Concrete Jungle

Highways and Rivers

Minneapolis is divided into four parts: Northeast, Downtown, North, and South. Northeast—formerly a destination for East European immigrants, now for middle class families and hipsters—is cut off from the rest of the city by the Mississippi River. Downtown—formerly home to prostitutes and semi-destitute single men, now to a few young professionals and hip retirees in luxury apartments—is a triangle between the river to the north and I-94 to the south and west. North—home to most of the city’s black people—has I-94 to the east and Theo Wirth Park to the west. And South—the largest and most diverse part of the city, home to immigrants, middle-class blacks, and most of the city’s whites, including its wealthiest—is bordered by the river, always the river, and Route 62 to the south. Instead of skirting the neighborhood, like the highways in other parts of the city, I-35 runs right through the middle, straight as a surgeon’s incision.

People tend to stay in their own neighborhood or go downtown for work and nightlife. Northeast seems far from South Minneapolis—in large part because the only way to reach it is by car, bike, or highly inefficient bus lines—but North is like another country. The rest of Minneapolis hears reports from its interior, but have little reason to visit. Its public high school was almost shut down and now has just a couple hundred students, a fraction of its old enrollment. When, for the second time in six months, a young child was killed by bullets passing through the wall of his house—I wasn’t surprised to read the chief of police imply that most city residents would respond with indifference: “The larger public in the United States doesn’t really care what happens in the inner city. It’s a population that they don’t care about.”

My own sense of isolation from the Northside may be enhanced by my neighborhood’s ambiguous geographic relationship to the rest of the city. Stevens Square does not fit well into the Minneapolis quadrant. In the early 20th Century, when most of its multi-story brick apartment buildings were constructed, Stevens Square was a seamless extension of downtown. It is still the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, with a crowded, urban feel found nowhere else in Minneapolis. But since the 1960s, Stevens Square has been cut off from downtown by man-made canyons and high-speed streams of mobile steel. It is now a peninsula at the confluence of two great thoroughfares.

Interstate 94 is the lesser highway, traversing the upper Midwest and connecting Lake Michigan to the Rocky Mountains. Interstate 35 connects Minneapolis to the world through the port of Duluth—where great ships navigate the North Atlantic and the Saint Lawrence Seaway to pick up loads of taconite and wheat—and to Brownsville, TX, a busy border crossing. For years, Mexican immigrants traveled up the highway for work at the meat-processing plants of southern Minnesota. Today, with jobs disappearing, express buses are bringing the immigrants home, and it is cheap Mexican drugs coming north. Thousands of people in Northern Mexico are tortured and assassinated every year to meet the United States’ demand for drugs, and in North Minneapolis drug sellers are coping with shrinking profit margins by robbing old people.

But Stevens Square sits high above the highways and their turbulent interchange.

When Liz and I stroll through Overlook Gardens, the traffic below us sounds like rushing water, reminding us of the rivers that are the reason this region has hosted human settlements for 10,000 years. Clovis, Folsom, and Plano stone points have all been found at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Like I-35, these cultures spanned the continent. Folsom points are named for Folsom, New Mexico, where they were first discovered.

In 1680, Father Louis Hennepin was leading a group of explorers in search of a Northwest Passage and the source of the Mississippi when they were captured by the Dakota Indians, whose land they were crossing. When the Dakota brought their captives to the confluence of the rivers, Hennepin and his men became the first Europeans to see the great waterfall the Dakota called Minerara, O-Wa-Mni, Owahmenah, and Haha Tank (meaning, respectively, Curling Water, Whirlpool, Falling Water, and Big Waterfall).

Hennepin reported seeing a Dakota praying to Oanktehi, the spirit of waters and evil, who lived under the falls. The man was requesting safe passage, good hunting, and success in battle. 

Hennepin promptly named the falls after his patron saint, Anthony of Padua, from whom we request the recovery of lost items and missing persons. Anthony was famed for his oratory. When his remains were disinterred in 1263, thirty years after his death, his “flesh was found reduced to dust but the tongue uninjured, fresh, and of a lively red colour.”

