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RIVER LIFE

On History and the Future: Lessons from Living with the River

November 23, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeaturedComments Off on On History and the Future: Lessons from Living with 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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

Our featured series “Living with the Mississippi” has gathered more readers than any other part of our work.  Largely this is due to the stellar research and writing of the author, Rachel Hines.  But it’s also a testament to the enduring hold that riverfront communities have on our imagination.  There’s something about these places, whether Bohemian Flats or St. Paul’s West Side, that simply continues to interest people.

I think there are a couple of longer-term issues as well that the series and the places it describes bring to light.  For one thing, the contrast between “then and now” in the physical environment is largely unstated, though ever-present.  Living with the Mississippi a century ago meant living alongside what was often an open sewer and what was always an industrial waste dump.  The river itself was different also.  The construction of what we know now as the Ford Lock and Dam downstream of Bohemian Flats meant the water level is steadier now, with less of the seasonal rise and fall that marks a more natural river pattern.  All of these factors meant that living in a space now reserved as a park was a completely different experience of land, of water, and of the sensory environment at the water’s edge.  The corridor smelled different, looked different, sounded different, even felt different underfoot with a marshy uneven river bank in place of today’s mown grass field.

 

Our head note for the series alludes to another broad change when it refers to the time “before luxury condos and clean river water.”  Although the clean river water is more important, it is now largely taken for granted, and Minneapolis and St. Paul have joined cities across the developed world in converting their riverfronts to something that is increasingly focused on luxury condos.

Easternmost Upper Landing Block

Upper Landing

Simply put, we are in danger of privatizing our riverfronts to the point where the descendants of former residents won’t be able, or feel comfortable, walking where their grandfathers and grandmothers once lived.  On St. Paul’s Upper Landing this has already happened; the narrow strip of public land and pathway outside residents’ front balconies feels more private than public.  There’s room for debate on this of course; the debate would be a healthy next step in our riverfront planning and design.

Upper Landing and Residents

Upper Landing and Residents

The stories of places like Bohemian Flats and the Upper Landing are vitally important connections between past and present.  They help us organize our thoughts about who we have been and who we are now.  But we critically need new stories, stories of our relationship with the Mississippi in the 21st century.  I would argue that the stories that drive our sense of the river’s meaning forward should focus more than we have on sustainability and inclusion.  We have spent a lot of time working on access; we must pivot to a focus on equity, where the gift of access is felt by all.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.  Last week, an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune explored in some detail the efforts of the National Park Service to reach younger and more diverse audiences. One way to do this, and a way that our program can actively participate in, is to work to ensure that park visitors hear more diverse stories than we have been telling.  Visitors to St. Anthony Falls should know who Eliza Winston was and what happened to Spirit Island.  Upper Landing visitors (and residents) should know who lived in that spot a century ago, and what happened to that community.  As the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary planning gathers steam, people will need to know who Bruce Vento was, but also the importance of this place to Dakota people.

We have done a lot to bring people back to the riverfront.  But there is much yet to do if we are to make the riverfront a welcoming place to all of the people who live here.

If our riverfronts reflect who we are and aspire to be, then what do they say about us?  Do they say what we want them to?

Living with the Mississippi: Creating River Memories

November 17, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on Living with the Mississippi: Creating River Memories

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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

November 1st marked the closing of our exhibit, “Remembering the Bohemian Flats: One Place, Many Voices,” at Mill City Museum. An unintended but welcome outcome of the exhibit was hearing from a number of people who wanted to share their stories about life along the Mississippi. The exhibit struck a variety of chords: a woman who had lived at the flats as a young girl was confused by our “Crime and Vice” panel, remembering the community’s later years as peaceful and law-abiding. Some shared that their parents or grandparents had been ashamed to have lived at the flats, while others said they had been proud to live in the tight-knit community.

One story that stood out to me in particular was that of Ron Adler, whose grandparents lived in a different Mississippi River neighborhood: a camp under the 42nd Ave Bridge in Camden, Minneapolis during the 1940s. This area is now a part of North Mississippi Park, and though the story of this community resembles that of the Bohemian Flats, its existence is barely acknowledged today. Ron remembers visiting his grandparents as a child, and describes the community as “a dump, nearly uninhabitable.”

