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Living with the Mississippi: The Bohemian Flats

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.

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

Additional Links are available below:

[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

[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

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.

Riverside Communities: Overlooked Hinges Between Past and Future

The Mississippi River corridor contains many places that are widely recognized as having national or international significance.  But the stories of places where “ordinary” people have made their homes in proximity to the river are, often literally, overlooked.

This week, we begin a series of blog posts written by recent graduate Rachel Hines, an archaeologist who has conducted extensive study on the various “flats” communities along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.   These low-lying areas were subject to regular inundation by foul-smelling river water, and were sometimes threatened by bigger than usual floods.  The people who lived in “Bohemian Flats,” “Little Italy,” “Swede Hollow” and comparable sites were often new immigrants living where land was cheap.  In the mid part of the 20th century, these communities often were romanticized as they were destroyed, for various reasons.

But these communities bear closer examination, largely because they have been so easily romanticized and overlooked.  Rachel’s series explores the coping strategies that communities developed as they lived in this proximity to a large body of moving water, as well as investigates what happened to these communities and these landscapes after the people left.  By studying particular sites closely, and seeing their development through time in detail, we can gain a measure of insight into what the Mississippi has meant to the communities here.

The series “Living with the Mississippi” takes readers through Bohemian Flats, Little Italy/Upper Levee, West Side Flats, and Swede Hollow:   Who was there? How did the community change through time? Why did the people leave and where did they go?  What has the land become subsequently?

In some if not all cases, these places are central to the future riverfront planning in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our series explores themes of place and memory, the river in relation to the communities through which it flows, continuities and differences in ways people have lived in proximity to the Mississippi, and how the river has had variable meanings and uses to different communities through time.

The Mississippi is an iconic, mythic place, as well as a water system of almost incomprehensible complexity.  But it is also a location, a place that is central to understanding where we are and what we might imagine our future to be.

The blog series starts on December 4, and is available here and at the River Life blog.

Living With the River: It’s All in the Prepositions

Some of you may remember prepositions from, oh, say 7th grade grammar class.  Prepositions are the small words like “with” “to” or “in” that express relations between two things.  Little surprise, then, that last week’s John E. Sawyer discussion on “relational ontologies” ended up being a discussion about prepositions.

To over simplify, “relational ontologies” is a matter of arguing that the relationships between things are more important than the things themselves.  So for example, there is a river, and there is a community of people.  Both are definable in any number of ways.  But the important thing is the nature of the relationship between them.  Taken a bit further, the idea would extend to an argument that our best relationship with the river entails obligations on us and that the river has existence and merit and value on its own, whether we are here or not.

Important concepts, and, like many important ideas, sorta hard to get your mind around.

So let’s think about prepositions a bit.

Some advocacy groups say they “speak for the Mississippi River.”  I guess that’s better than speaking “at” the river or speaking “in” the river.  But does speaking for the river imply that it can’t speak for itself?  Maybe it “speaks” when it floods, reminding us where its proper domain is?

If we are going to develop a way of living “with” the river in an appropriate way, what does that ask of us?  Is living with the river like living with a person?  Aldo Leopold has argued that harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you can’t cherish one hand while cutting the other one off.  Do we “love” the Mississippi by restricting it within levee floodwalls, bunching it up regularly behind dams, and dumping our trash into it?  Do we express our love for it by alternately stifling it and putting it on a pedestal to worship?

One of the important contributions of humanistic thinking in the academy is to ask us to question things that we commonly take for granted.  We might think more closely about our language for the river, and what that language expresses about what we think the river is, who we think “we” are, and what the right relationship is between us and the Mississippi.

I think we’d find that the relationships are more complicated than we think, and that despite easy derision (“of course the river doesn’t actually talk”) there’s more to our relationship with the Mississippi than meets the eye.

