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Is Michigan Street still the Bowery?

The Bowery district in 1963. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)

The bus driver tried to explain to a group of senior citizens at a stop that the transfer they were trying to make would be easiest at the new Duluth Transportation Center. But they were resistant. "When will the connecting bus stop here?" they wanted to know.

Reluctantly they boarded the bus, but complained for the entire five blocks to the Transportation Center. "The Duluth bus system is impossible to use," they said. They were trying to make all their connections on Superior Street because "I hate waiting for the bus in the Bowery."

I listened to them while suppressing a giggle. But there are a few lessons to be learned from the opinions of these bus riders.

The Duluth Transit Authority is not impossible to use. Our bus system makes it possible to go all the way from deep in Woodland all the way to Gary or across a bridge to the city limits of Superior (in another state) for 75 cents. If you've never lived in a major metropolitan area, you wouldn't notice the tiny gestures; the drivers, for example, almost never pull away from the stop before boarding passengers are seated. In any major city, drivers prefer being on time more than rider safety and comfort.

The Bowery analogy is a little more complicated. Duluth did have a Bowery district, named after the famously seedy street in New York City. From the late 1800s to roughly 1970, there was a stretch of saloons and cheap hotels in the west end of downtown along Superior and Michigan streets. So these older Duluthians are historically accurate in calling the Transportation Center the Bowery. But the term "Bowery" includes some connotation that the city do something to improve it.

Michigan remains perhaps the only street in downtown Duluth defined by dark, long shadows because the street is so narrow relative to the height of the buildings. So I can see why these older Duluthians see Michigan as still a "Bowery" neighborhood, dark and dirty.

Urban renewal projects in the 1950s and '60s tried to eliminate the Duluth Bowery by tearing down buildings. No one thinks that's a good idea anymore. How would we redevelop Michigan Street, then? The current strategy seems to be to redirect people there through tourism or transportation.

We have made Michigan part of Bob Dylan Way. The Superior Hiking Trail crosses Michigan. These are weak cases of what Kevin Fox Gotham of Tulane University calls "tourism gentrification," the use of tourism to spur economic redevelopment. But in both cases, visitors are just "passing through," often quizzically wondering what this dark alley-like street has to do with Dylan or the hiking trail.

Now the Transportation Center brings passengers to Michigan. In what might be called Duluth's version of "transit-induced" redevelopment (as coined by Rolf Moeckel and Casey Dawkins of the University of Maryland), the multimodal transit station may bring redevelopment to Michigan. Ideally, coffee shops and similar amenities will want to be near the transit hub where the bus commuters, bicyclists and eventual train riders will congregate. But that, too, may never happen. Redevelopment as a byproduct is a risky strategy.

Soon Superior Street will be closed for a complete reconstruction, forcing Duluthians onto Michigan, into the Bowery. But simply driving people onto a street, by tourism, transit or road closure, is not enough. How can we revitalize Michigan in an intentional way?

David Beard is an associate professor of rhetoric and the director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

David Beard

David Beard is associate professor of rhetoric and director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.