What is it like living in Duluth, MN?
January 11, 2017 3:48 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking of moving to Duluth, MN. I've been to the Boundary Waters in the summer, and Superior National Forest and Tettegouche in the winter, but have only spent limited time in Duluth. I love the idea of living in a port city on Lake Superior with such easy access to amazing wilderness. Is it possible to still get outside and recreate without getting frostbite when it's -20F, or is that the time to hole up indoors and knit in front of the fireplace? Do the building codes allow you to build a backyard sauna? Does Duluth have enough culture and music and community to not feel totally isolating for a single almost-30-something? Snowflakes inside.

I am a 28 year old woman, single, no kids, currently living in Portland, OR but originally from Chicago, IL. I work as a union plumbing apprentice (2 years remaining in my apprenticeship). I'm in touch with the Duluth union local about transferring into their apprenticeship program in June if they have sufficient work at that time to keep me busy.

I basically either have to move in June, or finish my apprenticeship in Portland. If I finish here and want to move afterwards, I'd have to work elsewhere as a "traveler" (second-class citizen, union-wise), possibly for years before being able to transfer in. So realistically, if I want to leave, now is the time to plan for it.

Portland is beautiful, but I miss the Upper Midwest. Culturally the PacNW has been a difficult fit for me in the 5 years I've been here -- something about differences in communication styles, or the prevalence of woo and flakiness, maybe. Also, Portland is having serious growing pains, including insane real estate prices (25% year growth) and horrible traffic jams that can start as early as 2:30pm. And having as large of a mortgage as I do in as seismically risky a place as Portland makes me nervous. I also really miss living right on a large body of water. So I've been investigating selling my house and fleeing to Duluth.

I've also considered moving to the Twin Cities. The Minneapolis union local's work outlook is strong and the journeyman wage is higher than Duluth. But the union locals in the Twin Cities are straight line (plumbing only) so I can't get my pipefitter card and welding certifications on top of my plumbing license. Duluth has a dual local (like my local here in Portland, OR), so I could pipefit, plumb, and weld if I choose to. This is a big deal.

I have a fair number of friends in the Twin Cities, but only a couple (very promising) connections in Duluth. But... I'm attracted to the smaller size of Duluth, the romance of being right on Lake Superior, and the easy access to nature. I also like the idea of being able to buy a very affordable house and having more space to set up a garden and a wood/metal workshop.

A few bullet points about me: Politically progressive, well-read, blue-collar, violinist and harmony singer. I enjoy art but because of apprenticeship (work and night school) I don’t have a lot of time to go to art galleries or late music shows on weeknights. I love making things, mushroom hunting, canoeing, sea kayaking (excited about Lake Superior kayaking!), hiking, and outdoor activities. If I move to MN, I am planning to take up some winter sports to get out of the house— cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-fishing, ice skating, that sort of thing. How else do people stay sane in the winter?

What is the social scene in Duluth like? What about the dating scene (I'm a straight woman)? Is there much going on that doesn’t center around undergrads? What about music, arts, and craft skills? Is it relatively easy building-code-wise to build a backyard workshop? What about a backyard sauna? Are folks allowed to have small firepits in town? Will I be able to make friends through hobbies and progressive religious/community institutions? Will I be able to find good tenants to rent out spare rooms in my home?

What else do I need to know that I don’t already?
posted by cnidaria to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, and I forgot one thing: What is the grocery store situation? Can you get weird specialty products like chickpea flour and yam noodles? Are fresh fruits and vegetables readily available in the winter?
posted by cnidaria at 3:50 PM on January 11, 2017


Previously.
posted by Bruce H. at 4:24 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


Also read RedEmma's AskMeFi answers.
posted by Bruce H. at 4:55 PM on January 11, 2017


My experience with Duluth is just a couple of visits, but my bestie lives in the Twin Cities and my niece has lived in several towns in the region. So, I have a little knowledge of area and culture, but honestly, you probably know more than I do about the answers to all of your questions. Y'know, all those lake towns have their rhythm between seasonal tourist craziness and locals settling in for the off-season. Duluth isn't exactly a tiny backwoods. There are jobs, major science-based industries, and that university means not just undergrads, but grad students and professors -- so there should be age-appropriate people for you to meet.

