"Hey, we're in Duluth"

A radio pirate-turned-country rocker who doubles as a nanny. A newspaper that rips the establishment. A deconsecrated church. And a very quiet band called Low. Notes on a tiny counterculture.

To understand how such theories could seem anything but far-fetched, it's worth remembering Duluth's history of class warfare: The place once had more millionaires per capita than any city in the world. After French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut (or Duluth), made peace between the Dakota and the Ojibwe in 1679--cementing the deal with reciprocal marriages--the fur trade began in full swing. After that came the sawmills, the ports, the railroad, and the mines. By the early 1900s, the rich had begun building mansions on the Great Lake as monuments to their own permanence. Duluth boasted ten newspapers and six banks--and even its first skyscraper, the Torrey Building, where the RipSaw relocated last month.

After breakfast, the Nelsons take me to the new office, which still has "Pinkerton's, Inc." painted on the door--the name of the security company descended from that old strike-breaking goon squad of yore. The rooms have high ceilings with giant cracks in the plaster--"the Bosnia look," Brad jokes. On the floor sits a photocopy of the original Duluth Rip-saw, a local paper published between 1917 and 1926 by John L. Morrison. Although a notorious racist and puritanical Christian, Morrison crusaded against the corruption wrought by the railroad boom (and took the opportunity to extort money from potential targets while he was at it). Headlines such as "Corporations Seek Baxter's Scalp" left no doubt where his class loyalties lay.

In a hilarious, anonymously penned account of his own arrest--a September 7, 1918 issue headlined "Captain Bruce Palmer is Rotten Dinner Host" (subhead: "Invites Morrison Home to Dinner Then Orders Him Jailed")--he described an argument with a recently arrested saloonkeeper who objected to being publicized in the paper. "He called names and attacked Morrison's business integrity," goes the Onion-like prose. To which Morrison responded: "Do I owe you anything?"

The idea that the press owes business nothing is certainly part of the new RipSaw's spirit of practical defiance. The first breaking story about Mayor Gary Doty's push for the Soft Center received the Morrison-worthy headline "Dotygate!" (Subheadline: "City administration attempts bribery?") One subject in the story, A&L Development, threatened a lawsuit, then backed off. And to this day, Doty refuses to grant interviews to the RipSaw.

"When we first started, people hated it because they wanted Minnesota Nice," Brad Nelson explains. "And still, nobody wants to talk, because a handful of people hold all the cards, and if you piss them off they can really hurt you."

This is every reporter's dream, really--at least every reporter writing for an ostensibly alternative weekly. Duluth's small-town politics have the effect of magnifying everything, including the reported word. A well-put sentence can spook the executives; a sharp editorial might shake city hall. Council member Russ Stewart once told the RipSaw that he moved to Duluth "because it's a funky, eclectic place with a bunch of artists and weirdoes." I'm sure he never anticipated how much power those weirdoes, including him, might one day wield.

"I think the complexion of the city council changed a lot because we were there," says Brad. "All the coverage that the Duluth News Tribune had given [the Soft Center] amounted to cheerleading. And we came along and poked holes in how the process had gone down--and the negative effects of destroying a square city block of historic buildings. It turned into a big issue during the mayoral race and city council race, and now we have Russ Stewart of the Green Party representing this Central Hillside district."

In Duluth, lovers of new music and old buildings are natural allies. I'm not surprised to learn, for instance, that the same local gadfly, Eric Ringsred, who sued to save the Sacred Heart Cathedral, encouraged Brad Nelson and co-publisher/art director Cord Dada to start the RipSaw in the first place. It follows, too, that when city officials recommended foreclosing on the NorShor--the business was late in repaying a low-interest loan from the Duluth Economic Development Authority, and one official had taken a fancy to the idea of a ballet house--the RipSaw rallied to owner Rick Boo's defense.

"All these things are more like a cooperative than businesses," says Brad. "Everybody knows he's not making money on this. And when the RipSaw ran an editorial, someone called up and asked, 'How much do you need?'" As it happens, the theater has done well by local music in the past year, and paid its loan up to date in December.

Of course, there is always the danger that the new Duluth will become too friendly with itself, that the bonds of solidarity will become so tight that matters of aesthetic discrimination, not to mention reportorial objectivity, will become ethically squishy.

"It was easier when the RipSaw started, because I was a nobody and everybody I knew was nobodies," admits Brad Nelson. "Now my friends are assuming power--like Donny Ness. As you slowly become The Man, it becomes harder to attack The Man." Hence, the paper has toned down its headlines and attack-dog posture. "Basically, if we were going to make this a viable business--"

"--you couldn't have subheadlines like 'Is the City Run by Nazis?'" I ask, picking up an early issue.

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