A Duluth Neighborhood Typology

As I approach the three-year anniversary of my return to Duluth, I’m still poking around to understand it with different lenses. To that end, the most fruitful thing I’ve read in a while was a piece in American Affairs by Salim Furth, which tries to apply an economist’s perspective to neighborhoods to understand what it takes to make a strong neighborhood. Furth’s question is a salient one, particularly in a time when few people work in the neighborhood in which they live, and in which mass suburbanization across the country (and modest suburbanization in Duluth’s metro) have upended the notion of what a neighborhood is for a generation or two of Americans.

Duluth strikes me as well-suited to this sort of study of neighborhoods. Its neighborhoods tend to have more obvious boundaries than cities on a traditional grid, which makes it easier to identify the “egohoods,” as Furth calls them, that people use to understand their own surroundings. We know where they all are, and this city’s choppy economic history also lets us see successes and failures in a way less possible in areas with nonstop growth. This is also a timely discussion, as the city just rolled out a plan to explore greater development efforts on certain core investment areas. While correlation by no means implies causation—I’ve discussed elsewhere how Duluth’s neighborhoods came to be as they are in terms of income—it can give us some helpful guides to the future. So, I’ve divided Duluth’s neighborhoods as follows:

Traditional Neighborhoods

When people think of neighborhoods, this is what they imagine. West Duluth or Spirit Valley or Denfeld, or whatever you want to call it, with its own downtown and neighboring schools, is probably Duluth’s most robust example. Lakeside has its commercial node and a school not too far away that covers basically just that one neighborhood. Woodland’s school situation is a little blurrier, with Homecroft off to one side and a Montessori and private elementary option in the middle, but the basic idea still stands. Piedmont likewise has a school and a small commercial district at its heart. I’m also going to include the upper portions of East Hillside in this category: it has Myers-Wilkins Elementary, it has modest commercial corridors along 9th Street and 6th Avenue East, and it certainly has a distinctive character, with a concentration of homeowners not present further down the hill or in Central Hillside. Gary has most of the amenities as well, albeit more marginally, so I’ll put it here rather than somewhere else.

What do these neighborhoods have in common? They all date back to the start of the 20th century, though they’ve all seen at least some continued development. Most could be reasonably described as middle-income or upper-middle-income; this category includes neither Duluth’s wealthiest areas, nor its poorest. The first four are the purest examples, including the three that I’d put more on the upper side of middle class (Lakeside, Woodland, Piedmont). West Duluth, despite hosting the largest commercial district of the bunch, has been more constrained in its development and therefore has older housing and lower incomes. The Upper Hillside has blurrier boundaries and its school has a much wider reach than just the neighborhood, as does Stowe in Gary; these two commercial areas are also less developed, lacking grocery stores (excepting perhaps Whole Foods Co-Op, depending on where one draws the lines). As a result, they aren’t as wealthy, though they retain a strong sense of community.

College Town, Duluth Style

Three neighborhoods abut the University of Minnesota-Duluth and College of St. Scholastica, and they’ve all evolved in response to this reality. They have all lost their public elementary schools, but have developed commercial centers that help them thrive, and are solidly upper middle-class areas when one cuts out the college students, whose incomes are not reflective of socioeconomic status. Kenwood lost its school in 1993, but has a thriving commercial hub at Kenwood and Arrowhead that can provide about any basic need, and its many little pockets, whether renter-heavy or full of higher-end homes, feed right into that cluster. Likewise, the Mount Royal shopping center fits that function for the Hunters Park neighborhood, and has a community anchor in its library, plus a couple of other amenities like the Glen Avon sports complex that have kept the neighborhood identity (and higher property values) alive despite some college student outgrowth south of Arrowhead Road and the closure of the elementary school in that same 1993 consolidation.  Just to the south, Chester Park lost its two schools in the early 00s but gained a commercial node at Bluestone, a late-stage adaptation to life as a neighborhood neighboring a college.

In the absence of a true college neighborhood like a Dinkytown or a State Street, Duluth has spawned three little commercial nodes around its two four-year institutions. It’s a funny arrangement that makes it difficult to do anything at scale, and has led college students to leapfrog down the hill into Endion and the Hillside, which I don’t think is optimal for anyone. (Count me among those who think UMD has historically shirked its responsibility to house students, with negative implications for all involved.) But it has also created some livable, amenity-filled neighborhoods around the colleges whose stability somewhat belies the ongoing concerns that the students are ruining the neighborhoods.

