You wouldn't notice it unless you stumbled on it. You couldn't find it unless you were looking for it.
Nestled beyond a dead-end street in Minneapolis's Kenwood neighborhood, across a set of rusty train tracks, lies a small clearing in the dense foliage. A narrow dirt path winds underneath soaring birch trees and around impermeable buckthorn before banking slightly to the right. Laughter grows audible. A secluded beach appears beyond the brush.
There it is: Hidden Beach, the Twin Cities' most infamous party spot.
A gaggle of jaded vagabonds sneak sips of Ripple wine under an oak tree. Tie-dyed hippies pass around a joint and recount tales of gruesome acid trips and run-ins with cops. A crew of college guys frolics in a nearby mud pit, slinging muck at one another. Three topless women lie in the sand soaking in the rays. No one pays them any mind.
This was Hidden Beach during its rambunctious adolescence.
To the heathens, drifters, free spirits, and outdoor enthusiasts who made their escape to this beach on Cedar Lake's northeast shore throughout the decades, it seemed almost too good to be true: here was a Shangri-la of debauchery hidden deep in the heart of staid Minneapolis.
But a secret that good wouldn't keep. It became a legend, and that was its undoing.
For the beach happened to be located in the middle of the wealthiest neighborhood in Minneapolis, and the deep-pocketed neighbors weren't too thrilled when the freaks started flocking to their area code.
• • • • •
HIDDEN BEACH'S old-time regulars can often be found at a picnic table known as the "family table." On the first real day of summer, they're absently smoking cigarettes when someone's voice calls out.
"The Love Boat has docked!"
Johnny Love, a disheveled man with a panoramic grin and bright blue eyes, is Hidden Beach's saintly, unofficial mascot. Today, the weathered 48-year-old is clad in a tattered blue shirt; six inches of his unseasonably pale legs are visible between his crusted cargo shorts and pulled-up tube socks.
He offers hugs. He shakes hands. He graciously acknowledges the sporadic calls of "Hey, Johnny!" greeting him across the beach. Today is his first Hidden Beach appearance since last July.
"You don't know how much I've missed this place!" he exclaims.
He spreads his arms and smiles toward the sun hovering over the lake. He's seen a lot during his time—from crisscrossing the country as a nomadic drifter to baiting hooks on a 125-foot fishing boat in the Bering Strait during the early '90s—and is eager to impart his wisdom to anyone who makes eye contact. Seeing four amused twentysomething punkers sitting on a bench, he approaches them.
"It's not what you do that determines what you are," he tells them. "The truth is, what you are determines what you do. Be bold. Be strong. Don't ever hurt people or steal from them."
When a cumulus clouds eclipses the sun, Johnny suddenly takes offense and jerks into action.
"Move that way!" he shouts toward the sky, looking like Carlton Fisk waving his homerun fair. "That way!"
He turns to his onlookers. "It takes a lot of energy moving these clouds," he says. "But I always say, it's not me who moves 'em; it's God's work."
Even Johnny Love isn't old enough to remember the early days of Hidden Beach. It began its run as a misfit magnet sometime around the Great Depression—the proximity to a nearby rail yard made it a natural hotspot for wayward hobos. During the 1960s, its bucolic setting and urban convenience made it an inviting locale for Baby Boomers to tune in and turn on.
In 1971, a group calling itself the Lake Calhoun Property Owners Association complained to the Park Board about the "longhaired invasion" at Thomas Beach (formerly Bagel Beach). Those who preferred to keep their profiles low started flocking to Hidden Beach, which remained relatively free of scrutiny.
Among the new arrivals to Hidden Beach were nudists. The spot soon morphed into a popular destination for scattered naturists and an after-hours destination for skinny dippers, so much so that it was something of a clandestine nude beach (or what The Minneapolis Star in 1979 politely—if slightly erroneously—called, "a private, mostly nude, mostly gay beach at the end of 21st and Upton Avenue.").
Johnny Love first became a fixture of Hidden Beach in the mid-'70s, "back when it was a literal Garden of Eden," as he puts it. The area was draped in lush canopy to the point where it felt completely isolated from the rest of the city.
"People could just be," Love says. "There was no need to do any of this"—he looks over both of his shoulders in mock fear. "You know what I mean?"
Then he's off to the lake. Inexplicably, he squats down and puts his head toward the water, as if he's about to kiss the lake's surface. He looks up.
"There's an underwater spring on the west side that feeds clean water in," he says, pointing into the distance. "When the humidity is low like it is today, and when there's a slight breeze coming in from the west, you can do this." He puts his face back down to the water's surface and takes a 10-second long, multiple-gulped pull. When he raises his head, his grin is wider than the lake itself. "Go ahead!" he says, droplets falling from his stubbled chin. "Try it!"
The water tastes earthy and pure, if not clean. It tastes like Johnny Love lives.
