Tag Archives: tony dierckins

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.

Hey Duluth Politicians, I’m Still Paying Attention

20 Sep

Yes, Duluth, I’m still paying attention to you, even from afar. Here are a few thoughts on two issues that have been in the news back home recently.

The Proposed Lester Park Golf Course Development

One of the more interesting debates to surface has been about the fate of the Lester Park Golf Course (LPGC), the public course on the far east side for which the city has started fielding proposals from developers. The LPGC has operated at a loss in recent years, and with its superb views of Lake Superior and relatively undeveloped environs, it sits on an attractive piece of real estate. But this decision has, of course, spurred some backlash, with local historian Tony Dierckins rallying the troops in a series of posts over on Zenith City Online. (History of the course here, pointed critiques here.)

Before we get into the merits of this particular plan, Tony makes one point that is especially bothersome when he floats the notion that this somehow detracts from the plan to revitalize the west side. This is the sort of attitude that reinforces the east-west divide, turning development into a zero-sum game. There is plenty of room for development on both sides of Duluth; nothing should be off the table simply because it is on a certain side of the city. Imposing some sort of moratorium on east side development so the west side can play catch-up would be a heavy-handed tool that would likely just leave us with less of anything in the end. Closing LPGC would actually eliminate an east side amenity, and if (if!) it is indeed a profitable move, could free up some cash for the west side. Signs of flexibility and openness to creative ideas would be a positive for the city as a whole, and could improve the overall development climate. Though Duluthians should be proud that their city tends to stop and think before rushing to throw up every new plan placed before it in shiny wrapping, this mindset is exactly what gets Duluth a reputation for being stuck in the mud when it comes to development. There’s room for many different options.

I’m also not entirely sold on a number of his other defenses of LPGC. Yes, it’s public, and gives green access to golfers who can’t afford Northland or Ridgeview Country Clubs. But it’s also not a free amenity open to anyone, and calling a golf course ‘nature’ or an opportunity for serious physical activity is something of a stretch, especially in a city like Duluth. Golf courses are odd ducks in the planning world: they’re recreational, but very specific in purpose, and take up a lot of land area. Tony gives a massive job loss number, but it’s worth noting that many of them are seasonal and not exactly careers, such as caddying. These jobs are great for kids starting work and a few seasoned pros, of course, but it’s not comparable to closing a factory.

Tony’s financial numbers seem fishy at best. It’s certainly not the government’s job to subsidize golf at whatever cost, and if the market’s not there, the local golf community either needs to pony up or face reality. It may be a bit premature to throw LPGC under the bus—Tony does have a not-so-very-old quote from CAO Montgomery dismissing any financial concerns about the courses that needs an explanation—but things do need to add up here. Tony has a pretty clear personal interest in LPGC, and while there’s nothing wrong with that—I’d be putting out some prolific venting if the city, say, tried to do away with Fryberger Arena—let’s not pretend he’s laying out these facts without a clear agenda.

All of that said, barring an offer the city can’t refuse, I do think it would be shortsighted to just shut the place down and put up a new, strictly residential subdivision. Overcrowding at the Enger course would be a serious issue, as would the loss of a venue for major charitable events. Golf does have genuine cultural value, and generates some tourism. Weather might have played a role in recent financial struggles, and LPGC is also sadly burdened by the hopelessly arcane liquor sales ban that lives on in Lakeside. The public needs to learn a lot more about the course’s operations before it accepts that it just has to go.

The good news is that some of the proposals apparently do not involve the total loss of the golf course. Preserving 18 holes while allowing for some modest development might prove a sensible compromise. Ideally, any redevelopment will maintain some parkland and public access to the excellent views along LPGC, no matter what fate befalls the course. The ideal plan would also probably bring some space for business along with it, instead of isolating a group of houses out on a cul-du-sac off Lester River Road. I’m intrigued to see what comes out of this. Tell me more.

September School Board Meeting

Oh, yeah, that thing. I’m afraid it still exists, and is just as absurd as ever. I made it about halfway through the Youtube video before giving up. It started off as usual, with Members Johnston and Welty doing lots of grandstanding for entirely understandable reasons, as they still have not been given any clear path to get anything on the Board’s agenda. Chair Miernicki continues to be the greatest PR operation the minority could have dreamed of on their behalf, persistently bumbling through everything.

