Tag Archives: neighborhoods

Congdon Living

29 Sep

An adjustment to homeownership after a decade of renting is an adjustment that runs the risk of leaving the new member of the housed gentry both drunk on and intimidated by the power one suddenly wields. Yes, I really can pound as many holes as I want in the walls. Yes, I really can plant whatever I want in the yard (providing that the conditions are right). That’s right, homeowners’ mortgage interest deduction, you regressive taxation scheme, you are now mine! And yes, I am most definitely on the hook when the hot water heater inevitably gives out in mid-January.

I have been a homeowner for two months now. In that time, I have managed not to break anything. I have successfully wielded a drill and invested in a chainsaw. I have spent inordinate amounts of time pondering paint palettes and improving my skills with a brush. I have faced my intimidating thermostat with a firm resolve and promptly dropped it to temperatures that will protect my wallet until I can replace the house’s aging windows. After much trepidation, I successfully started my lawnmower. I schedule my life around emptying the dehumidifier. I may even get a dining room table one of these months if the Covid era supply chains ever cooperate. Yes, I have most definitely entered middle age.

I have, with frequent self-doubt, cultivated my skills as an interior decorator. I turned the master bedroom into a beachscape and the room I’ve commandeered as an office into a worldly display of heavy non-fiction and literary art and artifacts from my time in Mexico. (You don’t want to know how long I spent curating my Zoom background. Not visible in the camera: a complete shelf of sports-related books and a rack of stray snapbacks favored by early 20s Karl.) The second floor sitting room currently lacks a real seat, but it does take visitors on travel around the globe through maps; the adjoining guest bedroom, meanwhile, maps out journeys closer to home. In the basement, a sort of proto-mancave is emerging, with stray baseball memorabilia on the walls and a hockey stick and some tennis balls I can use to amuse myself if I grow bored. The main room’s living space, meanwhile, is going in on the Congdon aesthetic: a mix of grand art over fireplaces and a showpiece bookcase alongside the bar and, of course, some hockey art. It takes all kinds.

Like most Duluth houses, my house is not new. The monster maple looming over the deck includes a time capsule from previous owners in a knot and includes a dog toy and a beer can and a frisbee and who knows what else beneath the leaves; I wonder vaguely what my own contribution will be. As long as the tree is still standing when I move on, that is: my greatest adventure to date involved the fall of a very large limb from said tree into the backyard. (Hence the chainsaw.) The home inspection revealed some necessary foundation work, which is now complete but has made a hash of my front yard. (Meh, it’s less grass to mow for now.) Evidence of the predecessors’ teenage boy lurks about, most amusingly in the pot-related art left behind in the attic. I’ve developed strong, and perhaps undeserved opinions on my predecessors and their seeming sloppiness. At least take down the curtain rod and the mounted TV when you paint. It’s not that hard.

My house is a 1950s mutt, a postwar part of a row that got lost on its way into some suburban subdivision and ended up nestling itself between the historic beauties of Congdon further down the hill and an array of later ramblers and McMansions further up in Hidden Valley. The interior is, thankfully, not very 1950s, with an open floorplan and a fresh kitchen and a spiral staircase and other fun perks that my predecessors have added in their more insipired moments. One neighbor, who has been in the neighborhood for a year or twenty, gave me the whole sordid history of my house’s recent owners and temporary life as a rental in the early 00s before it arrived in its current state. And so I take my place in a lineage straight out of the Book of Numbers, an heir not to a throne but to some crumbling drywall and a gaudy exhaust fan above the built-in bar and a garage built to withstand nuclear fallout and a marvelous autumn view out toward the stone beauty of a house across the street.

A pandemic is an awkward time to get to know one’s new neighbors, but I’ve managed a few chats over fences in the early going. I enjoy hosting a rotating cast on my new deck for housewarmings that accommodate others’ comfort with the conditions. The biggest adjustment to Congdon life after years in Endion and on Hennepin Avenue and right off a campus in DC is how magically quiet it is. When a couple of teenagers jawing loudly qualify as an evening disruption, the neighborhood is doing something right.

