Photos of an Empty Skywalk

The Duluth News Tribune recently published an article about the Downtown Task Force’s recommendations to improve conditions in downtown. This summer, I spent some time walking through the Skywalk system and was a bit shocked by how empty it was. The summer might not be the most popular time to use the Skywalk, but it wasn’t just the absence of people. So many of the shops that I remembered were gone. I didn’t intend to make a themed photo series about this, but I had my camera and kept turning a corner to find another impossibly long, completely empty hallway.

I recently listened to a Decoder Ring podcast about the decline of malls that discussed the popularity of images of empty commercial spaces. They talked about a certain fascination with empty places that are so easy to imagine having once been full. This certainly applies to the Skywalk. When the Holiday Center Hallmark store announced its closing in November of 2019, the owner reflected on a time when there were so many people in the walkways that she couldn’t see the business across from her.

I remember something like that too. When I was a kid, the Skywalk was the nicest part of our winter walk from our East Hillside home to the Duluth Public Library. Sometimes we’d get popcorn at the stand that moved out in February of 2020, which seems like good timing in retrospect. My first Lego set came from the Explorations Toy Store, a business whose various locations seem to reflect a more general story about the Skywalk. It opened in the Skywalk’s early days, moved a few blocks to a street level location some years later, left downtown for a space in a stripmall on the top of the hill in 2014, and closed for good in 2019.

I have a vague and possibly inaccurate recollection of the location above having once been a popular pool hall. I remember using the restroom there as a kid and feeling quite scared when I saw there were no other children and the adults did not look like friendly parents.

Not everything has changed. The North Shore Bank of Commerce, my father’s bank, is still there in the same location. And things have even expanded since I was a kid. The library was connected via a ‘skunnel’ to the Radisson in 1999, although on the day I was there that connection was chained up.

Maurices, a business tied rather directly both to downtown Duluth and U.S. malls, made an $80 million investment in a downtown location in 2016 that came with a $20 million public investment in the Skywalk.

Three years ago, the entrance through Minnesota Power on Lake Street closed but 10 years before that another entrance through the technology village opened, whose blank walls can be seen in the above photo. I was talking with someone who thought the plan to add more art downtown was a cosmetic solution to a structural problem. I see their point, but even in its better days, the aesthetic of the Skywalk seems to have always been a rather aggressive minimalism.

A recent News Tribune article talked about creating inviting displays on the street level of downtown but didn’t mention anything about the Skywalk. There are so many incredible artists in Duluth, both professional and amateur. It’d would be nice if just a small fraction of the millions spent on the construction of the Skywalk system could have been dedicated to funding some of those artist in the creation of a space that invites you in.

I think the slow but steady changes in how and where people shop make it difficult to pinpoint any specific moment when the Skywalk went from a place that people wanted to be to a place that people wanted to avoid. But if, from an entirely outside perspective, I had to define a turning point, I would say it was when the Holiday Center gave up on people being able to use the toilet and decided to welcome people with the greeting “No Public Restroom.” I understand that may have been a difficult choice driven by the use of the restroom by people who did not have access to support services, people struggling with mental health issues, or people who may have used the restrooms to shave, bathe, and possibly maintain their drug dependency.

But everyone needs access to a toilet sometimes and when there are no public toilets, people who have other options will go to places that do have toilets and people without other options will turn any semi-private space into a toilet, which makes an already not inviting space particularly less inviting.

Which isn’t to say that all parts of the Skywalk have become unpleasant. Lady Ocalat’s Emporium demonstrates quite well that it doesn’t take the money of a major corporation to turn a section of the Skywalk into a charming space.

Really just about anything seems an improvement over blank walls. I’m not quite sure what the organization Invite God is or perhaps was, but I appreciate the work they put into making their small section of the Skywalk a bit more interesting.

Even amongst the general emptiness, I did have a quite memorable chance meeting that reminded me that the Skywalk can still be fun place. A man a bit older than me who gave the impression of being a downtown regular saw me taking the above photo and asked me if I was a tourist. I said that I grew up in Duluth but now lived elsewhere. He replied, “Okay, if you’re really from Duluth, answer me this …” and proceeded to ask me a series of questions about local history. He gave me no particular credit when I answered correctly and shook his head in disappointment when I was wrong. It’s hard for me to articulate how much I appreciated this.

