Karl Schuettler Posts

Living History on Empty Streets

“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 Duluth, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on my 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, it was a 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 book 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.

Words and Phrases That I Hate

What follows is an incomplete list of words and phrases I dislike. There is no real rhyme or reason to them; some are things I’ve encountered in my school or work circles, while others are just things I’ve stumbled across here or there. I list them in rough order of hatred, beginning with the most repulsive and concluding with the merely annoying.

Resiliency. This is an awful word devised by someone who deserves to be expelled from the urban planning field. The perfectly good “resilience” says the exact same thing in one less syllable. Even that is overused to the point of emptiness, but at least it doesn’t sound like an invented piece of jargon designed to make one sound intelligent. Which is exactly what it is.

Any scandal ending in “-gate.” This construction stopped being amusing circa 1974. Now it just shows a lack of creativity.

Outstate. This is a Minnesota word invented by Twin Cities people to refer to people who are not like them. It implies that people not in the Twin Cities are somehow out of the state, and plays into the conceit that Duluth, Worthington, Moorhead, Grand Marais, and Little Falls all share something other than the misfortune of not being the cool big city. Attempting to use it innocently with a resident of Greater Minnesota (an acceptable alternative) is a good way to lose any credibility you might have aspired to.

Imperfect Duluth Days

I realized I was a northern Minnesotan on my first return trip home during my freshman year of college at an East Coast school. My mother collected me from the Minneapolis airport, and we stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Forest Lake. The waitress came to our table, opened her mouth, and began to talk. I was immediately horrified.

The accent. It was real. The Fargo stereotype was true. I’d just spent an entire semester trying to project an image of someone who wasn’t from bumfuck nowhere. I’d patiently explained to scions of the Acela Corridor elite that no, Duluth was not a suburb of the Twin Cities, and that no, ice fishing was not a fictional pursuit, but something that real people actually did. And now, here was this polite, cheery waitress taking my order, and the poor woman had no way of knowing that the words issuing from her mouth filled me with dread.

Through trial and tribulation, I overcame my fear of the northern Minnesotan accent. Even though I’d sworn I’d never come back when I was in high school, I found my way to a home with the same sliver of a lake view I’d enjoyed as a child in Lakeside. The story of what led me from one point to another is tedious, its details ranging from the mundane to the intensely personal, and the source of far too many of my own words spilled out on blogs and in the lonely, booze-fueled journals of late adolescence. I am here, a Duluthian first and foremost among any commitments I may have to places, and ready to bore any unfortunate soul with an hours-long nuanced account of why this has come to be. I have even come to accept the accent, mostly. But there are still, admittedly, moments of doubt.

All of these moments come in the time of year that in other lands goes by the name of “spring.”

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy — apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor — but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of my past reading list will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a lament for things lost that speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.