A lot went in to making Congdon the way it is, and my mind has spent some time dwelling on this move, as any introspective urban planner with Catholic guilt roots must. Buying real estate in one of Duluth’s most exclusive pockets (such as it is) just as the local market explodes feels uncomfortably like an insurance policy, and a retreat to the safe side of the drawbridge should the barbarians arrive. I’m the millennial who, despite a concerted effort to throw it all away in my early 20s, has gamed the system and come out, while not wealthy, at least on a clear road to comfort. So much more any youthful radicalism. But who are we kidding? The barbarians have been among us all along, and I can’t disown my own history. Accept that fate and use it for good, as the best of this neighborhood so often have.

I’m putting down roots, I think none too subtly as I push some dirt around a new baby tamarack in my front yard. I don’t think this is a forever house, but gives me the room I need to grow in this next phase, and will no doubt keep me occupied through pandemics and beyond. It blends so many things that are now a part of me: Duluth roots, East Coast class, easy trails into the woods, a short distance from northern Minnesota reality in all its complicated and tumultuous history, deference to grand old tradition and a nagging desire to stay forever fresh and young. Yes, it is home now.

An Endion Appreciation

28 Jun

“So what part of town do you live in?”

“The Endion neighborhood.”

“The what?”

“Endion.”

“Where’s that?”

“Uh…kind of between the Hillside and Congdon. Below Chester Park.”

“Oh! That place. I didn’t know it had a name.”

I’ve had some version of this conversation on a few dozen occasions over the past four years. In time, I learned just to give my street corner, an easy source of context on Duluth’s gridded streets, and perhaps even engage in a guilt-inducing act of appropriation and say “just off 21st, near Congdon.” My neighborhood has been a source of mystery even for many longtime Duluthians.

In a month or so I will decamp for some neighborhood a little ways to the east, but before I bid Endion farewell, I figured I’d direct a little appreciation at this sometimes forgotten wedge of Duluth. In many ways Endion is a relic of a time long past, but it isn’t one of those Duluth neighborhoods that has been swallowed up by another or seen its name change in the collective consciousness. Nor does it have any easy analogues. It’s still distinctly its own thing, a funny transition zone between some of Duluth’s wealthiest and most impoverished enclaves, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Endion came of age with grand designs. At the turn of the 20th century, Duluth’s elite left Ashtabula Heights (around 4th Street and 6th Avenue East, a jarring fact to consider today) for the broader expanses between Chester Creek and the ridge that rises in the mid-20s Avenues East, the mansion district once known as East End that most people now just consider an extension of Congdon. For a flash of history, this was one of the wealthiest places in the land. As early as the HOLC maps of the 1930s and 1940s, though, it was deemed in decline by the real estate powers that be. Its grand old homes with servants’ quarters were no longer practical for most families, and Duluth’s wealthy worked their way over to Congdon, where they settled and have mostly stayed put. Endion has been in a permanent limbo between privilege and poverty and the fascinating in-between state that is college life ever since.

I can understand why few people think of Endion as much of a neighborhood. It lacks a commercial node; most of its businesses are along a London Road strip with poor connections to the rest of it, and the Plaza Shopping Center lies just beyond its boundaries. Its eponymous elementary school closed several generations ago, with few to remember what a neighborhood center it might have been. (I had a fascinating exchange on a street corner a couple years back with an elderly man who’d driven in to visit Duluth for the first time in decades and was trying to piece together some dimly remembered locations from his childhood, including his days at the Endion school.) In a city of exceptional parks, it has an acceptable but unremarkable one at its center on the block of the Temple Israel; anyone who wants to recreate locally will venture either over to the Chester Creek corridor or down to the Lakewalk. Endion’s iconic train station, while spared the wrecking ball when I-35 punched its way through, moved down to Canal Park, where it is now a micro-hotel. Many of its residents are transient young renters–it has one of the youngest median ages of any Duluth neighborhood–and few put down roots here. It is mostly a smattering of homes that serve as a waystation for a few years of life before moving on to other things, and that is exactly what it has been for me, too.

That temporary status grants Endion its value. People need places to land for a few years of life, and it’s probably best that these places not be placid residential neighborhoods where residents have some right not to expect loud parties on random Tuesdays. In an ideal world this sort of district would be more centrally located and offer easier walks to a strip of nightlife or an iconic park, but we make do with what we have. Endion’s reuse of its old homes is exemplary, exactly what my urban planner friends have in mind when they dream of incremental increases in density, creating those fourplexes without needing to build anew. The trouble comes when the Endions of the world become a permanent state, lives trapped in limbo for eternity, the failure of late modernity to move people out and up on trajectories that give them meaning.

