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RIVER LIFE

River Sites as Sites of Conscience: the Past Strengthens the Future

At this point in history, the early 21st century, most folks generally understand that our history hasn’t always been a uniform, steady story of progress whereby enlightened and sensitive people make unerring choices as society moves toward an ever-brighter future for everyone. (In case you think I’m being my usual semi-snarky self, let me just say that this was the dominant narrative in K-12 history classes for a very long time.)

We know, of course, that history is fraught with stories of mistakes, violence, well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) efforts that reaped unintended consequences.  Telling those stories in public places, whether through memorials, or through interpretive programs at historic sites, parks, and open spaces, is part of how our rich and complex legacy is conveyed to people today.

Shockoe Bottom is a site in the City of Richmond VA that is deeply associated with slave trading in the city’s past.  Currently, the city and others plan to redevelop the site, further erasing the opportunity to convey this painful part of the city’s past.  A coalition of local and national advocates is rallying for a different future, one that incorporates the site’s past into its present, and retains the site’s capacity to act as a “site of conscience.”

What has this got to do with our work, you may ask?  Rivers were historically the key routes of transportation, commerce, and exchange between communities, regions, and nations.  River sites such as Fort Snelling and the sites of many indigenous settlements, now all but erased in the dominant society’s memory are strong candidates to become “safe places to tell challenging stories” as a recent National Park Service report said.

A richer, more nuanced understanding of our river’s past is necessary for us to engage a broader and deeper set of possibilities for its future.

Living with the Mississippi: Swede Hollow

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.

Though Swede Hollow is named for its Scandinavian residents, it was home to settlers from a number of countries. Swedish and Norwegian immigrants were the first to the area, but the successive Italian population inhabited the land just as long, the neighborhood sometimes referred to as “Little Italy.”[i] Despite the sustained Italian presence for almost thirty years, Swede Hollow only served as a stopping point for these recent immigrants. It was extremely rare that a family would live at Swede Hollow for more than a decade, usually moving to a nicer neighborhood once financially possible. Many moved into nearby Railroad Island, where institutions such as Yarusso Brothers Italian Restaurant, founded by former Swede Hollow residents and decorated with photos and artwork commemorating the community, continue to survive today.[ii]

“Swede Hollow.” Print by Jacob Theodore Sohner, 1928. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Swede Hollow.” Print by Jacob Theodore Sohner, 1928. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Residents were eager to leave Swede Hollow due to the poor quality of life; Phalen Creek, which ran through the middle of the community, was extremely polluted, causing rampant disease. The houses were shacks, lacking running water and electricity,[iii] and the railroad ran above the ravine, rocking the homes and even causing avalanches at times.[iv] In 1956, when the population of the settlement was largely Hispanic, the city of St. Paul condemned the entire community for public health risks.[v] The residents had long been using Phalen Creek as their sewer by constructing outhouses on stilts above the water[vi], a practice that was very unsanitary, especially during spring floods. The homes were burned down, the community dispersed, and the land later converted to a public park in the 1970s.[vii]

“Burning of Swede Hollow.” St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, 12/11/56. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Burning of Swede Hollow.” St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, 12/11/56. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“When it comes to helping they come through…It was a community like a community should be.” – Michelina Frascone, former Railroad Island resident, on Swede Hollow in her 2001 Oral History (page 11) Though the living conditions at Swede Hollow were hazardous and the homes little more than shanties, the community is only remembered fondly by its former residents. Many lived there as children and remember the years they spent there through rose-colored glasses, making Swede Hollow one of St. Paul’s most celebrated stories. Gentille Yarusso remembers the idyll of the community in his memoirs: “Each home had then a little garden; a little shed attached to the home had an outside oven in which to bake bread. Some houses had a water hand-pump close to the kitchen sink… Each home had its own outside “bifee” on stilts overhanging the little creek that flowed through the hollow, and had its own plank bridge for crossing the creek. All the houses had little rustic fences around them, covered usually with grapevines that failed to grow. Grapes needed plenty of sun, and the Hollow was heavily forested with trees and other vegetation.”[viii] He goes on to add that though the community may not have been the nicest place to live, most were not “ashamed to say or let it be known that his or her folks came from the Hollow or Railroad Island.”[ix]

