Snapshots from a lost neighborhood

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May 2, 2014
By: Kirsten Delegard
Kirsten Delegard

Few Minneapolitans realize that our city government has an attic. Climb into the tower of our Romanesque-style City Hall and you find a forgotten library. Nestled beneath the historic clock and carillon is an open atrium stretching four stories high. Wrought-iron railings circle the upper levels of this repository, which serves a morgue for the correspondence, reports, surveys, ledgers and diagrams no longer needed by the policymakers of today.

This important community resource sits waiting for researchers keen to understand the dark complexity of the city's past. Thanks to the hospitality of archives-keeper Bob McCune and funding from the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund at the state of Minnesota, a band of explorers associated with the Historyapolis Project have been surveying this collection over the last several weeks. This work is part of our larger effort during 2014 to document the sources available for narrating the history of Minneapolis.

Our first foray into the tower brought us a thick scrapbook of photos collected by an unknown employee in the city planning department. This compilation tracked urban redevelopment projects in the 1930s, when the city launched what would stretch into a three decade campaign to eliminate "blight." We've selected a few images to share here.

These photos show the twilight moments of Oak Lake Addition, a once-grand Victorian neighborhood that became the first target of city planners in the 1930s. This near North development had its glory years when Minneapolis was in its infancy. Its first residents were some of the city's most affluent professionals, like Dr. Augustus Harrison Salisbury, whose grandson Harrison Salisbury would grow up to become a world-famous foreign correspondent.

Residents established the city’s first neighborhood association, which built a small bandstand next to the tiny Oak Lake. And they created the city's second park, after Murphy Square. But the idyllic neighborhood was quickly overwhelmed by the growing city. Bordered by a growing network of railroads and an increasingly filthy Bassett Creek, Oak Lake addition rapidly fell from grace. People with means were pulled east by Loring Park, which had been designed in the 1880s by nationally-renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland.  By the first decade of the 20th century, the neighborhood on the edge of downtown had become, in the words of Harrison Salisbury, “the most alien corner of that most Middle Western city of Minneapolis.”

Salisbury grew up in his grandfather's house at 107 Royalston Avenue, when the neighborhood had lost the patina of prosperity. The budding journalist loved the racial and economic diversity of the Near North Side, later reflecting that this environment prepared him perfectly for his career as a foreign correspondent, especially his years in Soviet Russia. The corner of 6th and Lyndale was the center for Eastern-European Jewish life in the city while Salisbury was a boy. By the time he was in high school, the center of gravity for Jews had shifted north. This corner became the commercial and entertainment hub for the growing African American community in the city.

By the 1930s, the city viewed this racially-mixed corner of the city as an intolerable slum. It bulldozed its ramshackle Victorians at the nadir of the Great Depression. Its curving streets and tiny lake were buried in concrete, which served as the foundation for the city's new farmer's market. The farmer's market has survived to this day, though is now overshadowed by I-94, the product of another wave of urban redevelopment.

This forgotten neighborhood has been described in vivid terms by native son Salisbury and social investigators who were horrified by the conditions they encountered. But it was the subject of little photography. Which is why this collection of images — and the archives that has preserved it — is invaluable to our community as we try to understand the last century of planning and politics.

My thanks to Historyapolis citizen-researcher Rita Yeada, who digitized the photos shown here.

Kirsten Delegard is director of the Historyapolis Project, which is part of the history department at Augsburg College. The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. During 2014, Delegard is compiling an inventory of historical resources pertinent to Minneapolis with the help of a team of students and citizen-researchers associated with the Historyapolis Lab. For more details visit our website at www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject