By Trinity Ek
Bassett Creek, a meandering waterway separating North Minneapolis from the rest of the city, was ignored, piped, and hidden from the landscape over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The creek’s main stem begins downstream of Medicine Lake. The North Branch and the Sweeney Lake Branch join it in the 1.7-mile long tunnel that runs through Minneapolis (Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission, n.d.). Unlike many of the other water features in Minneapolis such as the Chain of Lakes and Minnehaha Creek, Bassett Creek was not seen as an amenity.
Today, Minneapolis, like many cities across the nation, is reembracing its natural environment. Polluted rivers are becoming beloved waterfronts and abandoned industrial sites are being remade into commercial corridors with beautiful green spaces. For example, the reopening of the Stone Arch Bridge, formerly carrying railroad tracks, as a pedestrian and cyclist bridge signified the reorientation of Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. It became a site of recreation and engagement with “nature” rather than a site that primarily fueled capitalist endeavors of the past such as sawmills, flour mills, and breweries. As these former environmental hazards transform into amenities, it is necessary to ask who is at the table making these decisions, who these amenities are for, and who benefits and loses.
Throughout history, unnavigable waterways and natural wetlands have been piped, filled, and drained to accommodate urban living. When hidden, the original waterway is often forgotten, but continues to influence the landscape and the communities that live within it. Detrimental effects for the community appear in the form of bad soils, polluted waters, and flooding. Additionally, these waterways are often turned into neighborhood dump sites. Patterns of inequity and environmental injustice align with these historic hidden waterways. The people who live in these places are typically communities of color or of lower socioeconomic status. These spaces with hidden urban waterways are defined by the intersection of race, place, and hydrology.
Today, hidden urban waterways pose a major redevelopment opportunity for cities. Jason King’s (n.d.) work explores select “lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams,” how we continue to see them in today’s urban landscapes, and how we might reconnect with them. The potential for reconnection to the landscape is an opportunity for previously neglected urban spaces to attract new residents and development, which in turn increases a city’s tax base. Bassett Creek is one waterway that displays how in landscapes where race, place, and hydrology intersect, there is potential for infrastructural development that may combat or exacerbate inequities.
The History of Bassett Creek
As Minneapolis grew in the 1860s and 1870s, a major railroad corridor ran along Bassett Creek and became central to the warehouse district. John R. Borchert notes that the creek demarcated “the north side of Minneapolis from the rest of the city” (1983, 11). Further, due to its regular flooding in the spring, it proved difficult to cross and build around. A series of streets and bridges were built over the creek to connect North Minneapolis with the rest of the city (67).
In addition to Bassett Creek as a barrier between North Minneapolis and the rest of the city, it was also an environmental hazard. The noise and air pollution from sawmills near Bassett Creek caused residents to move away from the area in the 1860s and 1870s. The creek itself was characterized as a problem by elected officials and city engineers. Mayor Albert Ames in a letter from 1876 called it “that mammoth sewer called Bassett’s Creek,” and in that same year, city engineer Thomas Rosser also described it as the “sewer known as Bassett’s Creek” (Smith 2011). During this time, the creek was less a waterway and more the neighborhood’s place to dump anything and everything, including “ashes, dead animals, garbage, glass bottles, car tires, bedsprings, tin cans and other rubbish” (Friends of Bassett Creek, n.d.). It was recommended by the Minneapolis Tribune in 1882 to turn “the creek into a sewer, the outlet of which should be below the falls” (Smith 2011). This perception and reality of the creek as an environmental hazard would persist for decades to come.
The creek subsequently was reshaped and hidden in an effort to create a more amenable, developable landscape. It was straightened as seen in the difference between the 1861 and 1892 plat maps. A proposal also recommended “build[ing] a wall on each side seven feet high” in order to control the flooding from the creek (Smith 2011). While the walls may not have been built, the creek and its wetlands were increasingly filled with sewage and eventually with 10 to 15 feet of construction fill (Friends of Bassett Creek, n.d.). By the 1930s, the original creek was lost with the numerous changes that occurred from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
In 1937, the urban renewal public housing project, Sumner Field, was built along the straightened creek. The project provided low-income housing. The residents were predominantly Black from 1960 to 1980 and by 1990, it was heavily populated by Southeast Asian refugees (Crump 2002, 587). As a result of the creek being filled in for the development of Sumner Field, the land was unstable and the soils were poorly packed. It led to severe issues with the foundations of buildings and contributed to the flooding of basements (587). These health, environmental, and physical harms of water and sewage contamination were relegated to Black residents and residents of color. In addition to harms to the community, the buried and piped creek led straight to the Mississippi River, meaning that all the pollutants from residential and urban living directly impacted the river and its ecosystem.