“Squatters ousted from their housing on banks of river at Camden Park, Minneapolis.” Photographer unknown, taken on May 7, 1936. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Squatters ousted from their housing on banks of river at Camden Park, Minneapolis.” Photographer unknown, taken on May 7, 1936. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Similar to the Bohemian Flats, there was no sewer or running water and water was collected from a community hand pump. The residents, considered squatters, lived in poverty in small shacks and trailers. Local civic clubs wanted to evict the settlement’s 200 residents to create a public park, deeming them a “menace to public safety and sanitation.”[i] The comparison between the earlier and later river flats settlements made me reflective on the nature of memory. Why has history been so kind to the memory of communities like the Bohemian Flats and Swede Hollow, despite their notable problems? How do we choose which stories to keep, like those of the Bohemian Flats, and which to forget, like North Mississippi Park? More importantly, how do we decide how to tell these stories?

Though the river flats communities like the Bohemian Flats and Swede Hollow were once viewed negatively, the less favorable aspects of life, like crime, poverty, and disease, have been diluted to create much more favorable stories of quaint, ethnic havens. The city’s disdain for and mistreatment of these communities over time has been forgotten, leaving mostly stories of their peaceful existence and later eviction. While the romanticization of these stories has caused us to perpetuate false, or at least not entirely true, ideas about our past, it has also allowed their memories to survive, incorporating them into our city’s narrative.

“Gateway Park and the Gateway Center just before it was razed.” Taken by the Minneapolis Star in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Gateway Park and the Gateway Center just before it was razed.” Taken by the Minneapolis Star in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

One reason we can easily revise the history of the Bohemian Flats is that the neighborhood no longer exists. With the landscape so drastically altered, we are free to create new stories about the people who lived there. As I wonder about the narratives we will tell in the future, I reflect specifically on these areas that have been completely erased. In her blog post “Blight by the Block,” Kirsten Delegard of the Historyapolis project writes about the redevelopment of Minneapolis between the 1940s and 1980s. She mentions while Cedar-Riverside, the larger community that includes the Bohemian Flats, survived, other neighborhoods were lost, including the historic Gateway District. Decades later, we are forming our opinions about the demolition of this area, many already regarding it as a major mistake. How will future generations remember these places? Will they be viewed with a sense of nostalgia and loss, like the Bohemian Flats, or will we forget about them entirely, succumbing to the stories imbedded in the modern landscape?

Places have stories to tell, whether they are visible or not. Throughout this blog series, I have presented more complex stories about the historic river flats communities to give more depth to the experiences of the people who once lived along the banks of the Mississippi and to view places as having several stories to tell.

Footnotes:

[i] “Demand Eviction of Squatters: Residents Claim Camden Colony Menace to Public Society.” Minneapolis Star 7 May 1936.

Living with the Mississippi: The River as a Resource

June 11, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on Living with the Mississippi: The River as a Resource

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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

The Mississippi River is one of our country’s major natural resources, not only providing us with transportation routes and countless recreation opportunities, but also supplying over 18 million people with drinking water.[i] Though the river’s water was historically polluted, the residents at the river flats found that the Mississippi was a resource in other ways.

“Polish American girl and man with a wagon searching the Mississippi River shoreline near Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis. Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1900. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Polish American girl and man with a wagon searching the Mississippi River shoreline near Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis. Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1900. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The river was used to transport lumber from the saw mills upstream, which the residents at the Bohemian Flats were quick to capture. The WPA Guide to the Bohemian Flats notes that “They gathered the billets of wood, mill ends, “dead heads” (entire logs), and other sawmill waste… ‘Slabs, shingles, strips, blocks, boards, and sometimes entire logs can be seen hurrying down the river.’”[ii] Photographs of the flats show piles of wood stacked against the walls of the houses, which could have been used to construct or repair their homes; the residents of the flats might have even sold the wood for extra income.

“Women Gathering Driftwood from the River on the Bohemian Flats.” Photographer unknown, taken prior to 1930. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Women Gathering Driftwood from the River on the Bohemian Flats.” Photographer unknown, taken prior to 1930. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

The WPA guide also notes that wood wasn’t the only thing the residents of the Bohemian Flats rescued from the Mississippi: “Oranges and bananas, dumped into the river by wholesale fruit houses, sometimes bobbed about in the current. “We saw a child eating one of those bananas from the river when we first came,” an old resident recalls,” and we thought he would die. The whole place was in a panic until we found out that everyone ate them here. Until I came to America I had never seen a banana.””.[iii]

At Swede Hollow, the residents would catch fish in Phalen Creek until the stream became too polluted,[iv] and it seems likely the residents along the Mississippi would have done so as well. Additionally, the river fed the flour, wool, and saw mills at the St. Anthony Falls, many of which provided jobs for the residents at the Bohemian Flats. Though the real estate at the river was some of the worst in the city, the Mississippi still had a few benefits to offer its residents.