“I was too young to think of it as poor. It was the only home I had known.” –Morrey on his childhood in Swede Hollow, in I Drank Life to the Foam. (page 5)As former resident Joseph Morrey states in his memoir, “Swede Hollow occupies a nook in St. Paul lore.”[x] Swede Hollow has been memorialized in paintings and photographs, theater productions and art festivals, and publications and walking tours, much of which has been facilitated by the Friends of Swede Hollow, a community group founded in 1994.[xi] It is obvious that the members of the surrounding community, whether they are descendants of former residents, historical buffs, community organizers, or artists, have maintained the legend of Swede Hollow, enabling the story and the landscape to continue intriguing and inspiring audiences.

Interested in what the households in Swede Hollow looked like?  Investigate census data with our interactive atlas below. The bubble sizes correspond to the sizes of the families living in the homes, and includes census data from 1900 to 1950. In the map you can also see the locations of Phalen Creek in 1891, the St. Paul Roller Mill, and Hamms Brewery.


View larger map

Further Reading: 

YouTube Clips:

Footnotes:

[i] Yekaldo, Ralph. This is about life in Swede Hallow [sic]: things I remember and the people I grew up with. Photocopy of Handwritten Autobiography kept at the Minnesota Historical Society, 1987.
[ii] “About Us.” Yarusso-Bros Italian Restaurant. http://www.yarussos.com/about.html
[iii] Aronovici, Carol. Housing Conditions in the City of Saint Paul. Saint Paul, MN: The Wilder Foundation, 1917.
[iv] “Two Houses Wrecked.” St. Paul Globe 20 April 1891.
[v]Wurzer, Cathy. “Burning Swede Hollow: Why an immigrant community deliberately went up in flames.” Minnesota Public Radio News, December 9, 2011. http://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/12/08/burning-swede-hollow
[vi] Aronovici, Carol. Housing Conditions in the City of Saint Paul. Saint Paul, MN: The Wilder Foundation, 1917.
[vii] “About Us.” Friends of Swede Hollow Website. http://www.swedehollow.org/About_Us.html
[viii] Yarusso, Gentille. Yarusso, Gentille. Swede Hollow, then up on the street: A documentary. Published by Mueller Mortuary, Carlson Funeral Home, and Phalen Park Funeral Home, September 1968.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Morrey, Joseph. I Drank Life to the Foam. Reno, NV: Sheridan Books, 2002.
[xi] “About Us.” Friends of Swede Hollow Website. http://www.swedehollow.org/About_Us.html

New leader at Mississippi River National Park

John Anfinson, a historian who has published widely and served the Corps of Engineers as well as the National Park Service in protecting and managing the Upper Mississippi, is the new superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

As he explains in this recent news story, Anfinson’s main goals as superintendent are to increase the river’s visibility to Twin Cities residents and help them understand why the Mississippi River in this region matters.

The park faces a number of challenges and changes in the immediate future, from the impending closure of Upper St. Anthony Lock to the ongoing vigilance against the threat of invading carp.  But there are strong opportunities as well, not least of which is the National Park Service’s upcoming centennial celebration in 2016.

Last fall, Anfinson gave a talk at the University of Minnesota in which he argued that the river’s future is strongly affected by its past, but that the longer term vision of the river is a text yet waiting to be written.  View the video of the talk, plus the extensive question/answer session here.

 

Big Changes to Minneapolis Central Riverfront? Learn More

The Upper St. Anthony Falls lock has become one of the most recognizable parts of the river landscape in the Central Minneapolis riverfront.

But it’s closing soon, no later than June 2015.  Now what?  Will the Corps of Engineers stop dredging everywhere above the Ford Lock and Dam?  Will the lock building and its small visitor center stay open? What about the Lower St. Anthony Lock?

