Living the Cakeater Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congdon/Hunters Park

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

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

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

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

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

Lakeside/Lester Park

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

Elementary School: Lester Park | Youth Rink: Portman

Woodland/Kenwood

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

Elementary Schools: Homecroft, Lowell | Youth Rink: Woodland

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

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

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

Chester Park/UMD

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

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

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

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

East Hillside/East End

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

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

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

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

*     *    *

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

Planning Duluth: Let’s Talk About Housing

As Things happen in national politics, Duluth marches along with…community engagement sessions for its comprehensive plan! I attended a meeting for my council district last week that allowed me to draw things on maps and be a good, engaged citizen. At this event, I received a list of planning-related research questions, which it shared at a community event I attended last week, divided by topics. Today, I’ll offer up my semi-solicited opinion on the housing-related questions.

What three qualities make your neighborhood a great place to live?

I live in Endion. Its perks are its big, cool old houses; easy access to downtown and multiple east side business districts; and an eclectic mix of people, from college students to old money to lower-income people.

I will also answer for Lakeside, where I’ve spent a majority of my life. It’s a reasonably affordable yet very pleasant place to raise a family; it has great neighborhood schools; it has easy access to big parks.

What three aspects of your neighborhood would you like to see changed?

Endion: Better maintenance of some rental properties; lack of a defined neighborhood center, or real sense of neighborhood at all. The third thing isn’t necessarily something I’d like to see changed, but at least investigated: how necessary are these one-way numbered streets? I certainly appreciate them when I drive to work, but they slice through the neighborhood and make it less pedestrian- and child-friendly. I’m not convinced we need two one-way streets (First and Third) going the same direction.

Lakeside: Some renewal in the old business district; something happening with the old Rockridge property, so long as it preserves access to the Hawk Ridge trail; continued gradual, planned growth on the edges and redevelopment of vacant/declining properties to meet market demand in a desirable neighborhood.

What does a healthy neighborhood look like?

A variety in age of housing stock. Easily accessible local businesses that provide most basic necessities, and connections to jobs. Thriving schools, and children playing freely. Outdoor hockey rinks. (Okay, I guess we can allow other sports in the neighborhood parks, too.) In Duluth: access to a more wild park space. Few to no highways or high-speed roads carving through the neighborhood. All those pretty things.

What types of housing are missing from Duluth?

The same type that’s missing from a lot of places: a middle tier that rises above student or-low income housing, but isn’t on the top end like some of the (very welcome) new apartments coming on line on the east side. Mid-tier homes for new families. Homes that are accessible for aging people looking to scale down some.

Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of housing that is affordable to you?

As someone who just went through an apartment search, I found myself a gem, and after living in larger cities, Duluth is remarkably affordable. That said, I was looking for a while before I landed the unit I got. There’s a lot of older housing here that just isn’t in great shape, but could be phenomenal if it were patched up. It’s all right there in front of us if we invest in it. The top end was also thin for a while, though that is changing.

What kind of housing should be planned for individuals and families moving here?

Housing that does not rely on the passive voice in its planning process. Also, I’m not sure why people moving here should have different types of housing than those who are here already. Am I missing something in this question?

How should people who need assistance with daily living tasks be provided with housing?

With housing that makes it easier to do the tasks they need assistance with, presumably. But, yes, it is important to keep this consideration on the table.

How should parking needs of residential uses be accommodated in neighborhoods?

Woo, heavy planner-speak in this one. If there was any question about it, I support alternate side parking; it’s just so much better for snow removal. I think this question is also getting at the city’s recent rediscovery of its limits on parking on lawns and “improvised” driveways, which is an issue in college areas. The city’s approach to date appears sensible: give people a year to adjust, but then, yes, enforce it to clean up those rental properties with yards that have become mini parking lots. Densifying the campuses so that not every student needs a car would be a win, too. As someone who went to an undergraduate university where practically no one drove, I can assure people that it’s actually a great arrangement for all involved. Also, if the city is ever in a position to develop new subdivisions with alleys, do it: this gets cars off the street and also opens up more street parking, since there isn’t a driveway every 20 feet.