[i] “Water Quality.” 1 Mississippi, 2011. http://1mississippi.org/water-quality/

[ii]Works Progress Administration. The Bohemian Flats. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1941.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] 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.

Living with the Mississippi: Upper Levee

May 28, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on Living with the Mississippi: Upper Levee

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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

A trip to Cossetta’s in St. Paul provides an idea of life was at the Upper Levee, St. Paul’s historic Little Italy. Covering the walls of the restaurant are photographs of smiling Italians, shabby storefronts, and flooded streetscapes. The centerpiece is a model of the Upper Levee community, each of the houses painted and arranged along the three main streets, Upper Levee, Mill, and Loreto. Before the Upper Levee was known as Little Italy, however, it was St. Paul’s Bohemian Flats, home to recent Czech and East German immigrants.[i] This was a notorious area of town, filled with recently arrived single men, and was constantly featured in the newspapers for the drunken fights and altercations between residents.[ii] As these men made enough money for their families to join them, they moved up to the West 7th Area, vacating the flats for the Italian community. By 1910, the community’s population was three-quarters Italian, and would remain so until the residents were evicted in 1959.[iii]

Model of the Upper Levee in Cossetta’s Restaurant in St. Paul. Taken by Rachel Hines in June 2014.

Model of the Upper Levee in Cossetta’s Restaurant in St. Paul. Taken by Rachel Hines in June 2014.

“Shepard Road and the Upper Levee, St. Paul” Photographer Unknown, Taken between 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Shepard Road and the Upper Levee, St. Paul” Photographer Unknown, Taken between 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The residents of the Upper Levee truly formed a community, a place where members looked out for one another. Many had emigrated from the same area of Italy, Campobasso, and, upon arrival in St. Paul, traveled straight to the Upper Levee and never left.[iv] The welfare of the community was so important to the residents at the Upper Levee that, in 1931, they asked University of Minnesota student Alice Sickels to conduct a study on the community; it was the start of the depression, many young men were unemployed, and there was a high rate of juvenile arrests. The residents hoped that Sickels, a graduate student in Social Work, would find ways to keep these young men out of trouble and aid in planning programs for the new community center.[v] This report, which analyzes statistics on nationality, immigration, voting, religion, community participation, citizenship, and literacy, in addition to delinquency, provides a rare look inside one of the river flats communities, as most of the documents about these settlements are sensationalized newspaper stories or nostalgic memories from former residents. “It would have been a normal evolutionary process for the Italians in this neighborhood to give place to the more recently arrived Mexicans, as is happening among the Italians in the Phalen Creek and the Jewish immigrants in the Central Community House districts in St. Paul, but there is a sense of permanent village life among the homeowning group of older inhabitants which has held some of the foreign-born residents there in spite of the fact that their children would have enjoyed moving into the better neighborhoods which they could well have afforded.”
–Alice Sickels, page 35

Sickels noted that the neighborhood was “almost a transplanted Southern Italian village built by men who migrated from old world towns.”[vi] Village ties were so important to the Italian immigrants that 30 of the community’s 50 marriages were between people from the same town. The residents maintained traditional Italian values by keeping close family ties, establishing their own restaurants and taverns in the West 7th area, and attending the local Catholic Church, Holy Redeemer, where mass was said in Italian.