I moved away in my early teens. I still have family in the area, but because I didn’t graduate from high school in Duluth, learning about local history has been a way for me to both better understand a place that I’ve never really known as an adult and to address my insecurities about being considered a real Duluthian, whatever that might mean. Somewhere within me has always been the fear that a true Duluthian will challenge my identity and demand that I pass a test of local knowledge. The Skywalk system created the conditions for an encounter that allowed me to confront that fear and the thing that I feared turned out to be a lot of fun. I’m not entirely certain that I passed what ended up being a surprisingly comprehensive test, but I did learn that the first link of the Skywalk system didn’t open until 1977. I thought it was much older. That makes me feel more hopeful about its future somehow. Its not old enough to be obsolete. It’s just at a low point right now.

Given how well Canal Park and Lincoln Park are doing, the emptiness of downtown is really a bit surprising, if for no other reason than how close all these business districts are to each other. It seems like strengthening the connections between them would benefit the whole city. The Duluth Waterfront Collective has already put together a plan that would result in a much better integration of Canal Park and downtown. It took until 1918 or so to realize that blowing up the Point of Rocks is a lost cause, but the pedestrian and cycling connections between downtown and Lincoln Park could still certainly be improved.

No doubt there are a number of complex reasons why Lincoln Park has thrived while downtown has struggled. One possible factor could be that in Lincoln Park, local developers have found support for turning vacant lots into active businesses while downtown the City Council has supported the efforts of national companies to evict local businesses from historic buildings for the purpose of creating vacant lots. Hopefully the Downtown Task Force has some better ideas and my next downtown photo series will be in vibrant color.

15 Comments

aluminumpork

about 3 weeks ago

Great write-up and photos. I graduated from Harbor City in 2005 and spent a decent amount of time in the skywalk, usually getting lunch in the Holiday Center. It was always a fun walk with decent crowds. I haven't been there recently, but your photos do paint a stark picture. I agree that increasing connectivity between Canal Park, Lincoln Park and Downtown could significantly change things. It is downright hostile to bike or walk from downtown to Lincoln Park.

One key to revitalizing downtown is to start thinking of it less as a CBD and more of neighborhood. Worry less about providing parking to visitors and more about building dense housing and the necessary daily essentials (grocery, pharmacy, etc). This will attract new business and help those already downtown smooth out their customer base, becoming less reliant on customers who drive in.

When a place has a steady population throughout the day, it becomes more vibrant and diverse and people want to visit. We shouldn't need to woo people to a place with free or cheap parking. This strategy dilutes what makes downtowns great places in the first place.

Bridgit Lee

about 3 weeks ago

Excellent suggestions on how to revitalize downtown by both Matthew James and Aluminumpork. I hope city leaders read this article and the comments. Attracting small business shouldn't be as difficult as it seems given Duluth's national-level notoriety in the past 10 years.

Beverly Godfrey

about 3 weeks ago

This is beautifully and thoughtfully done. Thank you for sharing. I have similar feelings about Grand Marais because I "grew up there" but moved away at age 13. I have vague memories of a small town in 1984, but that doesn't mean much today.

Ghist1

about 3 weeks ago

Thank you for this. Very good analysis. One of the things the Downtown Task Force determined is that there is not enough foot traffic to both support an outdoor sidewalk system and a skywalk pedestrian system, so they both suffer. As someone who works at the far end of downtown, I know the challenges first hand and really wish there can be some smart cooperation to improve the situation.

Paul Lundgren

about 3 weeks ago

I was struggling to remember the pool hall. Ceh LeBlanc mentioned one on Facebook. 

Sharks Pool Hall
327 W. Superior St. (Phoenix Building)
Circa 2002-2005
Owner: Mike Maxim

That might not be the one referred to above, but it might be the one I was trying to remember.

Chad S

about 3 weeks ago

Wow, such a difference from what I remember as a kid. Spent a lot of time around walking around the skywalks in the 1990s while waiting for buses at the Holiday Center stop when I was very young with my mom. Miss that one-bus-per-hour schlep out to Gary and you had time to explore. It always seemed like an adventure. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary and photos.

olso1969

about 3 weeks ago

Ben Karsner operated a pool hall in downtown Duluth called the Duluth Recreation Parlor. It originally opened at 205 W. Superior St. (now the Holiday Center) in 1921 but it is entirely possible that its location changed at some point, and I'm not sure when it finally closed. Karsner died in 1983. At some point he had a business located at 210 W. Superior St. called Recreation Tavern and Grill and he also operated the Karsbar Restaurant and Night Club at 220 W. Superior St. in the 1970s, which is now R.T. Quinlan's.

llinmpls

about 3 weeks ago

St Louis Billiards was on the skywalk, upper side near Lake. Another pool hall The Place was on the Lyric block, you could walk in the back from the alley off 3rd Ave. Center Bowling was behind it. There was a small pool hall in Gary too. I think it was called Z's.

