See entire Minneapolis Tribune article.
Five river flats communities once dotted the banks of the Mississippi between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Flooded each spring and crowded with dilapidated housing, these areas provided homes to some of Minnesota’s most recent immigrants who often only stayed until they could afford better housing.
East Side Flats
In Minneapolis, there were two small communities on the east side of the river. The southern end was home to mainly Irish and Scandinavian families, evicted by 1903 to make way for a public park, while the northern end was mostly occupied by Scandinavian immigrants. This small community went mostly unnoticed by the rest of the city and was home to the same handful of families for decades. Today, the I-35W Bridge sits over the northern cluster, while the southern end is a grassy park.
Memorialized in a 1941 Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration, the Bohemian Flats was one of the most famous river flats communities. It saw waves of Scandinavian, German, Czech, Irish, and Slovak settlers, the latter being the most dominant ethnic group for over thirty years. The majority of the community was evicted in 1931 when the land became a municipal barge terminal and coal dock. Today, it serves as a park and provides a docking point for riverboat tours.
Once referred to as “The Bohemian Flats,” the Upper Levee became St. Paul’s Little Italy after the first wave of Czech and Slovak immigrants were evicted from the levee in the late 1800s. The Italian residents withstood the poor living conditions at the levee for years until they were finally forced out by floods in 1959. Today, the land has been raised, allowing the construction of a new apartment complex there. A model of the neighborhood serves as a reminder of the past at Cossetta’s on West 7th Street.
West Side Flats
The Lower West Side has been referred to as the Ellis Island of St. Paul, a stopping point for many new immigrants to the city. Originally inhabited by the Mdewakanton Dakota, French Canadian, Irish, and German settlers joined in 1851. In 1882 a train arrived in St. Paul carrying over two hundred Russian Jewish refugees fleeing the persecution of Czar Alexander III. Eastern European Jews continued to arrive, taking ownership of the West Side Flats. Later, they would be joined by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. Beginning in the 1930s, the early immigrant groups were replaced by Latino immigrants, mainly migrant workers from Mexico. The community was demolished in the 1960s to make way for an industrial park, though not without a fight from the many groups who called the flats home.
Named for its original Scandinavian inhabitants, Swede Hollow was also home to later waves of Italian and Latino immigrants until it was burned down by the St. Paul Health Department in 1956 due to sanitation issues. The southern end, referred to as the Connemara Patch, provided a home for Irish immigrants brought to rural Minnesota by Catholic Archbishop John Ireland in a failed attempt to relieve suffering in the Connemara region. Unable to adjust to farm life, many took factory jobs in the city instead. Today, Swede Hollow is a celebrated public park maintained by the community group Friends of Swede Hollow.
See the Exhibit Pages of Each Panel
- “No Place Like Home”: Remembering the Bohemian Flats
- Navigating Changing Identity in a New Country
- “A Squatter’s Domain”: Life on the Banks of the Mississippi
- “High Waters on River Flats”: Living on the Mississippi River
- “The Laborer’s Lot”: Poverty, Employment, and Social Programs
- “Adieu, River Flats”: The Eviction and Legacy of the Bohemian Flats