Tag Archives: iron range

The Range of Control

6 Oct

Four years ago, not long after I moved back to Duluth and began a job that takes me to Minnesota’s Iron Range with some regularity, I drove down Chestnut Street in downtown Virginia. I nearly ran a red light as I gawked at boarded-up shops and strung-out addicts and imposing old architecture framed against a steely winter sky. The Donald Trump phrase “American carnage” was the first thing to lodge in my mind. I was a witness to the fracturing of small-town America, and I realized just how daunting my new job might be.

I work with Rangers on a daily basis and am the day-to-day economic development staff for a four-community economic alliance, but the coronavirus pandemic has deprived me of any effort to embed myself in the places I serve. Between March and September, I went to the Range exactly once, and that just a brief stop at a favorite coffee shop on a camping expedition further north. And so, eager to view it with new eyes, I guide my Twin Cities friends D and M on a day trip across the Iron Range on a Saturday in early October. M has never been, while D has only been for hockey purposes, so they head in with only loose preconceived notions. Just what do we make of a region that once was the engine of American industry, but has suffered steady population loss since the American steel industry convulsed through its greatest crisis in the 1980s?

We start toward the western end of the Range in Hibbing, the region’s largest city at 16,000 people, and long the capital of the American iron ore mining economy. The drive north from Duluth shows a Range in deep autumn, the trees near peak color and a fresh coolness in the air. For reasons lost on us, the road to the overlook over the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine pit is blocked off, so we’re denied a vista of the hole in the ground that won two World Wars. We settle for a spin around old North Hibbing, a few vacant streets left from the days before the entire town picked itself up and moved south to make way for the mine. That power of industry to move cities is no relic of the past: just ask nearby Virginia, where the new Tom Rukavina Bridge towers over the Rouchleau Pit after a federal highway was rerouted off of mining land.

Hibbing impresses my travel companions more than anywhere else on this road trip, and the Iron Range’s century-old wealth is evident here. The homes in the center of town have a welcoming, well-tended feel, and the high school and Hibbing Memorial Arena are stunning monuments to past glory. Howard Street, the main drag through the old downtown, has enough refreshed storefronts to make it feel like a cozy slice of Americana. D has brought a Polaroid camera and snaps shots down the street, catching the old Androy Hotel with its columns and arches. M appreciates the crossed pick axe and fork on the logo of the newer Boomtown Brewery, a restaurant whose presence reminds me of a day maybe a decade ago when my mom and I spent a day spinning about the Range and failed to find an adequate lunch spot in Hibbing.

The progress feels uneven, though: whether due to the coronavirus or the proclivities of Rangers who would rather spend a sunny Saturday outside, the Range’s downtowns are quieter than I’ve ever seen them. We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to a preserved Main Street from yesteryear, a sense that D’s washed-out Polaroids under moody skies only enhance. When we make it over to Virginia, there are no addicts on Chestnut Street today; just more quiet, dusty grandeur. They feel like movie sets, a blast from the past; the carnage is gone, but the grit remains.

The Range towns are not uniform. M finds charm in Chisholm’s Main Street as it slopes down toward the rows of flags along a causeway across Longyear Lake. Eveleth’s downtown likewise still has that quaint feel, its hockey monuments adding a distinctive local flavor that D and I both eat up. Gilbert has the largest proportion of boarded-up storefronts, and on the far east end, Hoyt Lakes faces the challenges of any community whose major industry has packed up and left—LTV Steel closed in 2001—and whose housing stock is uniformly dated to a single era. A friend from neighboring Aurora tells a tale of how his high school graduating class declined by a third after LTV disappeared, and the numbers at Mesabi East have only inched down since.

The big news in the central Range these days is the impending merge of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts. These two age-old rivals, just a few miles apart, are shutting down their big, old school buildings and building a new one off the highway between the two. The Rock Ridge Wolverines, leaving aside the misfortune of the identity-devoid lowest-common-denominator name and logo that seems to come with any new school these days, are in many ways a no-brainer. The two districts are next door to each other, have been bleeding students for years, and received a generous funding package to unite and provide their students more resources. Eveleth, Virginia, and Gilbert combined have less land area and population than Hibbing. The new school will pioneer an innovative academy model designed to prepare all students for the reality of the contemporary economy instead of cramming everyone on to a college prep track that may or may not make sense.

