A sprawling post about density

My grandmother did not speak English on the day, early in the Great Depression, when she started school in a one-room schoolhouse on the flat former beds of glacial Lake Agassiz. She spoke only Plattduutsch, a lingual hybrid of German, Dutch and English that her grandparents spoke even after coming to Minnesota from a comparably flat area of Germany.

The Itzen clan of Itzen Corner, Grant County. My grandmother is seated in front, far right, and frowning.

The farm she grew up on was electrified a few years before my grandmother graduated from high school, after her father had finally saved up enough for a windmill generator. which only powered one room.  My grandmother would disobey her father, one of the sternest-looking men in the photo above, who did not believe that women needed higher education, and go to a teacher’s college.  She graduated, of course, and couple decades later taught from the Atlas of Minnesota Resources and Settlement (at the Book House, a bargain for $20), which was produced in 1968 by the now-defunct State Planning Agency thanks to a grant from HUD.

And thanks to the thrifty habits of my grandmother, a child of the Depression, a copy of the Atlas in good condition is now in my possession.  Never before and never again was a compendium of this detail and quality of geographic information published in Minnesota.  My grandmother claims that these were quite common in classrooms in the Golden Age of Minnesota, the late 60s and early 70s.  I, on the other hand, had one semester of Minnesota history, in the 4th grade, and exactly zero semesters of education in the geography of Minnesota.

My grandmother writes her name on every book she has


I spend a lot of Sunday mornings paging through this book, and wish more than anything that its progression of thematic maps didn’t end in the 1960s.  For the sake of an exception that proves the rule, here is a progression of maps of passenger rail volume that might as well end in the 60s, since it was all downhill from there:

The craftsmanship and idiosyncrasy of these maps really pop off the page to eyes accustomed to the products of ArcGIS.  I guess that’s why the U of M named their map library after one of the authors.

One map in particular caught my attention in light of my recent obsession with density in Minneapolis.  It comes right after a map depicting the percentage of dwelling units that are multi-family in the Twin Cities (in 1950):

One of the things I love about maps is the thousand words thing, that they contain so much more than their title announces.  This map, for example, is not just a snapshot of apartments in one metro area at mid-century, instead when viewed in conjunction with the map on the next page, it tells an untold story of suburbanization:

That untold story is of apartment-dwelling suburban pioneers, and actually it won’t be told here either, since I’m interested in what these maps say about the central city of Minneapolis.  Just a glance back and forth at the two maps shows, for example, that density intensified in the center and spread south and west, rather than north.  But I’m less attracted to the isopleths than the weighted dots representing units added between 1960 and 1966.  Assuming the largest dot on the map is the same value as the largest dot in the legend, Minneapolis added 11,685 multi-family units in just those 6 or 7 years! That’s twice the rate of last year, considered a pretty good one for multi-family rentals, if not for other housing types.

It is also puzzling, considering that the 1970 census showed a 5,959 unit decline from the 1960 census.  I actually have been studying the density of multi-family housing units in Minneapolis by neighborhood and year for my downtown potential population project.  I have compiled the units per acre density for 343 buildings in Minneapolis – that includes just about every building built downtown last decade but doesn’t come anywhere near the total number built in the 60s – and found another 3,555 that were built from 1967 through 1970.

Even taking the low figure of 15,240 units built from 1960 to 1970, for the total units to have dropped by 6000, at least 20,000 housing units must have been destroyed in the 1960s! With an average household size of 2.7, that accounts for the entirety of the drop in population of 48,472 between the two censuses.

Speaking of the 1970 Census, while it doesn’t consider a 6000 unit decline worthy of mention, it does describe Minneapolis’ 10% drop in population.  Like a conspirator calling a victim’s cause of death “heart failure,” it blames the population decline on “outmigration.”  Migrating seems like an obvious course of action if your house is destroyed, huh?

So who or what was the culprit for this mass razing?  I first thought of that ancient nemesis of urban planners (and, of course, at one time valued friend) URBAN RENEWAL.  The only problem with that theory is that by the 1960s the Minneapolis HRA was finished with most of its clearance activities.  Some wrecking balls were still swinging in the Gateway District as late as 1961, but my understanding is that the small clusters of 19th century hotels that provided the dense housing were mostly gone by the last years of the 50s:

The map above does list one clearance project from the 60s, however.  I don’t know what the goal of renewal in the Grant neighborhood was, if there was a goal, but after several decades it ended up as some school buildings, a park, an expansion of the Sumner Field housing project (which of course was re-cleared a few decades later), and several still-vacant lots:

historic aerials

historic aerials

historic aerials

It is hard to tell exactly how many units were cleared in Grant, but the seven blocks cleared could not have totaled 6,000 units, much less 20,000. Urban Renewal must have had an accomplice, but lucky for us that accomplice may have unintentionally revealed itself at the top of those same photos. This accomplice was Urban Renewal’s partner in crime in cities throughout the US, and is even listed in the Urban Renewal map above, under the name Near North Side and the year 1968.

