soon if they want to have the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. In the end, Larson may be the biggest winner from Howie’s very early entry into the race, as her quick answer allowed her to really get ahead of the pack and get her name out there. I still think this election is hers to lose.

Let’s Sell Some Weed…Or Not.

There was some controversy this past week over the creation of marijuana dispensaries in Duluth; the Planning Commission is going full speed ahead here. The City Council, on the other hand, hasn’t been such a big fan in the past. There were a number of proposed sites—near the airpark, Garfield Avenue, Lincoln Park, somewhere in or around Morgan Park. Not coincidentally, these are all on the west side. For the sake of the west side’s image, I hope it ends up in the airpark or on Garfield Avenue.

The defenders of these sites say they’re all heavy-industrial areas anyway, which is true to an extent, but complexities of land use tend not to come into people’s minds when house-shopping. Saying “there is a pot dispensary in Lincoln Park” is probably enough. Granted, that might not be a turn-off for some people…but, let’s be real. Any rehabilitation of Duluth’s west side isn’t going to be led by a rush of people chasing a marijuana dispensary (unless Duluth goes all rogue and tries to become the Boulder of the North, but I don’t think that’s on the table right now). It’s going to need stable families to set down roots and repopulate the schools. Stick it by the airport or on Garfield.

Chartering a School

I’ve talked about this some before, too, but it’s coming to fruition: Duluth’s Edison charter schools are building a high school on the Snowflake Nordic Center site.

My objection isn’t to educational alternatives (which I support in principle, from private and parochial schools to homeschooling), nor necessarily to the idea of charter schools (though there is growing evidence that, in time, they tend to just become destinations for white flight). It’s to the scale of the project. In a metropolitan area the size of Duluth, subtracting 600 students from local high schools is going to cause a fundamental disruption. Of course, the school will draw from numerous districts; ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims most Edison students nowadays go to Marshall, and now seems unconcerned, but I have a sneaking suspicion over who will be the real loser in this new setup: you guessed it, the school that draws from the area of Duluth right by the new school. Denfeld. The poor get poorer.

Time will tell, of course. But the supporters of the Edison project are, in my mind, far too blithe and/or naïve over the likely effects of their new high school. This area is too small, and we are all interconnected. You do not live in a vacuum.

St. Louis River Corridor

Lest this post get too down on the west side, here’s cause for some potential excitement: we have some nice plans for the St. Louis River corridor redevelopment, most of them involving trails. In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s pretty much all trails; the question becomes one of how to integrate all of these trails with the existing built environment, and how to capitalize on the new attractions. Still, there’s lots of encouraging stuff here, from skiing to rock climbing to horses to river access. There is plenty of ongoing investment in west side amenities. The question is, will genuine economic opportunity follow? Or is this just a cosmetic repair on the surface, one that ignores a collapsed economic base and a declining housing stock? I don’t have the answer there. Time will tell.

For all my grumbling, it was good to be back. Nothing quite matches a Minnesotan’s delight as the coming of spring after the long, cold tunnel of winter. Enjoy your spring, Duluth. I hope to be back again before long.

Hey Duluth Politicians, I’m Still Paying Attention

20 Sep

Yes, Duluth, I’m still paying attention to you, even from afar. Here are a few thoughts on two issues that have been in the news back home recently.

The Proposed Lester Park Golf Course Development

One of the more interesting debates to surface has been about the fate of the Lester Park Golf Course (LPGC), the public course on the far east side for which the city has started fielding proposals from developers. The LPGC has operated at a loss in recent years, and with its superb views of Lake Superior and relatively undeveloped environs, it sits on an attractive piece of real estate. But this decision has, of course, spurred some backlash, with local historian Tony Dierckins rallying the troops in a series of posts over on Zenith City Online. (History of the course here, pointed critiques here.)