Anthony was known as Malleus hereticorum, the Hammer of the Heretics, for his efforts to eliminate heretical sects from northern Italy, but he was also active in a campaign against unfair lending practices: “Invited to preach at the funeral of a usurer, he took for his text the words of the Gospel: ‘Where thy treasure is, there also is thy heart.’ In the course of the sermon he said: ‘That rich man is dead and buried in hell; but go to his treasures and there you will find his heart.’ The relatives and friends of the deceased, led by curiosity, followed this injunction, and found the heart, still warm, among the coins.”

He used his political influence to lobby for a law, passed by the Municipality of Padua on March 15, 1231, to aid debtors who defaulted on their loans.

Though the falls were renamed, the land remained the property of the Ojibwe and Dakota until it was finally acquired by the U.S. through a treaty in 1838. Soon sawmills powered by the falls were receiving lumber floated from the great northern forests upriver and sending them downriver as finished boards.

The area was fully opened to industry in the 1850s, after the U.S. bought 24 million acres for 1.6 million dollars through a treaty that begins: “It is stipulated and solemnly agreed that the peace and friendship now so happily existing between the United States and the aforesaid bands of Indians, shall be perpetual.” That summer, 7,000 Dakota were moved to two reservations along the Minnesota River. Deprived of their land, they depended on products sold by white traders. The treaties stipulated that the Indians would be paid yearly annuities, but traders colluded with the government to garnish most of each payment. When the Federal government entered the Civil War, it quit paying the annuities, the traders refused to extend the Indians any credit, and hunger set in.

Within a few years, some Dakota began murdering settlers. The U.S. Dakota War of 1862 climaxed with thirty-nine Dakota executed in one mass hanging and over 6,000 people displaced to North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Canada, an exodus that culminated in 1890 at Wounded Knee. Meanwhile at the falls of St. Anthony, sawmills now covered both sides of the river, their owners cooperating on hasty but ambitious tunnels and spillways that increased water flow but completely obliterated the falls and nearly sank Nicollet island.

After a few decades the northern timber was nearing exhaustion, and flourmills replaced lumber mills. For fifty years, Minneapolis produced more flour than any city in the nation. The decline began with the opening of the Panama Canal. The great Minneapolis mills’ profit margins shrank as it became cheaper to ship products around the country by sea than through the Midwest by rail. The last flourmill closed in the mid-1960s, just as the interstate highways were being constructed, displacing the rivers and railways as the city’s most important transportation routes.

The route of the rivers was shaped when much of Minnesota and southern Canada lay under a vast glacial lake. At the site of St. Anthony Falls, a mantle of hard limestone covered a weak layer of shale and soft sandstone. A waterfall 175 feet high and half a mile wide washed away the weakest areas and created the river’s present course. When the planning commissioners and highway engineers arrived 12,000 years later to decide how the highways would flow through the city, they followed the example of the river and chose the paths of least resistance.

As I mentioned in a post about the K-Mart in the center of Nicollet Avenue, most of us take the features of our urban landscape for granted. We accept their presence, no matter how inconvenient, and rarely stop to consider why and how the decisions were made to put them where they are. When I lived in South Minneapolis, this was how I felt about the vast canyon of I-35 and the soundproofing walls that cut the neighborhood in half.

The neighborhood is now connected by bridges about every four blocks.

Not long ago, Liz and I were riding down 46th Avenue when we passed a house with a tasteful stone marker in its yard. We learned it was the home of Arthur Lee, a veteran of World War I, and his wife Edith, who bought it in 1931 and became the first black family to own a home in South Minneapolis. In Chicago and other northern cities hosting an influx of blacks seeking work and fleeing Jim Crow and the very real fear of publicly sanctioned murder, racist white mobs routinely kept black families out of their neighborhoods with threats, firebombs, and violence. But in a true display of Minnesota Nice, the local neighborhood association actually offered to buy the house from the Lees for $300 more than they had originally paid. The Lees refused to sell.

“Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country,” Arthur Lee told the Star-Tribune. “I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home.”

