Tag Archives: running

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.

Run This Town

18 Apr

I’ve been a Minneapolitan for eight months now, and I’m slowly starting to mark this city as my own. There is much to like here, though I am skeptical as to how real the Miracle really is when one looks into its underbelly, and don’t know how long I’ll stay after my two-year stint here is up. Still, I’ve been coming to know it in my own particular way, as I have in the past with Duluth and Washington: by foot, running its streets in every direction I can, those runs sometimes degenerating into walks when I stray too far afield to keep up the intensity or find something worth watching at a slower pace.

Home base is in a neighborhood known as the Wedge, both for its triangular shape and the way it shoves itself in between the opulent old money homes of Lowry Hill and Lake of the Isles and the diverse, eclectic, and poorer neighborhoods to the east. It gives easy access to downtown to the north or Uptown to the south, the connections all fluid. It’s spring in Minnesota, that time of year we appreciate best, and it’s time to head back out.

My best-worn route sends me on an architecture tour of the fine homes wrapping around the lakes, though someone long ago had the good sense to save the lakeshore for the public, leaving us with promenades for bikers and walkers, there to see the wealth and to be seen themselves. I’ll meander off the running paths and into the quiet streets beyond, past the Mary Tyler Moore house and out to a landing on Cedar Lake, or over the crest of Lowry Hill and down by the Blake School, one whose façade I’d admire if not for my unshakable pride in that brick building overlooking Lake Superior back home. The Walker Art Center is there, complete with sculpture garden and iconic cherry; just beyond is the Parade Ice Garden, home to Minneapolis hockey, such as it is. Beneath the overpass and over a footbridge is Bryn Mawr Meadows, its ballfields turned to cricket pitches by the latest wave of immigrants.

Beyond the dandelion fountain in Loring Park Downtown stirs to life, as the sunlight sucks people out of the skywalks and on to the streets. The restaurants bring back their outdoor seating, and Target Field opens its doors to further Twins mediocrity. Nicollet Mall bustles, though it’s hard to keep up any speed with all the stoplights and traffic; in time, I make my way up along the riverfront, finally open to the city as the centerpiece it deserves to be. Further down, past the scores of new apartments, the Guthrie Theater, and the rising shell of that financial monstrosity of a football stadium lies the University of Minnesota campus, ideal for springtime people-watching, as everyone emerges from whatever room or study hole or bar they’ve ensconced themselves in over the past year and revels in the sunlight.

Cross a bridge and there is St. Anthony Falls or Nicollet Island, those old icons of Minneapolis now dwarfed by the towers around. Old Main has the best patio seating in the city, and Nye’s, that irreplaceable polka bar, beckons me into Northeast, the old realm of European immigrants now filling with immigrants and hipsters and the like. Changes are afoot to the south as well, where a battalion of new loft apartments forms ranks along the Greenway, Uptown’s transformation near-complete. Further along Lake Street is the Midtown Global Market, plus the stretch were I’m apt to go in search of some genuine Mexican deliciousness. And, of course, that damn K-Mart is still there, ruining the flow of traffic along Nicollet but providing a service no one else can in this low-income district.

To the east of home base, across Lydnale, lies Whittier, the apartments growing a bit larger and a bit more frayed around the edges. There is a little bit of everything here, with Eat Street along Nicollet and little pockets of old grandeur, especially around Washburn Fair Oaks Park, home to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, the stately Classical museum gazing out upon the center of the city. A pedestrian bridge just a block away lofts me over 35W and into Phillips. Urban farms abound, and curiosities such as the Swedish-American Institute poke their way out of a steadily declining housing stock. Now it’s diverse as can be, with even a Native American strip up along Franklin, and over in Cedar-Riverside, just off the West Bank of the U, is the heart of Somali America. They’re stuffed into Riverside Plaza, that tower block of mismatched Legos that is only one-seventh the size it was supposed to be. Why did we ever think it was a good idea to stuff people into these things, I wonder, though at least some have carved out a little oasis for themselves between the foreignness and ignorance of the broader culture and the allure of al-Shabaab. If people can build community here—and I don’t know whether they can or not—maybe all this grumbling about the offenses of brutalist architecture misses the point.

One day I take a path not yet taken, a bridge beyond 394 that carries me into neighborhoods that few people I know have deigned to visit. My surroundings take a turn for the bizarre in Sumner-Glenwood, one of those hyphenated havens of low-income housing. Twenty years ago this was all projects and towers, but they all came tumbling down in the late 90s. In came the next-generation urban renewal scheme: instead of shoving poor people into towers like sardines, we now scatter them about green New Urbanist landscapes, with cheap housing that tries to look like it’s historic and suburban. The result: far fewer units, and acres upon acres of lifeless, empty grass separating buildings that look like they are pretending to be something that they are not. Harsh, perhaps, but it was hard not to look at this space and not think of the bankruptcy of any theory that thinks the design can rewrite these lives. The only life anywhere along these roads are two decrepit people sitting on their walkers across from their senior housing looking positively miserable, and one lady who yells obscenities at her dog as it chases after me for an entire block. The return route down the next street takes me past Bethune Elementary, one my teacher friends describe as “the worst.” It may not be ugly, but it still seems a wasteland.

To the north is North, though there is plenty of Minneapolis north of North. This is the heart of the ‘inner city,’ the place I’m told fills all the stereotypes of crime and blight and a large black population. It doesn’t entirely look the part: the upkeep of some of the historic homes is better than in Phillips or Whittier, and there is nothing remotely threatening about its streets on a Wednesday morning. In the distance, flashing lights make me wonder what is going on, and before long it’s clear the haze in the air is something more sinister. Several streets have been blocked off, and all that I can see from the corner as I peer past the crowd of onlookers is a fire engine’s cherry-picker looming in the smoke. An entire block has gone up in flames. Not wanting to gawk, I run on, though I circle around the perimeter of the cordons.

Up Broadway, a bustling shopping street laden with fatty food options. Down around the bedraggled football field belonging to North High, then doubling back to pass three more schools: a stately and quiet Catholic school, Elizabeth Hall Elementary with its tame and bustling playground, and a crumbling concrete shell of a former charter school just down the block. Nothing quite conforms here, and the face of 21st-Century urban American poverty just doesn’t show the squalor of the past. The forces at work here are deeper, more subtle, but often every bit as pernicious, the cycles of financial struggle and broken families only perpetuating themselves, here in this city with an achievement gap that ranks among the worst of the worst. The Miracle has a dark side, hard as it may seem to believe on my next run, when I’m cruising down along Lake Harriet, darting in and among the beautiful people finally free to break out their summer finery.

I’m sore now. It’s time to head home, check out my latest route on a map, and plot my next venture outward. Every one of them seems to open up another corner, remind me how little I know of this place, even as I head further afield. There’s always more to discover.