Has the Park Board Neglected Northeast Minneapolis?

The argument is sometimes made, particularly by “Nordeasters,” that northeast Minneapolis is park poor and that the Minneapolis park board has neglected that part of the city.  “Underserved” seems to be the popular word. The idea even flowed as an undercurrent through the recent Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition. The thinking goes that ever since Minneapolis and St. Anthony merged in 1872, and took the name Minneapolis, power, money and prestige — not to mention amenities such as parks – have accumulated west and south of the river. (Read Lucille M. Kane, The Waterfall That Built a City, for a fascinating examination of why that might have happened.)

While writing recently about Alice Dietz and the marvelous programs she ran at the Logan Park field house I thought again about the perceived neglect of Northeast and whether it might be true. I concluded that it is not; northeast Minneapolis has been a victim of industry, topography and opportunity, but not discrimination or even indifference. What’s more, all those elements have now realigned, putting northeast Minneapolis in the position to get a far bigger slice of the park pie in the foreseeable future than any other section of the city.

Perhaps the strongest counter-argument to the perceived historical neglect of northeast is Logan Park. The park board chose Logan Park in 1912 as the site for the first real field house built in the city. It was far and away the most successful building ever constructed in a Minneapolis park; an honest judge couldn’t even award a second place in that category. (Okay, maybe Webber Pool.) South and southwest Minneapolis didn’t get anything like it for more than 50 years. Until the 1960s, Logan Park had the premier year-round recreation facility in the city, while most other parks had only rather sturdy warming houses. Hardly convincing evidence that the park board didn’t like Northeast.

It is true, however, that the Logan Park field house only cost the park board $32,000 to build — the Library Board kicked in another $8,000 — which doesn’t approach the million dollars spent on dredging and rearranging Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Nokomis.

The other park that has to be weighed in the neglect formula is Columbia Park. The purchase of land for Columbia Park in 1892 remains one of the park board’s biggest purchases ever in acres and dollars, aside from central riverfront acquisitions in more recent decades. Few single park purchases have exceeded Columbia Park’s price tag of $200,000, more than double what it cost to purchase Minnehaha Park three years earlier. Loring Park,  Glenwood Park (the second piece), The Gateway, Lake Hiawatha and Washburn Fair Oaks are the only more expensive purchases that come to mind. And the park board hasn’t purchased in one block more than Columbia Park’s 100-plus acres of dry land – in addition to the 40 wet acres of Sandy Lake — at any location other than Minnehaha Falls, Glenwood Park and golf course sites.

Columbia Park enters the  discussion in two other important ways: water and golf. The lopsided distribution of water resources between south and northeast has always been at the root of northeast/southwest disparities. Generations of park commissioners would argue that they developed the natural resources of the city — and for the most part those resources are in the south and southwest: the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Creek, Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha, Powderhorn Lake, Minnehaha Falls, the Mississippi River gorge. Even north Minneapolis has Wirth Lake, Birch Pond and Bassett’s Creek in the far west and Shingle Creek in the north. And it once had Oak Lake, too. All of those assets were developed, sometimes at considerable cost, sometimes at almost no cost.

Sandy Lake Doesn’t Hold Water

And what did Northeast Minneapolis have? Sandy Lake – still the cover image for “The Park Board Hates Northeast” coffee-table book. The story persists: Northeast’s very own lake, covering part of what is now Columbia Golf Course, was filled in by dredge spoils from Lake of the Isles. What a metaphor! Not only was Northeast’s only lake filled, destroyed, but it was done specifically so the Kenwood capitalists could have their own pretty lake instead of a malarial, miasmic swamp.

It’s an argument that doesn’t hold water, mostly because Sandy Lake didn’t. I went into some detail on why it’s not likely that Sandy Lake was filled with Lake of the Isles muck in the profile of Columbia Park on the park board’s website. I find the explanation credible that Theodore Wirth believed Sandy Lake would disappear with the installation of storm sewers in Northeast, robbing the lake of its only source of water. Therefore the decision to lower the storm sewers to drain the area made some sense. Remember that the thinking of the day didn’t allow for wetlands in populated areas. They were considered unsightly and unsanitary.

