University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Living with the Mississippi: A Landing and Launching Place for Recent Immigrants

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.

Riverbanks are often thought of as landing and launching places for boats; however, the river flats served in a similar capacity for some of the Twin Cities’ earliest immigrants. Though they would have arrived in Minnesota by train, the banks of the Mississippi River, located nearby, became a first home for many of these new arrivals, establishing reputations as immigrant communities. For some of these settlers, their time spent on the flats was a shameful period, thought of as a temporary stopping point. Many were only there to save money, either for a house or to enable their families to join them in the U.S., and looked forward to moving up and off of the flats.

William Hoffman, chronicler of West Side Flats memories, once wrote about this trend, making the distinction that while the river flats provided temporary homes, and often viewed by the surrounding city as a slum, it was still a home to those that lived there: “The West Side and all the other places like it were really stopping places [and] the old neighborhoods of immigrants here and all over- first and second generations- never constituted, either spiritually or culturally, a slum. They were often physically and materially poor but always rich in a wonderful culture and fine ethical values.”[i] When the Jewish community at the West Side Flats left, they would move up to the West Side Hills, or out to communities like Linden Hills and Highland Park. However, many of their institutions remained at the flats, tying them to the land even after they had left.[ii]

Not everyone shared Hoffman’s sentiment, however. Minneapolis resident Frank Braun, whose father had been born at the Bohemian Flats, mentioned that his family had been ashamed of living at the flats; his grandparents had lived for a few years until they could make enough money to leave, eventually moving to a farm in the German community of Maple Grove.[iii] Many residents at the Bohemian Flats would move up to the Cedar Riverside area, eager to get off the flats but unwilling to leave behind their community and churches. This is reflected in the dispersal maps of the Bohemian Flats, which depict a large migration up to the Cedar-Riverside community and a less cohesive scatter throughout the rest of Minneapolis toward different places of work and religious institutions.

“Joseph Yarusso family (left to right), Nicolina, John, Alvina, and Joseph.” Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1905. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Joseph Yarusso family (left to right), Nicolina, John, Alvina, and Joseph.” Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1905. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Similarly, at Swede Hollow, residents would stay in the community for only a few years, waiting to move up to Railroad Island. Gentille Yarusso, a former Swede Hollow resident, remembers how his family helped new Italian immigrants to find homes in St. Paul: “It was a period when thousands of Italian immigrants got off the train at the depot in St. Paul, Minnesota. They all had tags on their lapels, and on each tag was written Joseph Yarusso, No. 2 Swede Hollow, St. Paul, Minnesota… By pinching and scrimping, in a year or two, when they had saved enough money, they, too, would move to better living quarters—Up on the Street. This was Railroad Island, just left of the Hollow, and surrounded by railroad tracks. This move would be a sign of prosperity, of accomplishment.”[iv] As Yarusso notes, success for the residents of Swede Hollow was the ability to purchase a house “up on the street.” For those at the West Side Flats, it was the move “up the hill.” The ability to move up, both literally and figuratively, meant the beginning of a new life for the residents of the river flats communities.


[i] Hoffman, William. Tales of Hoffman. Minneapolis, MN: T.S. Denison, 1961.
[ii] Pierce, Lorraine E. St. Paul’s Lower West Side. Thesis (M.A): University of Minnesota, 1971.
[iii] Frank Braun, in a personal conversation dated April 29, 2014.
[iv] Yarusso “Up on the Street” 1968

Rivers May Need Universities; Universities Probably Need Rivers

The title here may or may not be puzzling, but hear me out.  Last week, we held our “Once and Future River” symposium about the Mississippi River, the stories we tell about it, and how climate change may/will/is affect both the river and the stories.

We had a great symposium, with lots of participation, thought-provoking questions, good food, and gallons of coffee.  In fact, things went so well with our discussion sessions that I did not have to give a wrap up talk to close the show, just said “Thanks and see you next time.”

But I hate to see all the thinking that went into the closing I had prepared go to waste, so here’s a short post on rivers and universities.

Rivers may “need” universities, because universities are full of researchers who can examine the river through scientific means and offer policy, design and planning recommendations to enhance their health.  The Dakota partners at our event, who reminded us that the river is a major part of that group of entities “all our relatives,” also put us in mind of the fact that universities are places where new ways of understanding and expressing those relations can come about.

