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How Much Diversity Does a Modern City Need?

Duluth, Minn., has very little, and its mayor would like to see more minorities among its residents. But the city's strong homegrown civic culture seems to be serving it well.

An overhead view of Duluth, Minnesota
Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock
As a general rule, being inaccessible or remote is not good economically for a city, but it can make a place more interesting. That's what drew me to spend a few days in Duluth, Minn., a city hardly touched by the demographic changes that have swept through so much of the country in recent decades.

Duluth sits up high in the northeast quadrant of Minnesota, touching Wisconsin. Few go through the city to get to somewhere else, unless they are on board a long ship loaded with iron pellets: The city is a major port on Lake Superior at the terminus of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. There is an interstate highway, I-35, but it dead-ends in Duluth. The airport is small. Amtrak trains from Minneapolis stopped running in 1985.

Some gridded streets on the lake form the core of the city. Behind it are neighborhoods that slope steeply up a hill. The city faces and seems to draw sustenance from the giant lake, despite a misguided urban renewal effort in the 1950s that put a wide highway along the waterfront separating downtown and adjacent neighborhoods from the water.

Despite its isolation, the city has what some might call a just-right economy, neither too hot nor too cold. Besides the port, there is a university and a major hospital. The aircraft maker Cirrus, known for its light planes with parachutes, has its headquarters and a manufacturing plant there. The city's population has been stable for three decades at about 86,000, although this is down from about 106,000 in 1960. James and Deborah Fallows, in their recent book Our Towns, include Duluth among America's prosperous, smaller cities flying under the national radar.

One way Duluth differs from many other cities of its size, however, is in its striking lack of racial and ethnic diversity. Walking and driving around, I encountered no shortage of the blond folk of Scandinavian heritage whose ancestors immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The distinctive accent non-Midwesterners might know best from the movie Fargo was ubiquitous, as was an almost aggressively pleasant demeanor that reminded me of my native South. Almost everyone I spoke to was born in or around the city.

I had been in Duluth a day and a night before I realized I had not seen a single African American or Asian, or anybody identifiably Hispanic. That was quite a contrast to where I live in Brooklyn. Finally, on my last day there, I saw a young black girl entering a school, and a woman I presumed to be her mother. According to the Census Bureau, the city is 2.7 percent African American, 2 percent Hispanic and 1.7 percent Asian.

This got me thinking about diversity in general. Is it OK that Duluth is so un-diverse? What strengths and weaknesses does diversity, or a lack of it, bring to a city? After all, some towns and cities promote how diverse they are, celebrating an ethnic mix as key to cultural and economic vibrancy even as they grapple with how to handle ethnic and racial differences, whether in the curricula of their schools or in the way they deliver public services.

I did like one aspect of Duluth which its more homogenous population probably made stronger: its deep sense of community. Duluth is a city where most people know their neighbors and watch out for them, I was told. This matches research from Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, who said one ill effect of more diversity is that people can "turtle" more, retreating into their ethnic shells. Putnam named Duluth as having one of the highest reserves in the country of "social capital," the bonds such as trust between people that help society function.

I spoke to Mayor Emily Larson about diversity and Duluth. Larson did not grow up in Duluth, but in distant St. Paul, 150 miles to the south. She came to the city at 17 to go to college, and never left. She said she values the city's homespun, Scandinavian-rooted, civic-minded culture, but would like to see more minorities. "We want to focus on who we need to be, not just who we are now," said Larson, who is in her second term as mayor. "I know full well that Duluth has not been benefiting from immigration as well as migration. What can we be doing to change that? These are things we focus on all the time."

While there's so much that's appealing about Duluth's sense of community, I found myself thinking that if I were to move there with my family, we would feel like outsiders in such a strong, established local culture, even though I'm sure we would be welcomed. I would have more in common with someone, of whatever skin color, from Brooklyn where I live now, or my native Virginia and the South, with all of its baggage.

Still, in more than one respect Duluth is quite similar to Brooklyn. In 2016, both voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Cities, whatever their location or inhabitants' ethnicity, have become very Democratic. And Duluth has its share of home-grown vibrancy. One young Duluth woman I spoke to, as we listened to someone playing guitar on a small stage, said of her native city, "It's a hipster town with a lot of good bars and coffee shops, with a good music scene." That sounds pretty Brooklynish.

Mayor Larson said she would work to attract newcomers of all races but particularly minorities, an aspiration she said would need extra effort given their present low numbers in the city. "We want to be welcoming in a way that people deserve," Larson said. "We are very straightforward, not pretentious. We are not trying to be a different kind of city, we just are. We go running when it's 20 below."

That last bit was a reference to Duluth's famously cold winter weather, which might add to the challenge of attracting those newcomers. But generations of immigrants have come before, and somehow they got used to it and thrived.

This column has been updated to correct the designation of the interstate highway that serves Duluth.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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