It would be wonderful to have Sandy Lake back, and in today’s world watersheds are handled quite differently – see the attention paid to run-off in the proposals generated by the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition — but that’s a long way from suggesting that Theodore Wirth and the park board of the 1910s robbed northeast Minneapolis of its lake out of spite. (Photos of Sandy Lake are hard to find suggesting that it wasn’t a very scenic spot in the wettest of times. Not even early photos of Columbia Park feature the lake.)

Would the fate of Sandy Lake have been different if Theodore Wirth’s house had been built at Columbia Park instead of Lyndale Farmstead? Perhaps, but it is worth noting that Wirth at one time tried to maintain a pond along King’s Highway at Lyndale Farmstead right outside his house there. When it became a swamp more often than a pond, he eventually got frustrated with it and drained it too.

Opportunists Most of All

The benefit to northeast Minneapolis of a drained Sandy Lake was the construction of a golf course on the reclaimed land. It was only the second golf course in Minneapolis, after the course at Glenwood (Wirth) Park. Northeast residents and realtors had campaigned for years to have a golf course at Columbia. The desiccation of Sandy Lake made that possible.

We can’t overlook the fact that the first three municipal golf courses were all in north or northeast Minneapolis. The Glenwood (Wirth) and Columbia courses were followed by the Armour (Gross) course. This concentration of golf courses in the north had little or nothing to do with neighborhood politics or rivalries, but reflected what the park board had or could get at little or no cost. Glenwood and Columbia parks were the park board’s only patches of dry land big enough to hold golf courses and the land for the Armour course came cheap. It was offered at very attractive terms with almost all of the upfront costs of developing the course paid by the Armour Company. The park board believed it could pay off the debt with income from the golf course. It eventually did but it took about 40 years longer than anticipated.

If nothing else, the history of Minneapolis park and recreation facilities demonstrates the extraordinary, shameless and, ultimately, triumphant opportunism of the park board: successive boards acquired land, facilities and capabilities as they popped up at little or no cost, which is why so many Minneapolis parks are on low, wet land that had to be filled or drained and no one else really wanted.

The northeast also fared okay in parkways not built beside water. The first such parkway, Kenwood Parkway, was built on donated land to connect Loring Park and the city center to the lake drives. It was the personal ambition of Charles Loring to make that connection and he acquired the land at very little cost to taxpayers. The second parkway not along water connected Glenwood to Camden (Webber) Park across the western and northern edges of the city. The connection of Camden to Columbia Park, St. Anthony Parkway, followed shortly after. It was the last section of the “Grand Rounds” to be completed, but it was also the most difficult owing to terrain and railroad tracks. Stinson Boulevard — the parkway that went nowhere – and the “Missing Link” in the Grand Rounds from Stinson to the Mississippi River are a separate issue.

Yes, St. Anthony Parkway would be prettier if it had a little creek meandering alongside it. Bad luck, but not evidence of underservice. Of course the really big, muddy creek that sometimes floods could have a parkway meandering alongside it — if you cared to ignore the industry and economy of early Minneapolis.  But that would be, well, ignorant. It is simply not realistic to complain about the lack of parkways along the Mississippi River above the falls. Better to praise the park board for preserving the river gorge below the falls – a great bit of foresight, thank you Horace Cleveland – than complain about what it never could have done, which was to chase industry and the railroads from the river banks at and above the falls.

To recap: for decades northeast Minneapolis had the most useful (only) year-round park building in the city, the biggest park outside of Glenwood (Wirth) Park, and two of the city’s first three golf courses. It also had its section of the Grand Rounds city-encircling parkway. In terms of neighborhood parks and playgrounds the northeast seems to have been treated fairly with Logan, Windom, Jackson Square,  Beltrami, Marshall Terrace, Bottineau, Audubon, Waite, Cavell, Northeast, Dickman… I think, in fact, that you could make a pretty good argument that northeast got the best of neighborhood parks and playgrounds. (The relative importance of neighborhood v. “regional” parks should be debated more openly at some point too. Big, splashy, design-intensive parks get the private funding these days — an absolute necessity for park improvements — but that doesn’t mean they are the most important parks in a city.)

Accessible Water

What the northeast didn’t have was accessible, scenic water. And that has now changed. The impact may have been felt sooner had it not been for the botched development of Boom Island in the late 1980s. Boom Island with its vast barrenness and toy lighthouse has never been the park it might have been. I’m no landscape architect, but the sagacity of Horace Cleveland’s advice in his “suggestions” for Minneapolis’s park system seems transparent.