Bedroom Enclaves

There are a couple of neighborhoods that are basically devoid of commercial uses, but have strong neighborhood identities. Congdon has no businesses to speak of (other than the country club, I guess), but has commercial areas on almost all sides and several well-regarded schools at the center, which keeps Duluth’s wealthiest district distinct in character. Park Point, for reasons of geography, is also a very distinct neighborhood, despite seeing its one mini commercial node at 19th Street slip away. Morley Heights, if not lumped in with Hunters Park, fits this mold also; it does have the Montessori school at its center. The wealthier portion of Duluth Heights that is thoroughly residential but within an easy drive of the mall area also fits this bill; it lost Birchwood Elementary some time ago, but Lowell is still right there for it.

These neighborhoods uniformly have the highest median family incomes in the city. The well-off like their relative peace and quiet, though neighboring commercial districts create a more accessible urban experience than, say, in Hermantown. Their futures are probably more of the same, as home age doesn’t much affect quality here, and while they might be able to handle a few more amenities, property values and natural features keep them what they are. They are also, on the whole, quite small population-wise.

Commerce First

Some parts of the city have notable commercial districts but have lost schools, or never had one to begin with. Central Hillside and the lower portions of East Hillside have commercial nodes at places along Fourth Street and at the Plaza shopping center; Central Hillside suffered a more recent loss of other institutions, like Historic Central High and Nettleton Elementary. Morgan Park, a pocket of unique history that lost its school in the Red Plan restructuring of the late aughts, also qualifies. We’ll see if it maintains enough commercial activity to stay here, or if it drifts into the next category I’ll describe. On the extreme side of spectrum is Downtown, which has a small population but is a major commercial hub. These neighborhoods are uniformly low-income, which says something about how schools and urban planning go hand-in-hand, though the causal arrows would require a much longer discourse.

A related concept, less a neighborhood but relevant here, using a term from urbanist Charles Marohn via Furth, is the “stroad”: those commercial, fast-moving urban strips that combine the worst of many worlds. London Road above the east side on the freeway is obvious here, though with a recent uptick in development, maybe the road will catch up with its bike lanes and become more of a destination. (Can I lobby for a boulevard or some greenery to lessen the completely unnecessary suburban feel?) Central Entrance, a road whose name can’t hide its purpose of moving people to one place from another, also qualifies, and is apparently on the docket for some aesthetic enhancement. The entire mall area would seem to fall in this category. By any measure, these are successful commercial areas that generate wealth, but to date they have not invited much of anyone to live alongside them.

If there’s good news for the hyper-concentrations of commerce near the mall and even in Downtown, it’s that it’s much easier to build new housing in a commercial zone than it is to build new commercial uses in a residential zone, and we’re starting to see some new development that could help tip these areas toward more of a genuine neighborhood status, especially Downtown. The mall’s commercial success has been an accessory for growth and new housing, both in aforementioned Duluth Heights and in Hermantown. It’s just reflective of the paradox Furth details, in which a sense of neighborhood declines even as wealth increases and a suburban future takes hold.

Going forward, I’m curious to see if Hermantown is content to be a suburban strip with mostly high-income development tucked away on its township-style roads and cul-de-sacs, united by investment in a school system. If it wants grow at any faster rate, it’s either going to have to shift, either with more affordable levels of housing or some sort of New Urbanist style development that would turn it into something very different from the quasi-rural place it is now. Rice Lake, which lacks the Highway 53 commercial corridor and separate school system but shares Hermantown’s general demographics, also has some decisions to make. (And since we’re on the topic of Duluth’s neighbors, I suppose Proctor would qualify as a traditional neighborhood, with Duluth’s Bayview Heights neighborhood as a residential appendage.)

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Duluth’s industrial zones: its working waterfront, its airpark, and its west side business parks. These areas understandably demand some separation from everything else, though the cleanliness of most modern industry makes these strict lines less necessary than they once were. They fulfill vital functions, and a healthy path forward keeps them around (and could even grow them with the old U.S. Steel site) while also allowing less intrusive industry into places like the Lincoln Park craft district, where it has thrived.

Neighborhoods Lost?

