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RIVER LIFE

Living with the Mississippi: Health and Housing on the River

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

In my post on Dr. Kilvington’s dumping ground I discussed the health risks specific to the Bohemian Flats, though most of the river flats communities faced similar challenges with health and poverty. Some of these risks were direct effects of the proximity to the river, while others stemmed from the basic nature of low-income neighborhoods. In 1917, Carol Aronovici, Director of Social Service for the Wilder Foundation, wrote a report about the housing conditions in St. Paul. This study, which focused on slum housing, consistently ranked Swede Hollow, the Upper Levee, and the West Side Flats as having some of the worst conditions in the entire city.

“Flooding in Bohemian Flats.” Taken by Karen Bayliss in June, 1929. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. (Note the trash lining the banks of the river.)

“Flooding in Bohemian Flats.” Taken by Karen Bayliss in June, 1929. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. (Note the trash lining the banks of the river.)

The districts were rated and compared for a number of attributes, including access to city water, sewers, and bathing facilities, presence of ash cans or garbage cans, degree of crowding, amount of light and ventilation, and extent of rubbish on lawn. The flats communities consistently ranked below average on these conditions, particularly the Upper Levee, which completely lacked bathing facilities, access to city water or a sewer, garbage cans, or ash cans.[i] Pictures of the West Side Flats and Swede Hollow appeared in the report; the former was called out for the dilapidated boarding houses lining State, Robertson, and Wabasha Streets, while Swede Hollow was noted for its sanitation issues, as the residents had constructed their outhouses above Phalen Creek to use the stream as their sewer.[ii]

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Taken by Albert Charles Munson in 1910. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Note the outhouses over the creek on the right side of the photo.)

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Taken by Albert Charles Munson in 1910. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Note the outhouses over the creek on the right side of the photo.)

Though the city of Minneapolis did not conduct an extensive survey like St. Paul, the Bohemian Flats was discussed in a 1915 examination of housing in Minneapolis. This report noted the limited supply of water at the flats, specifically citing a pump at the Bohemian Flats continued to provide water to much of the community though it had been condemned two years earlier.[iii] Contaminated water would have likely been a problem at many of the flats communities, as most of the residents received their water from pumps and springs. Spring floods would not only fill the homes with unsanitary silt and water, but also could have flooded these water sources, contaminating their water supply as well.

“Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The lack of clean water, sewer systems, and garbage facilities, as well as the overcrowding of homes, provided the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases, resulting in a number of outbreaks in these communities. The health and housing conditions at the river flats settlements provide a departure from the more common, nostalgic narratives, providing insight into the physical problems these immigrant communities were facing.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] Ibid.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

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2 Comments

  1. Living with the Mississippi: Who owns the river? | River LifeMarch 24, 2015 at 10:10 am

    […] 1900s, these areas were undesirable, home to some of the poorest communities in the Twin Cities. A 1917 report by Dr. Carol Aronovici, Director of Social Service for the Wilder Foundation describes the West […]

  2. Living with the Mississippi: The Connemara Patch | River LifeApril 7, 2015 at 11:48 am

    […] in the St. Paul Globe with titles like “Sad Case of Destitution” and “In Homes of Want” describe the miserable conditions of the community, the latter noting that the “little hovel” was “small, contacted and unfit for any human to […]

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