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.

In 1935, 200 men who got jobs under another employment program, the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA), continued the creek restoration efforts, finally creating a 56-acre park in the area Theodore Wirth had proposed six years earlier. Much of the work they did is still visible today where the stream flows beside the now-closed Fruen Milling Company just off Glenwood Avenue North. Water-damaged banks were braced with retaining walls. A limestone trail was laid beside the creek, and stone steps leading up a steep hill into the neighborhood above were built.

By this time many of the Jewish families that had originally settled in the near north side's Glenwood and Oak Lake neighborhoods--close to the present-day farmer's market--had moved out into the suburbs to the west. Coming mostly from the Seven Corners area near the University of Minnesota's West Bank, black families moved into the houses vacated by their Jewish predecessors. Soon more than half of the families in Sumner Field were African American.

With the Depression-era drive to improve the lot of America's less fortunate came the birth of public housing. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in November 1932, he not only had to do something to stabilize the economy, he had to staunch what was quickly turning into a violent rebellion of the nation's hungry and homeless. Federal housing programs were created as part of what would later be dubbed "the welfare state."

In north Minneapolis's Sumner Field, the federal government cleared out 415 families living in what had become a slum to make way for 400 units of low-income housing. Col. Horatio Hacket, director of the housing division of the Public Works Administration, proclaimed from his Washington office that the housing project would be of such high quality it would last for 60 years.

"We are building these homes for the benefit of the lower-income groups who in normal times have found it impossible to obtain good, modern homes at rents within their means," he said. But, as with similar projects around the nation, there was far too little housing for the people who needed it. Families had to apply for the homes, and preference was given to the working poor. Many of the impoverished families who were displaced by the development had nowhere else to go.

Nonetheless, throughout the Forties Sumner Field seemed to improve not only the lives of its occupants but the surrounding community as well. Some city officials wanted to locate small businesses in the area, but others refused to change the zoning laws to allow retail near the housing project. Soon commerce along the former Sixth Avenue--since renamed Olson Memorial Highway--closed up, leaving area residents with nowhere to shop within a mile. Instead, land to the west of Sumner Field was cleared and a hodgepodge of industrial buildings went in, quickly becoming an eyesore to the neighborhood.

To make matters worse, even though residents living in the landlocked projects couldn't enjoy the beauty of Bassett Creek since it had been diverted into a tunnel beneath their homes, they felt the water's presence. Within a few years, some of the buildings' foundations began to crack and sink into the slushy soil. Even before developers pounded the first nail to build the third phase of the giant construction project, Glenwood Homes, they knew they had trouble. Tests of the soil showed muck as deep as 160 feet, causing developers to worry that the footings needed to secure the buildings would bust the construction budget.

By 1959 all of the Glenwood units had been completed. For many, the clean, squat brick buildings--with central heating, modern bathrooms, and community tennis courts--were a big improvement over the tenements or riverbanks they had previously called home. But the poor soil worked against the projects. Over the years, some heavily damaged units were demolished. Others were repaired by construction crews; men lifted the 600-ton buildings with jacks turned in a slow, synchronized rhythm by hand.

In the 1960s, homes to the east of Sumner were torn out to make way for Interstate 94, which was being built to link downtown to the northern suburbs. Families with resources began moving west to places like St. Louis Park, and Sumner ended up virtually isolated from the sorts of amenities that make a community vibrant. A 1965 report by the Minneapolis City Planning Commission noted that the blighted neighborhoods were ill-defined residential pockets surrounded by industrial sites and roadways.

"It is characteristic of the Near-North community that areas of soundest housing and environment are found in the west and the most challenging problems in the east," the report notes, adding that there is "sound housing" in areas such as Bryn Mawr and the North Cedar area near Brownie Lake. "However, housing exists throughout the Near-North which should be saved from becoming blighted and dilapidated. It stands in a sort of borderline twilight zone. It could quickly be returned to the ranks of sound housing if it were treated to a program of watchful maintenance and renewal."

The next ten years brought a blur of urban-renewal projects that failed to renew. Despite continued talk down at city hall, no boulevard was made to connect the north and south sides of Minneapolis, and Bassett Creek remained covered. Meanwhile, between 1960 and 1972, the percentage of near-north-side residents living in government-subsidized housing had nearly tripled, from 7 to 20 percent. Stories in the Minneapolis Tribune quoted area residents who referred to their neighborhood as a "rat colony" and "a dumping ground for poor people consigned to subsidized housing." Residents and city planners agreed that the concentration of poverty on the near north side was at least partially responsible for increased crime, unemployment, and other social problems.

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