Who will have a say in how these changes are managed?

Learn more by hearing a panel of experts lead a discussion this Thursday, January 22, at Mill City Museum, 6:00-7:30.  More details in the press release copied below:

In June 2015, the St. Anthony Falls Upper Lock will close primarily to stop the spread of invasive carp into the Upper River. What will be the impact on the Minneapolis Riverfront? “Minneapolis After the Lock: Unlocking New Opportunities”  a Riverfront Vitality Forum presented by the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership (MRP), impanels a group of experts to discuss these questions and hear ideas about how the river can be used in new ways. The Forum will take place on Thursday, January 22nd, from 6-7:30 PM at the Mill City Museum. Admission is free. Reserve a seat at www.minneapolisriverfrontpartnership.org.

When barge traffic ends, river management practices such as dredging will change. The closure will also have an environmental and economic impact on the entire river in the city of Minneapolis. What are the opportunities that the lock closure will bring to the river and riverfront in terms of recreation and development? How does this closure fit into the Central Riverfront Master Plan? These questions and others will be addressed. Scheduled panel speakers are:

  • Jacob Frey, Minneapolis City Councilperson for the Third Ward
  • John Anfinson, Superintendent, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, National Parks Service
  • Nanette Bischoff, Project Manager/FERC Coordinator, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Thomas Meyer, Principal, MSR Architecture, Interiors and Urban Design
  • Moderator: Kathleen Boe, Executive Director of the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership.

Note: According to Federal law, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close St. Anthony Falls Upper Lock no later than June 2015 primarily to stop the spread of invasive carp into the Upper River. Such a spread has the potential to inflict destruction on lakes and rivers throughout Minnesota, effectively destroying water recreation throughout the state.

MRP launched the Riverfront Vitality Forums to bring diverse groups together to work on issues critical to creating a vibrant riverfront community.  MRP’s signature work—the Riverfront Vitality Report—is tracking the results of public and private efforts toward creating a healthy, livable riverfront with greenspace and trails accessible to everyone.

# # #

For further information, contact: Kathleen Boe, Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, kathleen.boe@minneapolisriverfrontpartnership.org, or Merle Minda, mminda@earthlink.net.

Tonight-Sip of Science-Volcanoes, Anyone?

Our friends at the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics are at it again–another semester of Sip of Science begins tonight.  Read below for more details:

A SIP OF SCIENCE – the 2nd Wednesday of every month
Volcanoes and Our Past
Kent Kirkby, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota
Wednesday January 14th, 2015 5:30p.m.
Aster Cafe, 125 SE Main Street, St. Anthony Main, Minneapolis

A SIP OF SCIENCE bridges the gap between science and culture in a setting that bridges the gap between brain and belly. Food, beer, and learning are on the menu in a happy hour forum that puts science in context through storytelling.

January 14th Event

Volcanic eruptions are among some of the most spectacular events in our shared human experience. All too often though, eruptions are treated as historic oddities – unusual events of limited importance in the greater scheme of things. When typically volcanism does make it into history books, the mention is brief, focusing on the eruption and its immediate death toll. This myopic approach grossly underestimates the long term impacts volcanism has played in human history and how it has shaped our society. Join us for the January Sip of Science as geology professor Kent Kirkby presents the opportunity to acknowledge, perhaps even celebrate, the roles volcanism has played in human history.
The talk takes place during happy hour at the Aster Cafe || Food and Drink Available for Purchase
ABOUT THIS MONTH’S SPEAKER

A gift of three plastic dinosaurs at the age of seven sparked a career path for Kent Kirkby — and graduate research undertaken while living in a mountain lion’s cave in the southwest confirmed it. Kirkby, now a teaching professor at the University of Minnesota, worked for more than a decade in the oil fields of Colorado and Alberta, Canada before returning to academia. Since coming to the university twenty years ago, he’s focused on developing more effective teaching methods often interwoven with storytelling. While his courses have touched on topics ranging from natural disasters and dinosaurs to the geology behind landscape paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, all have focused on the intersection of human history and Earth processes. A native Wisconsinite, who has yet to develop a taste for Minnesota hot dishes, Kent has two sons who have fled the nest, and currently lives with his wife (also his best friend), three cats and a decent-sized green aluminum Brontosaur.
ABOUT A SIP OF SCIENCE
A SIP OF SCIENCE is a science happy hour sponsored by the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED). It is a chance to hear about new and exciting research over beer, in a cool bar. Come talk with the experts about their efforts to address some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. NCED’s A SIP OF SCIENCE brings the wonder of science to happy hour.

Get more information at: http://www.nced.umn.edu/content/sip-of-science

Living with the Mississippi: Life on a Floodplain

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.

In 1931, after the Bohemian Flats community was removed from the river bank to make room for a barge terminal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river to allow large barges to pass through. The dredged material was placed atop the flats, raising the grade, and a sea wall was erected to ensure the new terminal would not experience flooding.[i] The city had learned to take these precautions after observing the traumatic experiences of the residents at the Bohemian Flats, as well as those at the flats communities in St. Paul, brought by the river each spring.

“Flooded upper levee area of St. Paul.” Photographer Unknown, taken in 1952. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Flooded upper levee area of St. Paul.” Photographer Unknown, taken in 1952. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“View of flooding on West side of Wabasha Street Bridge, St. Paul.” Photographer unknown, taken in 1952. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“View of flooding on West side of Wabasha Street Bridge, St. Paul.” Photographer unknown, taken in 1952. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Image created by the National Park Service for website “Twin Cities Geology,” updated in 2014. http://www.nps.gov/miss/naturescience/twingeol.htm

Image created by the National Park Service for website “Twin Cities Geology,” updated in 2014. http://www.nps.gov/miss/naturescience/twingeol.htm

These floods occur due to the unique position of the Twin Cities: the Mississippi River Gorge. The gorge was created by the retreat of the St. Anthony Falls; as the river eroded the soft St. Peter Sandstone, it caused the top layers of limestone and shale to break off, moving the waterfall from St. Paul to its current location. This process left behind the gorge’s steep bluffs and a limited floodplain, the river flats. When snow and ice melt upstream during the spring, or when the Mississippi River Basin receives large amounts of rain, the river becomes too large for its banks and empties onto the floodplain.

This process remains a concern today, its effects felt when the river flooded this past June (2014). For those at the Bohemian Flats, spring floods often meant packing up your belongings and temporarily living with friends or family; there were even reports of the residents camping out in the Noerenberg Brewery until the water subsided.[ii] One Minneapolis Tribune article noted that some families had to remain in their inundated homes: “Though one house is floating and the kitchen is flooded, the family is still cooking and living there. No one would take them in, said Susie [Sustiak], because the are seven children and they would make the house so dirty.”[iii]

“View of upper levee residents during flood, St. Paul.” Photographer and date unknown, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Pictured: members of the Todora family, Ann and Leonard.)

“View of upper levee residents during flood, St. Paul.” Photographer and date unknown, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Pictured: members of the Todora family, Ann and Leonard.)

Floods not only brought water into the homes, but debris, logs, and ice as well, which could cause irreparable damage.[iv] The river would also carry belongings away, including sheds and wood piles, and chickens would be found drowned after the water receded.[v] Though a flood wall was erected at the Bohemian Flats in the early 20th century, it did not do much to prevent flooding. Rather, it often trapped much of the water and silt behind it once the flooding subsided. One of the most devastating floods in the Twin Cities area took place in April 1952, leading to the evacuation of the entire Upper Levee community and portions of the West Side Flats.[vi] The rise in water level led to extreme property loss for both communities and prompted the city of St. Paul to consider new plans for the flats. This eventually led to the demolition of the homes on the flats and the repurposing of the land for industrial uses.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] Minneapolis City Engineer’s Records about the Municipal Barge Terminal. Minneapolis City Archives, 1926-1932.
[ii] “Critical!” Minneapolis Tribune 2 April 1897.
[iii] “Venice Again Appears on Flats Under Washington Avenue Bridge.” Minneapolis Tribune 12 April 1922.
[iv] “Anxiety! Dwellers on the Bohemian Flats Filled With Alarm.” Minneapolis Tribune 3 April 1897
[v] “Venice Again Appears on Flats Under Washington Avenue Bridge.” Minneapolis Tribune 12 April 1922
[vi] “The Flood of 1952.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/miss/historyculture/1952timeline.htm

Living with the Mississippi: The Bohemian Flats

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.