My own neighborhood, Endion, is something of a relic with no real identity: its school closed in 1977, and it has very few commercial uses above London Road. In reality, it’s a buffer state between Congdon and the Hillside, and it shares a commercial core with the lower Hillside and hospital areas. For many of these reasons, I don’t see it as a long-term home. Observation Hill lost Emerson Elementary in 1979, and while it’s got some fascinating relics of past eras, it is now mostly a collection of housing all over the income map wedged between Downtown and Lincoln Park. The portion lower portions of Duluth Heights probably fall in this category also, with the original Lowell Elementary and the new Central High no longer, and some very uniform new developments such as Boulder Ridge and a collection of townhomes below it.

On the west side, I see places like Fairmount and Irving in the same way: long-shuttered schools and little in the way of commerce, though Fairmount abuts a stroad-ish section of Grand Avenue and could conceivably drop into a few different categories here, and there is a charter school in the area to provide an option. There’s some potential to build something cohesive between these two neighborhoods if they can unite and develop something resembling a commercial district instead of a strip along Grand; the city has done some small area planning, and it’s worth watching to see if anything comes of this.

Norton Park, Smithville, Riverside, and Fond du Lac are also distinct thanks to geography, lacking in any of the defining features used in this typology; they could, plausibly, become bedroom-type communities with greater development, but given their small size, they lack the critical mass that defines the higher-income bedroom neighborhoods or invite in a genuine commercial district. They are more tucked-away areas where people can live comfortably out of the way if they so choose, though on the whole they trend toward middle to lower incomes, quiet little escapes strung out along the river that neither show signs of decline nor bustle with new life.

Lincoln Park Gets Its Own Section

In the past, Lincoln Park would have fit naturally into the traditional neighborhood category, even if it was a rather hardscrabble one. But in no area of Duluth are greater changes afoot. The new Lincoln Park Middle School is on the neighborhood’s far west side in place of an elementary school at its core. Its old central node along Superior Street, meanwhile, is unrecognizable from what it was a decade or two ago. It is now a thriving commercial area, and it seems as if denser housing is coming along right behind it. If this commercial renaissance can continue on the other side of 53—and there are signs that this is happening, since there is a respectable commercial corridor along West Third and that oddly placed school for all its seeming travails—we could see a neighborhood change overnight. If not, we may see a divergence between a thriving commercial core and a left-behind version of that old traditional neighborhood, an area more two neighborhoods instead of one.

The chance of new investment across the full swath of a low-income area invites a debate over gentrification, which is a new concept in Duluth. Gentrification is an overused word that can mean a lot of different things, and I personally try to avoid it because I don’t think it advances our understanding. As we assess the changes in Lincoln Park, I’d ask the following questions: are rising property values actively displacing people? (The evidence for displacement, even in cities where change moves much more quickly, is often scant.) Are longtime residents benefitting from, or at least appreciative of, some of the changes that may follow? Is the city losing cultural touchstones whose loss would be a tragedy, particularly for certain communities?

What Next?

Aside from the Lincoln Park questions, I see a few obvious areas of focus as we think about the future of Duluth’s neighborhoods.  For starters, this analysis is an unabashed endorsement of the core investment areas. Cultivating those neighborhood centers should create a virtuous cycle of community involvement and social capital. Not every Duluth neighborhood can be a Congdon, but many can come closer to approximating Piedmont or Lakeside with enough cultivation of resources that can lift all boats.

Second, future planners need to consider schools as central to the urban future, and make any future building and boundary decisions accordingly. “Schools, more than any remaining American institution, bring people together on the basis of geography,” Furth writes, and he’s right. It’s stunning to see how many of Duluth’s neighborhood names, even and especially the ones that seem incoherent now, have their roots in the location of an elementary school. (Even Lakeside/Lester Park, which basically everyone now considers one neighborhood, retains those two old names because, until 1993, there was a Lakeside and a Lester Park public elementary school.) In an age of declining civic involvement, we need to reinforce those cores we do have.

A lot of good neighborhoods are driven by things far beyond schools and commercial nodes, from geography to the efforts of a handful of very committed people who I won’t try to assess in a blog post. I also didn’t mention parks because basically every Duluth neighborhood has good parks, but keeping them fresh and bringing back programming can go a long way. Things besides neighborhoods can construct thick networks that create pleasant lives and support people instead of holding them back, but fundamentally, the neighborhood still matters in so many aspects of life. Intelligent public policy needs to support them and move them forward, not just in immediate response to needs or complaints, but in a coherent vision for what comes next.