Do neighborhoods need assistance in managing small conflicts like noise, trash, parking, and snow removal?

I will say this: for a city that has such pronounced and recognizable neighborhoods, Duluth has surprisingly little in the way of organized, visible neighborhood organizations. The neighborhood level could be a great place to achieve greater responsiveness on the issues listed above.

But, I urge caution here: it’s very easy to do this badly. I spent the past two years living in a Minneapolis neighborhood with a batshit crazy neighborhood board that should not have been allowed anywhere near the purse strings it had. Neighborhood boards also have a tendency to not be very representative; that is, they’re run by old people with free time. Renters and low-income people are often shut out. The well-attended council district session last week wasn’t a bad example; my council district includes both college campuses, but I was probably the youngest person there, and there were a lot of unpleasant things said about college students. I was offended before remembering that I’m not a student anymore.

I don’t mean to dismiss those concerns. Noise is an issue, and as I’ve written before, it would be great if more students could live near the college campuses instead of mixing in with neighbors who don’t like to have people puking on their lawns at 2 AM. Perhaps there is a role for city action on these fronts, but it must walk a fine line between making sure everyone is actually represented and overbearing big-city government.

Should there be more incentives to improve existing housing rather than new construction or vice versa?

Whatever the city’s stance is on new construction, yes, there should be more incentives to improve existing housing. This city has a large housing stock, and a lot of homes that could be very nice with a little loving. On the new construction front, there is plenty of room for infill in this city too, and demolition and reconstruction on lots with blighted properties. Duluth has done a good job this sort of redevelopment for tourism, so there’s no reason it can’t expand into housing, as long as there’s some money to help it along. (Big if, I know.)

Are you concerned about the resiliency of your neighborhood to withstand a natural disaster?

Not especially; I’m no expert here, but I don’t see any immediately obvious things that Duluth can do to shore up its neighborhoods against disasters other than generally making sure infrastructure is protected from 2012-style flooding. However, this question does give me a chance express my annoyance at the use of the word “resiliency.” While technically a word, it is an obnoxious piece of planning jargon and adds an unnecessary syllable. Do not use it. Thank you. Grammar police out.

How and where should/could we densify the community, particularly if we want more convenient locations for mixed uses?

Well, I’ve already mentioned the UMD area, where we’ve seen considerable success in this already, and there’s plenty of room for more. But lots of the old neighborhood downtowns, from Woodland to Lincoln Park to Spirit Valley, have potential here. Near East Fourth Street, and downtown beyond the already-dense core, also seem like obvious targets. London Road, too; I’m also looking forward to the project at Arlington and Central Entrance in Duluth Heights. These efforts to fix up lousy strip malls that have been outstripped by development elsewhere are excellent developments. There are lots and lots of opportunities here.

Should we consider a “no build” (or urban growth) boundary to limit infrastructure extensions and preserve open space on the periphery of the city?

In principle, nice idea. In practice, it would be a disaster.

Urban growth boundaries are a sexy urban planning idea best known for their implementation in Portland. There, it basically does what it intends to do. It limits the outward growth of the city and forces more density, though there is evidence that such limits on growth inflate housing prices.

Leaving that debate aside, however, there is one huge difference: Portland has a governing body, Metro, that oversees the entire metropolitan area, not just the city proper. Its regulations work because a developer who’s limited in Portland can’t just pack up and move a project to Gresham or Clackamas. If Duluth imposed this, it would have no such luck unless the suburbs and townships (in two states!) played along, which would take some colossal legislative work. Not only would it deprive the city of potential development and subsequent tax base growth, it would actually make the environmental situation worse: market-rate developments would be even further out, leading to even longer commutes and infrastructure extensions. Let’s devote our attention elsewhere.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned…