Other City Sidewalks: Morgan Park, Duluth

[The sidewalks of Morgan Park lead you into the past, the birthplace of suburbia.]

Tucked away along the mouth of the St. Louis River is a part of Duluth you probably haven’t seen, where tourists from the cities rarely go. This is the old industrial section of the city, where the riverfront was lined with factories and worker housing all throughout the first decades of the 20th century. It’s one of the reasons that Duluth was once one of the wealthiest cities in the US, and there’s pretty much nothing left. All the factories are gone, and today the waterfront fills up with forgotten feelings, ghosts of another era. Well, except for a neighborhood called Morgan Park.

Morgan Park is a piece of this history, a “factory town” built all at once by the giant US steel corporation sometime in the 1910s to house workers for one of its big iron ore steel mills. Like Pullman, Illinois, or Lowell, Massachusetts, it’s one of the more famous examples of “welfare capitalism”, a very brief attempt by the big oligopolies to alleviate worker strife by creating small company-centered utopias as part of their industrial infrastructure. Not only was it planned and built by the US Steel corporation, but it was completely owned and run by the company until 1933. (Other examples haven’t aged so well.) At the same time, its a very early example of something like suburban development, but it’s also an interesting look at the values practiced by earlier forms of urban planning. And, at least to my eyes, it’s aged pretty well, barring the odd choice of housing materials.

Today the steel mill is long gone, but the factory town is still there, well-used and seemingly loved by the people who live in it. Finding Morgan Park is difficult, and involves knowing where to turn of Hwy 23. But once you get down into the little nook, you find a little one of the that is a little world unto itself that seems both familiar and strange.

[The sidewalks of Morgan Park, lined with duplexes and single-family homes.]

[All the houses in Morgan Park are made from concrete, each painted slightly differently.]

[One of the larger townhome row-houses in Morgan Park.]

It's familiar because it resembles many suburbs and planned communities you might find today. All the buildings are the same age, and little curving streets are lined almost uniformly with residential homes sitting in a park-like setting. Just like many of the suburban areas you might find in any US city, it has a well-developed brand identity that is blazoned on all the lamp-posts, yard signs, and even the bus stops. Morgan Park could be the name of any one of the new greenfield developments from Eden Prairie to Maple Grove to Woodbury, and in a way, this might be the one of the earliest predecessors of the modern American city.

[The old bus stop bench bears the Morgan Park 'MP' logo.]

At the same time, there is something very different about this place. For one thing, it’s old. You can sense that by looking at the buildings, or the sizes of the trees. For one thing, all the houses were made out of concrete, which is (I think) one of the earlier uses of this material for housing. Compared to brick or wood, it hasn’t aged all that well. It has a vaguely dirty look to it, and certainly would be strange material to walk around on and live inside. But, beyond the simple aesthetics of the place, Morgan Park has a very unusual feeling that you’d never get in a new suburban development.

For one thing, it actually has sidewalks that run down every street. I can’t emphasize enough how much I like sidewalks. The reasons are simple: they give you a place to walk around (a place that isn’t in the middle of the street where cars drive). This is the kind of thing that seems really useful, and to my mind, every home should have one. Morgan Park stems from the era when it would be absolutely insane not to build a city with sidewalks, where people using their feet and legs to move around was a common sense idea about locomotion, before the advent and rise of the cybernetic car-people that can only move around their worlds with their asses strapped into a 2-ton machine, driving through movies and banks and restaurants and grocery stores and pharmacies and coffee shops.

Secondly, Morgan Park has emphasized these sidewalks by placing their garages (for these car-machines) behind their houses. Yes, like much of South Minneapolis, the planned community of Morgan Park, Duluth has an intricate system of alleyways and detached garages that allows the fronts of homes to have porches and windows and gardens, rather than driveways and giant 3-car garages with their bleak and blank doors. Having actual fronts of houses along the street is what gives these homes that “old-fashioned” look, but it also places far more emphasis on the streetscape, on the front yard, on the sidewalk, on the front garden. While most front yards in modern suburbia are strictly ornamental gardens, mere simulations of yards that rarely used by anyone, these front yards seem to have a life to them. People seem to sit on their porch, and perhaps even throw the football in the grass along the street.

[One of the entrances to the ubiquitous alleyways the run behind the homes of Morgan Park.]

[The backyards of Morgan Park, where the homes are set about 20 ft, from each other.]

[Even though it was built at the very dawn of the automobile era, garages sit behind the homes of Morgan Park.]

Third and finally, Morgan Park has a real diversity of housing types. While, like modern suburbia, they were all planned and built by the same exact company, at the same exact time, you’ll find a real mixture of sizes and types of homes in this neighborhood. There are lots of traditional single-family homes, but there are also duplexes and attached row houses (in groups of four) that line the streets. This kind of diversity allows many different choices for many different types of people and families, and especially different income levels. Rather than everyone getting a giant 2,000+ sq. ft. house, there are all sorts of different sizes and arrangements. And, what’s more, they’re all mixed together, so that you likely end up with a more diverse set of neighbors that you might in a modern cookie-cutter development.

The other parts of the planned community, the school, the community center, the park, seem to have aged pretty well, too, with one big exception. Morgan Park still has a ‘main street’, where, presumably, businesses catered to the residents with grocery stores, hardware stores, or whatever other types of retail you had back in the1920s. In today’s era of big box shopping, except for one little hair salon, this commercial stretch is almost entirely abandoned. The row of empty shops sits there, waiting for a time when more localized time that may never arrive.

[A bank along Morgan Park's main commercial street.]

[The strip of commercial shops along Morgan Park's main street sits almost empty.]

But, if you want to see a suburbia baby picture, where the idea of 'a city in the country' first was put into practice, head up to Duluth go off the beaten track, down South along the river, until you find Morgan Park. Walk around and imagine what it might have been like back when US Steel was the largest company in the US, and the place was a wholly owned company town. It's an interesting piece of American planning history, and even today, it seems like a really nice place to live.

[One of the many strange carriage house-esque buildings that sit around in Morgan Park, unused today.]

[The Bob Stoner Memorial Garden at the North entrance to the community of Morgan Park.]

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