What Is Duluth’s Future?

This is going to be a sprawling post, and I envision it as the start of a series on Duluth, Minnesota, my hometown, that builds on the fairly narrow focus of my posts on city council and school board meetings.  For those of you who have never been there, it is a city of 85,000 on the tip of Lake Superior, and the world’s largest freshwater port; and no, it is not a suburb of Minneapolis. (When I was in the college on the East Coast and told my classmates I was from Duluth, Minnesota, the inevitable next question was, “is that near Minneapolis?” They didn’t know how to respond when the answer was “no.” There were also the girls who once asked me if Minnesota was near Maine. And the one who didn’t believe that ice fishing was a real thing. But I digress.)

At any rate, a few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Putnam, a Harvard scholar famous for his book Bowling Alone, which explores the decline of communal bonds in the United States. His work is some of the most fascinating stuff on modern American culture, though as with all scholarly work, there are intelligent critiques and rebuttals and endless back-and-forth nitpicking. While nuance is always necessary, I do worry about fraying social fabric and the increasing isolation in modern America, and perhaps more importantly, the pathologies that afflict an increasingly stratified society, from broken families to drug abuse to cycles of poverty. Without going straight into causes, solutions, and ultimate implications, it is clear there is a problem here. The ability of a city to cope with or adapt to these issues will likely determine its fate.

This particular article was more focused, however; it told the story of Port Clinton, Putnam’s Ohio hometown along the shores of Lake Erie. Like much of Middle America, Port Clinton has not fared particularly well economically in recent decades; its manufacturing base has collapsed, and though its lakeside location has kept some money in the town, it is now very divided, and not the foundation for the American Dream Putnam claims it was when he grew up there in the 1950s.

There is a shoutout to Duluth near the end of the piece, and the parallels are not hard to see. (The results of the Duluth surveys taken for Putnam’s project, while they do not mention many of the things discussed in the NYT piece, are here.) Duluth is much larger than Port Clinton, but for a while, it looked like it was going down the tubes when it lost its U.S. Steel mill and shed perhaps 30,000 residents toward the end of the 20th century. Like Port Clinton, Duluth has weathered the storm somewhat thanks to tourism dollars, and it has been fairly stable for two decades now. For all its troubles, Duluth really hasn’t fallen off the cliff in the way Putnam seems to think Port Clinton has.

If Duluth doesn’t fit so smoothly into the narrative of Midwestern industrial decline, we have to ask what sort of story we can tell about Duluth. In addition to the tourism dollars, I’d attribute Duluth’s resilience to two factors:

1. Due to its size, it remains a regional hub in a way that most small towns in America aren’t. Duluth may not have grown since it stopped shedding people in the early 90s, but it also isn’t shrinking, while most of the rest of the region is; its quasi-suburban areas, Hermantown and several unincorporated townships, have actually seen some growth. While Duluth may not have the opportunities Minneapolis does, it does have some allure when compared to small northern Minnesota towns. It has two 4-year universities, remains a busy transportation hub, and many regional services that cannot be outsourced to a metropolis or Malaysia (health care, certain government agencies, etc.) are based here.

2. Old money. At the start of the twentieth century, Duluth was a millionaires’ playground, and though not all of the grand old houses on the east side are in the best of shape these days, a chunk of the money is still here, doled out from trusts, foundations, and donations from heirs. For example, the revitalization along the waterfront likely would not have been possible without the efforts of the late pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci, whose restaurants anchor the Canal Park area. Putnam’s piece mentions the scholarships set up for many local students; Duluth has a bevy of such awards, and I received one that kept me debt-free through college.

(In a rebuttal to the Putnam piece, Front Porch Republic’s Jeffrey Polet points out that such scholarships may simply funnel graduates out of town, never to return. He may have a point; I am sure some of the recipients I graduated with, happily farmed out to elite colleges, will never be back. In my case, however, the strength of the Community Foundation and my sense of obligation to that history were among the many things that kept me grounded here.)

