The Duluth Inside Duluth
In 1963, on 14th Avenue East overlooking Chester Creek, seven houses installed their own sewer rather than hook up to the city system. To do so, they took advantage of the experimentation sweeping the nation regarding public services. New forms of neighborhood government had emerged as housing associations. These seven houses applied for a federal grant as an independent municipal corporation. Technically they seceded from Duluth and became an autonomous township inside the city limits.
A democratic sub-society, the citizen-residents named the township “Duluth” by unanimous vote. After all, they felt they should not have to change the name of where they lived; in fact they were the real Duluth. Their right to name themselves was blessed by an appellate court ruling in 1968, hence “the Duluth inside Duluth.”
Broken up by running alongside the irregular Chester Park, 14th Avenue East consists of dislocated line segments interspersed with protrusions of wilderness. When the new Duluth township blocked off its segment of 14th Avenue from its feeder streets of Sixth and Seventh, the city just re-connected the streets with a new 14th Avenue.
The Duluth township’s yards re-wilded as fences were removed. Chester Park and the creek environs were allowed and encouraged to encroach.
The Correra Interview
UMD Political Science graduate student Mary Correra interviewed citizen-resident Bertha Higgenbottom in 1979. Correra wrote, “The boundaries of Higgenbottom’s lot are disappearing as oaks, maples, birches, and evergreens sprout like weeds in a thriving undergrowth of berry bushes and vines.”
“Statement of Ms. Bertha Higgenbottom, citizen of the Duluth-within-Duluth, speaking above the tittering of a territorial chipmunk outside her window: ’We park in the alley a block away — those of us who still drive. You can walk downtown from here in 20 minutes if you need to. When you think about it, what did Duluth used to look like? The answer is Chester Creek. Before they clearcut the Hillside in the 1800s — an old-growth Chester Creek. Think of it! That’s the real Duluth. We all wanted to live there.
“’We redefined our land-use policy. As you can see, the old avenue is converting back to forest. The asphalt succumbs to the frost-heave cycle while plants exploit the cracks. Someday they’ll forget we’re even here. Without people, Duluth would turn right back into Chester Creek.’” She claimed the residents owned their homes and were leaving them to their homeschooled children.
The May Report
A Duluth city employee, the surveyor Max May, stumbled across the seven houses in 1991 investigating erosion and subsidence. What he found astonished him. His report shows the city had forgotten all about the Duluth inside Duluth:
“Found seven homes in the middle of the woods overlooking Chester Creek. These are not indicated on city maps. The homes of this lost micro-township are not visible from the streets, nor from 14th Avenue, nor from creek trails below. I discovered it by accident. Picking my way through the brush and the overhanging canopy on the ridge, I found a sunken deer-trail that the residents use as a sidewalk. It led me to the homes, which show mossy roofs, lichen-encrusted walls, and Frank Lloyd Wright-style touches like trees growing through porches and balconies. Complementing natural forms, the houses have subsided into the slope as it has accumulated around them, soil growing deeper and richer under a communal composting regime. The uphill sides of the structures are partially underground. I found a bear den nearby, also signs of skunk, raccoon, deer, rabbit, and owl. I estimate this tiny eco-city-state has increased biodiversity by fifty percent, with knock-on effects for the entire creek ecosystem, including the water retention of soils, erosion resistance, and so on. They use wood heat and generate their minimal personal electricity on site. When I knocked on the door of a little old lady named Ms. Bertha Higgenbottom, she produced a framed appellate court ruling from 1968 that I verified in the Federal Building.”
May passed away a few years later during his retirement. His report lay buried and forgotten in City Hall.
The Chester Creek Expedition
In 2017 Ana-Louise Wenceslas, a UMD grad student of anthropology, came across a reference to Correra’s 1979 interview in an old academic journal. She did some digging in the bureaucracy and found the appellate court ruling and the May report. There was only one problem: she couldn’t find the Duluth inside Duluth.
“I suspect error crept into the records at some point and propagated from there,” Wenceslas told me in the blond pine booths of Chester Creek Café, when I interviewed her in early September amid background noises of silverware on dishes. “So maybe the streets were mis-identified? We don’t know. It’s like everyone imagined it. That’s why I applied for grants to mount a full anthropological expedition in Chester Creek to find the lost Duluth township.”
Her 2019 journal reads like an adventure tale of searching for lost tribes in the Amazon. It was excerpted in her thesis: “Day 166: Birdsong and trickling water remind me spring has come. We’ve been through every square foot many times over so I cannot believe the township exists anymore. But our failure to uncover a single trace, after a six-month search the length of the creek, leads to unwelcome questions. Were the homes demolished years ago? Is this island remnant from an old 14th Avenue so camouflaged by flora that we simply can’t find it? Did the houses return to the soil? Have we been walking right past them, over their shrouded lanes? We staked out the creek like we were looking for cryptids, trail cameras everywhere … We didn’t even find the deer trails May mentioned in 1991. Now half of us need psychiatric care, lost in the Chester Creek of our imagination, staring into the pools like Narcissus.”
Recent interviews with creek-adjacent Fourth Street businesses turned up clues. One liquor-store employee swore she’d been trekking home at night along the stream in winter when, above the reduced babble of the half-frozen water, she heard disembodied voices. Looking up, she thought she saw the warm orange glow of a paper lantern among the dark crest of the tree line. She didn’t think anybody lived up there. Ultimately, she was unclear about the location.
A local burrito-slinger thinks one of her uncommon customers, a middle-aged woman, might be named Higgenbottom. Could this be the original Ms. Higgenbottom’s daughter, buying burritos for her children, the grandchildren of the original Ms. Higgenbottom?
One summer night, this same customer forgot her change on the counter and left the establishment. The burrito barista tried to catch her but didn’t see her on the sidewalk, and she didn’t see any cars pulling away. Thinking the woman must have crossed the street to cut through Chester Park on foot, she gave chase. The wooded hills flanked the creek under the stars. But the trails were empty.
More Richardson essays here
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