he Identities of Cedar-Riverside

by Joe Carlson

Nestled between the University, Interstates 35W and 94 and downtown Minneapolis, is an eclectic community known as the Cedar-Riverside area.
Although most people could point to Cedar-Riverside on a map, they would have a tougher time describing any central nature of the nine residential and business areas.
“It’s far from contiguous,” said Jim Sutherland, area project coordinator for the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. Over the years, institutions and interstate highways have cut deep divisions in the land between neighborhoods.
However, the area’s various community organizations and corporations serve as the catgut wire that stitches the divergent populations into a single unit. Over time, the community has been, and still remains, a symbol of many ethnic groups and business interests.
The Cedar-Riverside area has a long and heterogeneous ethnic history, from the original Norwegian and Eastern European settlers to the more recent influxes of Southeast Asians and Eastern Africans.
“It’s a very dynamic and exciting place to live,” said Joan Campbell, Minneapolis council member for Ward 2, which includes Cedar-Riverside. “It’s a small neighborhood geographically, and it has a long history of tolerance for alternative lifestyles.”
1930s, 40s and 50s
The original Norwegian settlers in the area were old European populists, who valued and cultivated a strong sense of community among the various immigrant populations in the area.
Joel Torstenson has lived in Cedar-Riverside since 1935. He received his doctorate in sociology from the University in 1958, and he is a current professor emeritus at Augsburg College.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Cedar-Riverside came to be seen as a crime-ridden, red-light district, synonymous with bars and prostitution. The West Bank was a typical inner-city neighborhood in those days, said Jim Mungaven, director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation, with all the problems associated with poverty and high-density housing.
“The 1950s was an era when people looked at broad areas of cities and declared them bad,” Mungaven said.
Those conditions continued into the 1960s, when a number of outside organizations took interest in the area and set things in motion that changed the character of the area forever.
The turning point
In the mid-1960s, University administrators decided to expand westward across the Mississippi River, into the poor Czechoslovakian community known as Bohemian Flats.
The University was granted the right of imminent domain because it is a state institution, and could therefore obtain whatever property it needed to expand.
“Augsburg and Fairview have to ask for things,” said Campbell. “They have a different legal structure” from the University.
“That really wiped out a whole neighborhood,” Torstenson said. “People couldn’t fight the University; they had to sell.”
Besides the expansion, another major event that affected Cedar-Riverside adversely in terms of a contiguous community was the construction of Interstates 94 and 35W in the 1960s. These major thoroughfares permanently separated Cedar-Riverside from both the Seward neighborhood and downtown Minneapolis, giving the area the sense of definition it still retains today.
But many say that the freeways isolated, rather than defined, the area.
“The freeways just broke the natural coherence,” Torstenson said. “It was a terrible, really monstrous development for the Cedar-Riverside community.”
But perhaps the most important development for the area in the 1960s was when it was targeted for urban revitalization.
A new town in town?
In 1968, President Richard Nixon approved the New Communities Act, which called for extensive redevelopment of America’s inner cities and provided funding for the construction.
At that time, Minneapolis was going through rapid growth both around the edges of the city and in the center.
Torstenson said planners foresaw the urban core of the city beginning to suffocate under all the growth and sought to build a strong community in the inner city.
As a result, city planners sought private sources to formulate and finance revitalization plans. After a review process, the city in 1968 approved a plan drafted by Cedar-Riverside Associates, an urban development company that had been buying up the land in Cedar-Riverside for nearly 10 years.
The plan was called New-Town In-Town, and it was based on surveys taken by a short-lived group of community delegates called the Cedar-Riverside Area Council.
The council conducted extensive polls of the residents of the area and created a plan for urban revitalization. But no one in the neighborhood was prepared for what the Cedar-Riverside Associates had in mind.
“They came up with an urban renewal plan,” Mungaven said, “that called for basically demolishing the entire neighborhood.”
The plan called for the construction of eight to 10 high-density, apartment-style complexes. The massive development would stretch from Riverside Park to Cedar Avenue, where Riverside Plaza stands today.
