DULUTH, Minnesota Trying to take the pulse of America, we traced the route of the huge Great Lakes freighters that once were lifelines of iron, copper and grain. We watched the vast ships clear the Soo Locks between Michigan and Canada at the eastern end of Lake Superior. Then we traced the Superior shore to its western end in Duluth to check on the status of the miles-long grain elevators and industrial loading docks.
But, surprise is becoming a continual theme on this American journey. In Duluth’s landmark Canal Park, we came to a sudden halt in a sea of partying Minnesotans celebrating a tall-ships festival. These outdoor events featuring historic, tall-masted ships pop up in port cities around the U.S. But, we had expected a typical summer weekend in an industrial hub, and instead we could barely move for the streetside tables and crowds enjoying all the treats of an urban festival: beer, brats, nachos, ice cream and more.
What exactly was the story here about American values? We were watching urban renewal in action in Canal Park at the heart of what otherwise is a grim industrial landscape. Americans’ love of our own history was obvious along the row of great wooden ships. And, despite bigotry in some corners of the U.S., people don’t mind diversity when they’ve had a few beers in an otherwise happy crowd. So many people crowded the rock-and-concrete shoreline that a handful had gone into the water and were diving off a concrete platform locals call “the Cribs.” Side by side as they dove and laughed were black, white, Latino and Asian teens and 20-somethings.
But it was hard to think in such a throng. Benjamin uses Lonely Planet guidebooks whenever he travels, so he flipped open a Minnesota section of the USA volume and we discovered that less than 100 yards from Lake Superior is a basement gathering place for music, coffee and food called Amazing Grace. Lonely Planet calls it “hippyish.”
A few steps down from the festival street, calm reigned in a café that’s equal parts Ann Arbor, Burning Man and San Francisco. We bought chicken salad sandwiches on fresh-baked caraway-rye bread and settled ourselves at an old wooden dining room table.
With long gray hair flowing around her, owner Marcie Stoyke flitted through the oak-raftered café supervising her staff of baristas.
“What do you call yourselves?” I asked two women at the deli counter as they posed at the tiny deli counter with Stoyke for a photograph. “Sandwich makers? Cooks?”
“You’re baristas,” Stoyke explained to them like a proud mother instructing her daughters.
“We’re baristas!” Amanda Keeney said proudly.
“Baristas,” echoed Rebecca Lester.
Stoyke smiled and wrapped her arms around their shoulders as I took a photo.
Somehow, this woman and her basement cubbyhole had made it into an internationally known travel guide. “Well, we’ve been here 15 years, since Chip Stewart founded us. He died last year, but a lot of people got to know that we’re here over the years,” Stoyke explained. “We’ve always been true to the ideas Chip taught us. His life changed when he learned to make good bread. He said there should always be one place where you know there’s good food and anyone can come and, if you want to play music, you can.”
Rows of folk musicians’ publicity photographs line the oak rafters, but Stewart’s vision was more basic than establishing a club. Notables do appear here, but often less-than-professional musicians strum acoustic guitars for tips tossed in an open case using Amazing Grace’s as a safe haven in an otherwise rapidly developing commercial center around the waterfront park.
We asked if there was any religious motivation behind a place named after the most famous of all American hymns.
Stoyke shook her head. She refused to acknowledge even a spiritual theme.
“No. No. Simpler than that,” she said, then waved her whole hand toward a huge sign in the middle of Amazing Grace with a slogan very easy to overlook in black letters on a dark blue background.
We read it aloud together like a litany: “Be brave. Be kind. Don’t eat bad bread.”
“That’s how this place was established and that’s what we do every day,” she said. “It’s really very simple.”
(Story and photos reported by readthespirit.com)