Los Angeles has Sunset Boulevard. Paris has the Champs Elysees. Duluth has Superior Street.
It's the signature avenue that every visitor sees. And to people who've lived in Duluth awhile, Superior Street and its distinctive red-brick paving stones are a symbol of the city's recovery, says Mayor Don Ness.
"The bricks were put in when I was about 10 years old, and Duluth was a very different place at that point," he told Tom Weber during a walking tour last Saturday. "We were one of the 10 most distressed cities in the nation, according to the federal government. We had an unemployment rate near 20 percent.
"It was at that time that city leaders said, 'We're going to take on this massive downtown revitalization project, putting in these bricks and trying to capture a different spirit of what Duluth is going to be.' It's played a really critical and symbolic piece of that turnaround story that Duluth has seen from the early 1980s to today.
"And that's one of the reasons that, especially, downtown businesspeople, and folks that live and work downtown, they have an emotional connection to these bricks," he said.
But the bricks have seen better days, and the 1880s-vintage sewers than run beneath them have seen better centuries. Periodic breaks in the water mains cause extensive and expensive flooding. City leaders see a need for a thorough rebuild — one that will require digging 30 feet down, in places.
The project will also have to bust through a deep layer of love for the bricks.
"That's an extra variable as we go into these planning sessions," Ness said. "It's not just, 'What is the street going to look like?' It's also, 'I have an emotional attachment to this story of what we went through in the '80s.'" The attachment runs so strong, he said, that people objected to asphalt patches meant to protect the ankles of runners in Grandma's Marathon. "There was a lot of controversy," he said.
Now the need for an overhaul is likely to create even more controversy, as planners consider the best balance of traffic lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks, along with such other considerations as public art and disruptions to business. Ness described the possibility of a design that identifies the southwest end of the street as a business district and the northeast end as an arts district.
And along the entire route, people are likely to want bricks.
"It's function over form," Ness said. "Do we want to keep the iconic bricks, or should we go for something less expensive and really focus on the functionality of the street?" he asked. "Hopefully we can do both."
City planners and an outside consulting firm will conduct a public meeting at 4:30 p.m. today in the Greysolon Ballroom, 231 E. Superior St., to begin briefing members of the public.