There’s a new section of paved trail near my house. It’s about fifty yards long. It connects Jefferson Street to the section of the Lakewalk just east of the Holiday Station near Lemon Drop Hill. This is a very big deal. To me, at least.
Much like you, my first concern is about rollerskiing. I will now be able to put my rollerskis on in my driveway, scoot down the alley, go over this buttery new pavement, and hit the Lakewalk to the east and pretend to ski in the summer all the way to Two Harbors if I want. Prior to this new pavement I had to take my rollerskis off and walk the dirt path down to the Lakewalk. The horror. The horror.
This little stretch of pavement is a symbol. Because a few years ago, the Lakewalk didn’t go east of the Holiday Station. And then “they” built it out to about 43rd or so. And then it went out to the grocery store in Lakeside. And then there was a bridge over the Lester River. And then there was a tunnel under the highway out to take you out to Brighton Beach.
A few years ago, the Superior Hiking trail ended up in Castle Danger. Then “they” connected stretches of it through the city of Duluth. Right through the middle. And then, it connected from Duluth all the way to Two Harbors. Just this summer, they added another 5 miles or so to the western terminus in Jay Cooke.
Yesterday, I went mountain biking out to Mission Creek and sinned. I stole some time on a section of trail that isn’t officially open yet. Now I helped rake some of the leaves off it during a work party the previous Thursday. I was just checking my work. That’s what I tell myself. (I was singing “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction in my head.) But I rolled 11 miles through the woods and over bridges that “they” made several miles back in the woods. Berms and water bars and hand railed bridges and things that take years and years of constant effort.
Now there are certain things in this town that make my life joyful. Chief among them are the trails. XC ski trails in the winter, mountain bike trails and hiking trails in the summer. Paved trails that take my little family down to the Portland Malt Shoppe. “They” built the Skyline Boulevard starting in the late 1800’s. “They” built a system of city parks in the early 1900’s. “They” took the Canal Park industrial wasteland and built the Lakewalk in the 80’s and 90’s. I consider those people to be visionaries. “They” persevered, found the money and time and resources and made it happen. People enjoy these places that “they” built. I haven’t seen many protesters screaming “Down with the Lakewalk!” and waving signs saying that these parks and trails are a bad idea.
You can trot out your Powerpoint slides about the economic impact because, Show Me the Money, right? That’s great. It’s necessary. But the fact is, Duluth has character. I love it here. And it’s because of the way that we have decided to shape its outdoor spaces for public use. Love or money. Pick a reason. Both are valid. I pick love, but I’ve got that luxury.
Development of these assets feels difficult sometimes. Slow, boring governmental meetings. Contentious meetings with the CAVE people, like Mayor Gary Doty used to call them. (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). Fundraising. It’s slow going. Frustrating.
But suddenly, you’re mountain biking around a flowy berm near Mission Creek. You’re finding that “You Are Here” on a new sign up at the Spirit Mountain Nordic Center. You’re sitting at a nice new Loll table at the Lester-Amity Chalet that’s getting a new post-hockey life. There is a huge amount of energy in building new outdoor venues in this town. I hope people take the long view. The long view has given us things like the Lakewalk, the collection of City Parks, Seven Bridges Road, and Skyline Boulevard over Hawk Ridge. The St. Louis River Corridor Project will bring us new cross country ski trails, hiking trails, a climbing venue at Casket Quarry, and a paddling venue on the St. Louis River. It’s hard to imagine, but sustained effort by people who care will make these things happen.
I was looking at Zenith City Online and reading an article by Nancy Nelson about the history of the Duluth parks system. The Duluth Park Board wrote this in 1891:
The park system of a modern city not only aims at beauty, but strives to express the concept of the soul of the city. The parks of a modern city bear witness that its people are members of one great family. They are the concrete expression of civic consciousness in its highest visible form.
I’m going to thrash my middle-aged body into shape on my rollerskis this fall. And I’ll be able to do it right from my garage. Like it was always my great plan to live in a spot where the most obscure physical activity on the planet would be easy to do.
And someday, families will ski and hike and bike and paddle on the trails that are being built here right now. And some will look up and think “they” did a pretty good job back then in the early 2000’s.
And, folks, “they” is us.