Matthew James

about 3 weeks ago

I appreciate all of the positive feedback that I’ve gotten on this post and enjoyed hearing about other people’s experiences. I also looked at the Facebook comments and saw that some people had questions about when the pictures were taken and if they reflect how empty the Skywalk actually is.

I took the pictures on Monday, July 18, between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. I was downtown working on an unrelated photo project on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer. I went into the Skywalk to escape the heat (it’s not only useful in the winter!) without any intention of taking more photos, but I really like pictures of empty spaces and the Skywalk kept providing opportunities. Sometimes someone would enter the frame while I was setting up a picture and I would wait for them to pass. This happened mostly in the sections of the Skywalk near the DECC with people on lunchtime walks. Even on the unusually hot summer day that I took the photos, there were still a few people around. 

And I actually had a very nice experience in the Skywalk, not only because it was an incredible relief to just get out of the heat. I bought extra water at Snyder’s Drug, had a cheap and healthy lunch at the Greenery Café, and picked up a rather charmingly illustrated book on Lake Superior rocks at the Lake Superior Magazine gift shop. And I was going back and forth in the Skywalk because I had stayed for a night at Hostel Du Nord, which is directly connected to Skywalk system and one of the nicer and friendlier hostels that I have stayed at. My motivation to post the photos didn’t come from wanting to show the Skywalk as an unpleasant place, but from a general sense of sadness that the Skywalk system, which I still have a lot of affection for and consider something that really adds to the uniqueness of Duluth, feels like a space with so much potential that doesn't seem to have shared in any of the increased vibrancy that is apparent in its adjacent neighborhoods. The responses to this post here and on Facebook have given me a better understanding of the complexity of that story.

Jessica Morgan

about 2 weeks ago

Hmmm... needs more art. And poems. Definitely more poems.

FranceneStarr

about 2 weeks ago

These are great photos. Thanks for taking and sharing them.

Matthew James

about 2 weeks ago

There have been some interesting suggestions here, but I think my favorite is one of the shortest. I really like Jessica's idea of adding poetry to the Skywalk. As far as I can tell, the Duluth poet laureate program has a vacancy at the moment. As both the Skywalk and poetry deserve more attention, a Skywalk poem contest seems like a fantastic way to promote them both. The winning poets would get a long canvas in the form of a hallway wall to showcase their work.

T. Heinonen

about 2 weeks ago

This is a great photo-essay. After my career of 31+ years at the Duluth News Tribune I was reminiscing about this time of year and what it was like in the 1970s, '80s and '90s downtown. Before the skywalk, the storefront windows downtown were decked out to the nines when Christmas shopping season was starting. Glass Block was still downtown, Oreck's, Wahls. Even when the Skywalk opened it was a hubbub of people out for lunch or shopping. I remember going to the Black Steer with my fellow artists for the annual lutefisk dinner that the Steer was known for or a drink at the Chinese Lantern or the Pio. The smell of Peterson Anderson's Flower Shop as one passed by ... and yes, the Skywalk was crowded at that time. 

High schools had their choir-carolers at noon time, Camera Exchange, Paper Inc., Snow Goose, Explorations, Kelly's, Frame Corner, Bagley's, Security Jewelers, Toys for Keeps. There was a fellow who did shoe repair next to the Variety Store across from Hallmark cards. 

Sure seems like a ghost town or ghost Skywalk now. I'm sure I am missing a number of other businesses. Some I wish were still around -- like A&E Supply or even the old Ben Franklin on the 300 block. Big Duluth, the old Medical Arts Pharmacy, and next to them Allenfall's mens clothing, Fanny Farmer's Candy. Scandinavian Designs were in the MP&L building at one time as was the Jolly Fisher. Too many to remember, too many gone now. 

Since I retired I don't get downtown much since there really isn't much left of the old shops I used to haunt. I hope they can find new tenants for the empty spaces ... pop-ups are fine but at most temporary, poetry and art ... well, nice idea but a band-aid that only covers what isn't there anymore and the downtown needs people to come down and shop. There were displays at one time of art and such in the past in the Skywalk, but that was when retail was more vibrant downtown. Even the Sister Cities had a nice display for a time closer to the Radisson portion of the skywalk. I hope someday there can be a renaissance of a sort for downtown Duluth, I really do.

llinmpls

about 2 weeks ago

All those places are in my wheelhouse too. When I was a paperboy we cashed in our change at Northwestern Bank of Commerce "the bank with the open doors," Musicland, where I bought my first record, was a couple doors down and the Duluth Herald put out a "Sunset Final" edition so the businessmen could get the closing stock quotes.

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