But mostly what I wanted to say is that your rationale sounds absolutely clear-headed and great. You sound like you want to move there for all the right reasons. Go for it.
posted by desuetude at 5:03 PM on January 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


I have friends who live way north of Duluth who spend all winter outside skiing and dog sledding and even camping.
posted by padraigin at 5:21 PM on January 11, 2017


Is it possible to still get outside and recreate without getting frostbite when it's -20F,

No.

or is that the time to hole up indoors and knit in front of the fireplace?

Yes.

Do the building codes allow you to build a backyard sauna?

Depends on the building.

Does Duluth have enough culture and music and community to not feel totally isolating for a single almost-30-something?

No. It's a college town two hours away from the nearest major city.

But you know what, it certainly has enough to keep you from getting too terribly bored until you get your dual welding and plumbing certifications. That should be more than enough of a sample size to tell you whether you want to move again, or stick around. And if you want to stick around, then you'll have a good idea of where in town you might want to live, and what kind of house you want. So, I guess I would say to keep your expectations realistic--but it sounds like a good professional opportunity, so why not? What's the worst that happens? You decide it's not for you, and move to the Cities or somewhere else. It's an adventure.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:26 PM on January 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


Music Scene

Duluth's music scene is pretty amazing. Pretty much every night of the week at least one venue downtown will have a show going on. The Red Herring Lounge is good at doing about five shows per week just by themselves.

Each spring the local music scene is celebrated during the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival. (Disclaimer: I'm on the steering committee) Typically 180-200 local bands playing over the course of eight days and seven nights across different venues in Duluth and Superior, WI. I've made a few videos compressing each festival down to about five minutes that you can check out to get an idea. 2015 & 2016

Social

I always see stuff about Duluthians hating outsiders online. Completely not true. If you start going to live music regularly, you'll start meeting the same people and making friends.

Fire pits

Been to enough in town backyard fires that either a) There is a law and no one cares. or b) There is no strict law.

Sauna

Not sure about the backyard thing. Everyone I know who has one has it built in their basement. The Center Of Personal Fitness has male & female saunas for members that seem to be the main social sauna space in town. Ignore the Duluth Family Sauna. It is sketchy unless you are looking for a good place to go for a literal Friday night circle jerk and pizza party.
posted by kpraslowicz at 6:38 PM on January 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


Does Duluth have enough culture and music and community to not feel totally isolating for a single almost-30-something?

No. It's a college town two hours away from the nearest major city.

This is incorrect.
posted by kpraslowicz at 6:39 PM on January 11, 2017 [8 favorites]


Oh, and I forgot one thing: What is the grocery store situation? Can you get weird specialty products like chickpea flour and yam noodles? Are fresh fruits and vegetables readily available in the winter?

There are two Whole Food Co-ops in town who would all this I imagine. Not the big chain, but a local co-op that happens to share the same name.
posted by kpraslowicz at 6:49 PM on January 11, 2017


Despite it's location, Duluth is a rust belt city. It has a lot of old industrial stuff that is slowly closing down or becoming automated. Unemployment is relatively high, and there are a lot of decrepit buildings. Young people who want to make lots of money are moving to the Twin Cities or further. But that means it's a cheap place to live, and a good place to move to if you have good employment options (which it sound like you do).

There's more than enough stuff to do. Tons of breweries, arts & music scene, museums, and random fun stuff like Fitger's Inn. There are several colleges in addition to UMD. If you like nature, you've got the North Shore, Superior National Forest, and many lakes and rivers. I don't think boredom would be a problem, but if it is, you've got easy access to the Twin Cities.

It's a snowy city with steep hills. Get a four wheel drive car with good winter tires.
posted by miyabo at 7:10 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


Is it possible to still get outside and recreate without getting frostbite when it's -20F,

No.


Yes. You have to make sure you wear enough layers (and proper layers), and cover all exposed skin (hopefully just your nose and cheeks) with warm skin or an equivalent cream.
posted by azalea_chant at 8:04 PM on January 11, 2017 [5 favorites]


Is it possible to still get outside and recreate without getting frostbite when it's -20F

I'm from Canada. -20F is what we call a nice day. Lots of outdoor activities are possible on these cold days, you just need good gear/clothes, and some common sense precautions.