On a July night shortly after the Lees moved in, 4,000 whites surrounded the house, screaming obscenities and throwing rocks. 

Night after night, thousands of whites showed up to intimidate the Lees and a handful of armed white neighbors who stood on the property in solidarity with the black family. The Lees eventually did move out. But it was the first and last time a white mob would gather in Minneapolis to harass blacks trying to move into their neighborhood.

In her recent memoir, The Grace of Silence, NPR host Michele Norris describes how South Minneapolis became a destination for black middle class families seeking to own a home. The hundreds of families who managed to do so overcame challenges no white families had to face. Until 1968, the Federal Housing Administration not only refused to guarantee a loan to a black person, it downgraded the rating of every mortgage in any neighborhood that contained a black-owned home or seemed about to contain one. The white mobs that enforced the extreme geographic segregation we still see in most northern cities were just as motivated by financial self-interest as by simple racism. It was government policy to destroy the value of their homes if they allowed a black person to become their neighbor. As it had done to the Dakota two hundred years before, the government colluded with lenders to destroy a community by denying it credit.

To become homeowners in places like Chicago, many blacks had to accept exploitive contracts that routinely charged double what the home was worth, required larger down-payments than most whites could afford, and allowed the owner to take the property back if a single payment was missed. Books like Family Properties and American Apartheid document how government policy and exploitive lending practices forced would-be black homeowners to take in renters, ignore home maintenance, and work multiple jobs just to keep from defaulting on their monthly payments. Because of the uniformity of usurious lending practices, whole neighborhoods were filled with homes that were overcrowded and falling apart. And in Illinois and elsewhere, blacks could not become lenders themselves to offer fair rates because they were explicitly barred from becoming mortgage lenders.

Underfunded neighborhood schools began taking half the students in the mornings and half in the afternoons, meaning that at any given time, half of all the children in the neighborhood were unsupervised. By the 1960s, the mills and factories that had recruited black workers from the south were closing in Minneapolis and many other industrial northern cities. Workers were laid off in large numbers, and because they all lived in the same neighborhoods, the extreme concentration of poverty meant the businesses in those neighborhoods were likely to fail as well. Most of the features that now define the inner city—near-perfect racial segregation, overwhelmed schools, high poverty and unemployment, low rates of homeownership, poorly maintained and abandoned buildings—can be traced to the perfectly legal lending policies practiced by nearly every respectable bank and business in the northern United States for much of the 20th Century. And unlike in 13th Century Padua, there were no saints performing miracles to condemn lenders.

I grew up in the lone white neighborhood in Petersburg, Virginia, a city whose population is 80% black. I’ve spent much of my life wondering why black neighborhoods and chocolate cities struggle so consistently with the same problems of crime, drugs, poverty, and neglect. We tend to search for answers in the present decisions of individuals. No one ever suggested to me, and it certainly never occurred to me, that the effects of mortgage lending practices half a century ago would still be actively unfolding today. “While certain kinds of suffering are readily observable—and the subject of countless films, novels, and poems—structural violence all too often defeats those who would describe it,” writes Paul Farmer in Pathologies of Power. Farmer is explaining that although someone might die of HIV, be murdered by a gang, or tortured by a government, those direct, contingent killers and victims are just the final stages of a much larger mechanism that is not only responsible for those deaths, it makes them inevitable. Responsibility lies not only with the immediate actor—the gangster, the torturer, the slumlord—but with everyone who profits from the system that creates the gangster and the slumlord.

In Chicago, breaking up the contract home-lending system that left thousands of middle-class black families penniless and homeless was nearly impossible because the banks were packaging the contracts as investments and selling them to the city’s wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected citizens. Liberals and conservatives were not only financially invested in a system that destroyed black communities, they were morally invested. Admitting financial culpability for the contracts would mean admitting moral culpability for creating the ghetto and condemning people to life in it. There was a powerful psychological incentive to keep black people out of sight and out of mind. Farmer: “The suffering of individuals whose lives and struggles recall our own tends to move us; the suffering of those who are ‘remote,’ whether because of geography or culture, is often less affecting.”