“All expenditures on ornamental gardening, and especially for artificial structures in the form of rustic buildings, bridges, grottoes, fountains, statues, vases, etc. is not only needless as being out of keeping with the rude condition of the surroundings, but while so many urgent demands exist for works of actual necessity, would indicate such incongruity and deficiency of taste as that of the individual who adorns his person with jewelry before he is provided with comfortable clothing…The beauties of nature may be had almost without cost and without fear of shams. Do not profane them by the introduction of cheap decorations.”

– Horace Cleveland, Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis, June 2, 1883

If he’d thought of it, I’m sure Cleveland would have included little fake lighthouses in his list of things to avoid building in parks. The decison makers at the park board, city hall and private foundations should be reminded of Cleveland’s advice as they pursue myriad, sometimes disjointed park projects downtown and along the river today.

Northeast Minneapolis is really now getting its first chance to have a water-based park. The time is finally right. The park board owns a couple chunks of riverfront and the state has development funds to begin to turn the river banks in northeast Minneapolis into something – at least into the best thing that creative minds outside Minneapolis can think of. But that’s usually when Minneapolis parks have advanced the most.

Horace Cleveland, Theodore Wirth, Robert Ruhe: opinionated, brusque outsiders who made enemies — and made things happen. I don’t believe any of them had anything against northeast Minneapolis. Ruhe built recreation centers and increased programs everywhere in the city. Cleveland and Wirth proposed more for northeast than was ever accomplished. Cleveland suggested a driving park along the upper river in northeast. Wirth proposed landscaping the river banks, even if the railroads owned the land, and developing a swimming beach at Marshall Terrace, a plan which ultimately proved untenable due to treacherous river currents. (See the plans in the 1915 annual report.) In their times, northeast Minneapolis was just not where the most desirable and doable park projects happened to reside.

That is different now. We once again have outsiders: Jayne Miller, the new park superintendent, came from Michigan and the grand ideas in the riverfront design competition came from design firms far and farther, Boston to Beijing. (Interesting then that the plans were fundamentally similar. A new orthodoxy?) And this time the most desirable and doable place for park projects is northeast Minneapolis.

Boom Island, B. F. Nelson, Sheridan Memorial, the Scherer site. These and a mighty river are marvelous raw materials to work with, the equal of those in south and southwest Minneapolis more than a century ago. The result could put to rest the notion that  northeast Minneapolis has been shortchanged in the parks department. These new parks may be quite different from the water-based parks elsewhere in Minneapolis, but I hope they will be as loved as the parks created by earlier park boards. The goal then was to preserve river banks and lake shores for public use. Mission accomplished. The goal now is to rebuild, reclaim, rediscover and reunite people with the natural resources presently accessible. That is within reach now for a new generation of park opportunists.

North Minneapolis, you’re next. Your opportunity will come.

David C. Smith   minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com

© David C. Smith

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2 comments so far

  1. S Petersen on

    well the sewers couldn’t hold the rain that fell today… If you look at the Columbia Golf course today, it is flooded… so would it have drained? I don’t think so. And, if it was designed by nature to be a holding pond of sorts that would dry up in times of drought, shouldn’t we have just left it alone? Now we have man-made one across from Edison. Hmmmm. maybe all the rain from up the hill was suppose to collect in Lake Sandy and not in the sewars and lower NE streets and basements…Maybe Lake Sandy was to slowly drain and filter the water into the Mississippi… A house used to sit on the lake… not a dry bed.. The Park Board has neglected NE. Look at our Parkway.. all surrounded by industry…. was it there before the Parkway or was it allowed to be built?

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for your comments.

      As I noted, Sandy Lake would be managed quite differently today than it was 100 years ago, when wetlands were considered undesirable in populated areas, but the city’s raw sewage still went straight into the river! A lake or wetland would be a great addition to northeast, although some golfers probably wouldn’t want to give up what they have instead in Columbia Park.

      As for industry near parkways, the park board has never controlled zoning — and never opposed commercial or industrial development very effectively even when it did object. The city’s first planning commission and zoning regulations were introduced shortly before St. Anthony Parkway was built, which means the city had begun a process to deal with land-use issues that emerged after the parkway was there. Perhaps that’s why there is no industry along the parkway from Columbia Park to Stinson Boulevard. Of course, the railroad tracks and yards were there long before the parkway.

      David C. Smith


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