But rivers don’t need universities.  Our campus has been on the banks of the Mississippi for roughly 160 years.  We’ll probably make it another 160 years, but the river is a good bet to be here ten times that duration, 1600 years, or until roughly the year 3615. The Mississippi River will probably be here in 3615; the University of Minnesota, probably not.

The University of Minnesota, like many academic institutions, is turning its considerable assets and attention to addressing “grand challenges,” problems defined by the community in which we find ourselves. The Mississippi River, one of the great rivers of the world, offers many potential “grand challenges” for our attention. It’s a bonus, of course, that so many people can and are already working on issues associated with the river.

Big questions–broader impacts–durable benefits: all offered by the Mississippi River and people working with it, and all ready for university participation.

Yep, we need the Mississippi River.

“Find Your Park” a Potential Game-Changer for NPS Second Century

The National Park Service will mark the centennial of its founding next year, in 1916.  Pundits and scholars (and some pundit-scholars!) will extol what has remained constant over the century and what has changed.  There is a Director’s “Call to Action” that urges the component units of the National Park system, essentially, to join the 21st century.  That’s a complicated task for people whose job is largely seen as conserving natural and cultural heritage.

The most public part of the centennial celebration is the national Find Your Park program.  Like all big deals these days, this is glitzy and has prominent corporate sponsors and an extensive social media campaign.  The campaign rolled out last week; one representative story is here.

Here at home, our friends and partners at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area are going to be doing a lot with the national campaign.  You’ll be hearing more from us, of course, as well.  For now though, I just want to offer a couple of points:

  • the campaign offers the folks here a tremendous opportunity to focus on greater inclusion in this urban river park.  “Find YOUR Park” efforts targeted at American Indians, Africans and African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, all have the potential to have park users more clearly resemble the urban community around the river.
  • For everyone, there is the opportunity to find your particular special place within this 72 mile long park.  Maybe the monumental history and roaring waters of St. Anthony Falls don’t really do it for you.  Perhaps “park” for you means some place like the Bdote confluence, where you can get lost in a floodplain forest.  The Mississippi offers both types of experience, plus many more!

Find Your Park. When the celebration ends in 2017, millions more will have, and the new users will, we hope, change the world of the NPS.

Living with the Mississippi: The Connemara Patch

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 Connemara Patch, also known as South Phalen Creek, was a community located adjacent to Swede Hollow until 1908, when it was dispersed by railroad construction.[i] Though there were a number of ethnic groups represented at this small and short-lived settlement, many of the residents were from Ireland or the United Kingdom. The name of the community has origins in the Connemara region of Ireland, which saw a terrible famine in the late 19th century. Catholic Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul, hoping to alleviate some of the poverty, brought a group of Connemara settlers to Graceville, Minnesota in 1880.[ii] This project failed for a number of reasons, explained in an article by Father John Shannon for Minnesota History Magazine.

“Happy Hollow, Connemara Patch.” Painting by Wilbur Hausener, 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Happy Hollow, Connemara Patch.” Painting by Wilbur Hausener, 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Minneapolis Tribune Headline on Front Page, January 1, 1981, about the Connemara colony at Graceville.

Minneapolis Tribune Headline on Front Page, January 1, 1981, about the Connemara colony at Graceville.

After barely surviving the harsh winter of 1880-1881, many of the settlers left their farms to take industrial jobs in the Twin Cities, establishing a settlement in the Connemara Patch. Poverty seems to have followed the Connemara settlers there, as the area along Phalen Creek was considered to have some of the worst housing conditions in St. Paul.[iii] Articles 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 live in,” and that at the Connemara Patch “filth reigns supreme.”[iv]

Two other river flats communities, the West Side Flats in St. Paul and the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis, were both referred to as the Connemara Patch at times as well.[v] Though there was a large Irish population at the West Side Flats into the 1900s, as well as a much smaller Irish presence at the Bohemian Flats, it is unclear whether these settlers were actually a part of the Connemara clan or if this was a name used to designate any poor, Irish enclave. In her book, Forgetting Ireland, Bridget Connolly discusses how “Conamara” became a slang term in Graceville to describe “a lazy, drunken, no-good son of a bitch, too dumb to farm, a welfare bum.”[vi] It wasn’t until she visited the Connemara region that she connected the term to the place, understanding it had been used to describe a group of people by ethnicity, not character. It seems possible that this phenomenon may have occurred in the Twin Cities as well.

