Tag Archives: history

A History of Duluth?

7 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gateways, Past and Future

7 Dec

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

20161205_202905

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

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

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

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

The Story of Duluth in Data, Part II: Tables and Methodology Notes

1 Jul

(Link to the original post)

Tables

The following tables show the top and bottom ten census tracts in various categories using 2010 boundaries. Here again is the link to those boundaries.

I. Change in Population, 1970-2010

DuluthPopChg

Click to enlarge all images. Colors denote region according to map in Part I.

Unsurprisingly, the big gainers are almost all on the edges of the city or beyond, and the losers are in the center or on the near west side of the city, save the unique East End tract.

II. Change in Poverty Rate, 1970-2010

DuluthChgPov

The tracts that lost poverty over time are all over the map, but again excepting East End, they all enjoyed new development over the 40-year span, and some of them had a lot. It’s not surprising to see many of the biggest gainers in the center, but it is notable how poverty has leeched west out of Lower Lincoln Park (which was a high-poverty area to begin with) into its once less poor neighbors. Morgan Park and Chester Park are next to each other on the list, but their reasons for decline—loss of a steel mill versus the arrival of college students—could hardly be more different.

III. Highest Poverty, 1970 and 2010

DuluthHiPov

Most of these stay the same over time and are predictable, but the real eye-opener is just how much poverty has increased in these tracts over time. The poor have very clearly gotten poorer relative to everyone else, and much more concentrated.

IV. Lowest Poverty, 1970 and 2010

DuluthLowPov

A couple of west side middle-class tracts drop off the list here, and are replaced by exurban areas. No surprises on the 2010 list, save maybe Lakeside landing at the very top.

V. Changes in Per Capita Income, 1970-2010

DuluthChgPCI

The exurbs had the farthest to climb, so it makes sense that they dominate the growth list. Most of the east side settles in just below them, all ahead of the national average. With a sample size of 38 tracts, it’s incredible to note that nearly a third of them had little or negative income growth over the 40-year period, despite the national average rising 50% over this time.

VI. Lowest Per Capita Income, 1970 and 2010

DuluthLowPCI

It’s interesting to note how many tracts are both low income and low poverty in 1970, particularly in the exurbs. Such tracts just don’t exist in 2010, with the low-income list coming to increasingly resemble the high poverty list. The closest thing to an exception is Bayview Heights, followed by the better-off west side tracts.

VII. Highest Per Capita Income, 1970 and 2010

DuluthHiPCI

No surprise to see the east side dominate the 1970 list, though a few rising exurbs and Park Point edge a few of those tracts down the list over time. Other than the growth in the college population in Hunters Park/Morley Heights, this really isn’t due to east side decline; just as there are more poor tracts in 2010, there are more comparatively rich ones as well. The city has stratified, as the much larger bands on the income map legend in the previous post show. The gap between the lower middle and the upper middle has grown significantly.

Methodology Notes

All of the data here comes from the U.S. census; 2000 and 2010 data is readily available online, and anything earlier comes from the University of Minnesota’s archives. Census tracts change somewhat over time, which is why a handful of west side tracts, which were once subdivided into several tracts, now have such large numbers. The census also reclassified UMD at some point, eliminating tract 8 and creating tract 157. The 1970 also overall figures include people residing on ships based out of Duluth, who are assigned to sub-tracts of the existing tracts. I threw them out of the comparison tables, though.

I focused on population and financial data because these are probably the easiest way to show general rise and decline. I use the federal government’s definition of the poverty line in each year. All income figures have been adjusted for inflation, in terms of 2010 dollars, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index Calculator. Analyses of job location, housing values, race, and various environmental factors could also prove fruitful in creating a more complete picture.

I made the maps with ArcGIS, census tract shapefiles available from the state, and the census data.