At one point, Member Johnston said that Chair Miernicki had told him that he was “scared” of him in an email, which is telling. Many adjectives could be applied to Member Johnston, a number of them not very nice, but “scary” is not really one of them. Years of battles have left the majority paranoid about the man, and even his more mundane critiques give rise to defensiveness. Everyone is so well-trained at taking those who they do not agree with in bad faith.

This fear of minority critiques came out later in the meeting, when Member Harala lost her cool and snapped at Member Welty for his (real, but fairly mundane) grandstanding on minority students’ poor test scores. So much for the one person on the majority who I thought was making a concerted effort to see things from the other side. Predictably, this sent Member Johnston off the rails with accusations of harassment and lack of care for minorities, in turn sending Chair Miernicki into justified indignance. After that bit of ugliness, I stopped watching. Member Johnston said the Board has done nothing for underserved groups, but this is patently false. Whatever one thinks of it, the Laura MacArthur curriculum flap is obviously an effort to cater directly to groups that need extra help in school, and from my time there onward, there has been a very concerted effort on the part of the East administration to directly engage with minority students. (In fact, there were even a few jokes in poor taste about how this was the only thing the administration cared about.) I doubt East is unique there. Just because it isn’t being announced with trumpets doesn’t mean it isn’t getting done. Its efficacy may be another story, though, and everyone seemed to be in violent agreement that this is a conversation worth having.

The trouble is that the conversation will likely go in the exact same direction. Members Welty and (especially) Johnston are full of depressing facts but short on solutions, in turn leading to defensiveness and qualifications from the rest. I’m all for the accurate reporting of the statistics, but just reading off the numbers does little to advance the conversation. Stupid as it may be, Members Johnston and Welty may have to cater to their colleagues’ fragile sensibilities if they really do want to have this conversation (which they already do somewhat with a lot of qualification), and some brevity might do them a world of good, too. Unfortunately, the success of Laura MacArthur may be leading some on the Board to believe that this is an easy problem to solve. Member Welty says he won’t be happy with mere incremental success, and the Board should obviously aim to do all it can, but in the end, I’d be relieved with some slow, steady progress. While he may just have been in a state after Member Harala’s outburst, Member Johnston’s suggestion that the achievement gap exists because people aren’t trying is just his bad faith reading of people he does not like. This is a brutally hard issue to fix.

The same could be said of the east-west divide, which also came up in relation to test scores after everyone got all of their hating on testing and No Child Left Behind out of the way. (If there’s one thing that seems to unite everyone in the room, and can even get Chair Miernicki to praise some of Marcia Stromgren’s words, it’s a hatred of tests.) The concerns about equity between East and Denfeld came up again, and while I’ve already said plenty on that, I’ll again point out what a bind the District is in as it tries to correct for some of these issues. The new curriculum director has his work cut out for him, though as I suggested in that past post, there are some creative ways to offer greater equity while also working within reality.

I’m not going to defend the Board’s existing efforts fully, though, and at their worst, some Members do sound like patronizing teachers when they acknowledge problems but do not share any further details, or dismiss them in facile ways. (See Chair Miernicki’s suggestion that, because something appears in the curriculum guide, this must automatically mean there is equal access to classes at both high schools. Please. And what is this nonsense about a full year of lifeskills—by far the most useless class I had in ISD 709, though that was perhaps related to the teacher—instead of offering Spanish at Lincoln Park?) It’s all part of the culture of secrecy inside the District. It may not look like it exists from inside the bubble, but it does, and it’s glaring. Read this DNT op ed and some of Harry’s correspondents for more details.

The public speaker session included Linda Puglisi’s jarring story of a pool rescue, once again showing the horrors of teachers trying to do the best they can with large class sizes. Another speaker hammered this theme home when discussing Lester Park, and I’ve heard similar stories out of Congdon. Not coincidentally, these schools are on the east side; in addition to serving the area of the city with the most young people, they are the ones families are trying to transfer into, often blackmailing the District with threats of withdrawal if they don’t get their way. Even so, class sizes are still a problem, despite a few added teachers here and there thanks to the levy money. This Board has some work to do, and it needs to do more than “have conversations”–though in some cases, it isn’t even doing that.

On that happy note, I’ll cut myself off. Writing about Duluth politics is cathartic. I miss it, in a twisted sort of way.