• • • • •
COOL HANDS is on a roll.
A skeletal figure with sandy blond dreads and fierce blue eyes, the 33-year-old Hidden Beach regular is in the middle of an impassioned, THC-induced rant about the merits of the beach he and his drum circle buddies call home on hot summer days.
"It don't matter whether you're from North, Steven's Square, Uptown, whether you're black, Hispanic, white, whatever," he says. "This beach belongs to Minneapolis."
A quick survey of the beach corroborates his theory. It's impossible to sketch an archetypical Hidden Beach dweller. It's a melting pot of old hippies, young families, Rastafarians, gutter punks, hacky sack wizards, college students, queer folk, and unclassifiable outcasts who could be considered hipsters were they not so genuine.
But for the second summer in a row, park police are horning in on the hideaway, and Cool Hands is pissed.
"These rich motherfuckers think they own the beach," he says of the nearby residents who spearheaded the extra police detail. "I don't know if anyone owns it. Not even us. The last thing we need is more cops patrolling here. We're not hurting anybody."
He cuts his rant short and abruptly stoops down to pick up a few shiny trinkets in the sand. As he does so, he mutters to himself, "Someone's going to fuck up their feet—"
"Red alert!" interjects one of his comrades. "Babylon's coming." ("Babylon" is a common Rastafarian term for the white power structure.) A hash pipe is quickly stashed out of sight.
Sure enough, like a lone cheetah stalking a herd of gazelles, a police Blazer idles ominously where the road meets the beach. The shaven-headed officer inside gazes nonchalantly across the sand.
The attitude toward Hidden Beach has changed over the past few years. Not everyone takes such a casual attitude toward the debauchery—least of all nearby residents with kids. It's one thing to teach your seven-year-old the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street; it's quite another explaining why the smelly man with the glass bottle is sleeping in the sandbox.
One resident, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of having her house egged, recounts an early morning in which she and her husband heard a rustle in the kitchen. They went downstairs to investigate only to find a scruffy, middle-aged man—evidently inebriated to the point of oblivion—sloppily putting a sandwich together. The couple called the cops, who promptly arrived and tackled the intruder to the floor.
"It turned out to be a harmless situation," chuckles the resident. "He couldn't understand why he was being arrested. He thought he had made it home."
In 1995, a neighborhood organization representing the area, Kenwood-Isles Area Association (KIAA), used its Neighborhood Revitalization Plan funds to hire off-duty police officers to patrol the beach an extra two hours at night. Residents cited safety concerns in their push for the clampdown on booze, parties, and skinny-dipping.
Kenwood boasts the highest median income—$71,200—in all of Minneapolis, as evidenced by the soaring Mediterranean homes and terraced lawns that line Kenwood Parkway. Hidden Beach regulars, with a few exceptions, are a breed apart from the stuffy golf courses and swank sushi bars of the upper class.
"It's always been framed as Kenwood snobs vs. people with dreadlocks," says Chris Shaheen, a 45-year-old resident of seven years and former chairman of Kenwood-Isles Area Association. "We're very liberal people and we like the diversity of the beach. It's a classic example of 5 percent ruining it for the other 95 percent. It certainly felt like there was drug dealing going on, and there was crime spilling over into the neighborhood."
In August 2001, concerns escalated when a high-profile case shook the neighborhood to its core. Two men abducted two women in south Minneapolis, raping one before kicking her out of the car in Richfield. The duo drove the remaining captive to a spot near Hidden Beach. Once there, she escaped and ran toward the beach crowd, who called police. The rapists were arrested.
While Hidden Beach clearly wasn't the scene of the abduction, the citizens of Kenwood weren't exactly thrilled to read in the next morning's paper that rapists had driven a woman down their block with a shotgun to her head.
"I don't know if there was any one straw, or if it was just a series of events," says Alex Zachary, the city's Lakes District Planner. "Why wait for something bad to happen to clean up an area?"
Adds Paul Hokeness, the Lakes District manager: "We can tell who's hanging out. Needles and Ice House beer is a dead giveaway."
On a frigid, decidedly un-beachlike day in February 2006, recently elected District 4 Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom toured the beach with a handful of concerned residents. For the next three months, The Kenwood-Isles Area Association held multiple public meetings to brainstorm ideas on how to clean up Hidden Beach. Some residents wanted to make it an authorized beach in order ratchet up enforcement. Others disagreed, predicting that such a move might attract even more derelicts, and worse, create parking problems.
In the end, the board decided to make Hidden Beach a semi-authorized beach. The new designation took effect last summer. Lifeguards now patrol full-time, Friday through Sunday. The board poured in sand, in addition to buying a wooden lifeguard chair, three picnic tables on cement slabs, and a park bench.
But the biggest change has been the near constant police presence at the beach, much to the chagrin of beach regulars.