Still, it’s hard for anyone with a sense of history not to lament the merger, and D decries the changes afoot at the Miners Memorial Arena in Virginia, which will transform one of the state’s most unique, historic hockey venues into a more modern facility. Perhaps not coincidentally, two towns that have already lost their schools (Gilbert and Hoyt Lakes) are the ones M identifies as the biggest downers on the trip, though Biwabik, which like Hoyt Lakes has folded into the Mesabi East School District based in Aurora, still charms with its Bavarian Main Street theme. As economic development has lurched toward embracing the revitalization of old things and a skepticism of big box new development on the outskirts of town, the realities of enrollment numbers and repair costs for schools militate in the opposite direction.

I am often asked what it will take to revive or diversify the Range’s economy. If the answer were easy, we would have figured it out thirty years ago. The new economic development consensus emphasizes existing local assets, place-based development, and growing local business instead of chasing big new investments from outside firms. Broadband connectivity has become a bipartisan rallying cry, and the tales of kids parked in school and library parking lots after hours so they can do their homework exposes the depth of our digital divides. In principle support all of these things, though the Range has its own unique challenges on many of them, given its distance from major markets and rocky and swampy soil. We plug away and make incremental progress, even as national politics seems to have decided that incrementalism is for the weak.

On this trip, there are signs of that place-based formula going to work. The downtowns look better than they did four years ago. Recreational assets such as Giants Ridge and some new biking networks are certainly bringing in some outside cash and making the place somewhat more attractive to outsiders than it has been. Since the pandemic began, there is strong anecdotal evidence of urban-dwellers poking around the Range for affordable properties where they can live remote lives in wide open spaces, especially on the lake properties that dot the region. (Rarely, however, are those properties inside the limits of the Range’s towns.) The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state agency that collects a mining production tax and reinvests it in the communities, is now beating the drum of broadband funding and trail networks and downtown revitalization to go along with its longstanding business recruitment war chest.

Mining is still king, though, and taconite mining is not coal mining: while it will have its ups and downs, it’s not going anywhere. The big news this week is the purchase of ArcelorMittal USA by Cleveland-Cliffs, leaving Cliffs as the largest mining company on the Range and one of just two now operating (along with venerable old U.S. Steel). It’s a stunning turn of events; a few years back, ArcelorMittal USA (a subsidiary of the world’s largest steel producer) looked prime to rule Range mining, while Cliffs teetered on the verge of collapse. A series of aggressive moves by Cliffs have resurrected this now vertically integrated American company, and they’ve been on the cutting edge of new pellet technology. At the same time, domination by a single firm is never a reassuring thing, and the Range’s mining future is now in the hands of Cliffs’ bombastic Brazilian executive, Lourenco Goncalves. We’ve come a long way since the days of Congdons and Carnegies.

Any taconite mining intrigue, however, has taken a back seat to other proposed projects on the Range. The proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes received all of the permits it needed to mine before the inevitable rush of litigation, while Twin Metals near Ely is a bit further behind in the permitting process. Copper-nickel mining draws more concern over its potential environmental effects than the old taconite mines, and the resulting split has torn apart pro-mining Democrats (mostly the old guard on the Range) and environmentalist Democrats (mostly in the Twin Cities or Duluth) and almost singlehandedly taken down one of the longest-lasting political fiefdoms of a single party. Political implications aside, the copper-nickel debate is a fight for the Range’s soul, and a trip through Hoyt Lakes, the “mining town without a mine” on the far east end of the Range, makes it clear why so many Rangers want to revive the old engine.

After Hoyt Lakes, we head east on the Superior National Forest Scenic Drive, which takes us 60 civilization-free miles clear over to Silver Bay along the shores of Lake Superior. The leaves are brilliant, and from the overlook at Skibo, a golden carpet stretches back toward mining plants on the horizon. In Silver Bay, the parking lot for the Bear and Bean Lakes trail overflows so much that we see people parked half a mile from the trailhead along the road into town. We catch the glow of sunset by the Silver Bay marina and work our way down the shore at dusk, the leaf-peeping traffic stacking up miles outside of Two Harbors. After some dark days in spring, northern Minnesota’s tourism economy has roared back with a vengeance.