Though the Connemara Patch’s history is short and is often lumped with the story of Swede Hollow, it has continued to captivate local historians and audiences. In 2011, SteppingStone Theatre produced “Get Up Your Irish” by Natalie O’Shea of The Celtic Junction, an Irish heritage organization which has hosted tours of the Connemara Patch. [vii] This play explored the tensions between the new Irish immigrants at the Connemara Patch and the more established Irish community in the city of St. Paul. [viii] The story of the original Connemara settlers continues to be told through publications like Grace Connolly’s book, mentioned above, and Seosamh Ó Cuaig’s documentary “Graceville: The Connemaras in Minnesota,”[ix] both of which offer a look into an event considered by many to be Bishop John Ireland’s greatest mistake. The history of the Connemara Patch, though short and troubled, is definitely a unique story, and will likely continue to serve as an example of the complications in immigration and assimilation.

Further Reading:


[i] Trimble, Steve. “St. Paul’s Most Unique Settlement.” St. Paul Historical.
[ii] Shannon, James P. “Bishop Ireland’s Connemara Experiment.” Minnesota History (March 1957) 205-213.
[iii] Aronovici, Carol. Housing Conditions in the City of Saint Paul. Saint Paul, MN: The Wilder Foundation, 1917.
[iv] “In Homes of Want.” St. Paul Globe 2 December 1887.” and “Sad Case of Destitution.” St. Paul Globe 15 January 1900.
[v] “Sensational Story Growing out of a West Side Fracas over Fuel.” St. Paul Globe. 12 May 1890. and “Two Men Badly Slashed: Fourteen Kegs of Beer Cause a Serious Cutting Affray and a Wedding Down on the Flats.” Minneapolis Tribune 20 May 1891.
[vi] Connelly, Bridget. Forgetting Ireland. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003, page 12.
[vii] “Tour! Connemara Patch Irish, October 1.” The Celtic Junction, 2011.
[viii] Pleasants, Deb. “At SteppingStone Theatre, “Get Up Your Irish” tells the story of Irish immigration to Minnesota.” Twin Cities Daily Planet, March 10, 2011.
[ix] This video, produced in Galway in 1996, can be difficult to find in the U.S. However, the Minnesota Historical Society has a copy in their archives.

Sad Story Reminds Us that the River is a Hazard as well as Asset

At the University of Minnesota, we have been saddened this week by the story that University senior student Jennifer Houle went into the river near campus late Thursday night/Friday morning.  The surveillance camera on the bridge did not give a clear indication whether she jumped or fell; she was reported to be alone at the time.  A recovery effort is under way.  Our usual practice is to offer links in a blog post; those links are everywhere.  Readers wanting to know more of this painful story can do their own search.

We spend a lot of time celebrating the Mississippi, spreading the word about what a multidimensional asset the river is to our city, campus, neighborhoods, and the world.  But the river is also a tragic place, both historically and continuing, literally, to this day.

It is important to recognize the tragedy of the river’s history and the long trajectory we have marked by trauma both for the river itself and by many who come into unfortunate contact with it.  But the river also heals, and heals us.  As the process of reciprocal healing takes place–we heal the river and in turn it heals us–we move forward.

Changing River + Changing Communities: Need for New Narratives

Towboat at SunsetWhen we put a public program together, we have a clear, but complex, goal:  we want the audience to walk away saying “That’s a really interesting idea.  I’ll have to think about that some more.”  Maybe it’s the teacher in us, or the fact that unlike our community partners our mandate is not to manage river resources or programs.  Instead our mandate is to encourage new ideas that help our partners do their jobs.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because we are two weeks away from the symposium “The Once and Future River,” where some two dozen speakers will incite new thinking on a range of topics related to the Mississippi River.  We’ll ask questions such as:  What do we mean when we talk about the “Mississippi River”? How do we express new ideas?  What do we mean by “resilience” as that term might be applied to the river and its communities?

Hard questions, requiring more thought than we are perhaps used to.  But then, as I said, that’s our job.  For example, we held a program last spring “The Irony of Carp” that really exemplifies what we’re about.