Minnesota’s Water Future–One Perspective

Last week I gave a talk at the convention of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIAMN).  The room was full and the audience was attentive, asking thoughtful, informed questions about the ways design in urban space can have an impact on water.  I was pleased to give the talk and thank the AIAMN folks for offering me the platform.

I won’t go through the whole thing here–it was a 90 minute talk after all.  The abbreviated version is that I used the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as a proxy for water in urban design, and encouraged the audience to think of water as more than an aesthetic dimension to the space they are shaping.  An abundant supply of clean water will be integral to our urban future.

We also spent some time talking about the Mississippi River Critical Area Program, managed by the state Department of Natural Resources in an effort to protect multiple resource values associated with the urban Mississippi River.  The present iteration of the program pays some attention to water quality, but I argued that we need a more robust way for planners, hydrologists, and designers to pool their collective talents.

I closed with some hopes/guesses about Minnesota’s water future.  After all, that was the title of the talk they signed up to hear, right?  I suggest that in Minnesota’s water future:

  • We will design cities as if rivers and water really matter, and that in order to do this, water management will be an important part of every professional designer’s training;
  • Actions such as throwing trash or pet leavings down storm sewers will be regarded as socially unacceptable, as will blowing/raking leaves or grass clippings into the gutter, where they wash down the storm sewers into the nearby water body;
  • Events such as the rain storms we had here last June, which dropped record amounts of rainfall across most of the Twin Cities region, will be expected, and preparing for them will be part of civic planning and design, rather than aberrant emergencies that disrupt our lives and cost millions of dollars to clean up after;
  • Children will know their watershed address, where their water comes from and where it goes after they have used it, in much the way they now know their street address and how to navigate their town to get to school.

I will add one additional point here, and that is to suggest that these concepts will be applicable to all children, in all parts of the city and region, not just a few who have particular advantages.  It’s going to take all of us to manage our water future.

Busy Day for News about Rivers

Sometimes it’s like that:  there will be a series of stories coming through the Google Alert thread that pertain to our river subjects.  Sometimes, of course, there’s a lot of news but it all pertains to bass tournaments and so forth, We aren’t (yet?) writing about bass tournaments.

In northeastern Wisconsin, a plan to build a transport system that will allow boats to bypass a closed lock is causing concern.  Even though there are several steps proposed that would supposedly clean boats passing through the system, as described in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, many people are wondering who would be benefited and what the risks would be in bypassing the lock.  Currently the lock separates waters from Lake Michigan from waters in the Lake Winnebago system, an important Wisconsin sport fishery.  Invasive species of concern include the sea lamprey, round goby and quagga mussel.

Farther south, the Sierra Club’s Three Rivers Project will team up with American Waters and the 1Mississippi campaign for a river cleanup on Saturday November 22 (must be a lot warmer there than here!).  The Three Rivers Project hosts the regional outreach assistant employed by the Mississippi River Network to develop the 1Mississippi campaign.  The purpose of 1Mississippi is to recruit 20,000 River Citizens, people who are committed to taking action to improve the health of the Mississippi River.  Full disclosure: we are in the process of working out the details to become the 1Mississippi host for the Minnesota-Wisconsin region.

Here in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial board argues that plans for the 130 acre Ford truck plant site in St. Paul should be visionary, modeling what a 21st century community can become.  The site’s location on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River is one of its prime assets, and while there is general agreement that the site can be a model for the direction riverfront development should take, concerns remain on what exactly that direction should look like.  How much public green space is appropriate?  How tall should the buildings be?  What ongoing safeguards will be in place against the site’s polluted history?  The devil’s in the details.

Finally, again from the Star Tribune, there is a story reporting that Minnesota farmers are using more barges to transport their crop this year than usual, owing to the heavy use of rail cars by the North Dakota oil fields.  Navigation use of the Mississippi is a contentious issue, with well established talking points by the barge industry and commodity associations on one side and by large environmental groups on the other.  Both are partly right, in a general way, but the debate really needs to become much more specific and detailed before it can be understood properly.  This article does provide some good contextual details, although the usual platitudes in favor of navigation improvements are included as well.  Still, worth a careful, thoughtful read.

