What Is Duluth’s Future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elephant in Every Room

I ended my last post by suggesting that individual freedom is the driving force in just about every social change. Today, I’ll flesh out that argument a bit more.

First, the evidence: personal liberation has been at the heart of nearly every liberal or leftist achievement since the 1960s. The civil rights and feminist movements, while not necessarily complete, made great strides. Likewise, sexual autonomy has taken off dramatically. Yet when it comes to collective action, the left has stalled. Despite the efforts of many politicians and community activists, poverty remains entrenched in many American communities, and inequality has only grown. Unions have gradually lost their power. The environmental movement records most of its victories on an individual level, with consumers embracing green shopping but minimal political action on such issues as climate change. Universal health care came about only through appeals that every person deserved the right to some level of care, and remains far less centralized than Europe’s single-payer systems.

On the right, it hasn’t been any different. The past half century has seen decreases in tax rates, deregulation, and the proliferation of free-market economic theories that rally against state intervention. Most liberal social issues have done well over the past half-century, yet gun control legislation rarely goes anywhere, with the Second Amendment as the guiding light. The conservative ideals under duress are far more communal in nature: traditional family structures, church attendance, and perhaps the predominance of “traditional” American culture generally associated with white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are some issues that don’t line up so evenly. On abortion, for example, both sides can play the freedom card: the left demands rights for women to control their bodies, while the right demands rights for the unborn. National security—that paradoxical enterprise by which we take away freedoms so as to protect freedoms—doesn’t line up very nicely, either. On that front, the politicians in power almost always favor the collective definition of freedom, despite complaints from both ends of the spectrum. Still, I think this is the exception that proves the rule: collective action only seem to advance when the populace feels sufficiently threatened by some outside force, and enthusiasm for more rigid national security has faded away now that Islamic terrorism is not perceived to be the existential threat it was decade ago. Clearly, there are times when public opinion rallies against the steady march of individualism, and slows the tide for a spell. But the fact remains that the side that can best monopolize arguments for individual freedom just about always wins.

Appeals to individual rights resound with voters on a level that vague appeals to the greater good cannot, just as photos of a single starving child tend to move more people to action than a ream of statistics on child poverty. Self-interest tends to take priority, and in a society where the majority of people are relatively secure from outside threats, collective action often seems needless. On an individual level, this makes an awful lot of sense; the problems arise when we dare to ask what might be lost by such a narrow focus.

It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean the advancement of individual liberties at the expense of state power. In some cases, government policy is seen as the best means to drive individual liberation, and the state sure hasn’t gotten any smaller over the past few decades, even with “conservatives” in control in Washington. Some even argue that individualism and growing state power feed off of one another in a vicious cycle. What have suffered, on the other hand, are voluntary associations that make up civil society—groups that citizens join to affect the communal good. In my opinion, the greatest threat this country faces is not its debt load, nor some external foe, nor an immediate lack of social justice. It is its failing social fabric, and without it, none of the other issues really matter.

My point here certainly isn’t to say that the government needs to control more things, or that we need to subsume all our individual desires to the collective. If I lived in a different country and in a different era, I might have lamented the opposite trend. My point is that our basic ways of thinking about politics—as a battle between the individual and the state—is fundamentally flawed.

Instead, we ought to recognize that humans, for all the unique traits of each one of us, are forever doomed to live within communities, and have to find some way to make them work as a collective. Certain problems can only be solved via collective action, and we also tend to be happier when we have our most fundamental beliefs validated by groups of people with similar interests or concerns. Conceiving of the human being as an autonomous individual who is forced into living with others is an impoverished view of human nature, to the extent that we can define such a thing. We have our moments when we operate alone, yes, but we also have moments where we must operate in concert, and we can’t ignore either one and expect to come out with a sensible philosophy about life.

At this moment in history, individualism has the upper hand, and while individual liberation has brought us many very good things, it isn’t without its dark side, and we must acknowledge it. This, of course, leads to the question of what can be done to counteract these trends; unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot of great answers on this front yet, beyond the basic suggestion that we should all get out a little bit more. It may, in fact, be hard to do much of anything until a lot more people become aware of the trends driving modern American life.

To that end, I suppose, this blog post is a start. We’ll see where we go next.