Further, there was a considerably high volume of runoff due to freeway and other development in the area, exacerbating these issues. The wetlands were once able to absorb and filter high levels of runoff from rain events when they were clear of sewage, debris, and fill. However, they no longer could serve that purpose due to all the alterations to the landscape. The waste combined with the construction fill prohibited the wetlands around the creek from serving nature’s intended functions (EPA, n.d.). Among those functions are improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, and protecting against floods.
Around this same time, at the turn of the twentieth century, the practice of redlining, which was the systematic denial of financial services such as mortgages and business loans to people of color, especially Black populations, appeared across the country’s urban spaces—Minneapolis included (Mills 2020a). Redlining’s insidious legacy is a factor that contributed to the environmental degradation and hazard associated with Bassett Creek. It worsened disinvestment and economic stagnation in these neighborhoods, negatively impacting their value and disproportionately harming Black and Southeast Asian communities. Work done by the Mapping Prejudice Project shows how the spread of racial covenants throughout South Minneapolis shifted the city’s Black population to North Minneapolis from 1910 to 1940 (Mills 2020b, 2020c).
The demolition of Sumner Field began in 1998, 60 years after Sumner Field was built. With the slow pace of construction for new housing in Minneapolis paired with the quick demolition of hundreds of low-income units, many residents were left with few options for relocation. In 1999, a group of Black ministers protested the demolition of the remaining 300 units of public housing at Sumner Field (Crump 2002, 591). Mayor Sharon Belton Sayles agreed to delay the demolition of 70 units in response to protestors. However, that still did not meet the need for affordable housing for the displaced residents. Today, affordable housing in this region remains a concern of residents (Hankerson et al. 2020).
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, the series of developments, changes, and alterations to the creek and its surrounding landscape resulted in lasting impacts for people and place. The view of Bassett Creek as a burden and hazard led to its burial. And yet, even though it was hidden from the landscape, it continued to appear in the form of floods and unstable land. The hidden creek’s convergence with racially motivated planning in this landscape meant that the harms associated with reshaping and filling the creek unfairly impacted low-income populations and communities of color.
Bassett Creek Today
Today, Heritage Park stands where Sumner Field once was. It is described by the Heritage Park Neighborhood Association as “a stable, affordable and sustainable urban neighborhood on the western doorstep of the Minneapolis’ downtown area” (Bayerl, n.d.) The neighborhood has been retrofitted with a new, state-of-the-art stormwater system that seeks to showcase an earlier version of Bassett Creek and its associated wetlands.
According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA 2016), the project uses “a combination of engineered and natural systems” in park and open space amenities to filter water and rainfall at several levels. The creek has been daylighted in select areas that can be seen from satellite imagery on Google Maps. What once was an environmental nuisance is now seen as an amenity.
South of the Heritage Park development is the 230-acre Bassett Creek Valley project area. It is largely industrial and encompasses portions of the Harrison and Bryn-Mawr neighborhoods. Minnesota Compass data reveals that Harrison’s population is 47.3 percent white (n.d.[b]) and Bryn-Mawr’s is 89.3 percent white (n.d.[a]). The project area was established in 1998 by the Minneapolis City Council. It also includes the Bassett Creek/Irving Ave Dump Superfund Site, which is located along the creek itself. Due to decades of poor treatment, the soils, surface water, and groundwater are polluted by “lead, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” (MPCA 2013, 1). The site is currently mostly an impound lot with industrial facilities surrounding it.
Land uses such as the impound lot continue to separate the creek from the residents who live near it. Once the creek leaves Theodore Wirth and Bassett’s Creek Park, it is separated from residential areas by railroads, abandoned mills, and industrial sites. While trails exist along the creek in these parks, they are relatively few and far between compared to the parkways and walking paths present around Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River. Bassett Creek is still largely hidden in the landscape.
It takes a trek over unpaved trails and through railroad tracks to reach the creek near Fruen Mill. Here, the creek runs next to the abandoned Fruen Mill which it once powered (Painter 2015). The railroad tracks, cement blocks, and the mill itself show an older version of the creek. Further, because Bassett Creek is not maintained like other waterways in the city, debris such as snack wrappers, bottles, and even car batteries are present on inaccessible stretches of the creek.
