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Coming Home to Duluth

The author uses the name Duluth to describe the city currently standing on colonized Anishinaabe land.

I’m often met with surprise when I tell people about how and why I came to Duluth. The surprise really becomes palpable when I tell them that I’m staying.

There are many things that prompt the conversation. Sometimes it’s my out of state ID or my license plate, but more often it’s my curly hair, brown skin, and my long o’s when I say “roof.” For the many questions, I have many responses: I wanted to live somewhere new, I wanted to learn about design in the non-profit sector, I wanted to understand housing at a bigger scale. And then, almost certainly, there’s this question: “and you came… here?”

Yes. I’ll tell you how.

The necessary disclaimer is that I never planned to live in Duluth. I graduated with a B.S. in architecture, spent the next year working in construction (another decision that yields equal confusion), and began looking for another job at exactly the wrong moment: February of 2020. A month later, private sector design work came to a complete standstill, while, somewhat serendipitously, I was coming to terms with the limits of the private sector. Funding for Americorps remained relatively unscathed by the pandemic, and I found an incredible opportunity to work on affordable housing through the Regional Sustainable Development Partnership in Duluth.

What I came to learn over the next year is that Duluth is an incredibly enriching yet deeply complex place to live, make community, and work - especially if you work in housing. Its geography, for example, which splits Duluth into a residential zone overlooking the lake and an industrial zone overlooking the river, tends toward disparity. The topography, policy, and history of the city has produced a critical housing shortage. And Duluth bears a poverty so intense that there is a unique density of non-profits, social entrepreneurs and informal groups of concerned citizens, many with overlapping work, trying to solve the problem.

Despite these challenges, Duluth’s scale and location offers solid testing ground for solutions that are highly applicable, because they must address the complexities of both urban and rural life. I am more and more intrigued by Duluth’s politics, which, as a friend succinctly put it: “are not just a battle between Democrats and Republicans.” And for an emerging designer who is interested in the intersection of building with everything, it’s small enough that I could quickly plug into the many facets of life here, but big enough that I know I will continue to be challenged.

In other words, working in Duluth is like trying to solve a profoundly intricate puzzle. I like puzzles, and I have lived in other cities that present equally complex challenges. Duluth, however, is special because in it I was connected to and welcomed by a community that has been working hard at this puzzle for a while. I will admit that I was surprised, too - to have made deep community in a place I had not expected to and by the subsequent urge to stay. But the decision to stay feels quite right knowing that any of the aforementioned problems cannot be solved by one person, movement, organization, or discipline. Surprise, and with it, confusion and hesitation, quickly dissolves when you know the joy of doing work that you love with people that you love, and that what will follow is a dip in ice cold water in a city that you love, too.

- Leah Karmaker served for a year as an affordable housing VISTA with NE RSDP, the U MN Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. She now works for Green New Deal Homes SBC, a Minnesota Public Benefit Corporation whose activities align with the mission and often support the work of Green New Deal Housing.

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