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Is Duluth in the Rust Belt?

The iconic Aerial Lift Bridge that connects Duluth’s Canal Park to the city’s Park Point neighborhood.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Duluth: Rust Belt or no?
Sure, there are things in Duluth, Minnesota, you could use the word “rusty” to describe. Like the reddish color of an iron-tinted Lake Superior agate. Or the rivets on the hull of the retired lake freighter William A. Irvin, until a major restoration project last year brought it back to Canal Park.

But would you call Duluth a Rust Belt city?

Some have said or suggested it: A 2018 Rolling Stone piece infamously described Duluth’s skyline as including “rusty and mostly silent” shipping contraptions and detailed a “thin layer of grime” covering downtown. Reuters posited Duluth and other Rust Belt cities could become climate migrant destinations. CBS News called Duluth “just another rust belt community suffering an economic hangover,” before its recent renewal.

Yet when you look at maps of the Rust Belt, cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit are included without exception, while Duluth is often missing.

So, Duluth: Rust Belt or no?

Origins and geography

It’d be tough to determine whether Duluth is part of the Rust Belt without first looking at the origins of the term.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
It might surprise many Minnesotans to learn that the phrase is widely attributed to Minnesotan former Vice President Walter Mondale. In a speech to steelworkers in Cleveland during his 1984 presidential bid, Mondale accused opponent Ronald Reagan of promoting trade policies that would turn the Midwest into a “rust bowl,” likely a play on the dust bowl of the Great Depression.

According to Cleveland-based Belt Magazine, which specializes in all things Rust Belt, the press tweaked the phrase, turning it from “rust bowl” to “rust belt,” to better contrast with the term “sun belt.” Coined in 1969, the “sun belt” referred to southern and western U.S. states whose economies were booming as their populations grew.

By the time the term “Rust Belt” came into the country’s vocabulary, the region it refers to was experiencing decline: globalization created competition for American steel and finished products, driving down prices. As such, it’s sometimes seen as derogatory.

So where is the region “Rust Belt” refers to? Again, turning to Belt magazine, there is no one answer. Just as defining the Midwest, has proven contentious (heck, people can’t even agree on a definition of Uptown Minneapolis), so is drawing boundaries around the Rust Belt.

Rust Belt …

Where the boundaries are drawn depends on what factors are considered. Is the Rust Belt defined only by manufacturing — or should the definition also include the extraction industries that fueled the manufacturing?

Lee Ohanian, a professor of economics at the University of California-Los Angeles and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says both Duluth, and Minnesota on a state level, qualify as part of the Rust Belt, because of the way their economies are set up.

“The Rust Belt is typically considered to be states with heavy manufacturing and/or heavy extractive industries, such as taconite, in Minnesota, or coal in West Virginia,” he said.

Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness told MinnPost he’s never shied away from the Rust Belt terminology. It wasn’t just the shipping of raw materials that connected Duluth to the rest of the Great Lake Region, it was heavy manufacturing along the St. Louis River, he said. And when the manufacturing economy took a hit, so did Duluth.

“It is an honest part of our history. Duluth and a lot of smaller industrial cities in the Upper Midwest were hit really hard by a brutal economic reality and massive forces, well beyond what was in our control, were making these economic shifts,” he said. “As our economy changed and corporations started moving jobs south and overseas, it was communities like Duluth that were hit especially hard.”

… or no?

Others say Duluth doesn’t fit the definition of a Rust Belt city because it’s never been quite as reliant on manufacturing as some of the most canonical Rust Belt burgs: places like Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Buffalo and Rochester, New York.

Ore docks, Duluth, 1950
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Ore docks, Duluth, 1950
“Generally, what comes to be known as the Rust Belt is the area in the Midwest, specifically around the Great Lakes, that at one point benefited greatly from a manufacturing boom and has since gained the moniker as that manufacturing boom has declined,” said Carson Gorecki, Northeast Minnesota regional analyst at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Labor Information Office.