Invasive carp are a threat to current conditions on the Upper Mississippi, of that there is no doubt.  We are glad that many organizations and coalitions are working to stop the spread of these pests.  But what, ultimately, do we mean by “invasive,” and exactly how did these fish get here in the first place?  If we are stopping them to protect a “natural” ecological system, well, how “natural” is that system really?

Last spring’s program ranged across a number of fundamental questions about invasive carp and our responses to them.  Among the insights:

  • We are spending millions of dollars to keep these species out of the Great Lakes because we are afraid they will harm species of “game fish,” which themselves are introduced species.
  • In social media such as You Tube, the language that is used to describe the “stop carp” efforts sounds an awful lot like the xenophobic language people use who are worried about “illegal immigrants.”
  • In another century, which is the blink of an eye from the perspective of the indigenous people here (and who have their own ideas about the ironies of whites getting alarmed about “invasive species,”) the currently invasive carp may well be seen as “native” to the ecosystem.

Watch the videos at the link above; they are sure to inform and to provoke thought.  And be sure to register for the symposium in two weeks: it also is sure to both inform and to provoke thought.

After all, are any of us comfortable saying that we know enough?

Living with the Mississippi: Who owns 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 status of the Mississippi Riverfront has constantly changed over time. Though today, the riverfront contains some of the area’s most upscale housing, during the early 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 Side Flats, Swede Hollow, and the Upper Levee as some of the worst housing conditions in St. Paul and makes a few recommendations for their use, were the housing to be demolished and the residents relocated: “Phalen Creek and the banks of this stream are ideal for park purposes, while in their present state they constitute a menace to the health of the residents and to the community at large.” “The ‘Flats’ if properly treated would afford a splendid opportunity for the development of an industrial zone accessible to rail and river transportation instead of being what they are today, a slum of the worst character.”[i]

Barge at Municipal River Terminal, Minneapolis. Taken by Norton & Peel in 1958. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Barge at Municipal River Terminal, Minneapolis. Taken by Norton & Peel in 1958. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Though it took a few decades, Aronovici’s visions eventually came true. Swede Hollow became a public park in the 1970s, while the West Side Flats and the Upper Levee were used for industrial purposes beginning in the 1960s. The latter two communities, victims of intense flooding, poor housing conditions, and the city’s growing interest in urban planning, were dispersed throughout St. Paul. Today, however, the industry at the riverfront has shrunk; the Upper Levee is home to the “Riverview at Upper Landing” apartment complex, while plans to give the West Side Flats a residential facelift are underway. When the residents of the West Side Flats (link West Side Flats post here) were removed in 1962 by the St. Paul Port Authority and the Housing and Relocation Authority, the community, informed that they would have public housing options, assumed the public housing would be built on the flats, allowing the settlement to remain intact. To their dismay, public housing was never constructed on the Lower West Side, though there was plenty of room to do so.[ii]

“View of Mississippi River showing coal barges at Municipal River Terminal, Minneapolis.” Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1940. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“View of Mississippi River showing coal barges at Municipal River Terminal, Minneapolis.” Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1940. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Now, after over 50 years, housing will be built on the West Side Flats, with the quality of living improved immensely through plans for parks, a raised floodplain, and new facilities. Because the industrial riverfront is no longer lucrative, a residential riverfront will take its place. It begs the question, who owns the river? How will the river continue to be repurposed over time to take advantage of the changing economy? The residents at the Bohemian Flats, in Minneapolis, believed they owned their land; though they did not hold the lease to the land, they maintained that it was wrong to charge rent for land on a river flat because it was claimed by the rising water each year.[iii] They were evicted to make room for a Municipal Barge Terminal which would allow for river trade routes. How long will the apartment complexes at the Upper Levee and the West Side Flats remain in place before another use takes precedence?

Riverview at Upper Landing Apartments. Courtesy of their website,

Riverview at Upper Landing Apartments. Courtesy of their website,

 Further Reading:


[i] Aronovici, Carol. Housing Conditions in the City of St. Paul: Report Presented to the Housing Commission of the St. Paul Association. Amherst H. Wilder Charity, 1917.
[ii] Old West Side Improvement Association Files, 1960-1961. Neighborhood House Association Records. Minnesota Historical Society.
[iii] “River Flat Squatters Lose Battle to Keep Rent Free Homes.” Minneapolis Journal 14 November 1923.