One could easily nitpick over some of my regional choices, and I wouldn’t disagree about many of them. For example, I waffled over where to put Tract 4 (Kenwood); it’s centrally located, but its 1970 demographics have more in common with east side neighborhoods than those in the center, and it’s also over the hill, and has seen considerable growth. Because of that growth, I ultimately put it in with the exurbs, though I could see arguments for other places. Tract 10 (Chester Park) also awkwardly straddles a few different areas, but since a little more of its population looks to be toward the east side, I put it there instead of in the center. One will also note that boundary with Hermantown and a township or two don’t line up with census tracts, so it’s impossible to get city-level data using the tract method. (That could be easily fixed by using census-designated places, but that would rob us of the ability to make comparisons among neighborhoods.) As mentioned in the main post, Bayview Heights’ placement is also debatable.

I threw out Census Tract 157 (UMD) from the tables above, as the census seems to count students differently over time, so the numbers lurch all over the place. Its numbers remain in use for area-wide analyses, though. There are cases for doing the same with Tract 10 (Chester Park), Tract 4 (Kenwood), and perhaps even places like Tract 5 (Hunters Park/Morley Heights), Tract 14 (Endion), and Tract 13 (Lower Chester). The effects of the colleges are seemingly so large that, if I were to do this again, I might make those neighborhoods their own area separate from all the others. Duluth is part college town, and those colleges dramatically shape the urban fabric.

Don’t hesitate to comment if you have any questions. I’m happy to do follow-ups, time and data-permitting.

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.

Dog Parks and Lessons from the Past: Duluth City Council Notes, 11/12/13

12 Nov

What with the Veterans’ Day holiday, Duluth’s first post-election City Council meeting was pushed back to Tuesday this week. There was a decent crowd on hand, boosted by a brigade of high school students observing the meeting for class. CAO Montgomery was away, and Planning Director Keith Hamre filled his seat. It was also the first meeting for Mr. Howie Hanson, elected last week to fill the vacant Fourth District seat; this was a bit of a struggle for the woman who calls roll, but she sorted it out in the end. Councilor Hanson proceeded to say one word for the rest of the meeting.

With no general citizen speakers, the Council marched straight through the consent agenda and into the consideration of a bunch of bonds and capital equipment notes. There was no discussion here, and the measures passed by the predictable 7-2 margin, with fiscal conservative Councilors Fosle and Stauber opposing both. After that, it was on to the main event: discussion of a resolution identifying two Duluth parks, Lakeside’s Russell Square and Observation Park on Observation Hill, as sites for future dog parks.

Six citizen speakers came forward to speak on the issue; three in favor of the resolution, and three who had issues with one of the two sites. The first two, Mr. William Lynch and his wife, Denette, cheered the resolution. They noted that a dog fence was a cheap and simple project, and the heavy use of the Keene Creek dog park on the west side proved there was a demand. They said the two parks in question were underused and/or worn out, and insisted they would not cause any blight. A Lakeside resident “hated to be a not-in-my-backyard” person, but worried about parking and other animals in the park, saying she was a dog owner herself but did not think Russell Square was a good spot. Finally, noted boxer Zach Walters and another coach at his gym alongside Observation Park, Mr. Al Sands, spoke to the park’s value in its current state. They said they used the park and its jungle gym for classes and sports, and spoke of plans to create a program for returning veterans in need of an outlet; a dog fence, they argued, would limit their operations.

Councilor Hartman then took some time to explain the process, which he called “frustratingly slow,” and he pointed to the extensive vetting process undertaken by the Parks and Rec board. Councilor Larson added to his good vibes and emphasized that this was not a “point of no return” if later public input came out against the parks. She added that dogs are less of a safety hazard when given their own park than when roaming on trails (a fact to which this frequent Lester Park runner can attest—I’ve been nipped at several times). Councilor Gardner was rather snippy with Mr. Walters, accusing him of “taking over” the public park and suggesting this was not the proper venue for complaints; there was a process here, and he needed to attend the community meetings.

