Monday, June 8, 2015

Gentrification & Inequality in Duluth

As a child, I loved trips to Woolworth's with my mother and great-grandmother.  They shopped while I coveted the soft pretzels.  Little did I know that these were the last of downtown's good old days.  As years passed, business after business closed its doors, leaving sad relics of storefronts.  Duluth continued its careen into economic depression, of which our shuttered downtown was a visceral symbol.

Fast forward to 2015.  Downtown is home to art galleries, microbreweries and indie movie theaters.  Again it is a symbol, this time of a city on the rebound.  But is it?  While Duluth is thriving in many ways, not all of us share the benefits.  Twenty-four percent of us live in poverty, including half of Black and Native Duluthians.  Rental housing is the best affordable in the state, while wages are among the lowest.  In other words, Duluth is going as the rest of our nation: into growing economic disparity.

I have watched with sadness as the city that once stood solidly for the common good came to embrace trickle-down economics.  This is reflected in the housing market, where the official City position has been to fund "market rate" housing with the stated belief that it will open low-end rentals to the working poor. (Nevermind that a recent study by the Minnesota Housing Partnership suggests this approach actually increases homelessness.  Or that market rate housing, by definition, should fund itself).

You can also see this theory in action in the changing face of downtown.  Sure, it looks nicer . . . but at what cost?  The creation of an entertainment district to satisfy the needs of younger professionals - businesses that often pay lower than living wages to many of the servers and artists - has ongoing, unintended consequences, ranging from the loss of affordable food stores to the forced displacement of every homeless camp downtown.

Is gentrification bad?  Not necessarily.  Neighborhoods and cities change.  But the change should not leave a trail of victims.  Change from the top is always ignorant of the needs of the rest of us, unless policy makers made a point to include poor voices - or we insist on it.

In the middle of Duluth's change sit two towering buildings, side-by-side.  They are owned by the same company, one that is at the tip of the gentrification spear and has benefited from tax breaks and housing subsidies.  The windows of the Sheraton hotel and condos are always gleaming.  The windows in the HUD-subsidized Greysolon Plaza have in some cases not been washed for years.  There could be no more stark image of who matters in the new Duluth.

> The article above was written by Joel Kilgour.  It is reprinted from the Spring 2015 edition of the Loaves & Fishes newspaper, where it appeared under the title of "The Old Make Way for the Young".

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