In 1869, Minneapolis had been a city for only two years, and the first settlers had just arrived at the Bohemian Flats- a Danish couple.[1] The community’s population grew to include over 1,000 residents, until it began to dwindle around 1900 due to commercial development at the riverfront. In 1923, many of the residents were evicted from their homes to make way for a Municipal Barge Terminal, and in 1931, most of the remaining community was asked to leave as well, leaving only fourteen homes. Just ten years later, in 1941, the Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration published a book about the Bohemian Flats which painted a picture of an idyllic, Old World community. The flats appeared diverse and inclusive, a place for residents of all ethnic origins to escape the busy life of the city, a retreat where traditional customs were maintained. This book has fostered an air of nostalgia and romance around the settlement.

“Boys Rowing Boat Down Street in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, Taken in 1898, Photographer Unknown.

“Boys Rowing Boat Down Street in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, Taken in 1898, Photographer Unknown.

“Cut off from the city by the river at its doorstep and the steep bluffs behind, the settlement of the Bohemian Flats was born and grew up in a unique geographic and cultural isolation…Life in this little pocket had something of a pastoral quality that contrasted sharply with the city traffic humming and roaring across the bridge above it. For more than half a century a picturesque and hardworking colony of men and women from the Old World clung tenaciously to their tiny plots of ground beneath the cliffs. Their manners and customs, and indeed the very atmosphere of the place, had a foreign flavor, indestructibly appealing.” –The Bohemian Flats, page 2.  The WPA guide, and the plays, publications, and artwork inspired by the story, have perpetuated a few myths about the Bohemian Flats. Despite the romantic legacy, as well as the fond memories of many former residents, the Bohemian Flats was not necessarily the utopia it is often portrayed as. Living at the flats had a number of setbacks, from the heavy flooding endured by the residents each spring to the rampant poverty, disease, and crime that permeated the community[2]. Additionally, though depicted as a melting pot, the Bohemian Flats was one of the most homogenous communities on the river, as most of its inhabitants were immigrants from modern Slovakia escaping the persecution of the Austria-Hungary Empire[3].

There was also a notion that the flats community was distant from the city and the residents free from the influence of Americanization; in actuality, there were a number of reasons to venture off the flats. Aside from a grocery store and a Lutheran church, most services were only available in the surrounding city. The residents of the flats were responsible for establishing churches in Northeast Minneapolis, Cedar-Riverside, and Prospect Park[4], and traveled to the city center and beyond for their jobs. Members of the community likely attended Americanization classes at nearby centers, such as the Pillsbury House in Cedar-Riverside or the Seven Corners Library.

“View of Bohemian Flats from Across the River.” Courtesy of Hennepin County Library, Date and Photographer Unknown.

“View of Bohemian Flats from Across the River.” Courtesy of Hennepin County Library, Date and Photographer Unknown.

Somewhere along the way, the story of the Bohemian Flats lost these less savory details and assumed an almost legendary status, likely due to the inherently romantic nature of the story, as well as the nostalgia that followed the evictions of the residents and the demolition of the homes. Though the St. Paul river flats communities would soon succumb to the same fate as the Bohemian Flats, the evictions were relatively early in Minneapolis history and preceded a long phase of urban renewal in the Twin Cities. The feeling of loss were compounded by the publication of the WPA Guide, which was written during the inter-war era, known as a short period of celebration for America’s ethnic groups.[5] Former flats residents and others in Minneapolis were able to reflect on their fond memories of the community, immortalizing the Bohemian Flats as a legend, a pre-modern utopia lost to progress.

