How the neighborhoods got their shapes

In an undated photo from the HC Library, Herman Olson makes a convincing case for tearing it all down and building a freeway

Once upon a long, long time ago, Minneapolis didn’t have any neighborhoods.  Well, of course the city had neighborhoods, but they were the sort of organic shorthand referring to important intersections, like Cedar-Riverside or Chicago-Lake, you know, the kind of place that in the old world would have been called a square and given its own name.

In this amorphous pre-neighborhood era, all planning was handled by a grumpy old man named Herman Olson.  He spent his time thinking about where to put public markets and how to cram more cars into the downtown, but no one really put much stock into his recommendations, because no one could remember why he was qualified to say where stuff should go except that he had worked for the city for decades.  Since the City had plenty of other employees who’d also worked there for ages, Olson was frequently ignored.

And, in the late 50s, he was finally replaced.  The colleges of the day were churning out urban planners and giving them a scientific veneer and an interest in something called comprehensive planning, and Minneapolis received a typical product by the name of Lawrence Irvin.  No one really knew what comprehensive planning was, but the new planners were very insistent on doing it, and they got cracking by working on the Official Plan that was to be published in the fall of 1960 and to be heavily dependent on the concept of neighborhoods.

The earliest introduction to Irvin’s conception of neighborhoods that I can find is in a document with the amazingly dated title Minneapolis in the Motor Age, basically a book-length argument for why we need to subvert our lifestyles to accommodate cars.  He* starts with the reasonable observation that streets can “unify or divide related activities.”

Blobs are the answer

The idea that streets can unify or divide seems a platitude when you consider that depending on placement, any physical object can unify or divide any number of other objects.  So it’s a pretty big leap when on the next page Irvin declares that one of the “functions of importance” of streets to land use is to “provide a means to define Neighborhoods” (emphasis in the original).  What he’s after is the consolidation of vehicular traffic onto arterial streets, and he uses a cool chart to attempt to portray the severity of the problem of car-choked side streets:

Not too different from today, with our freeway, lower population and higher motorization rate

Irvin goes on to explain that arterial streets should not go through communities and neighborhoods because neighborhoods and communities “must not be divided by major physical features in such a way as to prohibit effective internal circulation” (emphasis again in the original).  Besides its circularity, this argument is notable because, in the midst of a document that proposes building wider and faster roads to accommodate the needs of the motor age, Irvin is acknowledging the ways that roads actually inhibit mobility.  But hey, he comes up with a far out map of a “hypothetical” community to illustrate his point:

North Anywhereville

Finally, Irvin drills down to the level of the neighborhood, sketching a almost kibbutz-like concept that can “support”  (he probably means justify) an elementary school and a park within a half-mile walk, includes a few stores but “separate[s] residential and non-residential districts.”  There’s a conceptual neighborhood drawing, too, but greyscale this time.  It shows street concepts like cul-de-sacs, diverters, and “safety walks”, but the only text about streets in neighborhoods is the now-repetitive admonition to route “Major streets around, not through the neighborhood” (emphasis yet again in original).

No room in the budget for some industrial brown?

After using all those pages and three full colors to illustrate his concept of communities and neighborhoods, Lawrence Irvin did not yet see fit to actually unveil how it would apply to the actual city.  After reading Minneapolis in the Motor Age you know you’re not supposed to route arterial streets through neighborhoods, but where are the neighborhoods you need to avoid?  Luckily Irvin didn’t wait long, as a couple months later The Official Plan – the city’s first comprehensive plan – was published, and included a map of communities and neighborhoods.

As you can see (if you squint enough to make sense of my terrible scan), Irvin came up with something pretty similar to today’s neighborhoods.  Note that the commercial intersections that heretofore had been the only differentiated points on the map are excluded altogether from the shading that denotes neighborhoods.  Despite the somewhat elaborate setup in Minneapolis in the Motor Age, the neighborhood boundaries weren’t Irvin’s creation but rather mostly reflected contemporaneous attitudes in the planning field.  They certainly had little to do with Minneapolis’ history as a streetcar suburb, and in many cases reflected an aspirational conception of which streets would become arterial (consider the extension of 36th St across South Minneapolis, despite the fact that it is only intermittently a collector east of Bryant and creates awkward boundaries near Powderhorn Park, later rectified).  In fact these aspirations created conflict with other city departments, specifically the transportation department.**

The plan came up with two stated purposes for inventing these neighborhoods – to serve as a conveniently small unit for planning and to be a platform for “citizen action” – that they were to fulfill in the major zoning overhaul that Irvin was shortly to launch, and they still fulfill them more or less to this very day.  And that is how the neighborhoods got their shapes.

City of parkways and freeways

*Irvin had a staff that was actually writing these documents, but it’s more convenient to my narrative to attribute it to him – and anyway, he as Director approved the plans.

**As told by Alan Altshuler in his classic The City Planning Process, which I’ve leaned on heavily for the outline of this history

Cross-posted at streets.mn.

2 comments on “How the neighborhoods got their shapes

  1. […] to my blog, Getting Around Mpls. Share […]

  2. Froggie says:

    I’m trying to figure out just where that map location is in that Herman Olson photo. It’s not coming to me…

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