“I am burdened, but that’s the choice I made,” said Robert, while sipping a cup of nearly cold coffee.
Outside the Seaway, a little boy collected groceries scattered on the sidewalk after the bag he was carrying succumbed to the heavy load. As he collected the items, he hardly took one step before his father made a gesture to clean up the debris left from the spill.
“That’s what I like to see,” said Robert, as the two walked out of view. “A father teaching his son right from wrong.”
Welcome aboard the Seaway
References to Duluth’s historic shipping industry are found inside the hotel as if it were a ship itself. Nautical knickknacks like peg leg sailors and anchors sit on top of a cluttered bookshelf. Nearby, mismatched furniture suspected to be infested with bed bugs sit empty.
Next to an old, gated elevator a sign reads:
“INTOXICATION WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. BRINGING LIQUOR ABOARD IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.”
It was more than 20 years ago when the Seaway, a low-income hotel located in Lincoln Park, started to gain a notorious reputation.
The last officer of the Duluth Police Department killed in the line of duty, Sgt. Gary Wilson, was shot in the head while on the second floor of the hotel on April 9, 1990. Since then, the establishment has been the site of multiple stabbings and frequent 911 calls.
“It’s well known to the city that it’s a ‘problemed’ place,” said Duluth Police Officer Mike Erickson, who patrols the Lincoln Park area.
This summer, the city of Duluth decided the hotel should be demolished. Controversy over living conditions, primarily a leaky roof, created a tug of war of appeals between city leaders and the owner of the Seaway, Rick Caya.
The hotel was found “unfit for human habitation,” and a notice was hung in the lobby. Residents were asked to vacate by July 27, 2012. But Caya appealed the condemnation, which was later rejected by City Council members.
However, the condemnation was lifted after reports revealed the building could undergo improvements. Permits were granted for Caya to make proper restorations and residents, like Robert, were allowed to stay.
Robert moves in
Robert agreed to tell his story to LakeVoice News under the condition that his last name be withheld. His identity was verified through the Duluth Police Department and other employees of the hotel.
Despite the negative reputation of the Seaway, Robert chose to work there simply because he missed the “hotel scene.”
He managed the Virginia Hotel in Virginia, Minn., from 1980 to 1994. But after 14 years he had to find employment elsewhere. The owner stopped investing, and consequently, the hotel went out of business, he said.
After the Virginia Hotel closed, Robert spent many hours on the road working as a taxi driver and a lumper — someone who moves house furniture. Robert eventually moved to Duluth pursuing a relationship with a woman. When that ended six years later, Robert had to find a new place to live.
“You travel the road that’s been put in front of you,” Robert said.
That was when he came to the Seaway.
Time to swab the deck
“I live here. I see the crap that goes on around here day and night,” Robert said.
Last summer, while sitting behind the front desk of the Seaway, he watched in disgust as johns (a word used to describe the clients of prostitutes) started coming around far too often.
“It flips my stomach a little bit,” Robert said. “The mentality of men around here is woman are seen as sexual objects.”
The FBI ranked Minnesota as the nation’s 13th largest center for human trafficking of children, according to Hands Across the World. This is thought to be a result of being near the border and because of the large port in Duluth.
He decided enough was enough and went to Officer Erickson.
“I remember the first day I met him. He was very spirited and passionate about doing something about this,” Erickson said. “We became a team.”
Robert, along with another employee of the Seaway, Joe Peterson, began harassing the johns to stay out. However, the johns found alternate routes to get inside. They started coming in through the backdoor and climbing up fire escapes, Peterson said.
It was a challenge legally to keep johns out of the hotel because Seaway tenants are allowed to have visitors whenever they please.
“They (johns) would call the police department, and the police would tell us we can’t keep them from coming in,” Peterson said.
Financially, the owner of the Seaway couldn’t afford to pay the two for being desk clerks during the day and security guards at night. To aid in this, Erickson dropped off a camera security system. But instead of it being put to use, it ended up collecting dust in a back room after arguments over where to put it went sour.
The team started having differences on how to handle the issue of prostitution -- everyone wanted to do it their way, and they failed to find common ground.
“He’s stubborn, that’s all I’m going to say about Robert,” Peterson said.
Although Robert may be stubborn, his stern approach in dealing with prostitution was necessary, according to Erickson.
“He wanted to makes some changes,” Erickson said. “He was very aggressive with problem tenants. Some good things are coming out of what he has done.”
Caya, owner of the Seaway, said cracking down on prostitution and other troubles at the hotel is a common practice they try to do “every year or so.”
But Robert’s efforts from this past year dealing with these troubles took the efforts to a new level.
“Police Officer Erickson praised us. He said we did an outstanding job,” Robert said. “We took a big risk for a big reward.”
When asked if this statement was true, Officer Erickson responded strongly with “absolutely.”
He's been a desk clerk and security guard, but now Robert is ready to take the next step: management.
“I really hope he gets a position of management there,” Erickson said. “Robert is a good person for that place.”