For more on the Bohemian Flats, visit the University of Minnesota Heritage Collaborative website. This site features research about the Bohemian Flats, including student projects from an Archival Analysis class in Spring 2014. http://ias.umn.edu/programs/collaboratives/heritage/projects/boho/

Interested in what the households on the Bohemian Flats looked like?  Investigate census data with our interactive atlas below. The bubble sizes correspond to the sizes of the families living in the homes, and includes census data from 1900 to 1940.


View larger map

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[1] Works Progress Administration. The Bohemian Flats. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986, 8-9.
[2] Remembered in newspaper articles such as “Life at the Dump.” Minneapolis Tribune 26 April 1892. “It Was Manslaughter.” Minneapolis Tribune 21 December 1893. “War on the Diptheria.” St. Paul Globe 27 November 1900. “Slovaks Brave Floods.” Minneapolis Tribune 5 September 1909. “Flood Drives 200 Families from homes.” Minneapolis Tribune 26 March 1920.
[3] See the Bohemian Flats population maps to learn more about the ethnic composition of the Bohemian Flats community. The information was obtained from U.S. Census Records, available online at www.archive.org
[4] For more about these churches, see Emmanuel Lutheran Church’s 75 Years of Grace (1883-1963). Minneapolis, MN: Holy Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 1963 and St. Cyril Catholic Church’s 100th Anniversary: the Church of S.S. Cyril and Methodius, Minneapolis, Minnesota: 1891-1991. Minneapolis, MN: Church of SS Cyril and Methodius, 1991, as well as Vaclav Vojta’s Czechoslovak Baptists. Minneapolis, MN: Czechoslovak Baptist Convention in America and Canada, 1941 to learn more about the history of Immanuel Slovak Baptist Church in Cedar-Riverside.
[5] Works Progress Administration. The Bohemian Flats. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986, xiii-xiv.

On Black Lives and the “Green Movement”

It seems that if you are living in the United States you have to be making a conscious effort not to know about the events that have been transpiring in Ferguson, MO, or who Eric Garner is.  If you’re not on social media much, or at all, you may not have heard of the #blacklivesmatter trope that is sweeping the country, both in physical as well as digital space.

#blacklivesmatter for those of us concerned with rivers, place-based thinking, and our shared environmental future.  I won’t make the case fully or extensively today in this post, in part because I haven’t fully sorted it out myself and in part because there are many, many complicated threads involved.  For some, the question of African-Americans and “the environment” is a question of raising environmental justice issues to the top of our agenda.  For others, the primary concern is including African-American populations in the communities that we seek to engage with our programming.  The Twitter account @Outdoorafro is part of some of the conversations, as is the planner Kristen Jeffers, who tweets at @blackurbanist. Serious inquiry into the issue has to take into account the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice.”

Two recent blog posts highlight the fraught and complex relationships between African-Americans and the environmental community.  Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, writes of his recent experience when the Sierra Club spoke out in solidarity with groups protesting the deaths of Eric Garner and others.  Some commenters wrote back that the Sierra Club had no business becoming involved in these issues; Brune argues cogently that it does.

Writing in LA Observed, Jon Christensen summarizes Brune’s argument and extends it, pointing out the need for the “big green organizations” to diversify their membership, their employee ranks, and their boards of directors.  To date, many but by no means all of them have.  Christensen argues that when they do, and when the environmental movement looks a lot more like the population of the United States, that development will be very good for the environment, as well as for the people who care about that environment.

Writing the River

All of us who think about stories and the Mississippi River have to think about Mark Twain.  Often that means an almost ritual citation of one of a half dozen or so passages, or a reference to the river as “Mark Twain’s river” as if it didn’t exist before he wrote about it.  Of course it did, and it continues to exist, albeit with a host of meanings, only some of which are associated with his writing.