The Bassett Creek Valley Master Plan “advocates redevelopment of this outmoded industrial landscape into more than three thousand housing units, 2.5 million square feet of commercial space and the establishment of nearly 40 acres of new open space” (City of Minneapolis, n.d., 1). It was prepared by Hoisington Koegler Group, Inc. (HKG) in 2007 for the Redevelopment Oversight Committee (ROC). It also puts specific emphasis on changing the idea of Bassett Creek as a barrier and instead thinking of it as “the symbolic knitting thread of the Valley’s urban fabric” (1). The City of Minneapolis explains that the ROC is composed of residents from both neighborhoods, business owners in the Valley, a City Council member, and mayoral representatives. Ryan Companies is the master development partner.
As with other redevelopment projects across the nation, gentrification is a major concern of residents. In the plan, HKG explains the redevelopment proposals will increase “the Valley’s real estate value from roughly 50 million dollars today to well over 1 billion dollars” (Hoisington Koegler Group, Inc. 2007, 1). This dramatic increase in real estate value alone predicts the rising costs of living and rent commonly associated with gentrification, a sentiment many residents explained in Beneath the Surface by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA 2018, 10). However, unlike other instances of gentrification, large numbers of residents are not being displaced, as there was not a large amount of existing housing stock. Another concern involves the change in population and demographics. When asked about the signs of gentrification residents were seeing, “they all cited the increased presence of young white families and new economic investment that did not match the historic character of the area” (11). This demographic change also has led to a tension between Harrison residents who stated there is a need for more affordable housing and Bryn-Mawr residents who want to see more high-end shops and green space (11).
The change in the landscape can already be seen. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, developers had already begun buying up land and replacing houses with condos. The Harrison Neighborhood Association (n.d.) is tracking this neighborhood development on their website and through ArcGIS Story Maps.
As plans move forward and this landscape is altered both physically and socially, conflict will arise as it already has. The orientation of the community toward the creek instead of away from it signifies how neighborhoods and cities are prioritizing natural features to take advantage of ecosystem services. In this case, these beneficial ecosystem services include managing stormwater and runoff as well as creating a means to increase both real estate value and potentially the tax base. During this change, it is necessary to consider who these changes are for—the residents who already live here or the new and future ones?
The history of the place as a site of systemic inequality must also be considered so the practice of harm does not repeat itself in the form of gentrification. The ideal goal is to create a place where both current and future residents can have their needs met and have access to opportunities to grow and thrive. When rectifying the fraught history of these landscapes, Ujijji Davis (2018) emphasizes it is necessary to “elevate marginalized residents into key players in the turnover of their neighborhoods” to avoid gentrification. Not only listening, but implementing the desires and needs of the existing residents will lead to a more livable and welcoming community.
The concern surrounding gentrification echoes sentiments about the Upper Harbor Terminal further north on the Mississippi River. Similar to Bassett Creek, the Upper Harbor Terminal was also once an environmental hazard (The CREATE Initiative 2020; O’Connor Toberman 2020). It is now in the process of being redeveloped with focuses on new park space, housing, office space, and an amphitheater. The proposed redevelopment of the former barge terminal has sparked heated debate and controversy, especially surrounding the amphitheater, about who the development is for and who it will benefit. Many Northside residents welcome access to the river that other parts of the city have long benefited from, but not the private ownership of lands that may attract a demographic that would alter the feel and community of the Northside and eventually push out lower-income residents.
The intersection of race, place, and hydrology continues to define the landscapes surrounding hidden waterways today. Waterways that are being remembered and resurfaced offer landscapes full of potential—potential to break harmful cycles or perpetuate them. As Bassett Creek is increasingly seen as an amenity and an ecosystem service, there will be a heightened desire to restore, and where possible, daylight it. Changing the landscape not only physically alters places, but the people and communities within them as well. These processes foster a reciprocal relationship between the places people live in and the people themselves.
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Bayerl, Victoria J. n.d. “Welcome!” Heritage Park Neighborhood Association. Accessed January 21, 2021. http://www.heritageparkneighborhood.org/.
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———. 2020b. Minneapolis Black Population 1910 [map]. The Mapping Prejudice Project. https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/217473/MinneapolisBlackPopulation1910.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
———. 2020c. Minneapolis Black Population 1940 [map]. The Mapping Prejudice Project. https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/217476/MinneapolisBlackPopulation1940.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
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———. 2016. “Heritage Park – An Urban Retrofit.” Minnesota Stormwater Manual, June 1, 2016. https://stormwater.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/Heritage_Park_-_an_urban_retrofit.
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