The past four years have been hard ones for localists. The escalating rhetoric of national politics has leeched down into every level, with Donald Trump and the leftist resistance as twin poles of totalized worldviews. It’s not wrong: there really are consequences to that national-level debate. But as we drive about, my fellow travelers and I—a heterodox group in our politics—are surprised at the relative lack of Trump signs in a region that became a national poster child for the white working-class flip to the red column in 2016. We’ll learn in a month or so if the romance has faded or if the transformation is now so complete that it doesn’t merit loud signs anymore. But it’s hard not to suspect that something else is afoot here.

As politicians bluster about tariffs and permitting battles carry on in distant courts, the Range sits at cold remove from so many of the trends roiling America in 2020. Its successes over the past four years, such as they are, have come from bipartisan or nonpartisan local efforts to clean up streetscapes and plow in fiber. The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened feelings of powerlessness over forces beyond immediate control, and the inability of too many Americans to make peace that lack of control has been revealing. But even amid crises near and far, humans still have agency over parts of their fates, and those who do seize the opportunities before them are the ones who write history. And because some people have, I have hope for the future of Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Good Writing, 12/4/19

4 Dec

In my continued ongoing efforts to collect good thinkpieces and also keep this blog somewhat alive, here’s another collection of interesting reading:

First, in the New Yorker, M.R. O’Connor tells the tale of “dirt road America,” an effort by a man named Sam Correro to map dirt road routes across the country. His project, decades in the making, invites travelers to slow down and drive slowly, to explore the forgotten corners and backcountry secrets of a vast, sprawling country. His meticulous hand-made maps guide curious souls on a very different kind of American road trip.

Sticking with the travel theme, whatever one may think of Roger Cohen’s politics, there’s little doubt he is the finest prose stylist on the New York Times opinion page, and in this recent offering, he gets himself quite lost on a hike in Spain’s Sierra de Guadarrama, I can only hope that, if I am someday lost and losing hope, I too will start meditating on Hemingway’s short stories as I contemplate mortality. Often the greatest way to escape any ruts in the present is to reflect on the wisdom of someone who’s been in that same place.

Perhaps not coincidentally given an impending milestone birthday, I find myself reading a lot about social pressures that lead to delayed family formation and childbirth. Thanks to Ross Douthat at the Times, I went down this rabbit hole this week with three different articles. Douthat himself wrote from his usual conservative Catholic perspective on how the contemporary left, after a period when it was relatively supportive of the idea of strong families as a social good, has begun to rebel against this concept. As a complement and counterpoint, he also shared a 2016 critique from the left by Nancy Fraser, who talks of how neoliberal capitalism undermines family and community social structures. Douthat also recently tweeted this long, sprawling account titled “The Economics of Boomers” by Byrne Hobart. It’s a wonky economist’s perspective on how the economic history of the past 60 years is strongly tied to different phases of baby boomers’ lives, and how the political economy they’ve created defines the life choices of younger generations. Ok, boomer!

Finally, on a lighter note, northern Minnesota author Aaron Brown tells us exactly what an Iron Ranger is. At my core, I’m really not a cultural Ranger at all: I like urban life and have snobby tastes in reading material and food and drink. But I spend a fair amount of time on the Range these days, and I like hockey and beer and the outdoors, so I can usually slide in comfortably. Brown nails it: culture, in the end, forms the basis of these labels.

Until next time…

Duluth Area Election Preview, 2016

6 Nov

The tragicomedy also known as the 2016 presidential race is about to come to a merciful close (well…maybe, depending how rigged the loser thinks the election is), and I’ve said all I have to say on that mess. To the local races we go. In the Duluth area, there is perhaps a little more intrigue than usual in an even election year: we’ve become used to a competitive race for the region’s U.S. House seat by now, and there are a handful of local races that could shake things up some.

The Eighth District congressional race should be a barnburner. Incumbent Rick Nolan isn’t an Iron Ranger, but he is an old guard candidate who typifies the DFL coalition that has held sway over its politics for so long. He is a liberal Democrat who is generally pro-mining; that’s a bit of a dying breed in the DFL, which is increasingly dominated by conservationist urbanites instead of the rural farmers and laborers acknowledged in its name. It’s a sign of his crossover appeal that both the unions and Lourenco Goncalves—the colorful CEO of Cliffs, the mining company that has come out of this latest ore price crisis looking the strongest, and is plotting a takeover of the stillborn Essar project in Nashwauk—have both come out in his favor. But Nolan’s patient folksiness my not jive with the political climate of the moment, and he’s faced a relentless stream of attacks in a true swing district. Stewart Mills has polished up his operation this time around in more ways than one.