Endion is a grab bag of character types, rarely exciting but also never quite dull. Directly across the street is a family with young kids in one of the old beauties that remains a single-family home; in the two smaller adjacent houses, a few doddering old ladies sit out on their stoops for their fresh air. The rental kitty-corner from mine has turned over every year, and mostly remained tame, though the dirtbag boys who took it over in 2019 had me grumbling through a few sleepless nights. I still haven’t quite figured out what is going on in the home across the avenue, which clearly has a few permanent residents beneath its towering Queen Anne gables, but also enjoys a constantly rotating cast through its backyard bonfires. A block up, a halfway house adds some grit, but never any real drama. My own abode, a grand estate from another time now carved up into seven tasteful, separate units, caters to a crowd of grad students and young parents and a few young drifters who make enough money to enjoy general comforts but not enough to take any leaps beyond. It’s not a particularly communal place, as we meandering millennials connect only in stray hallway encounters or in shared struggles to scrape off our cars and shovel each other out every winter. It could be a great little neighborhood, but as I’ve observed before, Duluth has strangely weak formal neighborhood structures for a city that is strongly defined by them.

It is most definitely time to move on from those noisy college parties, that lack of a garage, the neighbors who don’t offer much of a greeting when one passes by. But there are parts of it I will miss. I will miss making popcorn on snowy winter nights and watching naive college students flail about as they try to drive up the avenue despite having access to much better-plowed streets just a block away. I will miss my grand columned front porch and massive picture windows and gaudy (though inoperable) fireplace. I regret that I am moving right before the city converts First Street to the two-way street it ought to be and tames the traffic into something that might be conducive to a neighborhood where one can settle into place. I will miss its easy acceptance of a phase of life where one could park out on the front porch and make a casual acquaintance over cheap beers.

Endion is Duluth is a nutshell: faded grandeur, scrapping youth, a few anchors holding fast amid the steady change. A bit anonymous in the face of things, but stable and memorable and often even beautiful. It has served its purpose, and I wish it the best as I find my escape from this stage. But some nostalgia will linger for those front porch nights, those times I packed my apartment with visitors from afar, those seasonal views down to the greatest of lakes. May Endion continue to afford future generations such delights, and may it continue to offer pathways onward and upward.

Living History on Empty Streets

3 May

“Duluth is a bit off-center, both literally and figuratively—something most Duluthians don’t seem to mind at all. After all, this is the city whose skyway system runs partially underground, where the West End is located in the city’s geographic center, and whose annual Christmas City of the North parade is held a week before Thanksgiving. Duluth may be a little bit off-center, but part of what makes Duluth Duluth is that here, true north isn’t always where you’d expect it to be.”

-Tony Dierckins, Duluth: An Urban Biography

Sheltering in place gives a devotee to a city even more time to learn it intimately. I read Tony Dierckins’ new biography of the city, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on this blog some while back. The Biography really only left me hungry for more: it clocks in at just under 170 pages and could easily have been double that length if it were to thoroughly explore structural forces and the lives of prominent figures beyond a series of mayors and those who crossed their paths. Still, the Biography was welcome step beyond Tony’s previous fun vignettes and collections, most of which peter out somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Granted, Duluth’s history becomes somewhat less romantic in that stretch; the great turn-of-the-century wealth faded, the growth stalled, and the architecture wandered away from an eclectic opulence to something much more mundane. Still, the Biography is a reminder that this city’s history has always been one of awkward lurches, of rises and falls, and a quest for some sort of stability in the aftermath.

Dierckins, citing Arthur W. Baum, likens Duluth to a stumbling prizefighter. (I would have used a hockey analogy, but this one will certainly do.) This city has been battered and bloodied by history: shock after economic shock, a lynch mob that killed its diversity, leadership both bold and questionable. Only rarely has Duluth seemed in control of its own fate, as when its early residents dug the shipping canal (a much more professional and mundane process than some local legends would have you believe), or when late 20th century leadership slowly turned the city back toward first Lake Superior and later the St. Louis River as centerpieces. So often Duluth’s fortunes depend on the whims of others, or no human at all: distant creditors, the American steel industry, the shifts in transportation that came with the interstate highway system. As the coronavirus now ravages the city’s economy, we embark on yet another lurch.