Though the residents of the Upper Levee had the means to move to a better neighborhood, they continued to remain in the community. Sickels noted that though it would have been natural for the Italians to be replaced by the newer Mexican immigrant population, there seemed to be a sense of permanence about the community.[vii] After the flood of 1952, the residents at the Upper Levee suffered extreme property damage, and the city of St. Paul decided the settlement’s location was too hazardous. An urban renewal and relocation plan was implemented by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and the Upper Levee residents were dispersed throughout the city. However, despite the unfavorable conditions at the flats, the community still resisted the move.[viii] The relocation plan failed to keep the community members together, placing them in homes similar to their own but surrounded by unfamiliar neighbors, disrupting the sense of unity maintained by this small settlement.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] 1880 United State Census, Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Minnesota. www.archive.org
[ii] See articles like: “Murder on Bohemia Flats.” Minneapolis Tribune 30 June 1888. “Murder in St. Paul.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 December 1888. And “The Result of Beer Drinking.” Minneapolis Tribune 21 February 1890.
[iii] 1910-1940 United State Census, Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Minnesota. www.archive.org
[iv] Sickels, Alice L. The Upper Levee Neighborhood: A Study of an Isolated Neighborhood of About One Hundred Italian Families in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thesis (M.A.): University of Minnesota, 1938.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] National Park Service. “Little Italy: A Floodplain Neighborhood.” http://www.nps.gov/miss/forteachers/upload/LittleItaly_30x40.pdf

Living with the Mississippi: Working on 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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

For many residents of the river flats communities, the river was not only a place to live, but also a place to work. Employment originally drew settlers to the Bohemian Flats. After the Kraenzlein & Miller Brewery was built above the southern end of the flats in 1866, a boardinghouse was to provide a home for the brewery workers, mainly German immigrants.[1] They were shortly joined by the Zahler Brewery built on the other side of the flats in 1874; this brewery quickly changed hands and became the Noerenberg Brewery in 1880, while Kraenzlein and Miller became Heinrich and Mueller in 1884. These two breweries joined John Orth and Germania to form the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company in 1890, known today as Grain Belt. When a centralized brewery was established across the river, the jobs followed, and the breweries on the flats were abandoned.[2]

"Heinrich Brewery building (Minneapolis Brewing Company), foot of Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1895. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Heinrich Brewery building (Minneapolis Brewing Company), foot of Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1895. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

By this time, the population at the flats had greatly surpassed the labor force at the breweries. In fact, most of the brewery employees no longer lived on the flats, as the population was changing rapidly. The majority of the community worked as unskilled laborers; the men and most children over the age of 14 were employed by the mills and factories in downtown Minneapolis, while their wives and mothers would stay home to tend to the house. Young women often worked until they were married, often employed as seamstresses or laundresses.[3]

Historically, certain industries were sometimes ethnically affiliated. In an oral history, Bohemian Flats descendant Don Pafko mentioned the local railroads were controlled by the Irish, while trades like carpentry and bricklaying were associated with Scandinavians, making it difficult to obtain these types of jobs.[4] While residents at the Bohemian Flats generally did not work in these industries, that did not prevent them from working in a diverse number of areas. Though about 75% of the people living at the flats between 1900 and 1930 were Slovak, they did not seem to favor any industry over another. Though families would sometimes work for the same company, this pattern was not reflected in the work of different ethnic groups.

“Palisade Mill on the West Side of the River in 1903.” Photographer unknown, taken in 1903. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Palisade Mill on the West Side of the River in 1903.” Photographer unknown, taken in 1903. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

Common employers in 1880 were the Averill, Russell, and Carpenter Paper Mill on Hennepin Island and the Minnesota Linseed Oil Mill located in Cedar-Riverside. By 1890, the flour mills had become dominant, with Anchor, Humboldt, and Pillsbury Mills as some of the top employers. This concentration shifted to manufacturing companies by the 1900s, though many still worked at the mills as well.[5] Though many of these workplaces were located on the river, it was still a distant walk or trolley ride upstream for the residents of the Bohemian Flats.

This map shows a sampling of the workplaces of the residents at the Bohemian Flats between 1880 and 1920. Different industries are represented by color: mills are yellow, stores are red, manufacturing is orange, foundries are dark green, and everything else is light green.

This map shows a sampling of the workplaces of the residents at the Bohemian Flats between 1880 and 1920. Different industries are represented by color: mills are yellow, stores are red, manufacturing is orange, foundries are dark green, and everything else is light green.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[1] Minneapolis City Directories, 1859-1922. Found online at the Hennepin County Library website at http://box2.nmtvault.com/Hennepin2/
[2] Hoverson, Doug. Land of Amber Waters. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
[3] These patterns were reflected in the United States Federal Census from 1880-1930.
[4] Donald Pafko, interviewed by Anduin Wilhide, Houses of Worship and Ethnicity Project, April 13, 2012.
[5] Minneapolis City Directories, 1859-1922. Found online at the Hennepin County Library website at http://box2.nmtvault.com/Hennepin2/

Living with the Mississippi: The East Side 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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

Researching the East Side Flats communities in Minneapolis proved to be difficult; unlike their neighbor across the river, the Bohemian Flats, these two settlements went relatively unnoticed by the surrounding community and have largely faded from public memory. One of these, which I will refer to as “East River Flats” for clarity’s sake, was located below the area where East River Parkway runs along the University of Minnesota Campus. Today, it is known as East River Flats Park and is the location of the boathouse for the school’s rowing team. The other, which I will call the East Side Flats, was located below the 10th Ave and 35-W Bridges between the Southeast Steam Plant and a heating plant used by the University of Minnesota.