"It was never as crazy as they made it out to be," says Maija Varda, 22, who frequents the beach regularly and lives nearby. "People come down here to relax and take what we call a 'poor man's vacation.' There's people smoking and drinking and whatever, but there's no violence. No one feels unsafe."
The regulars didn't take the changes lying down. The first night the lifeguard chair went up, vandals tore it down and set it ablaze in the center of the beach. They proceeded to methodically remove a few planks from the charred stand and construct a makeshift "smoke shack," hidden amid the dozens of soaring reeds adjacent to the beach. It stood for nearly two months before authorities discovered it and tore it down.
Other acts of protest were more conspicuous. After the cement slabs were first laid, to be used as foundations for the picnic tables, regulars promptly spray-painted them with "Leave our beach alone!" in bold letters.
"I guess it was the counterculture protesting the Man," says Nordstrom. "I got a few complaints at first: anonymous emails and phone calls, saying we're trying to kick out the alternative element. But since we've implemented the changes, we've heard nothing but good things."
The park board transformed the modest dirt trail leading to the beach— not five feet wide—into a twelve-foot-wide gravel road, complete with "Emergency Vehicles Only" sign. It also authorized the removal of dozens of mid-sized trees and mounds of buckthorn. The official reason for clearing the buckthorn was that it's an invasive species detrimental to the plant life around it. But there's another motivation for the purging.
In a document penned by the Park and Recreation Board in 2002, a slew of "ecological restoration" goals and guidelines are set forth. Among them: "Identify[ing] restoration goals, if any, that pertain to social and cultural values." It goes on to note that "access into the area is difficult because of the condition of the main path, and surveillance and enforcement are difficult because of the heavy buckthorn undergrowth and a myriad of additional paths and trails there."
An official placard just outside the winding entrance now welcomes visitors to East Cedar Lake Beach.
• • • • •
"JOHNNY LOVE?" asks park agent Alex Johnson while taking a smoke break at Hidden Beach. "Oh, you won't be seeing him around. He's banned from here—lifetime ban. Too many tickets."
Welcome to the new Hidden Beach. The bums are blacklisted, replaced with men in uniform.
A ripple of apprehension flows through the crowd every time an officer pulls up. It's very subtle, but you can feel it. People are afraid to let their guards down. When the cops leave, it's as if a collective sigh is breathed, and people turn human again.
The beach still retains a friendly, artistic vibe. It's that rare urban meeting spot where strangers frequently engage one another in conversation. And now, more than ever, it's become a family-friendly destination.
"It's kind of like the '90s Uptown crowd all grown up," says Lakes District planner Zachery, himself just 32. "I live in the Camden neighborhood, and I'll see young families who live there at the beach."
The general consensus among Hidden Beach diehards is that, in the end, there's nothing outside forces can do to improve the beach that they can't do themselves. They consider it a self-regulating, self-policing mini-society with its own etiquette—bring a positive attitude and share your stash—and even its own bouncer (Tim, a heavily tattooed gent who sits in scary silence at the picnic table).
Mostly this is due to the sense of communal ownership shared among regulars. They keep the ground clear of shards of glass for the same reason one keeps the entryway to one's house clear of shards of glass.
There is no man or animal at Hidden Beach who embodies this ethos more precisely than Stephen Vausseur. Though nobody calls him that. Around here, he's known simply as Mud Man.
At first glance, Mud Man looks like a recently retired CPA visiting from Lakeville. The gray-haired Minneapolis resident is the self-appointed groundskeeper of the Mud Pit, which lies just north of the beach itself. On this particular day, he's wearing a long maroon T-shirt over short, teal swim shorts.
Mud Man doesn't so much talk as spout a chain of ideas in rapid succession with an excited, almost pissed-off zeal.
"Mud Pit's this way!" he says, as he walks floppy-armed across the beach. "In fact!" He pauses and turns. "We might have one or two! Down there already!"
A father and son are just leaving the pit. The kid, no older than six, is wearing clothes caked in mud. He looks up, raises his hands, and declares, "I'm a mud monster!"
The pit itself looks like a giant's spilled coffee. Twenty feet long and ten feet wide, at its deepest it reaches hip level. The "mud" is mostly clay; it feels slippery and cool. When the water level runs low, Mud Man and his volunteer henchmen fetch a bucketful from the lake. It's only seen two dry spells: once in 2000 and for a week or so last summer.
You can see how much Mud Man loves the place when he talks about his self-appointed job. His eyes light up and the torrent of phrases becomes even choppier.
"This is my 15th season!" he says. "My main duty! Is picking up bottles and rocks out of the pit! Especially on the busy days! That way, no one steps on them and gets hurt!"
Mud Man became Mud Man, he says, due to "a series of freak accidents!" that started in 1993 when floodwaters created the mud pit. The next summer people started flocking to the pit on savagely hot days to bask in the cool sludge.
"The rest! They say! Is history!"