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Front Row Seat: What I learned when I moved to Duluth

Two months in, our columnist is beginning to grasp the Zenith City's quirks.

Jay Gabler, in sunglasses and winter gear, poses for selfie in front of frozen Duluth Harbor and Aerial Lift Bridge.
Our columnist takes a look at the icy Duluth Harbor Basin on March 4.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — It was my first day living here: Feb. 20, 2022. A thick snowfall was blanketing the city, but I was safe and warm on the couch of my rented apartment. Then, I started reading about Duluth parking rules. Panic quickly set in, and a few minutes later, I was desperately yanking my snow pants out of the closet.

After moving my car to a spot four blocks away, carefully reading the signage and triple-checking the map, I gave a sigh of relief at having dodged a ticket. Then, for the next several hours, I watched all the cars parked on the street I'd moved my car away from get ... nothing. Not moved, not ticketed, not towed.

I texted my landlord. "Does the odd/even rule not apply on 4th?"

"No."

"No, meaning 4th is even-side parking every week? Just to clarify."

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"Yes. Even side parking only, always."

Oh. Good to know! Between Duluth's second-ever snow emergency and a set of parking rules that make one side of most streets verboten in a pattern that alternates weekly, my learning curve was as steep as the Zenith City streets. (I also very quickly learned how to use my newly leased vehicle's parking brake and snow/sand traction feature.)

When I accepted this job at the News Tribune, I thought I had the city down. I'd already lived in Duluth for half a decade, after all! Granted, the last time I lived here, Rudy Perpich was governor and I was in grade school, but Duluth still felt like a home town. It turned out that I still had a little local knowledge to master.

In writing this week's column, I'm inspired by a recent Racket story headlined "69 Things We Wish We Knew Before We Moved to the Twin Cities." St. Paul is my actual hometown (where I lived as a child before, then again after my family's Duluth stint), and I lived in Minneapolis for the past 15 years, so the Racket article was illuminating as a reminder of just how much you take for granted when you're used to a city.

"You should get up to Duluth," the Racket editors wrote, elucidating one of the things they wish they knew. "That’s the subject of a whole ’nother list, though."

I'm far from being able to generate a list of 69 essential things I now know about Duluth, but I've picked up a few local learnings. Consider this column the beginning of a growing list.

The whole odd/even parking thing. My favorite new fact to amaze Twin Cities friends is that Duluth didn't even use its snow emergency powers until just this past winter. In Duluth, I even heard debates over whether snow emergencies are really necessary — which, coming from Minneapolis, felt like moving from Portland to Phoenix just in time for a round of discussions over whether air conditioning is really necessary. How did Duluth ever manage without?

I presume at least some of the reason has to do with the odd/even parking rule, which is a permanent version of the winter parking restrictions Minneapolis imposes when the snow really piles up. For most streets in Duluth, one side is always free of cars — until the other one is. The odd/even parking rules are clearly necessary given Duluth's narrow side streets, but still, it seems like something that should be on a huge billboard over I-35 northbound as you come down the hill: "GOOGLE THE PARKING RULES NOW. TRUST US, JUST DO IT."

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Duluth both is and isn't a college town. The University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica loom over the city's life, and not just literally. Bulldog sports, hockey in particular, are of intense interest. Also, as a reporter you can always count on UMD to have an expert ready to weigh in on just about anything. There's a top-notch theater program, and the library is an invaluable research resource.

Still, it's not like Iowa City or Madison or even Winona, where college students are omnipresent during the academic year. You could spend days in downtown Duluth and Canal Park without being aware there are multiple colleges in town; only once you started to venture up into the hillside neighborhoods would you start to notice that the local homeowners seem awfully young.

Metro Transit ridership in the Twin Cities has been a little lean of late, so I definitely wasn't expecting the absolutely packed situation I walked into the first time I caught a bus in Duluth: four dozen 21-year-olds (I'm sure the city's diligent bouncers would be sure to spot a fake ID), all decked out in green, turning the DTA 13 into a party bus bound downtown. No doubt every UMD senior religiously reads the News Tribune and saw that the Dubh Linn's St. Patrick's Day festivities were a "Best Bet" for March 17.

The weather is wild. I moved to Duluth fully prepared to be surrounded by people who talked about the weather all day, every day. In fact, if anything, people in Duluth talk about the weather less than they do in the Twin Cities: The weather here is just so intense, and so variable, that you can hardly discuss it in rational terms. Speculating about the weather in Duluth is like trying to guess what mood your 2-year-old is going to be in this weekend: It's impossible to say on Thursday, but you're most certainly going to know on Saturday.

In the Twin Cities, people talk about the weather as something they hopefully won't have to worry about. "Will the weather be OK?" In Duluth, the weather is never just "OK." It might be glorious, or violent, or ominous, or glistening, but it's never neutral. You can always feel the lake's effect on the elements, and when you get close to the lake, that effect can become extreme: Just try to take a lakeside photo using an iPad, and you'll quickly learn that when you deploy a wide and flat surface in proximity to Lake Superior, you become a sailboat whether you like it or not. I may or may not be speaking from personal experience.

Short cuts

Rich Mattson is a Northland jewel, both as a musician and as the proprietor of Sparta Sound, an Iron Range recording studio that's been an invaluable space for artists from across the state for over 15 years. He's also a force behind the Iron Range Original Music Association, which sponsors regular shows by local artists writing new songs. According to his latest email update, Mattson is turning 55 this Saturday; he and his band the Northstars are celebrating with a show that day at the Hook & Ladder Theater in Minneapolis. For tickets ($8-$15) and information, see thehookmpls.com.

The first North by North International Film Festival kicks off next Wednesday, April 27, at Zeitgeist. When organizer Matt Koshmrl invited me to lead a Q&A session after one of the presentations, I immediately raised my hand for the "Beyond Space" shorts block at 6 p.m. on opening night. Big-budget science fiction movies too often hide behind their special effects; indie filmmakers have to bring real ideas and style to the screen. For more information on the festival's schedule and ticketing, see zeitgeistarts.com.

There's a lot of Julia Child content out there these days — from last year's documentary feature, to the new biographical series on HBO Max. I've been reading "Dearie," the definitive 2012 biography by Bob Spitz, and it's a revelation. The author argues that behind the celebrity chef's down-to-earth demeanor was a brilliant mind. Julia Child spent countless hours perfecting the recipes she shared with the public, and she still found time to party with her devoted husband Paul and their cosmopolitan friends. Last weekend I tried one of the Childs' go-to drinks, according to Spitz: the "reverse martini," made by mixing three parts vermouth to one part gin. My review: I think I need to start buying better vermouth.

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A hand holds a martini glass in front of book, "Dearie," featuring cover photo of Julia Child.
In a "reverse martini," you reverse the proportions of gin and vermouth. The glass, however, remains upright. If it doesn't, you've had enough reverse martinis.
Contributed / Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Contact him at 218-279-5536 or  jgabler@duluthnews.com .

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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