DULUTH - Rolling Stone gathered Duluth Mayor Emily Larson's ire.
"We are not a grimy city," Larson said on Friday. "We are so much more than what was portrayed."
Larson was responding to a piece published on the magazine's website on Thursday, June 21, by political columnist Ana Marie Cox after she visited Duluth this week to attend President Donald Trump's rally.
Although Cox wrote that Duluth is "known for its natural beauty, good health outcomes, relatively low crime and high standard of living," she also disparaged the city as a "struggling post-manufacturing cipher with the highest drug overdose rate in the state," commented on a skyline "dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics" and a downtown in which "every surface is covered by a thin layer of grime."
Larson takes issue with some of that, and chose to respond publicly in an "open letter" to Cox and Rolling Stone released Friday afternoon through the city.
Shortly after the letter was released, Cox retweeted it on Twitter, writing, "I'll be in touch!"
In the letter and in a telephone interview, Larson acknowledged Cox accurately pointed out some problems Duluth faces.
"I think the writer has some really accurate points, and I didn't want to discount part of the truth she was sharing about some indicators in our community," Larson said.
Cox was right, Larson wrote, to say that Duluth, like other cities, has serious issues with opioid abuse and domestic violence, although she also detailed the city's efforts to respond to those problems.
But Larson disputed much of the rest of the piece, including Cox's "grime" reference.
"What you call grime, we call reconstruction dust and progress," Larson wrote. "Just blocks from the arena where you spent your time, we are embarking on a bright future for our main street, replacing 100-year-old pipes, improving our infrastructure to advance our city's energy system and building toward a more efficient Duluth."
Where Cox referred to the heavily Democratic city of Duluth as part of "Trump Country," Larson suggested she not focus just on red and blue politics. She touted the city's "green" - 7,000 acres of parkland, more than 225 miles of trails, a seven-mile sandy beach and "our great unsalted sea."
The mayor even worked in a sly Bob Dylan reference.
"Isn't your magazine named after a song by some guy?" she wrote. "Yeah. He was born here."
Larson concluded by inviting Cox to pay a return visit to Duluth, promising to "leave the Enger Tower light on for you."
But even before receiving the invitation, Cox promised to come back.
After apparently taking heat from Duluthians, the writer took to Twitter to walk back some of her comments.
"DULUTHIANS!" she tweeted on Friday morning. "I have made the few tweaks to my piece. ... BUT ALSO: Ok, maybe I missed real Duluth! I will be back later in the summer to report a fuller picture of the town."
She later added that she stood by her reporting but admitted she might have missed the "full context" for her piece.
Here is the text of Duluth Mayor Emily Larson’s open letter to Ana Marie Cox and Rolling Stone:
Those of us here on our “…lonely island of electoral blue” wish to respond to your Rolling Stone article on your recent Duluth visit covering the president’s political rally.
Reading your experience in our hillside city, we can only say this: We see things differently. And it’s not just our rose-colored sunglasses needed for the brilliantly glittering sun off Lake Superior.
You see, it’s not necessarily what you wrote that’s at issue here. Some of the points you raised are actually spot-on. Like many communities around the country, we have serious issues as it relates to opioid abuse and domestic violence. And it’s true we are not the economic hub for the steel industry we once were.
What may be lacking, however, is context. In Duluth, we own our problems - and we do something about them. There’s no doubt that we are an imperfect community, but allow me to shed some light on who we are and what it is we’re about. Because it seems to have gotten lost in the article.
You saw our downtown as a place where “…every surface is covered with a thin layer of grime…” What you call grime, we call reconstruction dust and progress. Just blocks from the arena where you spent your time, we are embarking on a bright future for our main street, replacing 100-year-old pipes, improving our infrastructure to advance our city’s energy system and building towards a more efficient Duluth. There’s a reason we call it Superior Street.
The focus on red and blue politics overshadowed all of our green. In our city of 86,000, we boast 7,000 acres of parkland, over 225 miles of trails and a 7-mile sandy beach for sailing, surfing and just soaking in the wondrous good that blows in off our great unsalted sea. Which happens to hold 10 percent of the world’s fresh water.
And while you saw all that beautiful freshwater crashing “…against a town whose shoreside skyline is dominated by stolid, brutalist mid-century relics and precarious-seeming industrial shipping contraptions, rusty and mostly silent,” we see vital industry. Our international port is the conduit for moving 35 million tons of cargo annually - that’s heartland grains that cross oceans to feed the world, taconite pellets which becomes America’s steel, and colossal wind turbine blades that create green energy to run our country.
We aren’t buying the label of Trump Country. We are more than one person. We are teachers, health care workers and police officers. Bus drivers, engineers and planners. We’re also musicians. Isn’t your magazine named after a song by some guy? Yeah. He was born here.
We are magazine buyers, too.
Here in Duluth, we aren’t anyone’s country. Simply put, we are America - where changing industry meets innovation. Where mental health and drug addiction hit home. Where cities roll up their sleeves to take care of the many problems the federal inefficiency leaves on our lap.
Of course, like all cities we have problems. But unlike some places, we are boldly facing them with political will and getting real results. We’re putting our attention where our issues are - like investing in sexual assault victims advocacy and our opioid crisis.
In the 1980s, Duluth pioneered a new response to domestic violence, which is now the most practiced model of domestic violence intervention in the country. The. Most. And while we have no shelter “in the shadow of the Amsoil arena,” our shelters take domestic violence victims from all over the country, as an innovative leader in the field. It was because of this status that Duluth was the first anywhere to use a direct-to-DNA technology to start clearing a shameful backlog of sexual assault test kits. I’m proud to say on behalf of our victim-survivors, we will be caught up by fall.
Now, let’s talk opioid crisis for a minute. Yep - you’re right; it’s bad here. So, we’re applying our successes in domestic violence prevention to our nation’s fevered use of opioids and heroin.
Our commitment has been to work with our county, the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, courts, local hospitals and other partners to create an Opioid Withdrawal Unit: a safe place for those who overdose and want help to medically withdraw and be connected seamlessly to other support and resources. This is the first such program in the state. This safe place and support system is the first step in disrupting the cycle of addiction.
Just to be clear, you’re not the first national media we’ve received. Duluth has been voted “Best Outdoor City” by Outside Magazine, and just last month was featured in The Atlantic for our “unfolding saga of start-up businesses as the crucial creators of new jobs ...like craft breweries (along with tech incubators, arts companies, manufacturing “maker spaces,” and others) in bringing life to fringe areas of recovering cities.” James Fallows wrote that - and I was able to thank him in person after he also chose to feature us on CBS Sunday Morning.
Come to think of it, I’d like to thank you, too, Ms. Cox. Nothing brings a community together more than being dismissed by others. We are proud of who we are. We’d like you to see and experience why. So come on back for another visit. We’ll leave the Enger Tower light on for you. Who knows? You might find that you like it here in Duluth.
We sure do.
Mayor, City of Duluth