Before we get into the merits of this particular plan, Tony makes one point that is especially bothersome when he floats the notion that this somehow detracts from the plan to revitalize the west side. This is the sort of attitude that reinforces the east-west divide, turning development into a zero-sum game. There is plenty of room for development on both sides of Duluth; nothing should be off the table simply because it is on a certain side of the city. Imposing some sort of moratorium on east side development so the west side can play catch-up would be a heavy-handed tool that would likely just leave us with less of anything in the end. Closing LPGC would actually eliminate an east side amenity, and if (if!) it is indeed a profitable move, could free up some cash for the west side. Signs of flexibility and openness to creative ideas would be a positive for the city as a whole, and could improve the overall development climate. Though Duluthians should be proud that their city tends to stop and think before rushing to throw up every new plan placed before it in shiny wrapping, this mindset is exactly what gets Duluth a reputation for being stuck in the mud when it comes to development. There’s room for many different options.

I’m also not entirely sold on a number of his other defenses of LPGC. Yes, it’s public, and gives green access to golfers who can’t afford Northland or Ridgeview Country Clubs. But it’s also not a free amenity open to anyone, and calling a golf course ‘nature’ or an opportunity for serious physical activity is something of a stretch, especially in a city like Duluth. Golf courses are odd ducks in the planning world: they’re recreational, but very specific in purpose, and take up a lot of land area. Tony gives a massive job loss number, but it’s worth noting that many of them are seasonal and not exactly careers, such as caddying. These jobs are great for kids starting work and a few seasoned pros, of course, but it’s not comparable to closing a factory.

Tony’s financial numbers seem fishy at best. It’s certainly not the government’s job to subsidize golf at whatever cost, and if the market’s not there, the local golf community either needs to pony up or face reality. It may be a bit premature to throw LPGC under the bus—Tony does have a not-so-very-old quote from CAO Montgomery dismissing any financial concerns about the courses that needs an explanation—but things do need to add up here. Tony has a pretty clear personal interest in LPGC, and while there’s nothing wrong with that—I’d be putting out some prolific venting if the city, say, tried to do away with Fryberger Arena—let’s not pretend he’s laying out these facts without a clear agenda.

All of that said, barring an offer the city can’t refuse, I do think it would be shortsighted to just shut the place down and put up a new, strictly residential subdivision. Overcrowding at the Enger course would be a serious issue, as would the loss of a venue for major charitable events. Golf does have genuine cultural value, and generates some tourism. Weather might have played a role in recent financial struggles, and LPGC is also sadly burdened by the hopelessly arcane liquor sales ban that lives on in Lakeside. The public needs to learn a lot more about the course’s operations before it accepts that it just has to go.

The good news is that some of the proposals apparently do not involve the total loss of the golf course. Preserving 18 holes while allowing for some modest development might prove a sensible compromise. Ideally, any redevelopment will maintain some parkland and public access to the excellent views along LPGC, no matter what fate befalls the course. The ideal plan would also probably bring some space for business along with it, instead of isolating a group of houses out on a cul-du-sac off Lester River Road. I’m intrigued to see what comes out of this. Tell me more.

September School Board Meeting

Oh, yeah, that thing. I’m afraid it still exists, and is just as absurd as ever. I made it about halfway through the Youtube video before giving up. It started off as usual, with Members Johnston and Welty doing lots of grandstanding for entirely understandable reasons, as they still have not been given any clear path to get anything on the Board’s agenda. Chair Miernicki continues to be the greatest PR operation the minority could have dreamed of on their behalf, persistently bumbling through everything.

At one point, Member Johnston said that Chair Miernicki had told him that he was “scared” of him in an email, which is telling. Many adjectives could be applied to Member Johnston, a number of them not very nice, but “scary” is not really one of them. Years of battles have left the majority paranoid about the man, and even his more mundane critiques give rise to defensiveness. Everyone is so well-trained at taking those who they do not agree with in bad faith.

