Duluth’s Post-Prohibition Liquor Laws

A 1955 state law prohibited alcohol sales inside a one-mile radius from UMD’s Kirby Student Center. The blue squares indicated businesses with on- or off-self liquor licenses operating within the district since the law as repealed in 1974. (Image: Google/Zenith City)

Urban Renewal & Redistricting

The latter half of the 1950s saw the national urban redevelopment movement, which began at the end of the 1940s, begin to sweep across the country. The idea was to revitalize communities through reducing population density by relocating businesses, demolishing buildings in blighted districts, and relocating marginalized populations within those districts. The biggest targets were on the nation’s boweries. Prohibition did not end the ills of Duluth’s Bowery, located between Fourth Avenue West and Mesaba Avenue along Michigan and Superior Streets, and after World War II the area became populated by retired laborers with no pensions (including miners, sailors, and lumberjacks) and troubled young men returning from service overseas, many of whom suffered from what we would today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; they often sought solace through alcohol. As with other districts just like it across the nation, Duluth’s Bowery would be literally removed through demolition.

The liquor sales districts established in Duluth in 1934 added to the problem. The concentrated districts led to the further growth of the Bowery. When liquor sales were banned from South Lake Avenue in 1938 in an effort to clean up the area’s blight, it simply pushed more problem drinkers (and prostitutes) to the Bowery.

Duluth targeted the Bowery with its Gateway Urban Renewal Project and through redistricting liquor sales. The city began purchasing and condemning almost every building in the Bowery and many on First Street west of Fourth Avenue West. By 1970, nearly all had fallen, but Urban Renewal wouldn’t officially be complete until the new Duluth Public Library opened in 1980.

A map of Duluth’s Bowery outlining the buildings that would be demolished as part of the Gateway Renewal Program. (Duluth Public Library)

It took nearly as long to complete the process of redistricting, which began in 1960. The idea behind it was that by spreading the city’s limited number of liquor licenses throughout the community, Duluth would avoid concentrations of the type of drinking establishments that thrived in the Bowery. From Woodland to Morgan Park, every newly proposed change faced fierce opposition from residents led by local churches and their associate temperance groups. While these were primarily Protestant efforts, when a license was proposed for Duluth’s rough-and-tumble Raleigh Street neighborhood, the pastor of the community’s Good Shepherd Catholic Church fought against it.

The liquor board and city council made repeated attempts to spread liquor sales throughout the city, as their focus was to prevent another Bowery from developing. In January 1960 the liquor board proposed spot rezoning, which would address authorizing off-sale liquor licenses in previously dry commercial districts on a case-by-case basis. Once one license was approved in a commercial district, the entire district would open to liquor sales.

The city council instead called for a liquor study. They used the results to draft an ordinance calling for the establishment of seven new liquor districts, including Duluth Heights, Upper Woodland, the northern portion of Park Point (where a hotel was proposed), and the extension of the London Road district to 27th Avenue East, among others. It went to a referendum in 1961, and voters rejected it. The following year the London Road extension alone was approved by referendum.

In 1963 the liquor news of the year focused on redistributing the eleven on-sale and two off-sale liquor licenses owned by businesses operating in the former bowery, which Duluth had begun to refer to as the Gateway Urban Renewal District. Demolition would soon begin, and business owners had to either close or relocate.

Each proposed move outside of an approved district faced opposition. The Saratoga Bar was allowed to move to South First Avenue East and became the Club Saratoga. This opened the entire street, and a new Holiday Inn—with bar—was built nearby. Owners of the Bowery’s Grace Bar wanted to move to 101 West First Street, but businesses in that area thought it would simply relocate the Bowery to First Street. Portions of Duluth Heights and Grand Avenue in West Duluth were opened as liquor districts, but one former Bowery bar owner would spend years trying to establish a liquor store in Woodland. Business groups supported the changes; Protestant churches circulated petitions against them.

By 1964 the liquor board and city council were soon tired of the inefficient “one-at-a-time” process, and again the board proposed citywide redistricting. And again the city council brought it to a referendum vote. And again the citizens of Duluth rejected it.

The board and council tried again in 1965, and this time citywide redistricting passed. It would completely simplify the process, opening liquor sales to all commercial districts except within 400 feet via sidewalk of any church, school, or recreation area and the two districts affected by state law: the one-mile radius around UMD and Lakeside/Lester Park. But soon after the ordinance was approved, an opposition group filed a protest petition, which was enough to convince the city council to rescind the ordinance rather than spend the time and money on a referendum election. Instead, spot redistricting was officially put into place.

The following year a group calling itself the Civic Improvement Council proposed an amendment to the Duluth City Charter that would give the residents of each neighborhood the power to vote to accept or deny a liquor license proposed for their community’s commercial district(s). This would have essentially stripped the city council of any power to grant liquor licenses in new districts. In April 1967 the measure was soundly defeated; nearly twice as many Duluthians voted against the change than for it. It was the only time the “drys” had lost a liquor battle since the 1962 extension of the London Road district.

As the 1970s began the liquor board again debated zoning-change requests. In May Minnesota lowered the state’s legal drinking age to 18, invalidating all local ordinances. At midnight on May 31, 1973, Duluth’s college students—and some high schoolers—suddenly became customers. The board addressed the idea of lifting the one-mile radius ban surrounding the UMD campus. This and a proposal by the Buena Vista Restaurant east of Skyline Parkway and Central Entrance brought the rezoning issue back to life.

In September the city council finally passed an ordinance that opened all of Duluth’s commercial districts to liquor sales, “Except,” as the Duluth News Tribune reported, “for the statutory sacred cows of the Lakeside and UMD areas.” It would take changes in state law to open both the UMD district and Lakeside/Lester Park to liquor sales.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.