Duluth does very well in the indicators of social cohesion, which bodes well for the city, though some of Putnam’s later work shows that more homogenous communities tend to have much stronger social fabrics (a fact that so deeply troubled Putnam that he took years to release his data). Duluth, being 92% white and with strong northern European ties, obviously fits the bill. Moreover, it is a fairly segregated city (and not just in terms of race, though most minorities are concentrated in the city center). When explaining Duluth to outsiders, I’ve often described it as two separate cities: a combination college town/comfortable suburb on the east side, and a struggling rust belt city in the west. This is overly broad, of course, and perhaps an uncharitable portrait from a dyed-in-the-wool east-sider. The west side’s civic pride remains strong, and lower-income housing has been creeping eastward somewhat. But a simple look at the public high schools tells the story: three central and west Duluth high schools have folded into one since 1980, and East High remains much larger than that single western high school, Denfeld. (The East attendance area grew somewhat with the closure of Duluth Central a few years ago, but not drastically, and the school-aged population—a good indicator of how desirable an area is for families moving in—is much more dense on the east side.) Duluth East is the home of the “cake-eaters” of the north—it is the wealthy school that has long overshadowed Denfeld in academic and athletic prowess, even though Denfeld retains a very loyal following; perhaps even greater than East, since west-siders are far more likely to stay put while the East kids head off to supposedly greener pastures.

The divide is also made fairly clear by the quality of life and perceived political influence statistics in the Putnam study (see p. 49-54), though the west side does have some real strengths in those numbers. (This write-up also doesn’t mention where the dividing line is, which would be interesting to know.) This invites several questions:

-Duluth sprawls along 27 miles of lakeshore and riverfront, and there is a ridge along the length of the city that makes construction impractical in many places. How much does geography make Duluth’s divisions inevitable? The flip side of these divisions are some very strong local neighborhood identities, and I think these can be very good things. Are the divisions bad in and of themselves? Putnam certainly thinks so, and though I certainly understand that hyper-localism has its downsides, and can lead to discrimination, I’m not entirely convinced—in part for the reasons Polet touches on, though he doesn’t do a very thorough job in that post.

-What role do suburbs (ie. Hermantown) and new construction in Duluth Heights (away from the lakeshore and “over the hill”) play in Duluth’s development?

-Whither Superior? The Wisconsin city across the bridge is sometimes derided as Duluth’s armpit, but it still has a substantial a population and is an important part of the metro area. (And where else would we Duluthians go to buy our liquor on Sundays?) In the parts included in the Putnam study, it scores noticeably worse than Duluth in some respects. How does its fate affect Duluth’s?

-One effort to revitalize Duluth seems to evoke a hipster vibe. The attempt to attract “creative people” to revive the economy is mocked at times, but there is a certain logic here: in many cities (Manhattan, parts of Washington DC, San Francisco, and on and on), urban renewal (or gentrification, depending on how one looks at it) starts with artsy people moving into cheap housing, making the neighborhoods “interesting,” and in turn attracting wealthier wannabe urbanites who gradually displace the poorer people. Given Duluth’s universities, natural beauty, and decent arts scene for a city of its size, it seems to have potential for the hipster crowd. (Witness the dramatic rise in microbreweries and the expanding bike paths.) Mayor Don Ness, who is in many ways emblematic of this movement, certainly seems to be pushing it, as do several city councilors.

But this brings up some necessary questions: is this desirable development, and does the fact that it often just ignores or pushes poor and working-class people elsewhere trouble anyone? This model seems to work in major urban areas, but how well does it apply to a much smaller city? At first glance, a lot of this appeals to me—while I am probably a bit too clean-cut, conservative in temperament, and boring in my musical tastes to be a proper hipster, I enjoy culinary variety and good beer and a vibrant arts scene, and I’d much rather have more localized development than further urban sprawl. But I can still hear City Councilor Garry Krause’s words echoing in my mind: is our obsession with the new and interesting coming at the expense of the mundane, and the people who have called this city home for generations?

While Mayor Ness is a very popular and personable man who won re-election unopposed in 2011, in his initial election in 2007, he won the east side and lost the west side of the city. At the time of that election, I remember a high school teacher noting the unusual fact that Ness, by far the more liberal candidate, did better with the wealthier Duluthians, which seems to counter our normal political narratives. Looking at it from this perspective, it makes a lot more sense now.

