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.

The lumber mills that had thrived from 1875-1885 on the west bank of the river had disappeared. People were crowded together in squalor and began throwing their garbage into the creek. "As time marched on," the Minneapolis Tribune noted, "the bed of the stream began to show the first tin cans, great piles of ashes and other [trash], dead animals, old buggy tops, bedsprings, barrels, and a thousand things that make a city dump what it is."

The water smelled terrible and people worried that it was a health hazard. Park and city officials decided the best thing to do with the filthy flood hazard was to create a closed sewer by lowering the creek bed by two feet and covering the whole thing with concrete. While Longfellow was writing poems in honor of Minnehaha Creek on the other side of the city, few spoke out against the city's plan to hide Bassett from view.

Construction of the tunnel took nearly a decade to complete because work was put on hold during World War I. By 1923 the lower portion of the creek had been channeled into a concrete tunnel a mile and a half long leading east to the Mississippi. The project's total cost was $280,772.

Almost immediately people regretted covering the creek, and they began talking about opening it back up. But the old houses near the abandoned lumber mills were now home to poor white families. Near them lived Jewish immigrants who were better off financially but still viewed as undesirable because of their ethnicity. At the same time, black families were moving into the area in ever-increasing numbers. Some folks believed that reopening the creek might bring "the right people" back to the area. But the idea, it seems, was never seriously considered.

In 1925 city planners turned their focus on the section of the creek in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood directly upriver from the cement tunnel. This portion, they recommended, should be cleaned up and maybe even turned into a park. "The City Planning Commission, after a survey of the creek, reported to the Park Board that it would cost less to [create a] park than it would to cover, and besides would be more beautiful," the Minneapolis Tribune reported in June of 1925. "It costs about $50,000 a block to cover the channel and make of it a sewer. [A park can be constructed] for considerably less than that." The Park Board liked the idea but didn't have the money to make it happen.

Bryn Mawr residents, according to newspaper accounts, objected to the special assessment they would be asked to pay for what they saw as an unnecessary and expensive park project. "Under the original plan, an elaborate development to cost $425,000 for acquisition of land and the laying out of a park, including an extensive playground area was contemplated," explained an article in the Minneapolis Journal. "It soon developed, however, that the majority of the homeowners in the district could not bear the burden of assessments the plan called for. So a number of years of planning and wrangling resulted, until finally it was decided that the park board should go ahead merely with the acquisition of the land needed for the project."

There was no money to buy the land, so nothing happened until 1929, when Minneapolis's first park superintendent, Theodore Wirth, proposed acquiring 50 acres along the valley between Glenwood Park and Cedar Lake Road, which included most of the creek's worst dumpsites. Private citizens, including the owner of the Glenwood-Inglewood Company, a water bottling plant located on the Bryn Mawr side of the creek, donated land, bringing costs down significantly. For a little while, it looked like the creek might end up as the centerpiece to a huge north-side park.

 

Private property abutting the affected area, formerly of little or no value by reason of its proximity to the squalor and filth, which prevailed, has had its position reversed. A liability has become an asset.

--from commentary by a member of the Park Board, Minneapolis Tribune,
June 13, 1937.

 

Plans for the new park were quickly thwarted yet again, this time by the Great Depression. In October of 1929, the stock market crashed and the country's economy began to tumble. By 1933 thousands of banks and businesses had closed and nearly a third of America's workers were unemployed. City spending on the project disappeared, and plans to restore the creek were again abandoned.

Dilapidated shacks made out of sheet metal and other junk lined the embankments of the Bryn Mawr section of Bassett Creek. Referred to as "Hoovervilles" because President Herbert Hoover was widely held responsible for the nation's decline, the shantytowns only added to the growing perception that Minneapolis's north side was to be avoided by the better classes.

In response to the Depression, the federal government unveiled the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a program of unemployment relief under which men worked on worthwhile public projects and earned federal funds. In Minneapolis the crews' first job was to clean up Bassett Creek. Newspaper photographs show dozens of men chopping at the frozen earth with picks and shovels; they used the rocks and dirt to fill still more low-lying wetland, thinking this would help control the floods that continued to plague the area. The workers used blasting powder to turn rolling hills into rubble.

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1 comments
tgilliss
tgilliss

I'd love to see the City Pages use this story -- and others like -- as a starting point for a new series of retrospective pieces. So much has happened in such a short time. Many things look so different. And, others, well, not so much.

 

It's 12 years later. What was promised and has gone unfulfilled? What projects were completed and how have they benefited the communities they impacted? Are these long-term planning projects still on track, or have other pressing priorities commandeered budgets? All these types of questions and stories. And with all the multimedia possibilities, your readers could get a better visual grasp of where plans came to fruition or remained statice.

 
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