Life in a Northern Town

At the intersection of 57th Avenue and Eighth Street in Duluth sits an elongated two-story tan building. On this crunchy winter afternoon, the small paved parking area facing Eighth Street hosts a ramshackle multi-colored pick-up and a couple of rusty cars. Jutting out of the aluminum siding over the sidewalk on 57th—right above the cracked recycling bins and overflowing dumpster—hangs a vintage 7-Up sign, its faded bubbles floating cheerfully above the words “8th Street Market.”

This sign has been hanging here for more than 30 years. It was my landmark when I was four years old, living in one of the second-floor apartments above the store. This bubbly beacon dangling above helped me find my way back home after playing outside. And it bore witness on the winter afternoon when I licked the irresistible frost on the store’s metal door. I remember having my tongue pried loose with a steak knife, but that could be an adrenaline-soaked distortion, since my mother insists more reasonably that she used warm water to set me free. Either way, I lost a piece of skin, and either way, it’s the consolation of the orange popsicle tinged with blood that I remember most vividly.

That metal door has disappeared, completely sided over as a solid wall. The Eighth Street Market itself is long gone, closed years ago and revamped, it seems, as another apartment. Yet the sign hangs on, a bleached out and anomalous vestige of the past in a town where despite undeniable change and progress in certain quarters, time seems to stand still.

The short path from Eighth Street to Lincoln Park, my last home in Duluth, is haunted by similar ghosts: the Rexall Drug where my bad-boy cousin taught me how to use slugs in the vending machine, the white storefront that was once a dusty pharmacy and now appears abandoned, the humble but wildly successful A & Dubs, boarded up for the winter, and the countless dilapidated homes in yards strewn with torn vinyl kitchen chairs and discarded toys. These are the places my mother referred to disdainfully as “tar paper shacks.” It’s all strung together by a criss-cross of hilly streets and dead-end dirt roads ending abruptly in patches of wild brush, jutting rock, and tangled birches, and intersected here and there by any one of the 38 unruly creeks that cut through the city.

This is Duluth’s dingy West End—what one Minneapolitan referred to as “the largest white ghetto in the state”—and here you get the feeling that nothing ever changes, and no one wants it to. “The near West End will never be revitalized,” sighs Patrick Cross, owner of the successful Lake Avenue Cafe in Canal Park. “You’d pretty much have to tear it all down and start over.” Cross himself recently sold his West End home, purchased in the 70s for $500 cash, for about $90,000 and purchased a Victorian in posh East Duluth. And yet, ironically, it was in the West End that Duluth’s transformation to a tourist town was born.

John Fedo, mayor of Duluth from 1980 to 1992, would have been my West End neighbor if my family had stuck around past my sixth birthday. Our houses were only four blocks apart. Fedo, who now lives in Side Lake, about an hour and a half north of Duluth, is the man many credit for the diversification and revitalization of Duluth’s economy.

“When I started as mayor in 1980, tourism was not considered a legitimate element of the economy,” he says. “To get folks to think in terms of promoting Duluth as a tourist destination was a major breakthrough.”

This claim seems incredible against the hum of three million cars motoring past the intersection of I-35 and Lake Avenue each year. With that kind of traffic and the inherent advantages of a stunning natural setting, why would such a place not develop itself as a center of tourism? While Duluth has always been the gateway to the North Shore and the north woods—the launch point for outdoorsy tourism, winter and summer—most motorists tended to drive straight through without stopping.

After all, prior to the mid 1980s, Duluth didn’t see itself as a beautiful port town. It saw itself as it was—a tough city with its sleeves rolled up for dirty work, a city with sweat stains and ring-around-the-collar, an industrial town with the sweet stench of the fiber board manufacturing plant reeking up the harbor and the unromantic habit of dumping its trash on the shores of the lake that made the economy go round.

And Duluth still wears its sweat stains like a badge of honor—not surprisingly, considering the city’s hardworking history, unrelenting climate, and stark, rugged terrain. Things trendy and shallow are suspect here. Barton Sutter, Duluthian author of Cold Comfort, wrote of a time when the city distributed bumper stickers that said, “We’re Duluth and proud of it.” Sutter happened upon one that was adulterated to say, “We’re Dull and out of it.”

Tom Holden, director of the Duluth Corps of Engineers Maritime Visitor’s Center—known locally as the Marine Museum, the most visited free attraction in Northern Minnesota—captures the lack of glamour perfectly: “Duluth is a bulk-cargo trans-shipment port. That’s the essence of what we do.”

Midwesterners are generally known for our chapped hands and hard work ethic, but there’s something downright tenacious in Duluth’s definition of itself as a city of old-fashioned manual labor. “This town isn’t sustainable as a tourist town,” snaps Ray Skelton of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “You can’t compare a $4 an hour job to a $30 an hour job. This is an active, working port. Without the ships, it’s nothing. Just remember, it’s the people who come to see the ships, not the other way around.”

And people do come to see the ships, which still, according to Holden at the Marine Museum, pass through the harbor at the rate of four or five a day, moving about 40 million tons of cargo each year. Where else can you see an ocean-going ship up close and personal? Lake Superior is not only the largest, but also the most mythical of the Great Lakes, inspiring artists and outdoor enthusiasts alike with its fury and drama, its moody beauty. According to John Fedo, Canal Park is currently the most visited destination in Minnesota. But this was not always so. It took the desperation wrought of economic crisis to convince Duluth to clean itself up for company.

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