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Is Duluth in the Rust Belt?

Detroit and Cleveland, sure. Duluth?

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.