Crippled Creek

After a century of empty promises, Minneapolis officials are finally poised to spruce up the polluted waterway that meanders through the city's north side. What changed? The buying power of the people who will live there.

Considering the great area of north Minneapolis, its proximity to the center of the city, and its importance as a coming residence district, a direct auto road to the heart of the city seems necessary and due....North Minneapolis, given such a door to the downtown district, would not be long in filling up with the most desirable class of resident.

--from an editorial published in the
Minneapolis Journal, January 23, 1916


Being something of a naturalist, when Dave Stack moved into the Harrison neighborhood in north Minneapolis 19 years ago he immediately began exploring nearby Theodore Wirth Park. But it was nearly a year before he discovered Bassett Creek trickling along a rocky ravine about a block west of his own backyard. Trash littered the badly eroded embankment, which was overgrown with weeds. Still, Stack could see the beauty in the murky waters of the nearly hidden stream.

"Being an environmentalist makes me kind of an oddball in my neighborhood," Stack says as he stops to finger a clump of buckthorn that appears to be trying to smother the less aggressive plants around it. "Harrison is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. People are worried about survival. And when you're struggling just to get by and pay for food, the environment seems like a pretty unimportant issue--and I can understand that."

Over the years Stack and others concerned about the creek--many of them residents of Bryn Mawr, the more prosperous neighborhood just west of Harrison--have organized cleanup efforts. A couple of times a year they ask volunteers to spend an afternoon picking up trash along the water's edge. Those events have helped make the stream look better, he says. But much more needs to be done to transform Bassett Creek into the kind of waterway people want to live beside.

"It's more brackish than usual today," Stack says, pointing at the water that looks black in the afternoon sun. The stream is running a little higher, he adds, than it was last night when he tried out his new kayak. At least two dozen mud-caked beer bottles he fished from the creek the night before are lying around on the shore. He was hoping someone might have picked them up by now.

It is almost impossible to imagine what Bassett Creek--sometimes called Minneapolis's "other creek" or "Minnehaha's forgotten stepsister"--might have looked like before the city rose up around it. The waterway begins its 12-mile journey to the Mississippi River at Medicine Lake in Plymouth. Its shallow stream flows through Golden Valley, New Hope, Crystal, and Minnetonka, into north Minneapolis and east through Theodore Wirth Park and the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, where it is still relatively pristine.

Things deteriorate from there, however, as the creek makes its way downtown. Down a small hill from where Stack is standing, a small portion of the stream can still be seen just west of the Minneapolis Farmer's Market before the water is funneled into a century-old tunnel at Dupont and Second Avenue North. Past rows of dumpsters, heavy equipment, and rusty Canadian Pacific Railroad cars, the dank water rushes over beer cans and makes its way around chunks of concrete. Then it wends through a ravine that separates the Minneapolis Impound Lot from three industrial sites, Pioneer Paper, Scrap Metal Processors, and the now-closed Warden Oil Company.

The underground tunnel carries the water beneath Harrison and Sumner Olson--the former public housing site--through downtown, and on to the Mississippi River, where it dumps out just north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge.

If all goes as planned, Bassett Creek may soon become a beauty, the centerpiece of a long-awaited redevelopment of Minneapolis's near north side. About a half a mile northeast of Stack's bungalow-style home, 770 units of public housing have been bulldozed in recent years, the result of the federal housing discrimination lawsuit known as Hollman. The suit's controversial 1995 settlement was supposed to thin out the amount of public housing concentrated in that one area by dispersing residents into affordable units spread out across the city.

Ever since it was handed down, the Hollman decree has been the subject of almost uninterrupted controversy. Intended to improve the living conditions of former public-housing residents, the settlement is widely seen as benefiting the city at the expense of the poor. Critics have repeatedly lambasted city leaders for failing to provide promised replacement housing for the 519 impoverished families displaced by the redevelopment and for slashing the number of affordable-housing units to be built on the site.

But now that the deal is done, the city is busy drafting blueprints and street maps charting what will become of the site of the former projects, 73 acres of prime real estate perched a short walk from downtown Minneapolis and boasting an unparalleled view of the skyline. They envision something tasteful and upscale, old-fashioned urban dwellings with front porches and gabled dormers that will attract a new class of people. The plans call for wide, tree-lined streets flanked by rolling grassy hills and sidewalks for strolling. The only thing missing is water--the lakes and rivers that make parts of south Minneapolis so sought-after.

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