“Where is Nature Now?” a Provocative Question for Upcoming Minnesota Symposium

Our spring season of innovative, thought-provoking programming continues April 17-18 with a symposium “Nature 3.x: Where is Nature Now?”  The program will be on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; further details, symposium participants, and registration are here.

The question “where is nature now” has many potential answers.  Some might say “in parks and protected areas,” while others, more attuned to innovations in conservation biology and urban ecology, might say “everywhere.”  The symposium will explore some possible responses to the latter claim.  If “nature” is “everywhere,” even in our most damaged lands and toxic waters, how does that change our sense of the meaning of “nature”?  What, then, do we do as planners and designers committed to bringing the values of “nature” to city dwellers, for example.

Take a look at the program–the speakers are innovative thinkers and practitioners who are known throughout the world.  Some of them have undertaken potentially transformative projects here in this region.  Attending this program will be time well spent, if you are invested in the future of our systems here.

Minnesota Has a Water Problem

Actually, we have (at least) two, both of which have been receiving a lot of media attention lately.  Not surprisingly, both are to one degree or another being framed as questions about how much regulation is “too much,” or, to put it another way, where the line between “public” and “private” spheres lies.

The first case is one where the MN legislature is trying to exert greater influence over how environmental regulations, particularly water rules, are administered.  As this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a number of specific players are interested in less-burdensome clean water restrictions.  I’m sorry, but I have to wonder when was the last time someone complained about water being “too clean.”

The other case being discussed now is perhaps more interesting.  Agriculture has long been a “third rail” in Minnesota politics, shunned by politicians on the left and right who don’t want to be accused of getting in the way of the “family farmer” who “feeds the world” (but whose corn crop more likely feeds cattle, ethanol plants, or high fructose corn syrup).  It seems that most farmers in the state are not providing the 50 foot buffer between crop land and waterways that state law requires.  Last week, the governor officially called for standardizing Minnesota’s buffer strip rules as a means of protecting water quality across the state.

The pushback was, of course, swift and strong.  The proposal has been described as “aggressive” by agricultural commodity groups, whereas sportsmen have joined with clean water advocates in support of the plan.  It turns out that buffer strips often make up ideal habitat for an array of bird and animal species.

The legislature is just now getting down to serious business, so there’s no telling where this question will end up.  But one overlooked silver lining to the political disputes is that Minnesotans are talking, and talking seriously, about water.  For too long, we have thought we had enough water that was clean enough to do whatever we wanted, when, and wherever we want to.  After all, we’re not California, right?

Water problems come in many shapes and sizes, as we know.  Left untended, they become water crises.  News articles about water disputes are having an impact in terms of raising “water literacy” levels for all; just witness this really informative Q&A about agriculture and buffer strips, and the diagram of how buffer strips work.

Those two should be required reading at high schools and colleges across the state.  As Governor Dayton said several weeks ago “The land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us.”


Panel to Explore Connections between Mississippi River, African-American History and Culture

Several months ago, I wrote about the growing awareness that much of contemporary environmental advocacy does not address issues important to African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups that fall outside the movement’s historical center in the white middle and upper classes. My earlier post suggested some Twitter and blog accounts to follow, and left room for additional reading and analysis on this issue.

I’m pleased to report that the University of Minnesota is beginning to address this gap, starting with a panel discussion “Backwater Blues: Environmental Disaster and African American Experiences.” The discussion will be held on March 31, at 4:00.  The location is Room 1210 Heller Hall, on the University’s West Bank campus.

The origination point for the discussion is a book by University of Houston professor Richard Mizelle that examines the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and its impacts on African-American culture.  Tens of thousands, if not more, people were displaced, some never to return to their homes.  The exodus north contributed to the spread of musical genres such as jazz and blues outside their “cultural hearth” in the lower Delta.  The flood and its aftermath shed a distinctive look into broader patterns and institutions of African American life in the early 20th century.

An interdisciplinary panel of scholars from the University of Minnesota will explore the book and its findings, as well as broader questions about the importance of environmental issues broadly construed in understanding the histories of African Americans.  It should be a lively, important discussion–save the date, get off work early, and join in!

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change
For more information about our John E. Sawyer Seminar Spring Symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” which took place at Northrop on April 8-10, 2015, please visit the symposium web page.