In my experience, Duluth has a great selection of groceries, both big stores and some smaller options. I cannot see any problem getting any normal grocery store item. Maybe hard to find truly obscure ethnic things, but there are lots of options even for that. I consider the Co-op food store a great place for weird things I can't buy at home!

I like Duluth. We visit often! There is an active cultural scene, the North Shore (so area North of Duluth) has tons of quirky culture and beautiful places to visit. I can't speak to local code or dating issues, but I am generally very happy with the people I meet in Duluth, there is more than adequate health care, and generally a good amount of live and let live (I think it might be the Scandinavian roots of some of the culture...)

I think Duluth is a promising place for you to live, if the work connections you need pan out.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 8:50 PM on January 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


I moved to Duluth almost two years ago, and I love it more every day. A lot of your questions have been answered already, so I’ll just add a few thoughts:

“Politically progressive, well-read, blue-collar, violinist and harmony singer” – this is like the blueprint for the perfect Duluthian. You’re going to fit right in.

“I love making things, mushroom hunting, canoeing, sea kayaking (excited about Lake Superior kayaking!), hiking, and outdoor activities.” – Seriously, it’s like you already live here. There’s a fantastic Maker Space and a newly conceived craft district for craft-centered manufacturers and retailers. Outdoor activities are very popular and they happen year round. (I passed a group of winter bikers last week pedalling through one of our beautiful city parks late at night with temps near zero. They wore headlamps on their helmets, the men had icy beards, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.) I’ve seen surfers on the big waves well into December. Lots of skiing opportunities, amazing bike trails (COGGS, Traverse), our beautiful lakewalk which runs along the lakeshore for miles and is perfect for running/walking/biking, hiking, ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, sailing, etc., etc., etc. You probably know this, but Duluth was highlighted recently by Outdoor Magazine.

“What about music, arts…?” – As kpraslowicz mentioned above, the music scene is fantastic. If you want to hear music, there are always great options, and you’ll often just run into musicians like Charlie Parr around town. There are open jams every Wednesday and Thursday at Sir Ben’s, and Homegrown is absolutely a joy. In addition, Duluth has a great theater scene, an independent cinema, tons of local artists (painters, glassblowers, etc.), several amazing choirs, a new atelier-style fine arts academy, an awesome craft beer scene, and of course everything going on at the three nearby universities.

Duluth has the amenities of a bigger city, but the cozy, personal feel of a smaller one. The lake is endlessly fascinating and the North Shore is a treasure. The city parks are extensive and gorgeous. People are welcoming and friendly, I can’t speak to the dating scene (I’m married), but I had no problems making friends and getting involved. I’ve never lived in a more cheerful place.

If you have other questions, I’d be happy to help. Feel free to message me. If you plan a trip and would like a tour, I’d be happy to help if I can. I really love it here, and I’m always glad to have the opportunity to share that excitement and pride with others!
posted by beautifulstuff at 10:12 PM on January 11, 2017 [5 favorites]


I spent 4 years in Duluth (for college) and absolutely loved it. It sounds like you might, too. So:

The standard winter weather warning would apply, but you've lived in Chicago so you already know what you need to know, including the effect the lake can have. Now put it on the side of a hill for that extra winter-driving challenge. Add one more layer to your Chicago wardrobe and you'll be fine.

You mention the romance of being on the lake and close to nature. And you're so right; I still miss it. And that's from someone now living in Bozeman, Montana, where the romantic nature is so thick you trip over it. But it's not Duluth. I lived right by Chester Creek, having a little slice of near-wilderness cutting through city so you can go from one to the other and back in two blocks was great. I'm sure you've seen already, but I'll reinforce, Duluth is peppered with these quirks and little corners of nature poking through everywhere. And I do remember seeing lots of weird mushrooms popping up in the various nature areas during the rainy, swampy times. Oh and while I'm thinking of it, don't miss Hunter's Park in the peak fall colors.

Your bit about progressive and blue-collar: this is the area that voted for Wellstone. You should fit right in on that account.

