In passing, the Kozy building on 129 East 1 St. could be mistaken for an abandoned section of Detroit instead of Duluth. Caution tape is stretched across the front of the building. Half-broken windows pepper the second and third levels. Spray-painted pieces of plywood cover the damaged doors and windows of the Kozy Bar.
On Nov. 15, 2010, a fire tore through the building, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and displacing over 50 residents. Since then, city officials have condemned the building and declared it unfit for human habitation.
While some are willing to say good riddance to the troubled building, others see it as opportunity to turn it into something positive.
Halfway up the 2 Avenue East block, there is an alleyway running behind the complex. Hidden behind the Kozy, a small courtyard leads to the Paul Robeson Ballroom. Here, the Occupy Duluth movement has set up their winter headquarters.
Disputes with the city regarding their tent city at Duluth’s Civic Center, coupled with the impending Duluth winter, led the movement to seek shelter in the condemned building.
“We moved in here to prepare for what we thought was going to be winter,” Tyler Nord, one of the leaders of Occupy Duluth quips about the mild winter. “It’s colder in there than it is outside.”
Since the building is condemned, the city forcibly shut off the utilities serving that property. Nord and the rest of the occupiers have had to innovate. Without running water, a portable toilet needed to be brought in, along with five-gallon jugs of drinking water. An extension cord runs from another part of the building into the relatively undamaged Paul Robeson Ballroom.
“All the electricity comes through here,” Nord said as he points to the cord running along the ground of the courtyard. “So we blow the circuit every once in a while."
Following the extension cord inside the Ballroom leads to what Nord calls the “heat igloo,” where they hold their General Assemblies. The heat igloo is constructed out of donated tarps hung from the ceiling, a Salamander space heater, and several ratty couches pulled from dumpsters.
“The actions we wanted to organize required a lot of standing still,” Nord said of their decision to take the movement indoors. “It wasn’t warm enough where standing still was OK.”
Eric Ringsred, owner of this real estate, was more than happy to help out the movement, whom he describes as “comrades, brothers in arms.”
Ringsred, the controversial former owner of the NorShor Experience, just asks that something constructive be done with the space. He says Occupy Duluth is welcome to the space as long as they use it productively. Possible ideas they have discussed include a wild rice initiative, t-shirt screen-printing, a bike collective and a sliding-scale food establishment.
“The agreement is open-ended right now,” Ringsred said. “I’m encouraging the Occupy people to move on to some positive efforts in the neighborhood.”
Occupy Duluth’s actions mimic many of the other Occupy movements in the northern regions of the country as they attempt to deal with the cold weather.
“It’s been used as a gathering place for a lot of leftist organizations in the city” such as Take Back Chicago, SOUL, and various labor unions, Occupy Chicago member Cory Schenn explains. “It’s pretty gritty.”
In Minneapolis, city officials told protestors that they were not allowed to sleep outside the Hennepin County Government Plaza when temperatures drop below 25 degrees. The Occupy movement has started to entrench in homes facing condemnation or foreclosure.
However, this strategy exists in a legal gray area.
The fire that destroyed a large amount of the building mostly spared the Paul Robeson Ballroom. In spite of this, the city considered it all one unit and issued the order of unfit for human habitation to the whole property.
“That part of the building didn’t see a puff of smoke from the fire," Ringsred said.
Water service was not affected by the fire and it had heat all last winter before the city shut the services off. He anticipates that lifting the condemnation on parts of the building will have to be settled in court.
Minnesota state statute 504B.204 says that landlords cannot accept rent if the tenants moved in after the property has been condemned or declared unfit for human habitation. Since Ringsred donates the space to the movement rent-free, it appears to be legal, although he admits he is not sure if it is.