So what did that look like?

Gorecki and his colleague Cameron Macht collected some historical data at the statewide level that serve as a useful jumping off point: It’s tough to come by data at the city level, but in 1960, when manufacturing was booming, it made up more than 30 percent of jobs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Minnesota, 19.5 percent of jobs were in manufacturing, making Minnesota less Rust Belty, by the manufacturing definition, than some of its neighboring states.

However, Minnesota had a larger share of jobs in mining than all those states, with the exception of Pennsylvania, where coal mining is a major industry.

Gorecki said he probably wouldn’t consider Minnesota, or Duluth, for that matter, part of the Rust Belt, but said the two are certainly connected. “The iron ore mining in our region definitely played a big role in fueling that boom, so we’re related,” he said.

Today, less than 10 percent of Duluth’s total economic output comes from manufacturing, compared to 12 percent in Buffalo, 15 percent in Cleveland, 19 percent in Detroit and 26 percent in Toledo. Ness notes, though, that when you look at stats for the Duluth metro area, it includes St. Louis County, Carlton County and Douglas County in Wisconsin, which captures far more than Duluth.

Iron ore dock, Duluth, 1987
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Iron ore dock, Duluth, 1987
Another hallmark of Rust Belt cities in the second half of the 20th century was big-time population decline.

Cleveland’s population went from 915,000 in 1950 to less than 400,000 today. Detroit had 1.8 million people in 1950, 1 million by 1990 and has only about 675,000 today. Buffalo has shrunk from 580,000 people in 1950 to about 260,000 today.

Duluth has seen some loss of residents, but nowhere near as much.  Today, the city of 86,000 residents is at about 80 percent of its peak population of 107,000 in 1960.

Changing economics

Rust Belt or no, Ness said people who look at the region’s economy from afar often take on a simplistic view.

“What really strikes me about the use of the Rust Belt metaphor is it’s so focused on aesthetics,” he said. “We are an older industrial city and part of that is that there’s rust, and yet it’s more of that weathered steel concept … it’s going to be rusty and yet it maintains structural integrity. That’s what I would say communities like Duluth offer.”

Duluth’s economy has changed in recent decades. Renovations on the waterfront have brought lots of tourists — perhaps the most visible change. There are new breweries, and more things to do outside. But the area has also seen an uptick in manufacturing jobs, and the metro area (again, a broad definition of Duluth), has seen growth in its health care and education industries.

“I think a case can be made that Duluth represents one of the clearest examples of a Rust Belt city overcoming its challenges and finding a new path to prosperity,” Ness said.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 02/19/2020 - 01:30 pm.

    Duluth is not only part of the Rust Belt, it is the buckle of the Rust Belt.

  2. Submitted by Melissa Harl on 02/19/2020 - 04:04 pm.

    I grew up in Milwaukee, had family in Chicago, but have spent most of my adult life in St.Paul. I felt a real difference when moving to a Minnesota, at least in the Twin Cities. Milwaukee had a lot of heavy manufacturing, in addition to breweries; the atmosphere here was and is quite different, so though I’ve always considered Milwaukee and southern Wisconsin part of the Rust Belt, I’ve never thought Minnesota was or is.

    Extraction is related to manufacturing, but the realities of the businesses are quite different.

  3. Submitted by John Powers on 02/19/2020 - 04:19 pm.

    I’ll ignore the troll comment.
    First, Duluth’s population peaked at around 120,000 100 years ago and declined since then. However, since 1960 the greater Duluth-Superior area population has remained rather constant but its distribution has changed with the two central cities losing people while enhanced transportation allowed more people to move to suburban and rural areas nearby.
    Second, when I arrived in Duluth in the late 1960s and then started working for the City as a planner, Duluth reached its nadir and, I think, definitely qualified as a Rust Belt community. The US Steel facility closed and the US airbase also closed. These were huge blows to the community.
    But, the community basically reinvented itself by orienting itself towards the lake and river, cleaned up the river/harbor through the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, and embarked on making it an attractive place to visit, live and work. The growth of the educational and health care systems all contribute to the revitalized city. Duluth is now seen as a place people find desirable — in the lingo of the current age it has definitely rebranded itself into something very positive.
    So, yes, it was Rust Belt but it isn’t any longer.

