Local man discusses 60 years of social and economic changes in Duluth

Picture this: a city of more than 100,000 residents, home to a U.S. Air Force Base and thriving industries such as the U.S. Steel Duluth Works Plant, and almost entirely segregated by socioeconomic status. Steve Davis, who has lived in Duluth since he was born in 1952, recalled a city much different than the Duluth we see today. Second Avenue West and Superior Street

The intersection of Second Avenue West and Superior Street

"Now, Duluth is more diverse,” Davis said. “It’s less blue collar, there are more professional jobs.

When Davis was growing up, Duluth’s main economic growth came from shipping, steel, and cement production. These industries provided nearly 4,000 jobs for the people of Duluth. While these businesses were meshing to boost the port city’s economy, the citizens were doing the opposite.

“When I was growing up,” Davis said, “Duluth was very segregated. Not by race, but by economic status.”

There were four main residential areas of the Duluth Davis referred to. First, there was Morgan Park. In its inception in 1914, Morgan Park was a company town, built by U.S. Steel to serve the Duluth Works plant. Only employees and their families could live there. Even though the neighborhood was turned over to the city of Duluth in 1933, it was still mostly steel workers who lived there.

The rest of the city, as Davis described, was divided up into the West End, the working class; Central Hillside, blue collar; and the East End, white collar. These economic divides, as well as each sector having its own school, led to the lack of integration.

“This might sound crazy, but I think I was a junior in high school before I met someone from Denfeld,” Davis said. “If you weren’t active in sports, there was no integration. Period.”

Davis, who attended Central High School, “The REAL Duluth Central,” he added while laughing, lived in the Central Hillside neighborhood.

“We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor,” he said. “We were never missing anything.”

Davis’ father worked as a laborer for more than 40 years. His mother stayed at home until Davis was in junior high, when she got a job working for the water and gas department. The cutoff of the Central Hillside area from the east end was 14th Avenue East.

“We needed two more blocks to get to East,” Davis said. “People who lived in West Duluth stayed there. People in Central had the goal of moving east, my family just didn’t make it.”

Despite the differences in economic status, Davis recalls only one incident of racial prejudice.

Lake Avenue South

“We were young,” he said. “Maybe only eight or nine. That was it. We read about racism, sure, but Duluth was sheltered. We had minorities, but there wasn’t a problem.”

Lake Avenue South

Integration among economic classes can be attributed to three major events. First was the closing of the steel plant and the Air Force base in 1981 and 1983, respectively. These closures not only placed a serious hit on the economy of the city, but also put thousands of people out of work, launching the city’s unemployment rate to 15 percent. These newly unemployed citizens were forced to either find new jobs or move out of Duluth, either option was a shift across economic boundaries.

Second was the addition of Interstate 35. Before the freeway had exits in Duluth, transportation was based on how far you could get by bus.

“Not many people owned cars when I was growing up,” Davis said. “Unless you had a car or were involved in some sort

of activities, there was no reason to go to the other parts of the city.”

Fitger's Complex in 1905

The Fitger's Complex now

The third major contribution to socio-economic integration was when the public school system changed to open enrollment. Before open enrollment, students attended the public school that was geographically closest to their home. But now, if students have the means to get around, they can choose which school to attend.

Recently, Duluth has seen many changes in its public schools, including many closures. This, Davis believes, is a positive thing.

“Closing schools will bring people together and force younger generations to integrate,” he said. “When you’re forced to be close-knit, you have no choice, which will lead to more positive changes in the future.”

The industrial side of Duluth today is much different, also. Instead of the steel plant, Duluth now relies on the medical and tourism industries as its economic base, as Davis estimates more than nine thousand people have jobs in those fields.

Today, Duluth is still geographically referenced in the terms Davis was familiar with growing up, but the boundaries are far more blurred.

“I think the difference is more mobility changes than economic changes,” Davis said. “Now, you can go anywhere you want.”


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