On August 6 we left DC. I’m still reflecting on my feelings about leaving Dream City (A.K.A. the Federal City; A.K.A Chocolate City; A.K.A. The American Rome; A.K.A. The District; A.K.A. New Columbia) and hope to solidify those soon. We didn’t leave because it was too expensive, or because we both “made it” and moved up and out, or because it was inevitable, or any of the other clichés about why people leave. While the cost of rent was a factor, the bittersweet exit from the city wasn’t driven by any of those things. In many ways, we felt like we were leaving just as we were falling in love with the place.
Instead we left for adventure.
That adventure will take us eventually to Denver but it began with a roadtrip that took us to beautiful Escanaba, MI. One of two cities on Little Bay de Noc and the third largest on Michgan’s Upper Peninsula (the U.P. or the Yoop). Escanaba is home to about 12 thousand Michiganders (sometimes known as Yoopers in the U.P.). The bay opens into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay and Door County, WI (the actual City of Green Bay is in the southernmost pocket of the eponymous bay). One fascinating thing about this great lake city was how calm the water was and how much land was visible looking straight out of the shore, another was its historic role in American industry and trade.
The incredible thing about cities like Duluth or Two Harbors is how the lake stretches outward endlessly the way an ocean or a sea might. On Little Bay de Noc, though, that was true only when looking due south. The vastness of the lake was masked by the islands and opposite shore of this narrow bay. It turns out these physical features helped make it an important port on the Great Lakes. The harbor in Escanaba is deep enough to bring in the lakers that carried iron ore, copper, and lumber across the country. Those good were put on ships at Escanaba for the Union by railroad during the Civil War. And before more efficient shipping methods were invented, delicacies like seafood were imported through Escanaba and put on rail or truck into larger cities to the south. That navigation made possible in part by the Sand Point Lighthouse.
Escanaba’s largest employer today is the sawmill operated by NewPage, a specialty paper company with operations in many states and while the town was sleepy there is always a feeling of opportunity I experience whenever I go to these Great Lake cities. Maybe it’s the nature: the massive body of water, towering forests and hilly landscape. Maybe it’s the mining, shipping, and industry that ties them together across miles of water. Even though they feel trapped in time, there’s something inspiring about what might be in store for the future. Like many of it’s peer cities, the population has been declining since the 70s and people migrated to bigger cities and warmer climates.
Cities like this were built up around increasingly automated industries and access to waterways. It’s likely natural resource mining, processing, and shipping will always keep a small population employed, but is it possible the new so-called “knowledge economy” will help bring new industries into these northern cities? There’s an old theater in Escanaba perfect for an entrepreneur looking for a large space to build a co-working space and innovation lab – an excellent opportunity for public-private partnerships with the local school district and community college, as well as important civic hacking worth that might not otherwise get done. Are low property values and distributed workforces to the early 21st century what iron and copper were to the late 19th?
Who knows, I could be just a city slicker millennial who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.