“Residential area on the east bank of the Mississippi River, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, Taken on March 9, 1895. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Residential area on the east bank of the Mississippi River, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, Taken on March 9, 1895. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

It is unclear when settlers first arrived at the East River Flats, but the community appeared in the 1880 census.[i] The residents at the East River Flats lived a pretty quiet existence, until around 1891 when the Minneapolis Parks Board became interested in the property.[ii] Hoping to create a counterpart to Riverside Park, located on the west side of the river, the Parks Board made their first moves to acquire the land the following year. The residents were slowly evicted from their homes, until 1903, when Carrie Baker, the last remaining “squatter,” moved in with her granddaughter.[iii] Though the story of the East River Flats is not a prominent one in public memory, the name remains to commemorate the former community and the story has survived in historic newspaper articles and Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board publications (see below).

Even less has survived about the East Side Flats, however. Though the residents appeared in each year’s city directory until 1952, I have yet to locate their names in the census data. The East Side Flats pops up in a few newspaper articles, sometimes noted as the “East Bohemian Flats” for its proximity to the Bohemian Flats,[iv] not for the ethnic composition of the community, makes appearances in the Minneapolis City Council Proceedings, occasionally as requests for utilities or public services, and survives in a few photographs, mainly of the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus. Yet no publications are dedicated to its memory and no festivals or theater productions commemorate its history. It is unclear why so much attention was given to the Bohemian Flats and so little to the East Side, but I would suppose it was because the community was much smaller and less visible. The population was also less exotic, as most of the residents had Scandinavian surnames. Though we know little about this community, its quaint appearance mirrors that of the Bohemian Flats, and it is easy to imagine a settlement of a similar character.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] 1880 United State Census, Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota; p. 765; June 5, 1880; National Archives Microfilm, Reel 622.
[ii] Smith, David C. “Parks, Lakes, Trails, and so much more: An Overview of the Histories of MPRB Properties.” Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, 2008.
[iii] “The Last Squatter.” Minneapolis Journal 4 August 1903.
[iv] “Hikes Wid Me Rags: Little Willard Parton Explains His Presence in the River.” St. Paul Globe 14 July 1903.

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

April 16, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on 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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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.

Footnotes:

[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

Living with the Mississippi: The Connemara Patch

April 2, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on 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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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:

Footnotes:

[i] Trimble, Steve. “St. Paul’s Most Unique Settlement.” St. Paul Historical. http://saintpaulhistorical.org/items/show/9?tour=1&index=6#.U5n9lvldVSR
[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. http://www.thecelticjunction.com/home/past-events-2011/tour-connemara-patch-irish-october-1/
[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. http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/arts/get-up-your-irish-steppingstone-theatre-preview
[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.

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 entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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 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, http://www.riverviewatupperlanding.com/

Riverview at Upper Landing Apartments. Courtesy of their website, http://www.riverviewatupperlanding.com/

 Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[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.

Living with the Mississippi: The West Side 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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

The West Side Flats in St. Paul has provided a home to a number of different communities. First occupied by the Mdwakanton Sioux, the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux opened land on the West Side to white settlement; many Native-Americans stayed and were joined first by French-Canadians and later by German and Irish settlers.[i] Then, abruptly, in 1882 a train arrived in St. Paul carrying over two hundred Russian Jewish refugees fleeing the persecution of Czar Alexander III. As Eastern European Jews continued to arrive, they permeated the flats, taking ownership of the community. Later, they would be joined by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, and, beginning in the 1930s, started being replaced by Hispanic immigrants, mainly migrant workers from Mexico. The Lower West Side has been referred to as the Ellis Island of St. Paul, a stopping point for many new immigrants to the city.[ii] However, through these changes, one fixture remained constant: the presence of the Neighborhood House.