The downsides that you need to know: that comment about the rust belt is spot-on. Be prepared for the houses you look at to be old, sketchy, and leaky. The roads—old, sketchy, leaky. Sidewalks—yep. The city has hundreds of years of boom-and-bust and it shows its age everywhere. It's a good thing I loved that place because it was a parade of gulls screaming at 4 am, potholes big enough to eat transmissions, and a grey dreary spring that overstayed its welcome at least one month into the calendar's "summer" most years.

Oh, and cross-country skiing: there are beautiful groomed trails with access points right in town. At least I hope there still are. My favorite was the aforementioned Hunter's Park. One very cheap pass gives you access the whole season.

P.S. For whatever reason, dandelions don't do very well in Duluth. This hawkweed mostly takes its place. Just another quirk.
posted by traveler_ at 10:31 PM on January 11, 2017


I just visited Portland last month for the first time and I gotta tell ya, it reminded me SO MUCH of Duluth. Seriously.

Also, um, my cousin is single, lives in Duluth, and for a time was a plumber. *cough* If you ever meet a blind black lab named "Blue", ask Blue's owner if you can try out our sauna on NE Bay, and I'll team up with you for horseshoes on the beach.

(It's a small world. It could happen.)
posted by jillithd at 7:03 AM on January 12, 2017


Hello Aspiring Northlander!

Re: The Legendary Cold

Of course this depends on your personality and wardrobe, but absolutely we up here get out no matter the weather. Last week during the windy below-zeroes, the dog park was full, the hiking trail (which is half a block from my house) was well-tromped, and I saw bikers and ... well, you get the idea. But! I too am from Chicago, and if you think you know winter, you don't! Chicago is cold and wet and nasty, but has breaks from the freeze. Duluth is cold and dry and sunny (come January) and when winter sets in in November, you can generally expect that snow to stay for the duration, which sometimes extends well into April. It's cold for six months. Personally, I like winter way better up here because it's prettier, the snow (except for downtown) stays white, and there's lots to do besides stand at a bus stop and mutter. I live on the edge of town (which is eight minutes from downtown) and can go snowshoeing in the woods whenever I like. This is heaven, for me.

Re: Backyard Saunas. I'm sure people have them, and outbuildings are generally fine. I see smoking sheds all the time (for smoking fish and other meats) and so I imagine there are saunas out there too.

Re: Culture, music and community.

I moved here 20+ years ago and I'm turning 50 this year, so I've changed from out-every-night to in-every-night, but I had no trouble finding stuff to do in my early years here, and believe me: things are far more vital than they were then.

The biggest complaints I ever hear about Duluth are about difficulties finding friends and finding jobs. Your expertise is a boon (I don't think you'll have trouble finding work), and I personally have never understood the problems people have socially here. I moved here to get away from people, and I got sucked in whether I liked it or not! If you're a musician, you have it made, because the venues are easy to get a gig at, the open jams are fun and welcoming (Sir Ben's is the go-to, I think), and the bands are always morphing into new configurations. Basically, it's a matter of knowing what you like to do and being willing to go out and find your people. One thing: Duluth is a participatory place, and because of its size, you'll be wanted as a participant, whether that's music or politics or activism or art.

We are hard-line progressive, our diversity continues to grow, and we get culture, but not on the scale of a bigger city. For those of us who love it here, I think, that means getting out and going to things we might not otherwise. Going to things isn't a hassle, because things tend to be cheapish, traffic is never an issue, and only country people complain about the parking. I have never felt a lack for cultural things to do. Some people feel the need to drive to the Cities for big name acts and what-not, but I don't.

Re: Cost of Living.

That's a huge plus. Housing is considered expensive for what you get because of our aging house stock, but not nearly by west coast standards. We are just far enough away from the Cities to keep from being a bedroom community, thank goodness, and so there are plenty of us who live here on the cheap. Our growth is slow, and I like it that way. You won't need the same wage to be happy here that you need in the Cities.

Front yard gardening is acceptable here, even in the nicest neighborhoods, and loads of people have workshops. My neighbor just built one that's almost bigger than his house, and he's in town.


I love making things, mushroom hunting, canoeing, sea kayaking (excited about Lake Superior kayaking!), hiking, and outdoor activities. If I move to MN, I am planning to take up some winter sports to get out of the house— cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-fishing, ice skating, that sort of thing. How else do people stay sane in the winter?

