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Brutalist utopias: New documentary offers ‘redemptive moment’ for Minneapolis’ Riverside Plaza

Morgan Adamson’s “Brutal Utopias” retells the contentious origin story of the massive gray concrete housing complex, part of a federal program in the late 1960s that aimed to remake central cities.

Riverside Plaza
Riverside Plaza, the massive gray concrete housing complex, with over 1,400 apartments in buildings over 20 stories high, might be the most misunderstood place in the Twin Cities.
MinnPost photo by Lisa Hoff

For over 50 years, the buildings have towered over the east edge of downtown Minneapolis, channeling attention and opinions for miles in all directions. Riverside Plaza, the massive gray concrete housing complex, with over 1,400 apartments in buildings over 20 stories high, might be the most misunderstood place in the Twin Cities.

They’re home today to a thriving East African immigrant community, who has been there for decades. They’re a Minneapolis landmark, whether you like them or not; former Mayor R.T. Rybak once called it “our Ellis Island … a statue of liberty.”

A new short documentary by Morgan Adamson retells their contentious origin story, part of a federal program that aimed to remake central cities in the late 1960s. Screened recently at the University of Minnesota, just a few blocks from the buildings themselves, the work brings new light on the controversial, contentious tale of the construction, limitation and bankruptcy of the Riverside Plaza tower complex.

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Film centers on the initial utopian vision

Morgan Adamson is an associate professor of media and cultural studies at Macalester College, where she teaches about film and political economy. Her new film, “Brutal Utopias,” has been a passion project. She’s spent years working on it as a side project, especially during the COVID pandemic.

The project stemmed from her years as a grad student at the University of Minnesota, where Adamson spent a lot of time on the West Bank. The Riverside Plaza towers, massive brutalist concrete buildings with modernist flourishes, threw shadows for blocks in all directions. As she tells the story, she grew curious about why they were there.

A few years ago, Adamson discovered that architect Ralph Rapson’s personal archives were available at the Northwest Architectural Archive, and fell down a rabbit hole of Minneapolis history. According to Morgan Adamson, “they were completely disorganized.” Eventually, she found a document trove with sketches, plans and papers about the construction of the Cedar Square West (the original name for the complex in the early 1970s).

Add in hours of interviews with elder Cedar-Riverside community organizers, and work with the buildings’ current residents, and there was a lot of material. Morgan Adamson admits it was a challenge to edit everything down to its 40-minute run time, but the resulting work is an elegant foreshortening of a complex history.

A model showing plans for the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs
A model showing plans for the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
The film centers on the political circumstances and community debate triggered by the construction off the Riverside Plaza Complex. It begins by lovingly describing the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood as it was in the 1960s, then one of the nation’s centers of hippie culture, music and left politics. She includes voices like Jack Cann, an attorney who helped defeat the expansion of the federal renewal program, and others who organized at the New Riverside Café, one of the area’s socialist landmarks.

In the ’70s, the complex was known as Cedar Square West, and it was part one of a multi-stage building complex that would have been a national landmark. It was part of a unique federal funding program under HUD in the late 1960s called “New Town in Town.” As originally envisioned, it was to be a modern, mixed-income, self-contained city that literally and figuratively transcended 20th-century social problems.

For Adamson, that was the appeal. Her film centers on the initial utopian vision, and the idea that the government could even make ambitious promises about transforming everyday life. She contrasts that vision of a new urban world with the existing, bottom-up utopia that was thriving, for a time, on the West Bank: cooperative stores and communal living, pay-what-you-can pricing, and a fierce resistance to capitalism.

In 1972, those two visions of the future literally clashed on Cedar Avenue

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“I was trying to explore these two ideas of utopia: this very communal, anarchist grassroots approach to housing and lifestyle in general, and this very modernist top-down, planned organized approach to urban design and housing,” said Adamson. “I wanted to explore each of them, and look at them from the perspective of today.”

The film is split into four parts, reflecting the construction of the tower project and then its aftermath. Part of a general policy of (so-called) urban renewal that targeted older, almost always diverse city neighborhoods for demolition and “improvement,” the New Town in Town was the latest evolution of urban transformation.

The turning point for both the film and the project was its grand opening in 1972, and Morgan Adamson zooms in on a specific photo of the ribbon-cutting. As described in Randy Stoeker’s book, “Defending Community,” the ceremony took place precisely during the largest antiwar demonstration in Minnesota history. Unfortunately for then-HUD secretary George Romney, students had shut down the campus to protest the Vietnam War. The panicked look in the eyes of the dignitaries speaks volumes.

When ’70s activists organized to halt expansion

The other night, Morgan Adamson followed up her film with a spirited panel discussion with Cedar-Riverside elders that offered a retrospective taste of 1970s politics. The panelists seemed to love reveling in the demise of the original plans for the building, which would have entailed the wholesale demolition of a square mile of land along today’s Cedar Avenue.

Stop Heller
West Bank community organizing poster
One moment of alignment amongst the three panelists was their distaste for Keith Heller, the University administrator who briefly ran the Cedar Square West housing project. Everyone agreed he clashed with the existing community, and was out of his depth when running a complex housing thousands of people.

“Heller had no idea what he was doing,” explained Jack Cann, one of the key members who successfully sued to stop the project’s expansion. He went on to describe how the team hadn’t budged for management, failed to negotiate with tenants and went into insolvency within a few years of the opening day.

Folks like Cann, Ralph Witkoff and many others organized to halt the project’s expansion. (Nixon’s rise and fall from grace similarly changed the political landscape in D.C.) The community and the city of Minneapolis forced the federal program into creating local committees that gained some influence about expenditures. They eventually changed the renewal program into one focused on rehab and reinvestment into what was already there.


Adamson’s film ends with a coda that focuses on the people still living in Riverside Plaza today. She spent years working with the thriving East African community that lives in the complex, and includes the voices of people like Sisco Omar, who shoots much of the ending footage from inside the buildings. It offers a very different coda to the conflict-laden story from the 1970s. After all, the project has been providing housing for generations of people in Minneapolis.

Freshly rehabbed, they promise to do the same for decades to come. Their story is a far cry from infamous, failed public housing efforts in other Midwestern cities. In that light, while being stark and critical, Morgan Adamson’s film isn’t a castigation of federal intervention. Despite a few derisive moments, it strikes an almost wistful tone, longing for a return to utopianism and an expansion of the political imagination.


“I didn’t want the towers to just come across as something bad,” Adamson explained. “Many of the things that Rapson had tried to design in terms of livability and amenities for residents actually exist in the towers today and have served that community very well. The towers are kind of in many ways serving their original purpose, but just not for the people they were intended to serve, for a really different population. I wanted to definitely have a redemptive moment.”

The film has been playing this year at festivals around the world, including winning the Audience Choice award at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. If all goes well, it should be available in the future at a library or locally online.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Riverside Plaza is located east, not west, of downtown Minneapolis.