The most relevant factor in the Duluth region for the national and congressional races is turnout in the city of Duluth itself. Duluth is a bigtime DFL town, and much of that DFL leans pretty far left; Bernie Sanders carried the day here in the primaries. Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t need a big Duluth turnout to win Minnesota, and wouldn’t be affected if any disaffected leftists stay home or vote third party. In the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, however, it could make or break the race. In a year when turnout is likely to be down for a presidential year, Rick Nolan needs Duluthians to go to the polls.

At the same time, I’m curious to see Donald Trump’s margins in the Minnesota Eighth Congressional District, particularly on the Range. We all know the Range is a traditional DFL bastion, and that probably won’t switch overnight. But the region’s demographics—largely white, relatively few people with bachelor’s degrees, mining-dependent, economically wobbly—are the poster child for an area where the Trump Era Republicans are supposed to make gains. Does that hold true, or do Rangers buck the trend? While I haven’t followed most Range races closely enough to say too much, I was amused to see a local candidate with a bunch of “Make the Range Great Again!” signs on the East Range on a recent road trip. Aaron Brown will be my source of information on that region.

Much like the Range, the west side of Duluth bears watching, too, and not only for how it breaks in national races. The Third District St. Louis County Commissioner’s race appears heated, and could be one of the more exciting local races in recent memory. This is a competition for the seat currently held by Chris Dahlberg, who very nearly became the Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate in 2014. Jay Fosle, a three-term veteran of the city council, squares off against children’s advocate Beth Olson. At the city level Fosle largely serves as a protest vote, at times frustrated but also at times insightful. A Fosle win would solidify the west side’s reputation as having a more conservative streak than East Duluth, at least in a relative, local sense. On the more politically diverse county board, he’d also have a serious chance to enact policy. An Olson win, on the other hand, would show the limits of Fosle’s appeal and move the board somewhat leftward.

A Fosle win would also force the city council to appoint a replacement, which could lead to all sorts of drama.  As we’ve seen in recent years, appointing replacement councilors is not among the strong suits of an otherwise functional, responsive body of government. Replacing Fosle would bring with it an ideological dimension not present the last time we went through this, as a council with seven Democrats and one Howie Hanson would have to find someone to fill the shoes of a man who, while idiosyncratic, has basically become the voice of the right in Duluth-area government.

Sticking with St. Louis County board races, the other two should be easy re-elections for incumbents. In the towns and townships surrounding Duluth, Pete Stauber will beat some guy whose campaign is built around a personal gripe with the board. On the east side of Duluth, Patrick Boyle should cruise; his opponent is Linda Ross Sellner, a familiar face from my days watching city council meetings. The longtime local activist has said she’s basically just running to bring attention to climate change issues.

Democrats will likely coast in most Northland state legislature elections. In several of the Duluth-area races, however, the Republicans have gone with candidates who buck the typical party mold in search of a win, which is worth noting. Dylan Raddant, 20-something transgender person, doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a stereotypical Republican, but is right there on the ballot, and his policy stances are indeed largely in line with the GOP. A near-nonexistent campaign infrastructure, however, will lead to the predictable lopsided loss to incumbent Jennifer Schultz, a UMD economist.

Republican state senate candidate Donna Bergstrom, meanwhile, has a much more visible campaign. She too is idiosyncratic, as a part Native American who is running a positive, centrist campaign based around public service, education reform, and cleaning up bureaucratic red tape.  She also sounds the more typical (if rather vague) notes about fiscal conservatism, and I don’t know if she has a realistic chance in a low-information local race where so many people vote the party ticket. Her opponent, Erik Simonson, is a powerful old-school DFL figure, with two terms of experience in the state House and heavy union support. But if any Republican has a chance in a Duluth-wide election, it’s probably someone like Bergstrom.

Fiscal conservatism appears to be the defining issue for the folksy Tim Brandon in the race for house district 3A, which covers bits of Duluth Heights and the communities and townships surrounding the city. If campaign signs mean anything (and it’s hard to say if they do) he’ll probably do better than Republicans usually have in this district, but he takes on 40-year incumbent Mary Murphy, who’s reliably brought home the bacon to the region and who has signs that politely ask voters for their support. A committed listener, Murphy feels like a figure from a different era of politics, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The West Duluth 7B House seat being vacated by Erik Simonson will likely go to DFLer Liz Olson; her opponent, Cody Barringer, offers standard conservatism in his limited campaign presence.