This brought Councilor Fosle to life, and he was in vintage Councilor Fosle Form as he meandered through a lengthy rebuttal. He noted that there was no money allocated for dog parks in the city’s capital improvement plan, and said Mr. Walters was indeed at the right meeting, wondering why a park neighbor had not been contacted about the process. He noted that these sorts of resolutions tend to generate momentum that is difficult to stop later on. He said he wouldn’t bring his own show dog to the park for fear of disease or attacks from other dogs. He worried about liability issues, wandered into a discussion of ATVs and the need to make parks useable for everyone, and floated the idea of using old hockey rink boards to set up dog pens.

Councilor Fosle found an unlikely ally in Councilor Julsrud, who asked Mr. Hamry if the resolution was redundant; he replied by saying this was a valid way of doing business, but admitted that, in his work on the Planning Commission, he preferred more of a “blank slate” approach. Councilor Julsrud agreed, saying the neighbors (and not the “dog park enthusiasts”) should have had more of an opportunity to engage the process. Councilor Hartman pushed back against Councilor Fosle’s legal concerns, asking Attorney Johnson if the city had been sued over dog bites at the Keene Creek park. No one had, though Councilor Fosle dragged out this rather silly point by pointing out that the park has been around longer than Atty. Johnson has. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Julsrud in opposition; the city will go forward with the planning process now, though citizens will still have opportunities to voice support or objections at community meetings.

Next up was a resolution discharging the city of a loan made to a condo developer. Councilor Stauber, sad to have his premonitions proven correct, lectured the rest of the council on taking money out of the Community Investment Trust (CIT)—the city’s “nest egg” for street repairs—and using it for interest-free loans on projects that might not work out. He supported the measure, as “something is better than nothing,” but warned the Council that they hadn’t seen the end of such troubles. Councilor Fosle concurred and predicted the complete exhaustion of the CIT in seven years, while Councilor Larson thanked the Administration for making sure the recovered money would go back into the CIT. The resolution passed unanimously.

The Council then took up a $797,000 contract to repair a flood-damaged Chester Creek culvert running beneath the Duluth Armory, and Councilor Julsrud again made her displeasure heard. While she supported the resolution, saying the city would likely end up in court otherwise, she insisted that the group charged with restoring the currently condemned Armory get its act together. If they fail to save the building, the city will have wasted a ton of money, and had it been demolished by now, the culvert would have been left open to the air and thus been far cheaper to repair. Councilor Stauber thanked her for her words and gave everyone another history lesson, saying the Armory saga was “becoming a nightmare,” and that past Councils’ eagerness to support the arts group currently charged with saving the Armory—which it purchased with a $1 check that bounced—had cost it far better alternatives. Councilor Gardner pointed out that other things would be damaged if the culvert were not repaired, and everyone got on board to pass the resolution, 9-0.  

The last item on the agenda was a re-zoning of the old Central High School property, which had Councilor Fosle congratulating the school district for its renewed attempts to sell it. Here, Councilor Hanson finally got his one word in: “abstain.” The other Councilors all supported the ordinance, and it passed, 8-0. The closing comments featured mentions of several community meetings on such diverse topics as poverty (Gardner and Krug), crime in Lincoln Park (Krug), councilor appointment processes (Gardner), and ATV trails (Fosle); people hoping for free food at said meetings (Stauber); and gripes about parking at City Hall (Fosle).

The meeting had a transitional feel to it. Councilor Stauber in particular seemed keen to make a mark before he takes his leave, with his cautionary tales of good ideas gone awry when money is thrown around too freely. After the election, which resulted in a huge left-leaning majority on the Council, I suggested that the Council, whatever its ideological proclivities, had to make sure there was quality dialogue, and that no group of people was left out of the debate. Councilor Fosle achieved that with his usual stream-of-consciousness objections, but that was to be expected; in this meeting, I was most impressed by Councilor Julsrud, who was not afraid to ask sharp questions and demand results, no matter her stance on the issue at hand. From a good governance standpoint, this is what I want to hear out of elected representatives: crisp questions, a willingness to learn from the past, careful consideration of community input, and a concise articulation of why they’re voting the way they are. A good council has a healthy variety of styles and approaches, of course, but with ideological divides unlikely to hold up the Duluth City Council, its members must be careful to avoid the most immediate danger: groupthink. They did a decent job of that on Tuesday night, and must continue to do so going forward.

