“No Place Like Home”: Remembering the Bohemian Flats
The Bohemian Flats, Little Bohemia, Little Venice, The Cabbage Patch, The Connemara Patch, The Danish Flats, the West Side Flats, Slovakland
These names and more were assigned to the Mississippi River flats beneath the Washington Avenue Bridge. Providing a home for Minnesota’s newest immigrants from the 1870s until 1931, the community’s numerous names reflect its varied past.
Many people remember the Bohemian Flats as a safe haven and a home, while some valued it for its romantic, Old Country feel, a picturesque area of an industrial city. Others felt the community was an eyesore, a slum best avoided.
Read the narratives in this timeline to learn about the ways the Bohemian Flats has been viewed, both in the past and the present.
- Whose perspectives are told?
- Which stories are remembered and which are forgotten?
Brewery jobs brought the first German settlers to the flats, with the construction of the Kraenzlein Brewery (later Heinrich) in 1866, and the Zahler Brewery (later Noerenberg) in 1874. The breweries and their workers moved off the flats when they merged with two other breweries to form the Minneapolis Brewing Company in 1893. The Grain Belt Brewery was built several miles upstream and the breweries above the flats were demolished.
“The smell though was extremely picturesque. It had frills and fancy trimmings all over it. The outer zone was gently suggestive of eggs which had become passe. Then there was wafted in an odor reminding one of a Bridge square restaurant; this was soon reinforced by foul exhalations from decaying fruit and vegetables, and the center of the atmospheric pollution was a combination of all these smells and every other that could offend the olefactory [sic] sense.” -”Life at the Dump,” Minneapolis Tribune, April 26, 1892.
“There is more real family life in these homes than in many more pretentious ones; the older children are interested in the education of the younger ones, and there is the greatest affection and forbearance.” –”One View of Life,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 21, 1897.
“The Slovaks are the finest Slavs that come to our shores…They are industrious and alert, loyal and grateful to those who help them; and the confidence they have in this land of their adoption is as deep and touching as it is sometimes misplaced.” –”Our New Americans,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 3, 1916.
“Here seventy-eight steps separate the dwellers from the bustle and noise of the main thoroughfare, and allow them to remain in an atmosphere of peace, and to some degree, quiet. It is like a quaint little village nestled under the side of a cliff.” –Josephine McPike, 1917 Seven Corners Library Report.
“There is much poverty and suffering in these “Lower Flats.” Most of the homes so squalid that the word home used in their connection is a bitter irony, [they] are [instead] wretchedly built shanties. They are damp, ill-lighted, and scarcely any protection from the cold.”
–Josephine McPike, 1917 Seven Corners Library Report.
“Flat dwellers below the Washington avenue bridge were forced to desert their homes and take to boats for travel in their “riverside village” when the Mississippi waters yesterday reached their annual highest point.” –”Venice Again Appears on Flats Under Washington Avenue Bridge,” Minneapolis Tribune, April 12, 1922.
“There humble people living in humble homes seemed to have created a little world of their own, quite detached from the city’s general atmosphere. There a police officer was seldom summoned. There old-fashioned church bells called the people to worship in tiny churches. There were picket fences with little gates giving into tiny yards, flower boxes in windows.” –”The Passing of Bohemian Flats,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 31, 1931.
Many artists found inspiration at the Bohemian Flats; University of Minnesota students used to visit the community during art classes. Artist Dewey Albinson called the flats the only bit of atmosphere in the Twin Cities. Much of the artwork was created after the demolition of the neighborhood in 1931. What implications does this have for our memory of life at the flats?
“The Upper Flats has been over-run by the gargantual toadstool tanks of the Great Northern Oil Company, the Lower Flats consist of coalyards and the Municipal Barge Terminal. The Flats, once so live and vibrant, now resounds to the clanking of barges and the wheeze of cranes in an area that looks and smells like something out of Newark.” –Twin Citian Magazine, 1968.
“Lind smiles when she remembers how the original text of her show said something about the women pounding their week’s washing white in the Mississippi. ‘They straightened me out on that. When they were kids, the river was filthy, full of tar and old.’ ‘Yes,’ says John Stanko, ‘And raw sewage.’” –Minneapolis Star and Tribune, April 14, 1984, Article on Donna Lind’s presentation about the flats at the Hennepin History Museum.
Today, the Bohemian Flats is a public park. “The view is so impressive that I doubt many people stop to look down at a fairly non-descript strip of land on the waters edge of the West Bank. That land was once known as Bohemian Flats and its’ where immigrants like my great grandfather came from what is now the Czech Republic.”
–Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in his 2007 State of the City Address.
A scene from Liz Neerland’s 2013 play Bohemian Flats, inspired by her family’s immigrant past. The story of the Bohemian Flats community continues to be told; in 2014, University of Minnesota Press published The Bohemian Flats, a novel by Mary Relindes Ellis. Why do audiences continue to find this history so captivating?
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