In Minneapolis, blacks were restricted to certain neighborhoods not through mob violence but the more polite practice of steering: a variety of actions by real estate agents, homeowners, and landlords to steer black people to homes in already black neighborhoods. A 1968 report to the Minneapolis City Council describes the city’s real estate market as “a shadowland of subterfuge and evasion, where possibly discriminatory and frustrating encounters multiply [until] too many frustrations, over too long a period… erode the energy needed to escape patterns of segregation.” Some examples of incidents reported in Minneapolis and its suburbs:

“… one of the neighbors threatened bodily harm to the salesman if he sold the house to a Negro.”

“… owner of the house refused to answer the door because he was a Negro.”

“When he called to inquire about an apartment the owner asked him if he was a Christian and was he white.”

“… upon her assertion that she was Negro was told that the address of the property could not be given to her, whereupon the phone was promptly hung up.”

 “… owner also said… before he would put a minority person in this building he would let it stand vacant.”

As a result of actions like these, blacks were concentrated in a few neighborhoods scattered across the city, shown in this map from the 1960 census.

Near-North, in the upper left, offers a glimpse into what these neighborhoods were like. According to the report it was:

“… a district with definite social and physical problems, for both white and non-white residents. A young, non-white (predominantly Negro) population faces serious problems of family disorganization, limited education, low income, lack of job skills and unemployment. A somewhat older white population of larger, more stable families displays many of the same problems, although to a lesser degree. About half of the Negro-occupied, largely rental housing is sub-standard; white occupied housing is little better.”

The other black neighborhoods scattered across the city had similar reports for black residents, though their white neighbors were often doing much better.

However, as the report explains, the long corridor of black housing distinctly visible in South Minneapolis was “… an exception to most of the above generalizations. Composed of slightly older and definitely more stable Negro families, it parallels the adjacent and city white population in education, income, and employment rates. A larger proportion of its homes are owner-occupied, and in better condition, than in the average white neighborhood. Only in occupational status do its Negro residents appear less advantaged.”

The “subtle” structural violence of steering successfully forced black people into small pockets scattered across the city, but it failed to concentrate them away from whites. Then, in the early 1960s, the coming I-35 and I-94 created an opportunity to practice a blunter form of geographical engineering; I’ll call it infrastructural violence. Here is where they placed the the new federal highways:

This is what they did to a block-wide swathe of Minneapolis’s most prosperous and populous black neighborhood:

And this is what a map of Minneapolis’s black population (courtesy of the great researchers at Minnesota Compass) looks like today:

In 1960 Near North was 55% black and 45% white. In 2010 it was 56% black and 14% white. A neighborhood that used to be the poorest in town for whites and blacks equally is now inhabited in near-perfect segregation by blacks and other people of color. Before they built the highways, no black people lived above Broadway Ave. Now most of Minneapolis’s black community, including the family of Nizzel George, fills North Minneapolis to the borders of the city.

Police recently charged a seventeen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old with shooting Nizzel as he took a nap. An article in the Star-Tribune blames a “culture of silence and retribution” for the five-year-old’s death: Nizzel, the two boys who shot him through the walls of his house, and all the other children of North Minneapolis are growing up in a neighborhood that has been geographically and normatively severed from the city of Minneapolis. The killers belonged to one of North’s multiple gangs of armed children engaged in continuous blood-feuds with each other in the streets and on Facebook. As one police officer explained to the Star Tribune: “They consider it to be kind of a fact of life that people get killed, that houses get shot up, that adults go to prison, and therefore those things are not a deterrent.”

Nizzel lived and died in a house less than four miles from my apartment, a thirty-minute bike ride. The seventeen-year-old who shot up Nizzel’s home lived just two blocks away from it. Two blocks beyond it, I-94 carries streams of commuters from their jobs downtown to their homes in the outer-ring suburbs. The neighborhood beyond the highway is nearly invisible behind a soundproofing wall that forms the eastern boundary of North Minneapolis.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.