Tag Archives: urban renewal

The Recesses of Downtown Duluth

15 Oct

On a balmy Wednesday in October, I join some fifty members of my Leadership Duluth class on a walking tour of downtown Duluth. This day of Leadership Duluth is no stray leadership lecture: it’s a day that forces us to confront reality in our city. From the CHUM shelter and food shelf to the Damiano Center food kitchen, from the Safe Haven domestic violence shelter to an open house of social service organizations, this day forces us to see people we otherwise might not see.

A one-day orientation doesn’t allow for much close contact with the people who use these resources; that’s not the point of this day. Instead, we hear from those who spend all of their time working here, the personifications of the leadership this program aims to show us. Among the most deeply embedded is Deb at CHUM, who spends her days reaching out to people on the streets of Duluth, always in some effort to bring them back in. She and her colleagues navigate the tortured paths of love and frustration, of empathy and inability to understand what motivates people to lives on the streets, the drastic turns that a life on the edge can take in a few quick minutes. It is at once both impossible and thoroughly believable to follow the logic that leads a person to the transient inconsistency of a life defined by moves from couch to couch, the transactional life on the street, the turn toward some substance to blunt the cold or pain or demons in the brain.

Whether thanks to inspired leadership or the relative ease of convincing donors to support children, Life House, the city’s largest youth shelter, boasts a warm and welcoming modern space so rare among social service nonprofits that target the poorest of the poor. As families crumble and supportive networks fray, the struggles for Duluth’s youth tick upward. And as I approach the start of my fourth decade on this planet, I now find myself looking at kids and seeing some sense of what they might become, a haunted sense that some of these fresh-faced teens loitering around downtown will someday become CHUM’s clients. A place like Life House may be the last hope for rescuing any of them.

As we walk about, it’s hard not to notice the changing face of First Street. On the west end, the News Tribune and Board of Trade Buildings are both moving toward redevelopment; on the east end, Essentia Health’s massive new hospital project stirs to life. In the middle, scaffolding covers a building at Lake and First, another conversion to housing as Duluth’s downtown catches up with where other cities’ centers were development-wise twenty years ago. Even the bland ARDC building, where I officed for a couple of years before my firm struck out on its own, is getting a facelift, its new façade a marvelously depressing shade of grey.

Another potential project looms on the near east side of First, where the city’s Human Rights Officer, Carl Crawford, delivers the tale of the 1920 Duluth lynchings in his stirring baritone. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial plaza frequently bustles with activity, often from visitors to the Union Gospel Mission up the street; today, we share it with just one young woman, who blasts some pop songs as backdrop to Carl’s sermon and sings along in painful off-key tones. None too quietly, she mutters about the white people who have invaded her space. Just the day before, a county court ruled that the Duluth Economic Development Authority may proceed with the demolition of the Pastoret Terrace building across the street, a sad but necessary ending for an architectural icon that has long since crumbled away beyond repair. First Street’s face will change yet again, and I wonder what this woman will think of it when it comes.

Carl asks us to pick out a favorite quotation on the memorial wall. Many are poignant, from Rumi to Oscar Wilde, but I pick out the Martin Luther King quote that stuck with me when I first set eyes on this then-revolutionary memorial over a decade ago: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” Of all the sentiments on the wall, it seems most absent in our current discourse.

King’s words are grounded in a certain Christian theology, a legacy of service on my mind when we walk up to the Damiano Center on Fourth Street. The Damiano is on the site of an old Catholic campus in the heart of the city: it was Cathedral Elementary School before it became a food kitchen. The site of Cathedral High across the street is now a parking lot, while Sacred Heart Cathedral has become a music venue and the priests’ and nuns’ residences are now housing. Even the church has fled downtown in search of new digs, whether east to Congdon and the Holy Rosary campus or up the hill to the Marshall School, now stripped of any religious affiliation.

No doubt faith can feel absent here, and the tale of the Adas Israel congregation, Duluth’s oldest surviving synagogue and a longtime downtown inhabitant, offers a chilling metaphor for those inclined to that line of thought. Their house of worship went up in flames in September, and initial fears of a hate crime fizzled into a much sadder story of a man without a home who set a small blaze next to the building in order to keep warm. I had reached for some thundering quotes from Eichmann in Jerusalem but was left instead back in the pages of The Human Condition, ever in search of meaning in a corner of the world where life risks becoming a tautology.