Opposition to the plan was fierce among Cedar-Riverside residents and businesses, especially since it had become a center of counterculture thought and activity.
“It was the hippie mecca of Minnesota,” Sutherland said.
On May 9, 1972, students staged a large antiwar demonstration at Coffman Memorial Union, protesting U.S. military action in Cambodia. On the same day, George Romney, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was attending the ground-breaking ceremony of Cedar Square West, which would eventually become Riverside Plaza, the first and only portion of the New-Town plan to come to fruition.
When war protesters caught wind of the ceremony, they stormed across the Washington Avenue Bridge to let Cedar-Riverside Associates know how much they opposed the proposed demolition of their neighborhood. Sutherland said the situation that resulted is still among the most volatile in Minnesota’s history.
Mutual opposition to Cedar-Riverside Associates brought the neighborhood together and galvanized neighborhood organizations like the Project Area Committee.
This organization, along with the local environmental defense fund group, successfully stopped further development of the New-Town In-Town plan.
However, Cedar-Riverside Associates still owned most of the land in the area. It took the city more than 10 years and four rent strikes before it could take possession of the land again. Once it did, some of the land was redistributed to merchants, a small amount was sold to residents, and the rest was sold to organizations, such as the West Bank Community Development Corporation.
Even though Cedar-Riverside Associates’ plans were not completed, the one complex it did construct has a significant impact on the racial character of the neighborhood.
Racial issues
Prior to the construction of Riverside Plaza, the minority population of the area was about 2 percent. Today, that figure hovers around 25 percent.
Mike Melgaard, executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenant Association, said this effect can be attributed to the 669 Section 8 units in the complex. Under Section 8, residents pay a straight percentage of their income to rent, and no matter what amount remains, the federal government covers the difference.
Melgaard said immigrants and refugees are the recipients of most of the Section 8 housing in the building — merely by coincidence, however, and not design.
“It’s not that the units are earmarked for refugees, they’re given to those who need them,” who more often are foreign-born and come to the country without adequate funds to support themselves and their families, Melgaard said.
But contrary to some perceptions, the minority populations do not just sit in Riverside Plaza and live off of federal subsidies. Rather, groups of immigrants come to the complex in alternating cycles from other nations.
For example, following the Vietnam War, the complex was flooded with refugees fleeing Southeast Asia. But as that group of immigrants has gained more solid financial footing, its members have started to move away from the city and buy houses.
Melgaard said the current groups of refugees are from politically troubled African nations, such as Ethiopia and Somalia.
While the presence of the ethnic communities in Cedar-Riverside is certain, their impact on the neighborhood is a matter of current debate.
“The ethnic and cultural diversity of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is a wonderful asset,” Melgaard said, because it can give people the chance to learn about people’s life experiences. People are exposed to cultures they might not have encountered otherwise on the streets and in the diners of the area, he said.
However, business owners in the area blame the local residents for a rise in the number of violent crimes in the area over the past few years.
“There’s a lot of wonderful ethnic people living in the subsidized housing, but there’s also drug dealers,” said Sally Gordon, a manager at the Cedar-Riverside shop Depth of Field. “There’s some odd characters out there.”
However, people should use caution when characterizing the nature of criminals in the Cedar-Riverside community, Melgaard said.
“When people point to refugees at Riverside Plaza as where the crime emanates from, people who make those claims need to be careful because the perception is not always reality,” Melgaard said.
Sutherland said people in the residential community say crime stems from the noise and loitering that come from the disproportionate number of bars in the area.
“We have an insane number of bars for the size of this neighborhood,” said Joy Mincey-Powell, chairperson of the Cedar-Riverside Project Area Committee.
Many of the area’s bars have been around longer than the residents who complain about them. Historically, Cedar-Riverside pubs have been a staple of the local economy, bringing in dollars from suburbia, as well as money from Augsburg and University students.
Although local residents resent the way institutions like the University and Fairview Riverside hospital have expanded, they realize that the organizations attract much-needed funds to businesses.
But it’s still hard to stand by and watch homes turned into parking lots. “These are areas that have always had identities separate from the University of Minnesota,” Campbell said.