-Duluth also includes many newcomers, and if certain critics are to be believed, it attracts a number of poorer people who look to take advantage of its relatively strong social safety nets. Councilor Jay Fosle had a complaint (not well-explained to the broader public) a few meetings ago about U-Haul rental patterns in Duluth; back in that 2007 mayoral election, Ness’s opponent, Charlie Bell, made some sort of remark about people from places like Chicago showing up and causing problems. Can someone give this critique some coherence or empirical backing, or is it just shoddy identity politics? And if it is true, what do we make of it?

This post is getting out of control, so I’ll cut myself off here. I’m throwing this open for discussion, in large part because I don’t know the answers. Urban planning interests me as a field, but I’ve never really pursued it because, eternal critic that I am, I have yet to latch on to any sort of coherent vision for how to revitalize a city. Duluth has considerable potential with its location, strong civic engagement, and unique culture; this city has a soul, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how unique that is. But where do we go from here?

The City of Duluth vs. Urban Blights: City Council Meeting Notes, 6/10/13

At various times on this blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of only worrying about the things one can control; that is, focusing on the most immediate issues around our lives rather than obsessing over what’s going on at the national or international level. Seeking to practice what I preach, I went to the Duluth City Council meeting last night. (I hasten to note here that care for the local need not necessarily involve formal political structures; it is simply one of many options, and a somewhat entertaining one in a city such as Duluth, which is large enough to have some “big city problems,” but small enough that there are few degrees of separation between anyone in town.) What follows is an account of the June 11, 2013 Duluth City Council Meeting.

The meeting took place in the council chamber on the third floor of city hall, a rectangular room with a spectacular view of the Duluth harbor that allows bored Councilors and writers to gaze out at the huge ships when they so choose. Attendance was limited primarily to citizens with immediate business before the council, though a local blogger who is running for the Council this fall was bouncing around the room and snapping pictures as if he already owned the place, and there were a handful of residents there to cheer the council on in its ongoing battle with a man named Jim Carlson. (I will refrain from making further comments about the blogger so as to keep my own blog from sinking to his level.)

The first item on the agenda revolved around Duluth’s biggest ongoing controversy, the sale of synthetic marijuana at a downtown head shop called the Last Place on Earth (LPOE). The city has been at war with Mr. Carlson, the shop’s owner, for years now, and the litany of complaints against LPOE grows ever longer. A representative from a local hospital described the situation as a “public health crisis,” and one councilor described the effects of the bath salts and other marijuana substitutes as “worse than cocaine.” Customers come from far and wide to purchase LPOE’s product, leading to loitering and vagrancy on the block in front of LPOE, an area of downtown that has otherwise been somewhat gentrified in recent years. The Chamber of Commerce has rallied behind the effort to thwart LPOE, citing serious losses for local businesses. Councilor Larson and Council President Boyle (who have experience in these matters) noted the added difficulties of getting marijuana substitute users back on their feet, and the widespread social consequences of drug use.

On Monday night, the Council took up a resolution that would regulate the sale of synthetic marijuana in the city of Duluth. Mr. Carlson came to share his thoughts, and took the stand rocking a green ensemble and a ragged grey beard one might expect to find on a Cuban revolutionary after several months fighting in the jungles. The image befits Mr. Carlson, a man who has pretensions of rebellion—he was on the ballot in several states in last year’s presidential election as the candidate of the Grassroots Party—but in the end seems to be in it only for himself, a man who believes that legality determines morality. Alas, Mr. Carlson lacked the charisma of a Castro or a Guevara, and limited his remarks to a few familiar points: he insisted this new measure constituted an endorsement of his business, and that the city would have to stop charging him for the extra police officers assigned to his block and return various seized assets.

The Councilors then took turns railing against Mr. Carlson and his business. Councilor Krug made it quite clear the measure was no endorsement of synthetic marijuana, but simply a stopgap bureaucratic measure to be used until state or federal law bans it. The intensity of the rhetoric varied; Councilor Fosle said his problem was with the product, not the business itself, and that he had only decided to support the measure after a National Geographic special he’d watched the night before said regulation was an effective tactic, while Councilor Julsrud said she would not rest until the business no longer exists. The lone vote against the measure came from Councilor Stauber, the longest-tenured Councilor and, as one of its more conservative members, a frequent voice in the wilderness. Councilor Stauber’s objection was, it seemed, a pertinent one: he worried that past efforts to control LPOE had simply increased Mr. Carlson’s celebrity, and that the measure might lead to even more litigation. A number of the councilors spoke past his objections as they piled on to Mr. Carlson, though Councilors Krause and Hartman argued the stakes of the problem were great enough to justify any ensuing legal battles, and Councilor Hartman said he doubted Mr. Carlson’s celebrity could grow any bigger than it already is. The measure passed, 8-1, and the Council moved on to other matters.

