In the Twin Cities, there is always a touch of nostalgia about river-adjacent communities such as the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis, or the Little Italy community on St. Paul’s Upper Levee. Now that the river is much cleaner than it was a century ago, and water levels are regulated through a series of locks and dams, it is fairly easy to romanticize riverside life. In fact, many people have moved into new residential developments along the Mississippi River, in some cases living where earlier generations were flooded out decades ago. Other spaces have become parks, as both Minneapolis and St. Paul have devoted considerable funding and energy to creating public access to the Mississippi.
But there is a lot to say about these spaces, both about how people lived there in the past, what happened to these communities, and what the subsequent redevelopment or creation of park space says about a city’s priorities now. As a historian by training and temperament, my first start always is to try to understand what actually happened in a particular place. Were Bohemian Flats residents really driven off the land at gunpoint, as an overly enthusiastic student once wrote in a public history project? (Probably not) Was the Flats community really marked by excessive rowdiness and violence? (Maybe, newspaper accounts differ).
Fortunately, in the case of the river-adjacent communities in the Twin Cities, there is an excellent series of online articles that cover many of the details of peoples’ lives in these places. Independent scholar Rachel Hines turned her undergraduate Honors thesis at the University of Minnesota into a broad-ranging series that examines many, many aspects of life in the various “flats” communities. The series, which can be found in the University of Minnesota’s Digital Conservancy, is solidly grounded in deep archival research, which provides evidence for interpretations of life with the Mississippi during the 20th century. In my case, Hines’s work offers key insights into two questions of ongoing concern: How has the Mississippi River been materially altered to fit what people think they need from it? Secondly, who has initiated changes in the river corridor, and who has had those changes forced upon them?
Illustrating the realities of living literally in a floodplain, this image from 1898 shows a flood at the Bohemian Flats.
This post can’t explore every aspect of both of those questions, so short examples will have to suffice. Hines writes that in 1931, after most of the houses and people had been removed from Bohemian Flats, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers raised the ground level by dredging the riverbed and depositing the dredged material where the houses had been. A seawall was added to stabilize the shore edge, and the site was ready for use as a municipal barge terminal for Minneapolis.
A similar pattern of removing residents for commercial/industrial riverfront development took place in St. Paul some three decades later. As the St. Paul Port Authority and the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority began to acquire parcels on the West Side Flats for conversion to industrial use, neighborhood residents mobilized. They formed a community group, and worked with the long-time community aid center Neighborhood House to try to ensure that their voices and concerns were addressed.
Rachel Hines’s work achieves what good scholarship aims to do: complicate the stories that we think we know, and help us see patterns of continuity and change that are part of the questions we face now. Equity on the Minneapolis riverfront is coming to the fore once again, as the increasingly visible debates about the city’s Upper Harbor Terminal site make clear. Anna Bierbrauer, writing in the digital journal Open Rivers, argues that the redevelopment of the Upper Harbor Terminal site, and the upper riverfront more broadly, will require the city to re-think what it means by “city,” by “park,” and what the river itself means. Downstream in St. Paul, the flood of 2019 was the eighth highest on record, and the river remained in flood stage for longer than 40 days. The hundreds of millions of dollars in new residential development in the old flats communities stayed dry, but with climate change promising ever greater flood risks, that could change.
A sage river man remarks that “the river always bats last,” meaning, for those of you not versed in baseball rules, that it always has the final say. The work of Rachel Hines, and scholars yet to come explores for us the ways we have tried to live with the Mississippi, and, often, how we have failed to listen to it.