I’ve tried to imagine how the conversation went, “Your life sucks here in Minneapolis! Burn down your neighborhood and they’ll build you another one.”

Hy Rosen, quoted above, owned a store on Plymouth and Logan at the time of the riots that burned out most of the businesses in the neighborhood. He wasn’t the only one who connected the 1967 riots and the urban renewal activities that began a year later.  Here’s the contemporary NAACP president Matt Little, from a July 19, 2007, Star Tribune article, on the riots:

“Sometimes it takes extreme action to get things moving,” he said.

Within 10 years, Little said there were noticeable changes along Plymouth : A shopping mall with a pharmacy, a hardware store and a grocery store. Farther down, he recalled, new housing, a barber and beauty shop and a bank were established.

“The powers-that-be delivered on some of the things the community had been asking for,” said Little, who was involved with the Minneapolis NAACP for more than 40 years. “It woke up the establishment to the plight that some blacks were going through.”

He also noticed that some of the businesses that arrived in the ’70s were gone 20 years later.

As stated in the article, the businesses arrived in the 70s, suggesting that most of the renewal activities took place outside of the decade in question.  So if Urban Renewal and riots played a small part in the Great 60s Tear-Down, what played a large part?

To answer that question, I’m going to digress for a moment.  With the completion of the Crosstown Commons project, some media coverage called it the most expensive road project in Minnesota history.  That seemed unlikely to me, and sure enough, I-394 cost $450 million, a damn sight higher than the Crosstown’s $288 million (although the Crosstown is more expensive per mile).  394 is the only freeway I’ve been able to nail down the costs for, but it always seemed to me that 35W, which leveled some 40 square blocks of South Minneapolis, must have cost the most.

35W leveled 40 square blocks.  And when was 35W built?  1966 and 1967.

35W and 94 were routed right through some of the densest parts of the city, which at the time were considered loathsome slums and the people who lived there considered loathsome slum-dwellers.  When thousands are forced to move, they have to move somewhere, and likely the triggered the sort of succession patterns described in books like Making the Second Ghetto.  In other words, it is likely that the massive movement of population triggered by the destruction of freeway construction was a major impetus for white flight.





My grandma says good riddance to those crowded old neighborhoods.  She says good riddance to the 60s, too, a decade with too few highlights that did not involve her children.  But we still have to deal with the consequences of the decades of disinvestment that followed the destructive path of the freeways.  My former landlord Larry, a 40-plus year resident of Whittier, says that today the neighborhood is better than ever.  I hope it stays that way, but history is my guide, and that cuts both ways.

5 comments on “A sprawling post about density

  1. Froggie says:

    The Crosstown rebuild was the largest single contract awarded by MnDOT. True, I-394 was much costlier overall, but it was split into several different contracts.

    I-35W (to say nothing of the Lowry Hill Tunnel) would be obscenely expensive in today’s dollars. But keep in mind what inflation has done over the past 45 years.

  2. […] due mostly to the replacement of dense residential units downtown with parking lots, and I posted a couple months ago about how the 1960s likely saw the most residential units constructed in the postwar era, but it […]

  3. […] Dayton, I’m sure you remember the population drain in your hometown of Minneapolis when in the 60s tens of thousands of homes were destroyed to build the interstates, and many of those whose homes were taken resettled along the […]

  4. […] my assertions for once, and after spending some time looking at old aerials, I realized that even more freeway clearance was done in the 60s than I’d thought.  Besides the Northeast portion of 35W, which was built in the 70s but cleared in the 60s, much of […]

  5. Gregory Itzen says:

    Im almost positive that my grandfather is the young boy in front left of the family photo. I know for a fact having seen others of him, That is Nano Itzen my great grandfather with overalls in middle left. Sadly my grandfather passed away lost a year ago to the day. he was the best and taught me more about life and how to live it then anyone else has or probably ever could. He had a stern heart that cared, loved and respected all mankind. He used to tell me I taught him some things too. I thought that was very telling of his character. What could this well educated, hard working, well respected and dignified older man learn from a little kid? Apparently, a good amount! One story he used to tell was He was driving myself in the front next to him and my older brother in the back. i had rolled the windw down and my head was part of the way out wind blowing on my face. He saw this and snapped at me “Greg! You shouldn’t do that you know.” ” Bugs Sometimes hit the car that could be your face”. I turned head still out of the window and said “yeah, grandpa? and sometimes they don’t” he couldn’t help but laugh and say ” you’re right, Greg, sometimes they don’t”

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