The scaffolding and wrecking balls across downtown Duluth hint toward a new future, and I am an unabashed supporter: downtown Duluth above Superior Street is largely a relic of a Rust Belt city center, completely at odds with a city looking for a spurt of fresh life. For that matter, it is at odds with a more humane environment for those who drift about it because they have no other choice, and only a narrow, reflexive idea of community would reject this new development as if the status quo were in some way worth preserving. But if it does go, it will take a few stories with it, and we need to keep those stories somewhere if we are to have a true understanding of our past. Whether the it comes from the Adas Israel congregation rising from the ashes or the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial ensuring we never forget the acts of 1920 or a kid at Life House finding stability in a life that previously had none, our knowledge of the darkest moments gives us that much more appreciation for the light.

The Towns Down the River

29 Sep

My education on the travails facing St. Louis was a swift one. On a road trip there for a wedding last weekend, several family members, seeking some beer with which to amuse the group, ventured across the street from the hotel to a Circle K gas station. Each six-pack came to them one-by-one through a drawer from an attendant behind bulletproof glass, a security provision deemed necessary even on this unassuming commercial strip right off an interstate. Next to fried ravioli and Budweiser, St. Louis’s lingering image is one as perhaps the most complete representation of the crumbling of Middle America, a sign of what might await downriver for the rest of us if we’re not careful.

The population of St. Louis is down to about 300,000 from a high of 850,000 in the middle of the 20th century. Streets and buildings frequently nestle behind gates, the divisions of a third-world city brought right into a metro whose urban evolution has followed the same trends. Its many brick facades, I learn, are now often the most prized part of a house, and many get removed and shipped off for use elsewhere. Unlike many Rust Belt towns, St. Louis’s fate wasn’t tied to the rise and demise of a single industry; its struggles stem from the gradual decline of a range of industries and a steady stream of buyouts by larger multinationals. I now understand why Jonathan Franzen named one of his early novels about his hometown The Twenty-Seventh City to note its decline from a great American metro to a middling status. (My copy made this trip with me, but I never opened it.)

St. Louis also lacks the perversely romantic ruin porn of Detroit. Its greatest testament to urban planning failure, Pruitt-Igoe, is now partially repurposed and partially a vacant field. Pruitt-Igoe was to be the modernist model for how to build public housing: 28,000 units designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the celebrated designer of the World Trade Center in New York. Less than twenty years later the whole thing was demolished. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe is often billed as a failure of architecture; Charles Jencks, an architecture critic, called its demolition “the day modern architecture died.”

It’s certainly true that the complex suffered from shoddy construction, and that architecture alone cannot make good citizens in the way some of the more absurd modernist dreamers in that field liked to believe, to ruinous effect. But the greater tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe stems not from its design but from an environment that doomed it to failure: a crumbling economy, blatant segregation, poor city management that destroyed St. Louis’s tax base, and a political climate that had no desire to see public housing succeed. For those who defend those systems, explicitly or implicitly, the architects are a convenient scapegoat. The failures of Pruitt-Igoe endure, its ghosts appearing on the streets of suburban Ferguson in recent years.

As with Detroit, there is still plenty of growth and commerce around St. Louis. It enjoys a large ring of well-off suburbs where plenty of people, including some members of my family, have settled in to happy lives. But it is also an ideal study in how major trends, from economic centralization to government division, can be the lasting difference between cities that are challenged but thriving and those that have come to exemplify the worst of contemporary America. The St. Louis experience offers a compelling case for regional governance and an indictment of a range of incentives and policies, whether malignant or merely misguided, that created the divides of a power in decline.

I don’t want to linger on the negatives for too long. St. Louis has a dramatic arch, and two Grade A large city parks that date to its World’s Fair days, complete with a zoo and a botanical garden. The City Museum, which I explore with a couple of relatives after the reception, is a true marvel, a playground for all ages in the shell of an otherwise vacant old building, the wreckage of a shrinking city repurposed into tunnels and slides and other stray sources of amusement. I’ll be back here in the future, and I hope to find a few more worthy sights. But on this weekend I settle for rolling in and out in a heartbeat, with long drives across downstate Illinois and Iowa to slow down the time along the way. Rarely is it memorable, save for windows into the less dramatic but equally damning rural decay that line the four-lane rivers of commerce that have replaced the Mississippi as the lifeblood of these towns.

*          *          *

Some two hours north of St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, sits Hannibal, the boyhood hometown of Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain. He didn’t live there long, but this town of 17,000 left an indelible mark on one of America’s most celebrated writers. Like any small town that has had a brush with fame (and many that haven’t but would like to think they have), Hannibal is all in on its famed son, with Twain kitsch and a full cottage industry around him on full display. We enter town down rather dismal, run-down streets amid a rainstorm, but downtown Hannibal is cute and well-kept, and the Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which sprawls across several buildings and blocks, is worth the $12. We get a full overview of Clemens’ early life, and the town smartly keeps its emphasis on his early years which were so formative for his two best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Those two icons of American literature are clearly children of Hannibal, and each of the major figures in those books had direct real-life parallels.

Beyond Hannibal, Twain’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time. The museum acknowledges the controversies surrounding Huck Finn, both for its transgressive language at the time of its publication and its contemporary fall from grace for its repeated use of a word we now consider vile in polite speech. A panel in the museum shows dueling quotes from writers on this flap, with Toni Morrison blasting anyone who’d shy away from an accurate account of historical language and Jane Smiley suggesting that, if Huck Finn is the book that sets the context for discussions of race in America, it’s letting us set an awfully low bar.

Both points can probably be true. There are certainly more effective and searing testaments to the reality of racial conflict in America than the writings of a white man from over a century ago. The problem comes from trying to see Huck Finn only through that lens: it’s a major theme in the book, yes, and there’s certainly something to Huck’s growing understanding of racial divisions that readers can learn from, perhaps especially because Huck is by no means privileged but can still see injustice in front of him. (An exhibit in the Becky Thatcher House does a good job of laying out 19th century Hannibal’s class boundaries for a young audience.) And Twain also deserves judgment by the context of his day: sure, some language no longer resonates, but he was a dedicated and consistent champion of racial equality at a time when that was often a bold take. He wrote a book-length diatribe against the atrocities of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, and he blasted injustice around the world, from Boers in South Africa to servitude of Pacific Islanders in Australia. He also oversaw the rehabilitation of Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation through the publication of his memoirs, a vital corrective to a Southern narrative of Reconstruction as a failure and Grant as a bumbling and corrupt commander-in-chief. I have little patience for armchair critics of a man who consistently used his station to combat injustices everywhere.

Twain endures because he embodies the best of the American narrative. He is often wickedly funny, an astute observer of American reality using a vernacular, that, if sometimes less accessible now, was a vital step in literature’s move away from endless highbrow blather to something accessible to all classes. His realism was for everyone, and dedicated to a democratic spirit. He burst on to the scene documenting the freshness of American thought against stodgy Europeans in The Innocents Abroad, and he set his country to overcoming such ugliness as slavery and racism, which he himself had benefitted from as a child. In this vein, his great characters are adolescents: not yet fully formed, burdened by family history and their instincts but still capable of greatness or redemption no matter their backgrounds. Tom and Huck speak to the possibility of boyhood, and Twain’s nostalgia for his early days when a small-town American childhood blurred very real class lines. That formative experience may no longer be possible in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and if that is indeed the case, it’s a major loss.

A dive into a Hannibal childhood stirs some agrarian corner of my soul, itself grounded in an early-life sojourn in a town of 4,000 where I formed my first memories. As with Twain, that small town was my sandbox for my first steps into writing. This road trip’s final day includes a push through the land I associate with those early years: the hilltop farms and meandering coulees and oak savannas of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The towns here seem better kept, better able to avoid the shabbiness on display in Iowa or Missouri or, for that matter, northern Minnesota. On a golden early fall morning, I don’t much mind getting stuck behind a house on wheels as I wind up and down these verdant hills. These hills are reminders of a time when I, too, had no sense of the divides I can’t help but see now, and remind me that the dream embodied in Twain’s characters isn’t useless nostalgia, but a dream of how things could be.

Planning Duluth: Endion and East Side Traffic

20 Sep

Oh Duluth politics and planning blogging, how I’ve missed you. My return was inspired by this recent Perfect Duluth Day post on mall access on Duluth’s east side, an idea that includes big plans for 21st Avenue East, a major artery in the near east Endion neighborhood. In the next month, I’ll become a resident of Endion, so I feel entitled to an opinion here. Endion is a funny neighborhood; one that makes sense only in terms of its history. The U.S. census splits it into two tracts, and my future home is on the 20th Ave. E. dividing line; one side of the street has a median household income that’s $45,000 more than the other. I’m on the poorer side, so I guess I’m an evil gentrifier coming to ruin the neighborhood.

Endion is an area where three different Duluths collide. First, there’s old money Duluth, the realm of stately old homes. Go eight blocks east and you’re in the wealthiest pocket of northern Minnesota, but over by me, it’s a jumble of well-maintained beauties and faded grandeur. Next, there’s Duluth as a Rust Belt city, a realm of lifelong renters in often transient states of poverty. Head eight blocks west, and you’re in Duluth’s poorest area. Third, there’s college town Duluth, which has slowly leached down the hill over the decades. The big old houses get carved up into student apartments; some are clearly declining student properties, while others are hard to tell apart from the single family homes. It’s a complicated place with an unclear future, and several paths open up before it.