As someone up there said, you belong here. Duluth is a DIY kinda place. A make-your-own-fun kinda place. You will find plenty of like minded people here.

The social scene, I have always said, is what you make of it. It's a small enough city that you'll have no trouble running into the same people over and over in random places, but it's also big enough to always meet new people. I met my husband at a bar when he was on a blind date with one of my friends. (She hated him. lol) I haven't dated in a decade, but the worst thing about dating here is that after a decade or two, you're a degree or so separation from everyone in your social circle?? Maybe that's just me. The college scene exists, but it's on the periphery for those of us who live here. I live near the college, and I generally just see it as a bonus for cultural infusion. See above for Maker Space etc. Yes, everyone has fire pits in town. Yes, you will find decent tenants, probably. (I mean, that's always a struggle isn't it?)

Coming here in June is an excellent time. It's gorgeous and easier to make friends in the summer. Like anywhere, you just have to be willing to put yourself out there and join communities. Personally, I think it's easier than Chicago, and from what I understand, Portland. We're less... um... self-consciously hip? than Portland by far.

PM me if you wanna go mushroom hunting!
posted by RedEmma at 7:30 AM on January 12, 2017 [3 favorites]


Oh, and as for weird grocery items: the two Whole Foods co-ops are awesome small groceries. I am a longtime member, and the best thing about weird stuff, is that you can ask them to order anything they don't already have. They have a front desk attendant just for aging hippies to complain at. :-)
posted by RedEmma at 7:32 AM on January 12, 2017


I asked an FB friend and one-time MeFite, and got this: Help me convince my girlfriend we should move to Duluth.
posted by notyou at 8:11 AM on January 12, 2017


My in laws live in Duluth, so I've spent a bit of time there. I can't really add much on quality of life there, but I can direct you to an awesome Italian deli: Gannucci's in West Duluth. We always stop when we're in town, usually multiple times.

Also, I eat gluten free, and I have been surprised at some of the specialty items at SuperOne, the local discount chain. In fact, I found two items I wasn't able to find in the Twin Cities, and it didn't cost an arm and a leg! so do check there. There is also a specialty food shop in Fitger's. I wanna say they had some interesting pastas there.
posted by BlueBear at 10:12 AM on January 12, 2017


Lifelong Duluthian here. You can absolutely play outside when it's cold out, but it is also the best time to sit in front of the fire. So I recommend doing some of each.

Backyard firepits are legal as long as they are enclosed. And very common. If you decide it's a good idea to have a huge garbage fire in your yard and smoke your neighbors out of their houses, one of them will probably complain. Short of that, you're good.

Most saunas are electrically heated basement jobs, but a wood-fired outbuilding shouldn't be a big problem. My guess is the trickiest part would be your homeowners insurance, because finding a UL-listed wood fired sauna stove and installing it to spec is probably not easy. This is semi-educated guess work on my part. I put my sauna in the basement. If this is a major want for you, include "sauna" as a key word when you do your Zillow search for houses and maybe you won't even have to build your own.

Lots of roommate/renter opportunities as there are three colleges in town and one across the bridge in Superior, WI.

There are a bunch of groomed cross country ski trails in town. A season pass is $15 (I think, haven't bought one yet this year) and covers you for most of the public trails in the state.

We've gone wild building bike trails in and near the town over the last couple of years, with more to come.

It sounds like you would plan to buy a house. The real estate market is extremely cyclical, with roughly March-July being the hot time. I imagine this is true in many markets, but probably more so here. If you want lots of listings to pick from, look then; if you want motivated sellers, start looking in October or so.

In my opinion, the dating scene is challenging once you reach a certain age. You haven't reached that age yet.

Overall, I think that you would like it here.
posted by LowellLarson at 10:19 AM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]


Thanks, everyone! What a cascade of useful information. I'm going to visit Duluth one more time (probably in March) to make sure, touch base with the union again around then, and try to get my ducks in a row for moving in June (assuming the plumbing work outlook stays good).

Several folks mentioned basement saunas with electric heaters, which definitely sound easier to build (no need to run water lines outside under the frost level). Thanks for the tip.
posted by cnidaria at 12:15 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


So did you decide to move to Duluth?
posted by secretseasons at 5:52 PM on May 16, 2017


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