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I-35W Disrupted Minority Community, Boxed-in Phillips

By Wizard Marks. This article first appeared in The Alley in August, 1990.


Building 35W and I-94 was the project which later, when the Model Cities program came along, allowed the city more easily to define Phillips by its present boundaries. While 35W is a straight line north from the Iowa border, I-94 bubbles around the south side of Prospect Park. According to Judith Martin, Director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Minnesota, Prospect Park had a sense of neighborhood identity for a long time, due in part to the railroad lines which described one side of it, to the hill which constitutes it, to the activism of its residents but also due to the fact that, then Mayor, Art Naftalin lived there.


"It's a matter of least resistance and best economy," Martin says, "35W coming out of downtown is a straight line through what looked, in the fifties and sixties, like land that wouldn't be too expensive to acquire."


Under the Eisenhower administration, in the heyday of the Cold War, the federal government decided to fund a massive interstate highway project ostensibly to move troops and military equipment from one city to another. However, they apparently didn't think beyond that goal because, when doling out the money to the states, the Feds left it to state discretion to decide how and where the freeways would be built.


"They [engineers] are paid to design and build freeways," Martin says. "The social impacts of major infrastructure decisions do not loom large in the landscape of thinking about these things."


The German autobahn is the model for American freeways, but the autobahn doesn't go through Munich or Berlin or Bonn, it stops outside the cities. The Europeans apparently decided that maintaining the integrity of their cities was important while we, with a more cavalier attitude toward our short history, opted for convenience and speed.


"Thirty-five W went through a Mexican and Black area to the north of Lake Street," says Beverly Larkin who lived at 2431 Fourth Av. during the time the freeways were built. "The neighborhood was blue collar mixed," she explained. "Some people from the South, lots of Mexicans. My mother came here from the South. She came for work and a better life. The guy who owned the store was Mexican and he owned three little houses, the one we lived in and two next to it. Each one was as neat as a pin with a little fence and a gate and flowers in the yard."


"The freeway did a number on my childhood space. It barreled right through the middle of a minority neighborhood. I watched the houses go down one by one. There were caterpillars that started waking us up in the morning. They went up and down, up and down, till they hewed out a ravine. Before that it was flat across to St. Stephens," Larkin adds.


"The freeway creates barriers; the barriers become very real. Even though it was only two blocks for miles, it displaces [people and their way of life]," Judith Martin pointed out.


"There were whole blocks of deserted houses and any kind of delinquent, like me, was seeking refuge," says Joe Steffel who grew up on the Southside. "They (engineers) desecrated the whole southeast side of Prospect Park. It [the freeway] tried to keep the project people up there and away from the River Road. And it worked quite well. You can cross but it seems foreign. It made Prospect Park into a rich area."


Perry Thorvig of the Minneapolis Planning Department remembers that the state first started acquiring homes and building the bridges in 1963. They then began digging out the roadbed. By 1968 35W was open south of Lake St., but it wasn't until 1969 that it was opened from the Loop to Lake St. That meant that for six years just the building of the freeway disrupted the previous patterns of living for people in south Minneapolis.


"From a low-income perspective there was no more community," says Joe Steffel. "We were caught in the middle, weren't involved downtown or out in the suburbs. We became transient. You don't feel like you have any roots, you're stuck in purgatory. It was like a whole area blown away."


"You become strangers to people," Steffel continues. "[Before then] people were a lot more sociable. We weren't attached to the TV and didn't have a lot of air conditioning. You were out trying to catch any breeze you could."


"There were turf fights," he continues, "Kids could get the shit beat out of them and proceed to General Hospital." As well as creating turf battles, the coming of the freeway seemed to create bonds among the teenagers. "Where 35W feeds into 94 they hit the water table and they had to pump water out every day. At night we would come in and turn the pumps around and put the water back in."


"Thirty-five W was a social and economic barrier. They were trying to preserve the Nicollet Avenue area. The community identity of Nicollet was supporting the whole thing. When Blacks were trying to go over to the west of 35, houses were being sold for nothing to keep them white. If people were white they were more likely to get a purchase on a house," Steffel continues. "I remember Black guys getting chased down by cars at 38th and First Av. and high-tailing it back across the freeway."


"I was out with a bunch of guys driving across 38th Street one night and here comes a car full of white guys chasing a Black guy who's running toward us. Then a white guy jumps out of the car and, of course, I had to chase him back the other way," Steffel concludes.


"I am not sure it was intended to hurt the neighborhoods," says Judith Martin. "I am sure that if you asked any highway engineer or city planner what's the greater public good, they would say that it's obvious. If it only went through poor neighborhoods you could construct an argument. It had a devastating impact on Selby-Dale and they are still working that out."


"There is still an issue about the way people perceive the city," Martin continues. Because the freeway is essentially a transportation ditch and additionally has tall sound barriers, "People are moving quickly in and out and they don't see [what they are passing through]. It's one thing that destroys the connective tissue of the city."



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