Guest Columnist: Duluth is regaining its sense of place

(Editor's note: The following article is an excerpt from Richard Moe's com-mencement speech at the University of Minnesota Duluth May 14.) One of the passions I've acquired over the years is appreciating a sense of place. It's a hard thing to def...

(Editor's note: The following article is an excerpt from Richard Moe's com-mencement speech at the University of Minnesota Duluth May 14.)

One of the passions I've acquired over the years is appreciating a sense of place. It's a hard thing to define, but, as a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, you know it when you see it. It's what makes one place special, unique, different from every other place. It can be found in places as large as a region, like the South, for instance, or as small as a dormitory room. It exists mostly in the mind's eye. ... A society can be judged on many bases, but one of the most revealing is how it cares for its most important places.

The record in America in the last century has been very mixed.

Now I want to tell you about two very different places that I have come to know well in recent years and that have meaning for very different groups of Americans.

The Acoma Pueblo is in the high desert of northern New Mexico. It's a cluster of modest adobe buildings atop a 400-foot-tall mesa rising out of the desert. The Acomans call it Sky City. What distinguishes Sky City is that it is the oldest continually occupied community in America. Acomans have lived here for more than a thousand years, faithfully preserving both the pueblo and the culture it sustains.


Another remarkable thing about Acoma is that in the center of the pueblo stands a 400-year-old Spanish mission, San Esteban del Ray. The Spaniards who built it are long gone, of course, except for the Spanish blood that has been inextricably mixed with that of the Acomans. So too have the cultures been mixed, and the result is that the Acomans now prize the mission, which was once the symbol of a strange and even hostile power, as their own. They have lovingly restored it to its original glory. They use it for their own ceremonies and other purposes, and symbols of both cultures hang on its walls.

The Acomans have a profound respect for their place, because it is part of who they are, and yet they have incorporated another structure, and another culture, into their own. There is no question in their minds about the meaning of place.

The second place is much closer to us in both time and geography. As most of you know, Minneapolis was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River in the middle of the 19th century because that's where the power existed to propel, first the saw mills, and later the flour mills that made Minneapolis a great city. The power was provided by the Falls of St. Anthony, the only waterfall of any significance on the Mississippi, and over time the falls helped Minneapolis become the flour-milling capital of the world. But in the latter half of the 20th century, new technologies and global market forces caused the mills to fall silent, and Minneapolis, like so many other American cities at the time, turned its back on its waterfront. ...

In the case of Minneapolis, it's fair to say that the riverfront was not only ignored, but trashed. Thirty-five years ago, it was hard to find the riverfront, let alone enjoy it, through the garbage and the overgrown ruins of the abandoned mills.

What has happened recently, however, is reason for both celebration and hope. Minneapolis has rediscovered its waterfront and, even more, its heritage. The river has been cleaned up, the great Stone Arch Bridge once again connects its two banks, old mills and other commercial buildings have been converted to loft apartments and new ones are being built to compliment them. Most exciting of all, the Minnesota Historical Society has brilliantly created the Mill City Museum in the ruins of an old mill that was once "home" to Betty Crocker. The riverfront is now the most exciting and attractive place to live and work and seek entertainment in Minneapolis, and it's no coincidence that it's tied to where Minneapolis began. ...

Which brings me back to Duluth. Nothing makes me happier as a native of this city than to see that it too is rediscovering its history, making its past work for its future. This university's stewardship of Glensheen, which tells the story of an important era in the city's history, has been exemplary, and its plan to convert the Clyde Ironworks in West Duluth to an art center is enormously exciting. Superior Street, of course, is the historic heart and soul of Duluth, and it's extremely gratifying to me that the National Trust is now working with the public and private leadership of this city to restore Superior Street's beautiful but deteriorated buildings to their past glory, particularly for housing. People need to live in cities to make them vibrant, and that, happily, is what is happening in so many American cities today.

So, you may fairly ask, what does all this stuff about place have to do with me, Well, it is very simple and it is this: Place matters. Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us."

He was right, of course. We all know how much we've been influenced by where we live and work. Place matters a great deal, and when we allow the places that best represent our past to deteriorate or disappear, we have less respect for our shared heritage, and thus, I suspect, for who we are as a people or as a community. After all, if we want to know where we're going, we need to remember how we got to where we are.


Wherever you choose to live from this point forward, it will be a place. For however long, it will be your place. Try to shape that place, as Churchill said, in a way that you will want it to shape you.

Try to make it a better place. And don't be afraid to let your instincts and your passions help guide you there.

Richard Moe is a Duluth native and the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

What To Read Next
Get Local