“Neighborhood house, Indiana Avenue and Robertson Street, St. Paul.” Photographer Unknown, taken in 1924. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Neighborhood house, Indiana Avenue and Robertson Street, St. Paul.” Photographer Unknown, taken in 1924. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1893, the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society established an Industrial School to teach new skills and “American ways” to the Jewish refugees on the West Side Flats. By 1897, the school, now known as the Neighborhood House, began catering to adults as well, and it was quickly realized the needs of the community extended beyond the Jewish population. In 1903, it reorganized to become a non-sectarian center, providing a number of services to the residents of the West Side Flats, including Americanization and English classes.[iii]

“Dancing class, Neighborhood House, St. Paul.” Taken by Carl R. Ermisch in approximately 1920. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Dancing class, Neighborhood House, St. Paul.” Taken by Carl R. Ermisch in approximately 1920. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Scholar Lorraine Pierce, who wrote her Master’s Thesis on the history of the West Side’s Jewish community, noted that many of the clubs at the Neighborhood House were segregated by ethnic group, indicating that it might not have been the “melting pot” it was often described as, yet many Mexican-American residents remember a peaceful coexistence. In a 1975 Oral History, former West Side Flats resident Frank “Kiko” Rangel noted that “the West Side was like one big family. Everybody knew everyone and anything that happened everybody would know right away.” When asked if the different nationalities got along, he answered yes. “There wasn’t any sign of…discrimination, yes. None at all.”[iv]

In his 2010 Oral History for the Lideres Latinos project, community leader Gillbert de la O echoed Rangel’s sentiment, stating that “there didn’t seem to be any of that, well, discrimination. I’m black. I’m Chicano. I’m Jewish.. All that kind of stuff, it wasn’t happening back then, not on the West Side.” He went further to discuss the cultural exchanges between the Mexican and Jewish populations, stating that “Just being able to go to school with some of the Jewish kids and get involved with their culture was great, and they’d get involved with our culture.”[v] A look at the population maps confirms a lack of segregation between ethnic groups; other than a general cluster of Jewish Eastern European and Hispanic households along State and Robertson Streets, the West Side Flats is startlingly integrated. A 1940 Neighborhood House survey found as many as 30 nationalities represented by its patrons.[vi]

“West Side of St. Paul during flood.” Taken by the St. Paul Dispatch in 1952. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“West Side of St. Paul during flood.” Taken by the St. Paul Dispatch in 1952. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

As rumors of an industrial park at the West Side Flats began to circulate, the Neighborhood House created the “Old West Side Improvement Association” to protect the interests of the community.[vii] As the Port Authority and the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority made moves to acquire the entire community for urban renewal projects, this group was vocal in ensuring the West Side Flats residents would have adequate aid during the relocation process and worked to establish more public housing projects, though their efforts were unsuccessful. At the Neighborhood House, residents were able to meet with representatives from these agencies to better understand their rights. Though assured by these representatives that urban renewal was in the best interest of the city, the West Side community resisted the change. Even former West Side residents joined the group, often still bound to the community by religious institutions or workplaces.[viii] When the remaining homes were demolished in 1962, the Neighborhood House followed members of the community onto the Upper West Side, where it continues to serve the needs of St. Paul’s newest residents.

Further Reading for those interested in the history of the West Side Flats:

Footnotes:

[i] Pierce, Lorraine E. St. Paul’s Lower West Side. Thesis (M.A): University of Minnesota, 1971.
[ii] Johnson, Hildegard Binder. “The Germans” in They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.
[iii] Rosenblum, Gene. The Lost Jewish Community of the West Side Flats. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
[iv] Moosbrugger, Grant A. “Mexican-American Oral History Project” Interview with Frank Rangel on August 4, 1975.
[v] Duarte, Lorena. “Lideres Latinos Oral History Project” Interview with Gilbert de la O on March 29, 2010.
[vi] Kimball, Joe. “For newcomers, a place to feel at home. For 100 years, Neighborhood House on St. Paul’s West Side has served as a beacon for immigrants from around the world.” Star Tribune 11 August 1997.
[vii] Pierce, Lorraine E. St. Paul’s Lower West Side. Thesis (M.A): University of Minnesota, 1971.
[viii] Old West Side Improvement Association Files, 1960-1961. Neighborhood House Association Records. Minnesota Historical Society.

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
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.