It’s that question of the river’s meaning that interests us in the “Making the Mississippi” seminar.  Last week we spent a good deal of time talking through a perspective that the literary scholar T. S. McMillin raises in his book The Meaning of Rivers.  McMillin concentrates on the chapters in Life on the Mississippi where young Sam Clemens begins his education as a pilot.  The boy realizes that his previous understanding of the river, which was all bound up in romantic notions of freedom and faraway places was an “overlooking” of the material facts of the water.  This idealized, abstract knowledge was worse than useless; it actively interfered with the knowledge that he had to develop to navigate a boat.

Unfortunately, on having learned his pilot’s trade, such that he could “read” the river going upstream or down, by day or by night, Clemens comes to realize that the romance of the river was lost.  He no longer cared what the river means, or if it’s a passage to mysterious places; he only knows what he has to in order to get his steamboat around the next bend safely.

McMillin suggests, and I concur, that true river literacy comes at a point in between the two ends of the spectrum that young Clemens experienced.  We have to know enough about how the river works to deal with it respectfully as a system in the “real world.”  But we should never lose our awe at its power, its mystery, indeed, its magic.

So what is river literacy?  Are there specific bits of knowledge, or perspectives, or points of view that are necessary for us to have a “literate citizenry” with regard to the Mississippi?  What do we have to know to interact with the river in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, resilient, and healthy?

Living with the Mississippi

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.

Flooding at the Bohemian Flats in 1898. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. Photographer Unknown.The Mississippi’s role in shaping the industrial history of Minneapolis is well known. However, the banks of the Mississippi provided more than a workplace for the early residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul- they also served as a home. Between 1860 and 1960, the Mississippi River floodplain hosted a half-dozen ethnic enclaves in St. Paul and Minneapolis. These communities were often seen as their own separate settlements, distant from the city located above. The residents of these areas bore a number of labels, ranging from penniless criminals to hard-working new Americans. Today, the communities are often remembered as cultural havens, places where recent immigrant families could practice their traditional customs and beliefs, separated from the city both physically and culturally.

“It was a neighborhood that experienced more change, hardship, and conflict than most places but that yet could be looked upon with nostalgia by many who lived there.” –Lorraine Esterly Pierce in her 1971 Master’s Thesis on the history of the West Side Flats, a quote that could easily be applied to any of the river flats communities.  Three of these communities were located near downtown St. Paul. The West Side Flats occupied the large flat area located adjacent to Harriet Island and across the river from downtown St. Paul, the Upper Levee, or Upper Landing, was an Italian community located just across from the West Side Flats below Irvine Park, and Swede Hollow ran along Phalen Creek, the southern end of which was known as the Connemara Patch. Minneapolis was home to three settlements of its own as well. Two of these were known as the East Side Flats; one at the site of the East River Flats Park below the University of Minnesota campus and the other beneath the 35-W and 10th Ave Bridges. The other was the Bohemian Flats, located just across the river underneath the Washington Avenue Bridge.

Home to various immigrant groups upon their immediate arrival in the Twin Cities, the river flats communities were in undesirable locations; the homes, even into the mid-20th century, lacked modern conveniences like running water and sewer systems, and the residents, victim to the flooding of the river each spring, were often forced to take shelter elsewhere when their homes became inundated. Despite these unfavorable conditions, however, thousands of immigrants called these communities home, whether for only a year or most of their lives, and many recall fond memories of life alongside the river. After decades of immigrant settlement, the residents of each community were removed from the land for various reasons, whether it due to the health risks associated with living near a polluted river or the attractive quality of the real estate.

For the next few months, this series will examine the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Continue to 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.

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. Taken by Albert Charles Munson in approximately 1910.

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. Taken by Albert Charles Munson in approximately 1910.

Flooding at the Bohemian Flats in 1898. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. Photographer Unknown.

Flooding at the Bohemian Flats in 1898. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. Photographer Unknown.

River Flats Communities Map, Created by Rachel Hines using Historic Plat Maps and Bing Maps, June 2014.

River Flats Communities Map, Created by Rachel Hines using Historic Plat Maps and Bing Maps, June 2014.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at rvrlife@umn.edu 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