The second big issue on the agenda involved a pair of projects that seek to turn unused buildings into low-income housing that required Council support to qualify for grant funding. One, a repurposed Lincoln Park Middle School, was a shoo-in; the more controversial agenda item asked to council to elevate a second project at the site of the former Kozy Bar to equal status with the Lincoln Park project. The Kozy was a notorious Duluth establishment that perhaps once rivaled LPOE (just a block away) as the site most often visited by police in the city. It burned in a fire several years ago—a fire that was “quite honestly a relief,” according to Councilor Julsrud—and the shell of the Pastoret Terrace building it occupied, which was designed by a famed local architect, has been empty ever since.

Councilor Gardner, another longtime member and one of its most vigorous (and long-winded), read a letter from local historian Tony Dierckins that explained the need to save the Pastoret Terrace building, particularly since it might not be able to withstand another winter without some construction. Several Councilors noted the serious need for low income housing in Duluth, though Councilor Fosle had a rather murky counterargument to this claim involving U-Haul usage patterns.

However, as the debate unfolded, it became clear the Council had its doubts about the Pastoret Terrace project. Councilor Krause summed them up well, pointing to the very high density of the apartments coupled with poor ratio of resources (ie. food and support services) to institutions of vice in the area (LPOE, the Fon Du Luth Casino, a bar on the block) that might just lead to more of the same problems that led the Kozy to be Ground Zero for Duluth’s urban blight. Councilor Gardner countered that this is how downtown living is, and that there would be adequate support for residents who required it. The developer, a Mr. Conlan, reminded the council that these grants were not public money, asked where else “these people” were going to live if not downtown. Councilor Larson strongly objected to this language, while a representative of Mayor Don Ness’s administration offered similar sentiments, and suggested mixed-use housing would be more appropriate.

Several councilors also had serious issues with the owner of the property, Eric Ringsred, who, as Councilor Fosle reminded the chamber seven or eight times, once claimed the City Council (along with several other prominent Duluth institutions) was culpable for the suicide of Jim Grandishar, a business partner of Mr. Ringsred’s who once sought to convert a historic Duluth theater into a strip club. Councilor Fosle made it fairly clear he would not associate himself with anything involving Mr. Ringsred, despite Mr. Conlan’s best efforts to point out that his ownership stake and lack of any other involvement in the project did not render him much of an obstacle. (If Councilor Stauber is the Council’s voice in the wilderness, then Councilor Fosle is its loose cannon. A well-built man with a contemplative goatee, he displayed an incredible talent for oscillating between sharp insights and tone-deaf head-scratchers throughout the evening.)

In the end, the Council voted 6-3 against elevating the priority of the Pastoret Terrace project, with Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Stauber providing the dissent. They then discussed the ultimate fate of the Pastoret Terrace project before ultimately deciding to table it. This vote also came down to a 6-3 margin, though Councilor Julsrud made her inner conflict quite clear; the ‘no’ votes came from Councilors Krause, Krug, and Fosle.

The only other item that inspired much debate was an amendment to a disbursement of some $80,000 in parks and rec grant funds proposed by Councilors Gardner and Krause, who suggested that money for informational kiosks along the lakefront Lakewalk path should come out of the tourism budget instead of park money. While the Councilors seemed to agree this was a sensible idea, Chief Administrative Officer Montgomery argued was more important to respect the existing vetting process, and Councilor Fosle, in one of his insightful moments, noted the danger of setting a precedent for the selective addition and subtraction of projects from omnibus funding measures. The amendment failed, 7-2.

The meeting concluded with a celebration of a new set of picnic tables in front of the library, a call to help set a new playground in Lester Park on Saturday, and plans for a City Council-School Board social at which the Councilors were told that their attendance had better be superior to that of the School Board members. And while the fate of a couple of blighted blocks in Downtown Duluth wasn’t all that much clearer, there were, at least, some signs of movement.