    • Submitted by Tony Dierckins on 02/20/2020 - 12:23 pm.

      Hi John:

      I agree with your sentiments, but you do have a few facts that aren’t quite accurate. That 120,000 number was a 1929 estimate based on address directory listings. 1930 population was under 101,000, peak was 1960 with just under 107,000 thanks to the postwar baby boom—we kept making kids while the jobs were leaving town. The population continued to drop until about 1985 when it stabilized at roughly 86,000. All that decline was due to the decline of manufacturing. Yes, at one time I would have called Duluth (and Superior) the buckle of the rust belt, but as you say Duluth has been busy reinventing itself as it turns to “face the lake”±something one of Duluth mayor John Fedo suggested to all the other “rust belt” city mayors in the 1980s.

    • Submitted by Gary Derong on 02/27/2020 - 01:09 pm.

      I can’t believe a story like this didn’t include a mention of the steel plant. (Definitely the ingredients of Rust Belt.) The permanent closing of the “hot side” of the steel plant in 1972 and the “cold side” in ’73 was followed by the city’s pivot to tourism in 1974. That’s the year Spirit Mountain opened, in an attempt to help make Duluth a year-round tourist destination. The cleanup of Canal Park in the mid-70s was celebrated with the opening of Grandma’s Saloon & Deli and the inaugural running of Grandma’s Marathon. The growth of the marathon helped fuel the development of hotels, motels and eateries along Canal Park. And eventually the Lakewalk, Bayfront Park and Aquarium were added.

      • Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/19/2020 - 07:41 pm.

        I could not agree more with the the mystery of the Gary West Duluth plant not being mentioned. When my pops lost his job in 61 with the Oliver shut down in Hibbing he eventually ended up working there after bouncing around a bit. He pretty much was not home for my entire time in high school due to the ten day in a row schedule for the workers. I went to UMD so I got to see him a bit then. By 1970 he was dead of a stoke at 54. He died on the job at Minntac. No double lane highways home then. Yea so there was rust on our entire family. I also wonder if the plant not coming up had to do with the divisions in Duluth between east and west ? One could almost draw a line down the middle of the city based on social class.

  4. Submitted by Wayne Pulford on 02/19/2020 - 07:37 pm.

    Yes, Duluth is a rust belt city but like Pittsburgh and other cities in the rust belt Duluth reinvented itself and is a great city and metro area to live in now. We have great Colleges, medical centers, fantastic arts scene with festivals and concerts throughout the year and you don’t have to go to far to get outdoors and enjoy nature. What more can you ask for?

  5. Submitted by Tony Dierckins on 02/20/2020 - 12:14 pm.

    Whoever is responsible for this statement:

    “Others say Duluth doesn’t fit the definition of a Rust Belt city because it’s never been quite as reliant on manufacturing as some of the most canonical Rust Belt burgs”

    Is displaying their absolute ignorance of Duluth history.

    • Submitted by Gary Derong on 02/27/2020 - 01:21 pm.

      Yup. As if the closing of the steel plant in the 1970s wasn’t bad enough, in 1982, Jeno Paulucci moved 1,200 jobs from the Jeno’s Pizza plant in Duluth to Jackson, Ohio. Ohio had offered Paulucci publicly financed low-interest loans. Many accused Paulucci of violating his professed commitment to northeastern Minnesota during a time of economic hardships. In response to these criticisms, Paulucci told Minnesota Public Radio, “I’m a businessman, I’m not going to say oh gee, I’m a nice guy.”

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