The poster on PDD suggests turning 21st Avenue East into a four-lane highway, which is both a terrible and an unrealistic idea. Four-lane streets aren’t any more efficient at moving people, unless they become limited access highways, in which case we’re talking widespread destruction of homes. It’s even worse when we factor in such considerations as 1) unless given some even more destructive switchbacks, it won’t lessen weather concerns—in fact, as a viaduct, it will worsen them; 2) 21st is not a federal highway like Piedmont, so it would have to be built on the dime of a city that already struggles to fill potholes, and 3) as someone who’s spent most of the past eight years living part-time in larger cities, I giggle at this alleged “bad” traffic on 21st. (I drove it at rush hour today for kicks, and got to my destination maybe ten seconds slower than I would have otherwise.) Such a project would be a horrid waste of money, and it won’t happen. But, thankfully, it does open up a conversation about planning the Endion neighborhood as a whole.

The commenter mentions college-driven housing stock decline in justifying the 21st Ave. project, but this mistakes the symptom for the disease. Some college spread is inevitable, and anyone who buys a house within a few blocks of a college should expect some residual effects. But in the long run, college properties spilling down into Endion don’t do anyone much good. It leaves students with long, unpleasant commutes, and ups the odds of drunken incidents involving vehicles. It encroaches on neighborhoods that might reasonably not expect it, and leads to headaches for neighbors and universities as they try to keep the peace. The root cause of declining housing along 21st isn’t the spread of college students; it’s decades of poor development practice that led them to fan out in the first place.Colleges are more fun for everyone when they’re relatively self-contained, tight-knit communities.

The solution is simple: densify the area around campus. Pull down the worst of the student slum housing and replace it with things that can hold more people. Fortunately, this is already under way with Bluestone and Kenwood Village; ideally, these higher-end properties will allow other nearby homes to filter down and become affordable. As a corollary, build things students enjoy next to the university so that they’re less inclined to go traipsing down the hill in search of a good time. I have some quibbles with the design of Bluestone, which appears awfully proud of its parking lots, but it’s hard not to argue it’s been an economic success, and that organic explosion of development is pretty remarkable in a city that doesn’t usually grow a whole lot. The demand is obviously there.

Elsewhere in Endion, the commenter is right to call out London Road and its lame “stroad” status: it seems so wide that it’s trying to be a highway, but has the speed limits and business development patterns of a city street. (Though I would defend futons from Mr. Marohn’s unjustified slur.) The thing needs work. Once again, there’s progress: the Endi development at 21st and London Road has some potential to galvanize that whole stretch, and there’s room to make the current sprawly commercial and retail space a lot more attractive to us neighbors. I drove down this as well today, and there’s more than enough vacant or underused property to develop a serious commercial corridor, with a ready-made consumer base and workforce in neighboring areas. The PDD commenter complains that the East Side doesn’t have easy enough access to mall-land, but with the right developments, maybe East Siders will have more convenient options than trekking up to Duluth Heights or Hermantown.

I beg to differ with some of the commenter’s characterizations of the city’s development patterns. If downtown is dying, what’s with the new maurices building? East Superior Street? The Tech Village may not be stuffed with innovative incubators, but it is basically full, as is every other newer project downtown. Build it (or renovate it), and they will come. That said, the person isn’t wrong to emphasize the growth patterns over the hill. I’m not one of those urbanists who thinks the suburbs are about to stop growing, and that everyone will magically move back to the city. The exurbs have driven the Duluth area’s population growth since 1990, and will continue to grow at a faster rate than the built-up East Side. Barring an armed invasion of Hermantown, I don’t see Duluth hitting that 100,000 target population anytime soon.

Much as I’d like to see growth, though, I don’t think it should be the goal in and of itself. Instead, I want to see new life in somewhat shabby neighborhoods, and intelligent planning that builds communities that offer a bit more than carbon copy suburban development, and a tax base to fund all these bright ideas. If we want to recharge this city, it takes two steps: first, retain us young professional millennials, whether they’re recent grads or kids like me who come home; and second, keep us here with reasonable starter homes, career growth opportunities, and decent schools for our kids. Better highways won’t do that; better amenities and intelligent planning will.

I’m moving to Endion because I think it has a ton of potential: easy access to downtown (where I work, and do most of my play), reasonably good (and improving!) amenities around it, and architecture that would be a treasure with a little updating (expanded renovation funds, anyone?). It will take some work, though, and these scattered thoughts are, at least, a starting point for the city’s new comprehensive plan discussion, which kicks off at Denfeld High tomorrow. It’s time to radically rethink the solutions to those “stressed” street corridors identified in the previous plan. Don’t treat the symptoms; treat the underlying cause.