Swept Away

The likely demolition of over 700 public housing units in north Minneapolis will scatter people who live there and open up 73 acres of prime real estate at downtown's edge. Is it a matter of civic renewal or a land grab?

While the staffers at the design center have become anointed experts on the near north side, the people who actually live there have been almost completely left out of the planning process. Catherine Brown of the center says it couldn't be avoided in light of the lawsuit and confidentiality concerns. Some residents will be included in a round of focus groups, she adds, scheduled to begin meeting in January.

According to the center's slide show, there are three "legs" to a community: economic, social, and physical. In most respects, it seems, the north side is barely hobbling along. The land is bad. The area is marred by a combination of poor housing and industrial facilities, poised uneasily side by side. There is pollution and no greenspace. Development projects have failed, businesses have closed down--to the point where there is only one decent-sized grocery store to service the entire area.

As the show rolls by, one architect points out that the family projects sit on some of the worst soil in the city. Not only are they built on an old riverbed (Bassett Creek used to run right through there until it was dubbed a "sewer" and funneled into pipes running under the city in the early 1900s); they also sit on a glacial deposit. It's true that the projects are in rough shape. The foundations have cracked, porches have fallen off, windows and doors sport holes and stress cracks around their frames.

Geology may have been the reason the projects ended up where they are in the first place, but politics figure in the equation, too: The north side has a long history of being the wrong side of the tracks. "Since the turn of the century," says Dziedzic, who grew up in northeast and got his first job picking weeds when he was 7, "the elitists in this city, the powers that be, have always felt that one side of town would be the bedroom community, with the lakes, and the other would be for the working people. They have always said that on the south side we're going to get the lawyers and the upper echelon of people, and on the north side we'll have the blue collar workers. They could put industry next to houses and put all the DPs [displaced persons] on the north side along with the minorities. These people were so happy to just be here and have a job that [the city] felt they could do whatever they wanted up there. That still holds true today."

North Minneapolis has been a gateway for newcomers. According to a 1965 city report, it was home to the first Germans, the first French, the first Finns, and the first Scandinavians. It also served as the point of entry for, as the report puts it, "two ethnic groups whose opportunity for upward social mobility and cultural assimilation were more limited--the Jewish and Negro migrants." More recently, Southeast Asians have found themselves living in near north; in the last 10 years, the population in the family projects has shifted dramatically. Sixty-seven percent of the current residents are Asian.

Developers made attempts here and there to put a dent in the north side's decidedly downscale nature. Early in the century they built two upscale enclaves: Oak Park in the Grant Neighborhood, which had winding streets and suburban-like green strips, and the Homewood Addition in the Hay neighborhood, which tried to maintain its appeal by placing strict social and ethnic restrictions on home buyers. Neither was able to retain its cachet.

By the 1930s, many Jewish families were moving out of north Minneapolis; eventually about half the families who remained were African American. This was allegedly the impetus for a giant 1938 Public Works Administration project in which 29 acres of houses, junkyards, and industrial storage lots were leveled to make way for the city's first public housing project, the Sumner Field rowhouses. According to a news report from the time, the location was chosen because it was covered with dilapidated shacks, had a high level of tax delinquency, and featured the highest disease rates in the city. In the words of one editorialist, "It offers, therefore, an excellent opportunity for the government experiment." It was promoted in the local papers as a "new order of life" for those who would move in.

The Sumner Field projects weren't the first "experiment" in the area and they weren't the last. In the mid-1960s, nine city blocks just west of the rowhouses were leveled as part of a multimillion-dollar federal project. Newspapers ran artists' renderings of the townhomes, apartment buildings, daycare centers, and shops that would adorn the block; of the three or four formal proposals for the space, says Brown, none was ever built. Much of the 47-acre site sat empty for years; it's currently home to Bethune elementary school, a few apartment buildings, The City Inc., a Head Start program, a bakery, and a lot of vacant land.

Community commentator Ron Edwards, who grew up in the area, can remember at least four other renewal projects that never happened. "There was a company that was going to develop all that property on the corner of Plymouth and Penn," he says. "There was going to be a big shopping center and a mall. There was even a groundbreaking."

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