This fear of minority critiques came out later in the meeting, when Member Harala lost her cool and snapped at Member Welty for his (real, but fairly mundane) grandstanding on minority students’ poor test scores. So much for the one person on the majority who I thought was making a concerted effort to see things from the other side. Predictably, this sent Member Johnston off the rails with accusations of harassment and lack of care for minorities, in turn sending Chair Miernicki into justified indignance. After that bit of ugliness, I stopped watching. Member Johnston said the Board has done nothing for underserved groups, but this is patently false. Whatever one thinks of it, the Laura MacArthur curriculum flap is obviously an effort to cater directly to groups that need extra help in school, and from my time there onward, there has been a very concerted effort on the part of the East administration to directly engage with minority students. (In fact, there were even a few jokes in poor taste about how this was the only thing the administration cared about.) I doubt East is unique there. Just because it isn’t being announced with trumpets doesn’t mean it isn’t getting done. Its efficacy may be another story, though, and everyone seemed to be in violent agreement that this is a conversation worth having.

The trouble is that the conversation will likely go in the exact same direction. Members Welty and (especially) Johnston are full of depressing facts but short on solutions, in turn leading to defensiveness and qualifications from the rest. I’m all for the accurate reporting of the statistics, but just reading off the numbers does little to advance the conversation. Stupid as it may be, Members Johnston and Welty may have to cater to their colleagues’ fragile sensibilities if they really do want to have this conversation (which they already do somewhat with a lot of qualification), and some brevity might do them a world of good, too. Unfortunately, the success of Laura MacArthur may be leading some on the Board to believe that this is an easy problem to solve. Member Welty says he won’t be happy with mere incremental success, and the Board should obviously aim to do all it can, but in the end, I’d be relieved with some slow, steady progress. While he may just have been in a state after Member Harala’s outburst, Member Johnston’s suggestion that the achievement gap exists because people aren’t trying is just his bad faith reading of people he does not like. This is a brutally hard issue to fix.

The same could be said of the east-west divide, which also came up in relation to test scores after everyone got all of their hating on testing and No Child Left Behind out of the way. (If there’s one thing that seems to unite everyone in the room, and can even get Chair Miernicki to praise some of Marcia Stromgren’s words, it’s a hatred of tests.) The concerns about equity between East and Denfeld came up again, and while I’ve already said plenty on that, I’ll again point out what a bind the District is in as it tries to correct for some of these issues. The new curriculum director has his work cut out for him, though as I suggested in that past post, there are some creative ways to offer greater equity while also working within reality.

I’m not going to defend the Board’s existing efforts fully, though, and at their worst, some Members do sound like patronizing teachers when they acknowledge problems but do not share any further details, or dismiss them in facile ways. (See Chair Miernicki’s suggestion that, because something appears in the curriculum guide, this must automatically mean there is equal access to classes at both high schools. Please. And what is this nonsense about a full year of lifeskills—by far the most useless class I had in ISD 709, though that was perhaps related to the teacher—instead of offering Spanish at Lincoln Park?) It’s all part of the culture of secrecy inside the District. It may not look like it exists from inside the bubble, but it does, and it’s glaring. Read this DNT op ed and some of Harry’s correspondents for more details.

The public speaker session included Linda Puglisi’s jarring story of a pool rescue, once again showing the horrors of teachers trying to do the best they can with large class sizes. Another speaker hammered this theme home when discussing Lester Park, and I’ve heard similar stories out of Congdon. Not coincidentally, these schools are on the east side; in addition to serving the area of the city with the most young people, they are the ones families are trying to transfer into, often blackmailing the District with threats of withdrawal if they don’t get their way. Even so, class sizes are still a problem, despite a few added teachers here and there thanks to the levy money. This Board has some work to do, and it needs to do more than “have conversations”–though in some cases, it isn’t even doing that.

On that happy note, I’ll cut myself off. Writing about Duluth politics is cathartic. I miss it, in a twisted sort of way.