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Change Is a Constant on the Mississippi River: Here’s One Example

February 13, 2014Patrick NunnallyRivers1

It’s a pretty short, but densely packed, article, a few hundred words noting a relatively minor action by City Council Committees in Minneapolis.  With the recent passage of a city budget item, 2014 will officially be the last year the City’s Upper Harbor Terminal will be open.

The Terminal has fallen on hard times lately, with business down by about half over the past five years or so.  The 48 acre site only supports 11 jobs at the moment, less than what the City asks from new businesses looking for City assistance to get started.  What happened?  Lots of things, really: coal plants switch to burning natural gas; we put less salt on roads in winter; shipping by river overall is down.

The article contains good information on how the Terminal got built in the first place, out of a competition between Minneapolis and St. Paul over most of the 20th century concerning which would be the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.  Clearly, St. Paul won that title, but navigation as a whole is in a long period of decline, so the prize doesn’t glimmer as brightly as it did 50 or 75 years ago.

What will come next?  Hard to say.  There are plans that call for the site to remain a shipping transfer point, but one more suited to a 21st century “green economy.”  Other plans, of course, all for mixed use housing and commercial developments, linked by trails to other parts of the city and riverfront.  Looming over all is the question of how much longer the locks at St. Anthony Falls, a couple of miles downstream, will remain open.  The site may not end up being a distinctively “river oriented” place at all, despite its location.

It seems, though, that we aren’t talking about some things that are badly needed.  The site lies across the freeway from Minneapolis’ North Side, where jobs and job training opportunities are hard to come by.  Moreover, the transfer of the Terminal to some other use marks a significant point in the long “retreat of the industrial glacier” that is giving us new land uses, new audiences and connections, a new riverfront.  It remains to be seen whether the new riverfront is accessible fully, whether the river will be an asset that is shared equitably with citizens from across the city.  Past developments, which concentrate on market rate (read: very expensive) housing are not promising in this regard.

In 2007 the National Park Service published a series of reflections on parks and “civic engagement,” that is, places where parks can become spaces to learn our country’s past.  Of course many parks already do this, in very clearly defined ways.  There is one line in the report, though, that has stuck with me: “Parks should be safe places to tell unsafe stories.”  By “unsafe,” I take the author to mean stories that haven’t ended happily ever after for everyone, stories that illustrate ways of thinking and decision-making, community priorities, that are now recognized as out of date and no longer our core values as a community.  I would even go so far as to argue that until parks (the National Park Service unit on the Mississippi, in this case) do this, they will not be fulfilling their truest potential as valued spaces in our communities.

Rivers can be about more than short term gain; they can and should be places that show us who we are.  Read through the “Common Ground” report here and let me know of other opportunities for the riverfront to be a place of civic engagement.


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One Comment

  1. Greg GenzFebruary 13, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    It was a nice factual article. It truly boils down to the City of Mpls doing what it thinks is good for Mpls. The value, that the Mpls. Terminal offers to the Upper Midwest and its’ citizens, loses to Mpls’ perceived needs. Our world today is dominated by that type of thinking. Past people of vision and those visions of addressing the greater good, seem to have fallen prey to -” I am going to take care of me.” The people of vision, who helped build these public pieces of our lives, never thought that there wouldn’t be like-minded people following them. That is our fault, we who were entrusted with these wonderful examples of cooperation and public enlightenment, by not realizing the value and promoting it. We may have gotten too big and busy to understand their importance and legacy. If you look to Winona and Red Wing, you can still see that sense of civic pride and the resulting public investment in their Ports. Duluth has found a happy medium for their Port. They are taking underutilized shipping facilities and combining a revitalization of those facilities along with incorporation of public use spaces. Co-existence is possible, it seems, just not in Mpls. When I visited Rotterdam, one of the world’s busiest seaports, I saw picnickers using green space right in the middle of ugly container yards. The River Industry will still be viable in our area, just not in Mpls. Just like the last campaign to rid the River of part of its culture and history, by government agencies, the elimination of shanty boats, this will only diminish the fabric of life on the River for Mpls.
    With that, we welcome you to visit the rest of the River, that still values the whole River Experience.

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