Thursday, February 11, 2010

Twins baseball fans amid the ghosts of Minneapolis history

Minneapolis, Minnesota

When fans of the Minnesota Twins baseball team swarm to opening day ceremonies at the new Target Field on the north edge of downtown Minneapolis, Apr. 12, few will have any notion of the area's complex connections to people and pivotal events in the city's history.

Mere steps from the stadium's northwest corner once stood the Oak Lake subdivision, platted in 1880 near Olson Highway (6th Avenue North) and Lyndale Avenue with curving streets and some cul-de-sacs. The lake and its genteel neighborhood are long gone, as are the Jewish, black, and working-class white families that took up residence in successive waves as the original cachet waned.

Larry Millett, in Lost Twin Cities (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992), described the neighborhood's evolution and how, by the 1930s, the city had cleared Oak Lake and re-located the farmers' market there.

In Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City (242 pp, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010), author Iric Nathanson describes the role of land covenants and other implicit understandings that restricted minorities' residential choices to certain parts of the city. The experience and proximity of Jewish and black residents in the larger Oak Lake and Glenwood Avenue sector had important implications for the civil rights movement that unfolded in the second half of the 20th century in a city once known as the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.

My affinity for the area's history has a personal basis. The families of both my parents resided there at various times, and I was born at Glenwood and Penn avenues.

Earlier, on Jan. 23, 1937, when my grandparents lived at 506 Girard Avenue, my grandfather, Harry Hayden Peterson, was shot and killed a few blocks away at the Fresno Cafe, 1007 Sixth Avenue North. Joseph Taylor, the man who shot him in self-defense, lived a block away at 506 Fremont Avenue. Taylor was properly acquitted on Mar. 2, following a speedy trial. The case was a sensation in the newspapers because Taylor was one of the city's few black entrepreneurs and served as a role model in his community. Life was never the same afterward for the Taylors or for my grandmother and her four children.

By the early 1950s, according to Millett, the city regarded the area as its worst slum and, in 1954, demolished more than 660 structures in a 180-acre area between Glenwood Avenue and Olson Highway.

The intersection of First Avenue North and 6th Street, one block south of Target Field, was the scene in May 1934 of a strikebreaking confrontation between members of a Teamsters union local and 1,000 police deputies backed by commercial interests of the Citizens Alliance. Nathanson recounted the event as "one skirmish in a summer-long strike that provoked full-scale class warfare." The strikers eventually won the sometimes bloody struggle, breaking the monopoly of business interests on the city's power structure and balancing it with the interests of organized labor.

Nathanson includes chapters on more than 100 years of controversy about the structure of Minneapolis' city government; periodic bouts of corruption and indictment of mayors, council members, and police officers; and efforts to redevelop downtown, the neighborhoods, and the riverfront.

Baseball fans who will arrive and depart Target Field via the light rail trains may appreciate Nathanson's last chapter with its mind-numbing detail of how light rail mass transit arrived in the Twin Cities. Folks who have followed or fretted over the 13-year saga of the Shubert Theater's salvation and rehabilitation two blocks from the stadium don't know from nothing about perseverance in pursuit of civic goals.

For decades, municipal and state planners tried to build a freeway along Highway 55/Hiawatha Avenue, following an old route south from downtown to Fort Snelling and the airport. For more than a decade in the 1970s and 80s, hundreds and thousands of residents in south Minneapolis fought those efforts at city hall, at the legislature, and in congress, arguing in favor of an at-grade parkway that allowed for the possibility of light rail transit.

One dramatic confrontation occurred in the lobby of the downtown Federal Building late on a January evening in 1975, when 200+ residents took Congressman Donald Fraser to task for his vote in favor of funding freeway construction along the route. I was there! What Nathanson did not relate about the incident was the fact that residents chartered buses to the event at their own expense after Fraser's office had refused to schedule a meeting at a more convenient time and place. Light rail began running on the non-freeway, Hiawatha Avenue on June 26, 2004 – 29 years later!

In all of "Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century," I found but one factual error. On page 196, Nathanson relates that Rudy Perpich was elected Minnesota's governor in 1976. In fact, as lieutenant governor, Perpich assumed the office of governor on Dec. 29, 1976, following the resignation of Governor Wendell Anderson. Perpich then appointed Anderson to fill the United States Senate vacancy created by the election of Walter Mondale as vice president. Both Perpich and Anderson were defeated for election in November 1978.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to reading this book. I was at the Fraser meeting that night as well.

In retrospect, it turned out to be an important night in changing the Twin Cities mind set relative to urban freeways and made Light Rail Transit a viable option for Jesse Ventura and as they say the "rest is history". Over time many local goverment officials would change their tune on urban freeways and LRT. But on that night it was a tenacious group of people who took a bold action that made a difference. While it would be many years before before the alternative to the Hiawatha Freeway & LRT would become a reality ..perhaps that night was a tipping point in how local and metropolitan goverment units think about transit.

Dan Quillin