Among those nonpartisan down-ballot races where most voters’ eyes tend to glaze over, there’s only one that has more than one candidate: the race for a Minnesota Supreme Court seat. Here, Natalie Hudson, whose campaign centers around integrity instead of issues, faces off against Michelle MacDonald, who takes more explicitly conservative stands.

Across the bridge in Superior, where different state laws leave local officials with far fewer tools for local economic development than they do in Minnesota, the city is trying to push through an initiative that would raise funds for downtown development. The only other race of any great interest is Wisconsin’s Senate race, where the conscientious liberal Russ Feingold seems likely to reclaim his old seat from Ron Johnson. The Seventh District congressional race is likely safe for Republican Sean Duffy, and there isn’t much else of note on the ballot.

Predictions, because why not: Clinton wins Minnesota and Wisconsin by five or six percent and the election by a margin somewhat smaller than Obama’s in 2012; Nolan ekes out another narrow re-election; DFLers sweep the Duluth area, but there’s at least one Republican surprise somewhere on the Iron Range. For all the talk about everyone’s frustration with American politics, it will be a good night for the status quo. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the country, but I’m less sure the alternatives are any better.

The more interesting questions revolve around what comes next. Does Trump press his “rigged” election case, and what ensues from that, or does he get bored and go home? Do Republicans allow Hillary Clinton to govern? Do the Democrats, who also regain the U.S. Senate and pick up seats in the House, try to push their advantage with a leftward agenda, or does Clinton still have some room to tack to the center, where she’d probably rather be? How does the Republican Party evolve: is there a case for a less crude version of a protectionist, immigration-reducing, religiously conservative platform that comes along and carries it to victory in two or four years, or does it pretend Trump never happened?

Right or wrong, I’ll be along with some analysis after Tuesday.

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

29 Oct

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

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

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

2014popincage

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

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

1990comparison

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

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

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

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

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

ChgsinIncome.JPG

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

youngestoldest

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

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

AllTractsDLH.png

Election Reactions 2014

5 Nov

Time to exhale in relief: the election is over. It’s hard to think of a more exhausting campaign season, or one so devoid of any sort of positive platform—and that’s a pretty low bar. The GOP won big by virtue of not being Barack Obama, and a presidency that once inspired optimism even in parts of the right is now lurching toward a tired end. The President has spent the past few months in a bunker, rarely venturing on to the campaign trail; it seems a fitting sign of the distance between all American politicians and the people who elect them.

It’s easy to blast the whole exercise. The relentless attack ads made a mockery of rational debate, as does a celebrity-obsessed media filled with people shouting at one another. (I turned on CNN for the first time in years last night, to watch the results come in; I didn’t last fifteen minutes before fleeing elsewhere in search of some sanity.) It was obviously a good night if you’re a Republican, but it’s not like the GOP has some grand Contract with America or Compassionate Conservatism in mind. For that matter, even the Tea Party energy wasn’t anywhere near what it was four years ago. Most know that Obamacare repeal isn’t really realistic, and were careful not to overplay the social issues. (If anything, excessive focus on social issues hampered some of the Democrats who failed to realize that abortion is probably not going to swing an election in this sort of political climate.) They played it safe and delivered, and the blankness of the national political agenda could, one supposes, leave room for some creativity. Or just an even more blatant brand of gridlock.

So, how’s a jaded citizen to respond? In one of two ways, I’d think.

The first is one to which I am temperamentally inclined. This election simply shows how stories of grand sweeps of progress are never really right, and how two-party democracy always trends back to a balance point. It’s a cycle, one that could well swing back in two years when it’s the Republicans’ turn to defend a lot of Senate seats in blue states. New people come in, old ones get pitched, and we move along. Yes, the losers will moan about how everything is going to hell, but somehow, we all survive. We survived eight years of Bush, we’ll survive eight years Obama, and we’ll survive whoever comes next, too.

The process isn’t smooth. It isn’t going to please anyone who wants drastic changes. The legislation that comes out of it is always a mash-up of special interests and people working at cross-purposes. Still, we find a way to muddle through, and it isolates us from drastic shifts that could destabilize everything. If you look around at the rest of the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better (with the possible exception of a couple homogenous northern European countries, some of which are on the verge of demographic crisis). The old Winston Churchill line comes back: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Disappointment comes only to those who have a far too rosy view of their own power and the vagaries of human nature. Backers of each party must soldier on, looking for little wins here and there and hoping they can claim some victories in the long view.