On “agency” and rivers

For most folks, pairing the words “agency” and “rivers” will mean that we’re talking about the Corps of Engineers, or maybe a state Department of Natural Resources.  There are many federal and state agencies that govern parts of the considerations we have for rivers, and most of us who have been at this for a while can rattle off the “alphabet soup” pretty quickly.

For academics, though, “agency” has a very specific philosophical meaning, associated with will, or maybe intent.  To say that something has “agency” is to say, over-simply, that it can act.  I would love to know what this meaning has to do with “government agencies” as a general term; maybe someone can enlighten me here?

The point is that our John E. Sawyer seminar discussion last week considered the question of “agency” and rivers in the context of the Anthropocene, that much-debated term for the global era that we may be in now, where human beings are fundamentally altering earth’s geological processes.

I’m not well-read enough, and didn’t take good enough notes, to fully capture the ins and outs of our full discussion.  But here are some points that I think we made, in context of how they help us think about the Mississippi River:

  1. To ascribe “agency” to a geological feature of the earth, such as the Mississippi River, is to say that the said feature is not stable, unchanging, a fundamental unalterable “fact” on the ground.  Rather, taken in a long time horizon, we have to see the Mississippi as a dynamic, almost living, thing.  It moves, and will always move, in obedience to physical laws, such as gravity.
  2. To attempt to alter the river permanently, as so many of the Corps of Engineers structures do, is to attempt to “stop history,” an expensive and time consuming effort to interfere with physical laws and stop a river from doing what physical laws (its “agency”) dictates.  As a friend of mine used to say “Dams are just long term experiments on rivers.”
  3. Acknowledging that the Mississippi River is highly dynamic, and responsive to physical laws, means that we shouldn’t be shocked when it acts according to those laws, whether in an instance of breaking through a levee and rewatering a floodplain, or moving its main channel to the present Atchafalaya corridor in Louisiana.  Engineers will tell you there are only two kinds of levees:  those that have failed, and those that have not yet failed.
  4. If the above three points are true, then perhaps disputes over the physical future of the Mississippi River and its floodplain, the fight about the New Madrid Levee for instance, ought to be regarded as a debate between people who recognize the inevitability of physical laws such as gravity and people who think humans can outsmart nature or build enough concrete to stop water from flowing downhill forever.  This would certainly be a more honest debate than the way it’s framed now, as between “interest groups” such as “jobs vs the environment” or “ecology vs navigation.”  In fact, projects that propose to permanently alter the Mississippi (or any other large river) are simply unconscionable hubris and, ultimately, doomed to fail.

We didn’t get that far in our philosophical, theoretical discussion last week but it would have been fun if we had.

Water Works Park is a Step Forward for Mpls Central Riverfront

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized this morning in support of Water Works Park, and for the most part got it right.  This iteration of a design for the west end of the Stone Arch Bridge and the section of West River Parkway for a block or so on either side is pretty good.  It gets the most important element of any design for this place–protecting the historic water management system that pulled Mississippi River water out of the channel to power the mills–right through excavating and highlighting those structures.  It moves the proposed new building, which rightly provides amenities such as restrooms and food service, away from the river and immediate falls area.  It solves, at least for a while, the traffic confusion that has bicyclists, walkers, joggers, car drivers, and wedding photographers all sharing the same space, with sometimes fractious results.

We still need to see how a plethora of details are going to get solved, such as what kind of vegetative cover will go where.  I’m not sure the closing of the adjacent Upper St. Anthony Lock has been adequately accounted for (the material is long on marketing sizzle, and not as strong in contextual process as a wonk like me would like).  But this is arguably one of the most historically significant acres in Minnesota, so taking the time to think it through extremely carefully is certainly warranted.

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