And so I set out to soak up Duluth’s living, breathing history, my mental record of this moment in time. I go for a run—with the sporadic hike on an off day—every day for a month and a half, and never aimed to take the same route twice. At first there was no real rhyme or reason to my wanderings, but once I realized I’d covered all but a handful of Duluth neighborhoods, I decided to knock out the rest over the span of a week and a half. I checked off the last one this morning when I plowed up Vinland Street to Bayview Heights this morning, just far enough to catch a glimpse of the promised land of Proctor across Boundary Avenue. I’m not one to track my distance religiously as I run, nor to lose myself in music or a podcast: I’m just here to run, and to drink in the world around me with my eyes.

In my adventures I find a few more off-center quirks, like the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue tucked in next to the paper mill deep on the west side. The top of the hill, somehow, is just one monstrous swamp, enlivened by a springtime frog chorus; a few boys in Piedmont splash through the muck in pursuit of the peepers. Duluth is a college town without college neighborhoods, a tourist town whose great landmark came about thanks to some grumpy residents of a sandbar who were peeved their city built the channel that was the source of all its early wealth. One of our showpiece parks is named for an explorer who never came within a thousand miles of the place. As the wind blows, so goes my comfort, at turns frigid or sweaty, guided by a tailwind or slowed by a blast from straight ahead.

Early Superiorites derided Duluthians as cliff-dwellers, and I could see why as I shot up and down the Point of Rocks at the center of the city. I relish the punishment of the runs that just go straight up into Kenwood or the top of the hill in Woodland or up to Lincoln Middle or that nameless bit of the Hillside by the old Summit School. Even a run along the seemingly more level northeast-to-southwest axis offers up an aggressive climb over the Point of Rocks and a more subtle but equally draining rise up to the ridge at about 24th Avenue East. (It’s easier to see now why Duluth’s old money chose this bit of land to throw up its enduring monuments.) When I moved back to Duluth a few years ago, I noticed a change in my leg muscles as my then-sporadic running routine adjusted to constant slopes.

“Duluth is turning into Chicago,” someone groused to me over the phone recently as he griped about crime and undesirables. I cringed at the lack of perspective and the racial undertones, and in mild defensiveness as a Duluthian with Chicago roots. Still, my runs remind me of what a divided city Duluth can be. I witness a drug deal off Portland Square, while a woman in Endion goes through a tearful break-up on the sidewalk over the phone. A kid on the west side tries to hide his cigarette from passersby as he supervises a younger sibling in the yard. In one of the more modest corners of Duluth Heights, a teenager storms out of a house amid loud shouts, and a neighbor edges down his driveway as he looks on in worry. The coronavirus strain is evident everywhere, but most obvious in places where people have little space to escape from the others in their lives, or where they rely on tenuous networks to prop themselves up. Crises like this strain the threads of our social fabric, and the thicker the weave, the better.

Jane Jacobs’ world is in a coma: all social life is now intentional. Downtown takes on a new bleakness without its weekday street life, middling as it may be. Lincoln Park is as dead as it was fifteen years ago, the virus bringing a sad reversion to a lifeless state in which I only pass two other people on the streets, both of whom may live on the streets. Around Denfeld I brush up against a certain charm, a bit dated but comfortable, pride still evident in most quarters, a sense that we’ll be back to normal before long. Old corner stores, most now turned to small houses, lurk here and there, give a sense of past commerce might have been. Fairmount and Irving inspire different reactions as I cruise through them in a sunny snow squall: a corner of the world aging away, lost to time, or at least any seeming need to keep up with it. Part of me is sympathetic, but the rules of the real estate game are rather less forgiving.

I oversimplify. Morgan Park, that fascinating time capsule, spawns new life in a giant townhome project rising into being on the site of its former school. Down the street, a kid blasts away at puck after hockey puck, and calls out a forlorn, human-contact-craving greeting as I pass. Whatever Gary’s giant trailer park may be, it is not old or tired, and that neighborhood’s industrious residents keep adding new features to the public land next to Stowe school. On the day I head down Highway 23 clear out to Chambers Grove Park, the westernmost tip of the westernmost city on the Great Lakes, a diverse, socially-distanced smattering of people explores the site of Duluth’s earliest settlement here at the base of the dalles of the St. Louis.