***

There is a second narrative, though, that expands on the first one, and it has some merit. It says that there is more than just a balancing act going on, and that there is a broader cultural shift that is slowly carrying the whole system along with it. One side of the spectrum rails against the expansion of the state, while the other fears the whims of the market unchecked. The argument, however, says that this is all a false choice: the two are joined at the hip, natural outgrowths of a philosophy of individual liberty.

This is an old critique of possible pitfalls of democracy, with roots in Aristotle and Tocqueville. As equals in mediocrity, everyone lives out their lives in an economic rat race, doing what they can to accrue status. With everyone fending for themselves, the state must step in and do something to guarantee order. And so the government creates complicated codes from on high, regulating things to keep us quiet and perhaps confused. We hold elections, but they don’t really matter. We trade one distant elite for another, all life subjugated beneath a tutelary power.

This isn’t a critique of the left or the right; both major parties are implicated. That mashed-up form of governance may work for a spell, but there will come a time when the contradictions are too serious to hold together. We want Medicare and social security, so long as we don’t have to pay for them; we want all our liberties, but anyone who disagrees is a bigot unworthy of a spot at the table. We end up with corporate welfare or a nanny state or whatever pejorative name you’d like, and a national security state fed by a military-industrial complex. The insidious trends of money in politics and greater inaccessibility leave us with only a shell of the supposed democracy.

This isn’t a very reassuring story. But, unlike the other one, it invites action. If this is reality, we’d better do something, and soon. Not a revolt in the hills; revolution has had its day.  Not the libertarian alternative currently in vogue; any realistic implementation of that vision only feeds the beast. Instead, we’re left with my old hobbyhorse: a retreat to the local, carving out little spheres where we makes things as right as we can in our own little corner.

Do I buy this wholeheartedly? Not quite. We still have a ways to fall before I’m convinced. I’d like to hope it isn’t true. But I can handle a world in which it is.

***

How does Minnesota fit in to all of this? It actually had a pretty unique election night. While the Republicans did regain the state House of Representatives, Minnesota remains an island of blue amid the red tide. DFLers swept the statewide races and retained the rural congressional districts that were up for grabs, most notably Rick Nolan’s Eighth District. This is really what makes Minnesota politics unique. The Twin Cities and their suburbs tend to behave by normal urban-suburban left-right dynamics, but Greater (Don’t-You-Dare-Call-It-Outstate) Minnesota just doesn’t cooperate. Some of this is probably the lingering power of an old guard from a different generation, as in the case of Collin Peterson and certain parts of the Iron Range. But still, Democrats have an awful lot of staying power in Greater Minnesota.

There’s been an attempt to argue that the Minnesota 8th District is now a swing district due to its relative cultural conservatism and the decline of union power of the Range. This story is pretty much wrong. The 8th could turn red again as the suburbs sprawl northward while the northeast shrinks, but Republicans won’t win in northeast Minnesota until they find a message that is more than boilerplate conservatism (perhaps with some lip service to mining tacked on top). It’s going to take something creative to dislodge the DFL machine, and said creativity is nowhere to be seen. The next generation of Range politics looks a lot more like Carly Melin than it does like any Republican.

Duluth, to no one’s surprise, remains a DFL bastion, with the incumbents and newcomer Jennifer Schultz whipping the opposition in the local House races. Most of their opponents were also-ran sacrificial lambs, and the local Republicans just don’t have the infrastructure to muster anything serious. As on the Range, the DFL has been the adaptable party here, fielding candidates like Schultz and Erik Simonson who reflect the particularities of their sides of a rather divided city. Of course, one can be a pretty mediocre Democrat and still win in Duluth, but the onus is on the opposition to come up with something new that actually inspires people beyond the true believers. The same could no doubt be said of Democrats in deep red areas. Once again: if you don’t like the system, the way out is a focus on the local.

On a final note, there was one Duluth-area result that made me do a double-take: Marcia Stromgren won a seat on the Soil and Water Conservation District board. Yes, that Marcia Stromgren. The rest of the Soil and Water Conservation District board has my deepest sympathy.