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/

The Right Regrets

2 Aug

Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.

–Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mount Morgan

At work today, I overheard one co-worker telling another about her son’s girlfriend, who recently moved to Duluth after living elsewhere her entire life. My co-worker asked the girlfriend what she thought about her move to Duluth.

“I don’t look back,” the girlfriend answered immediately. Both of my co-workers were impressed: that is quite the sign of commitment, especially out of a 25-year-old.

I quietly had a very different reaction.

I don’t mean to rain on this girl’s parade: if she really can cut herself off like that, and this isn’t some way of suppressing deeper issues, good for her. There do seem to be some people out there who can go forever without second-guessing themselves. Some jobs require short memories, and sometimes erasing the past is important, lest one lapse into endless second-guessing and dwelling and even depression. These sorts of people, driven by such clear-eyed resolve, can achieve great things.

I am not one of those people. Moreover, I find that forcing myself to be one of those people is far more damaging than making peace with the past: I have to recognize it, learn from it, and aim for something better in the future. Once you’ve caught the disease of introspection, it’s only something that can be managed, never cured. And, when managed properly, it can bring about any number of new insights. I can’t run away from the dumb things I’ve done, or the mistakes I’ve made: they are a part of me, just as much as my triumphs are, and my response to them is a huge part in shaping who I am. If I move to a new city, I am most certainly going to examine whether or not my life has improved, and take immediate corrective action if it hasn’t been a healthy one. I am also going to hold on to my roots back where I came from, both as a reminder of what formed me while I was there, and perhaps as a safety net that I might need to fall back on. Yes, there is some danger of falling into a nostalgia trap, but so long as one is aware of the danger, one can manage it in a fairly healthy way.

This brings me to the Arthur Miller line at the start of the piece, which I simply adore. When I was in high school, the school would always had out these assignment notebooks at the start of each year, and they always included some sort of inspirational quote on each page. For the most part, I found them sappy and/or cliché. But then, one week, I stumbled across this one, and had my own little moment of dawning realization, right there in Mr. Jones’s English class. For a kid who wasn’t quite sure what to believe, it seemed like such a simple summation of what I was looking for. Instead of immediately saying “no regrets” (or, in contemporary parlance, “YOLO!”), it admits that, at least on some level, we’re going to regret many of the things we do. We all make mistakes, large and small, and we often sit and wonder what could have been had we only found the guts to seize some opportunity that passed us by. It isn’t hard to drown in them.

The question, then, becomes a matter of what a “right” regret is. A right regret might be one that we recognize, upon reflection, was not so serious an error after all: so what if I never did ask that girl out; I found another one who completes me, and I can look back at that and laugh now. Perhaps even more importantly, they can offer life lessons: well, it was dumb of me to take that job, but now I know that I never would’ve been happy there, and I can safely eliminate that career path now. Weighing one’s regrets and deciding how serious they are grants a healthy dose of perspective, allowing one to forget the trivial concerns and hone in on the wrongness of certain regrets one still has to atone for.

There is some danger here in using the right regrets as a way to retroactively justify anything. (Indeed, the line in Miller’s play is an attempt by one character to console another who has just revealed he is secretly married two different women in two different cities. Even if you support polygamy or the blind pursuit of one’s own passions above all else, it’s hard to ignore the rampant relativism here.) It’s a helpful quote, not a creed to live by. But for those of us who cannot forget the past, it can be a tool for sorting through that jumble of memories and deciding what is worth carrying forward. Then, maybe, we can go to bed at night fully aware of where we’ve come from, yet unburdened by that past, satisfied with who we’ve become.