Nicollet Island

What in God's name is this place doing in the middle of a city? A little less than 50 acres in size, this island seems as if it floated upstream from Stillwater, perhaps, and somehow got lodged in the throat of the Mighty Miss. A few years back, a circumnavigation of this island offered hints of the somewhat seedy neighborhood it was only a decade or two ago. The houses were ramshackle, the paving blocks deteriorated (and today's kitschy "historical" lampposts nowhere to be found). A stray car could be encountered up on blocks in deep grass (the island's famous donkey, Sheba, was exiled to Iowa back in the 1980s). The untamed, rural feel of the island in that era was only one way-station in Nicollet Island's transformation. In the early 1800s, native Indians were believed to have had a camp here for tapping maple sugar. In the 1840s, real estate developers (who have long shaped the face of Minneapolis) tried to sell the island as parkland; later they set up an industrial zone on the island's south side. After a wire suspension bridge to the mainland opened in 1855 (pedestrians paid five cents to cross; each swine cost another two pennies), Nicollet Island went from a chic neighborhood of carriages and shops (the 1880s) to a built-up industrial and commercial zone (the 1930s to 1950s) to a run-down backwater (the 1970s) to a chic neighborhood of gingerbread houses (the 2000s). It's easy to lose one's bearings here--until a view of the big glass skyline becomes visible again through the trees. One half suspects that someday one of the island's residents will find an anchor hidden somewhere behind De La Salle High School, give it a good yank, and send this big grassy boat afloat to some unknown destination downstream.


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