Notes on a Wintry Weekend in Duluth

19 Jan

While Duluthians are quick to laugh at the weather plights of the rest of the country (psh, ten below is nothing), enduring a Duluth winter for so many months can be an ordeal. There are weekly battles with icy roads and blankets of snow and constant rescheduling due to weather. Endless conversations about the weather can also grow tiresome. These winters remind me of why I was so driven to study international affairs when I left for college: I find myself running to find books about adventures in the Brazilian Amazon or along the Silk Road to amuse myself. Anything to live vicariously and escape to a warmer climate, if only for a few hours while huddling beneath one’s blankets.

Of course, there are ways to embrace the weather, too. I’ve been skiing often, and there’s plenty of hockey to entertain every night. Last night’s Vancouver-Calgary brawl two seconds into the game was the sort of incident that makes hockey fans both laugh in delight and cringe as we think about how those not caught up in the hockey world will judge this sport. It’s funny that we northern Minnesotans and Canadians, among the most docile people on the planet, have so embraced the one sport that tolerates fighting for the sake of fighting. But we all need our outlets, I suppose, and once the broken teeth have been picked up off the ice, no sport can match hockey’s persistent flow of action and improbable grace.

Winter in Duluth also has its moments of sheer, unquestioned beauty. Take this past week, when low temperatures made the Lake Superior ice caves near Cornucopia, Wisconsin, accessible by foot for the first time in a few years. My camera literally froze, leaving me to take pictures with a blurry cell phone camera, but here are some of the fruits of a long slog through the snow along the South Shore:

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It was worth the cold hike, and despite the crowds, some of those icy halls between the rocks were awe-inspiring. It made me want to go back there…in summer, and in a kayak.

Still, things go on. Here’s a rundown of some significant events over the past week:

Boyle Cruises to County Board Duluth City Councilor Patrick Boyle defeated his former colleague Jim Stauber by a 65-35 margin in a special election to fill a vacant seat on the St. Louis County Board. Boyle’s big win over the well-known Stauber showed off the power of the Duluth DFL, and keeps the Board’s liberal bloc within one vote of the conservatives. It also means the Council will have to appoint a new representative to serve the 2nd District over the next two years. That won’t lead to a substantial change in the composition of the Council, but it will be interesting to see who comes forward to replace him. Stay tuned for news on that front.

PolyMet Hearing A packed house was on hand for the first of three informational meetings on the Environmental Impact Statement issued to assess possible copper and nickel mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range. It’s a contentious debate; mining jobs could make all of the difference in the world for the depressed northeastern Minnesota towns, where mining has been the lifeblood of so many communities for so many years. On the other hand, the specter of long-term environmental damage looms, most notably in water treatment that may be necessary for centuries. There will be more hearings, and they are only a small part of what will likely be a long, drawn-out process. For updates straight from the Range, I recommend the blog of Hibbing writer Aaron Brown, who gives a well-balanced overview of the debate here (complete with requisite Northern Minnesota Trampled by Turtles music video).

Maurices Headquarters Design The design for the planned Maurices Headquarters on the 400 block of West Superior Street came out. If I may play amateur architecture critic, I’ll say this: it blends well with that portion of downtown; there are hints of the modernist Radisson, Medical Arts, and Ordean Buildings in there, plus elements of the brutalist Holiday Center further to the east. It looks crisp and clean, and it’s an improvement on the dull former Channel 3 studio on that block. In the end, though, I find it rather sterile. It is very boxy and angular, all concrete and glass, with no hint of detail or nuance. Still, I won’t let my gripes with contemporary architecture weigh down the project too much: it’s a great addition to the downtown Duluth economy.

And, of Course, Hockey Yesterday was Hockey Day in Minnesota, and the day didn’t disappoint. Elk River hosted a pair of outdoor high school games, one including a local team in Cloquet; the Lumberjacks and the host Elks both won their games. The Gophers won, Elk River native Nate Prosser scored the game-winner for the Wild in overtime, and up here in Duluth, a record crowd watched the UMD Bulldogs pick up a shootout win over the University of Denver. In other local high school news, Duluth East tied Maple Grove to round out a very forgettable week, while Duluth Marshall, fresh off a big win over Class A frontrunner Breck, fell to a mediocre Roseville team. The young Hounds will look to right the ship after slipping out of the top ten when they visit section rival Forest Lake this week, while the inconsistent Hilltoppers will play Class A power Warroad on Friday. Both teams have potential, but need to catch some momentum as they head down the stretch run toward the playoffs, which are a month away.

Stay warm…