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RIVER LIFE

Living with the Mississippi: Health and Housing 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.

In my post on Dr. Kilvington’s dumping ground I discussed the health risks specific to the Bohemian Flats, though most of the river flats communities faced similar challenges with health and poverty. Some of these risks were direct effects of the proximity to the river, while others stemmed from the basic nature of low-income neighborhoods. In 1917, Carol Aronovici, Director of Social Service for the Wilder Foundation, wrote a report about the housing conditions in St. Paul. This study, which focused on slum housing, consistently ranked Swede Hollow, the Upper Levee, and the West Side Flats as having some of the worst conditions in the entire city.

“Flooding in Bohemian Flats.” Taken by Karen Bayliss in June, 1929. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. (Note the trash lining the banks of the river.)

“Flooding in Bohemian Flats.” Taken by Karen Bayliss in June, 1929. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. (Note the trash lining the banks of the river.)

The districts were rated and compared for a number of attributes, including access to city water, sewers, and bathing facilities, presence of ash cans or garbage cans, degree of crowding, amount of light and ventilation, and extent of rubbish on lawn. The flats communities consistently ranked below average on these conditions, particularly the Upper Levee, which completely lacked bathing facilities, access to city water or a sewer, garbage cans, or ash cans.[i] Pictures of the West Side Flats and Swede Hollow appeared in the report; the former was called out for the dilapidated boarding houses lining State, Robertson, and Wabasha Streets, while Swede Hollow was noted for its sanitation issues, as the residents had constructed their outhouses above Phalen Creek to use the stream as their sewer.[ii]

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Taken by Albert Charles Munson in 1910. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Note the outhouses over the creek on the right side of the photo.)

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Taken by Albert Charles Munson in 1910. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Note the outhouses over the creek on the right side of the photo.)

Though the city of Minneapolis did not conduct an extensive survey like St. Paul, the Bohemian Flats was discussed in a 1915 examination of housing in Minneapolis. This report noted the limited supply of water at the flats, specifically citing a pump at the Bohemian Flats continued to provide water to much of the community though it had been condemned two years earlier.[iii] Contaminated water would have likely been a problem at many of the flats communities, as most of the residents received their water from pumps and springs. Spring floods would not only fill the homes with unsanitary silt and water, but also could have flooded these water sources, contaminating their water supply as well.

“Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The lack of clean water, sewer systems, and garbage facilities, as well as the overcrowding of homes, provided the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases, resulting in a number of outbreaks in these communities. The health and housing conditions at the river flats settlements provide a departure from the more common, nostalgic narratives, providing insight into the physical problems these immigrant communities were facing.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] Ibid.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

Living with the Mississippi: Dr. Kilvington’s Dumping Ground

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.

In 1890, the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company ordered that the City of Minneapolis stop dumping their garbage directly into the Mississippi River, giving them only a few days to find a new place to dispose of waste.[i] Barred access to the river, Dr. Kilvington, head of the Minneapolis Board of Health, and his sanitation committee found a loophole by depositing trash on the banks of the Mississippi instead. It was determined that the flats beneath the Washington Avenue bridge would provide a satisfactory location for the dump, “away from the settled city.”[ii] This facility, described in an appropriately titled Minneapolis Tribune article about the flats called “Life at the Dump,” was extremely hazardous to the health of the residents at the Bohemian Flats.

“S.S. Kilvington.” Taken by W.H. Jacoby and Son in approximately 1885. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“S.S. Kilvington.” Taken by W.H. Jacoby and Son in approximately 1885. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The reporter describes the odor of the dump in great detail: “The smell though was extremely picturesque. It had frills and fancy trimmings all over it. The outer zone was gently suggestive of eggs which had become passé. Then there was wafted in an odor reminding one of a Bridge square restaurant; this was soon reinforced by foul exhalations from decaying fruit and vegetables, and the center of the atmospheric pollution was a combination of all these smells and every other that could offend the olefactory sense.”[iii] The author goes on to condemn the dumping of garbage into the river as an illegal offense, and discusses the implications of these practices on the nearby community.

The residents of the Bohemian Flats were not the only people affected by the dumping ground. Not surprisingly, this new riverside location did not remedy the Mississippi’s water quality issues. An 1894 report found that the water, which approximately 100,000 Minneapolis residents drank, was extremely contaminated. Report author and chemist Charles W. Drew attributed the major disease outbreaks to this problem, noting that the water’s quality was one of the city’s most important issues.[iv] The garbage at the Bohemian Flats was routinely washed into the river by spring floods, which not only contaminated the water, but also temporarily left the city without a place to put their waste.[v]

In 1899, the State Board of Health ordered Kilvington’s replacement, C.T. Frane, to find a new location for the city dump, after closing the location at the flats. This article noted that city residents had been dumping their “cess-pools” (toilet waste) beneath the bridge in addition to trash.[vi] Around the same time, a similar dumping ground at the East Side Flats beneath the 10th Avenue Bridge was closed; however, it seems that these decisions were concerned solely with the water quality of the Mississippi River. The residents of these communities were rarely mentioned in the articles. Though one story discusses a petition from the Bohemian Flats residents asking to remove the dump from their community, the government, “recognizing nothing could be done at once,” filed the petition and seemed to promptly forget the complaint.[vii]

Though the residents at the flats predated the garbage dump by over two decades, it reflected negatively on the community, rather than the people who put their garbage next to a residential area. It leads one to wonder about the role of the government in creating an unfavorable place. What responsibility did the city and the city’s residents take for this trash heap? Why did it become synonymous with the flats residents when the majority of the garbage did not belong to them? The Bohemian Flats was already a place where disease and poverty ran rampant, but the presence of this city dump would have made life much more unbearable.

Footnotes:

[i] “In the City: The City to Be Without a Place to Dump Its Garbage After Tuesday of this Week.” Minneapolis Tribune 30 April 1890.
[ii]“That Garbage Dump: The Health Officers Think the New Site Will Answer.” Minneapolis Tribune 26 August 1890.
[iii] “Life at the Dump.” Minneapolis Tribune 26 April 1892.
[iv] “River Water Report.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 June 1894.
[v] “It’s Quite Serious: The City Has No Place to Dump Garbage.” Minneapolis Tribune 22 May 1892.
[vi] “The Court Says, Stop!” Minneapolis Tribune 1 September 1899.
[vii] “At the Top Again.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 May 1892.

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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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.

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

Living with the Mississippi: Life on a Floodplain

January 8, 2015Rachel HinesFormer Featured Posts, Guest PostsComments Off on 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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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/

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.

Living with the Mississippi

December 4, 2014Rachel HinesFormer Featured Posts, Guest PostsComments Off on 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. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

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

December 2, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on 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.

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.