The classic narrative pits Duluth’s divides in a battle of east versus west, but anyone who knows the city well knows it’s more complicated. The real dividing line, if there is one, is east of center, maybe starting at Chester Creek and fully turning over at 21st Avenue East. But even that is an oversimplification. Duluth is a city of pockets, of unexpected streets of dodge their ways up hills that I’m still finding after years and years of exploration. I find blocks in my native Lakeside I never knew existed, serene riverfront homes in the far west, new twists in Kenwood, and come across a little of everything up in the Heights. A pocket of Piedmont has more McMansions than I knew Duluth could hold, this neighborhood much more divided between new construction and stellar views on the south side of its eponymous avenue and aging bungalows on the north side than I ever knew. Nothing is uniform.

Even on the east side blocks I’ve now run countless times, there’s more to explore. I suss out the different gradations of Lakeside and Woodland, see which blocks fit my vibe more than others. Still, the relative lack of an edge in the lands beyond Endion is apparent. On a socially distanced walk around Chester Park, a friend and I muse on the east side bubble we inhabited as children, our impression of Duluth as a haven of Subaru-driving cross-country skiers, its most glaring disruptions in the exploits of some hockey players or the antics of some college students up the street. I grew up thinking rich people live in grand old Congdon or London Road estates, not McMansions off cul-de-sacs in swamps over the hill, and my taste will probably always reflect that bias. I’ve come to believe that sensibility is a very Duluth attitude: a little maintenance probably required, but worth the effort, more capable of inspiring genuine loyalty and rootedness, not just the disposable products of a liquid modernity. Taste, intricacy, detail, and maybe some subtlety lurk in these woods.

My runs provide a vivid reminder: this city is old, an age all the more obvious with fewer current residents out and about. Of course in the grand scheme Duluth is young, hundreds of years younger even than so-called cities of the future like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we live history more here because we have less of the new. Duluth has seen glory and its loss, the narrative arc one needs to tell a good story, and the evidence is all around us if we know where to look for it. Relics of different eras abound: grand old Endion homes converted to apartments, empty thoroughfares like pre-freeway Cody Street, the downtown areas where property values tend to push toward either renovation or demolition to keep the engines going. Duluth’s rebellion against totalizing trends requires upkeep, requires care, requires knowing when something is beyond any further practical use and might be better off just fading back into the hillsides.

Nowhere in Duluth do worlds collide more than on Observation Hill, that steep incline just west of downtown dotted with staircases to nowhere and crumbling foundations, the remains of a past Duluth that sprung up along the Point of Rocks and set some of its first foundations here. My first memories of the city are from atop this hill—my mom lived here, briefly, while my dad tidied up affairs in southern Wisconsin before we moved here for good when I was six—and a quarter century later, it still feels like some realm of mystery for a child to explore. A few incongruous modern homes now lord over parts of this hillside, sharing space with some hardscrabble rowhouses and a smattering of aging urban farmers with Bernie signs still lurking in their yards. Here is Duluth in all its complicated glory, past and future and wealth and poverty all intertwined, all on a stunning perch over the most superior of lakes. Duluth’s budgets may rise and fall, and economic forces it cannot control may drive its prosperity or its struggles, but it will always have that view, and because of that it will always have its allure.

Us Duluth loyalists, however, can’t coast on allure alone. I come back to the prizefighter analogy: we need to learn to scrap again, to believe in a place not just for what it has been but what it can be. I admire the sentiment that we all just get along, and the all-in-this-together solidarity that a pandemic inspires. But Duluth arose not through gentility but by a dose of raw ambition that made such future leisure possible. The coronavirus is as good a reminder as any that we can’t hide from history, that it will come for us all at some point or another, and we can only run for so long. If Duluth is to continue punching above its weight, we children of a city freighted with history should know we have a role to play.

A Duluth Neighborhood Typology

11 Aug

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

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

Traditional Neighborhoods

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

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

College Town, Duluth Style

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

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

Bedroom Enclaves

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

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

Commerce First

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

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

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

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

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

Neighborhoods Lost?

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

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

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

Lincoln Park Gets Its Own Section

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

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

What Next?

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

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

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