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Reclaim the Lilac Way spirit: Public and private support served commerce, public welfare and beauty

As the latest federal stimulus dollars only just begin to filter through the economy, I find myself contemplating a nearby example of our nation’s first great stimulus project.

As the latest federal stimulus dollars only just begin to filter through the economy, I find myself contemplating a nearby example of our nation’s first great stimulus project.

From our Golden Valley yard, we can hear the thrum of traffic from Hwy. 100, once known as the Belt Line and Lilac Way.

Today, there’s little evidence in this sound-wall-to-sound-wall carscape of a connection to the Great Depression and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). But a restored Lilac Park, dedicated this week near Highways 7 and 100, offers a modest reminder of what public investment can accomplish — and what may be lacking in today’s attempts to stimulate an ailing economy.

The Belt Line was conceived in the 1930s by the state highway department and local commercial interests. Good roads were viewed as essential to trade, but much of the infrastructure that dumped eastbound traffic into the streets of Minneapolis was a patchwork of poorly maintained rural roads that contributed to growing congestion in the city.

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The idea was to encircle the Twin Cities with an autobahn-inspired parkway that would divert traffic around the metro or channel it more efficiently on improved county roads.

Project rose above mundane earthmoving
The New Deal’s support was essential to getting the highway built. But the Belt Line was a truly shovel-ready public works project that rose above mundane earthmoving. It stimulated enthusiastic public support as well as new development along the western edge of the city, which at the time was home to truck farms, gravel pits and bogs.

Plans for the four-lane marvel featured a wide median and right of way, two additional parking lanes and the region’s first cloverleaf. But what made the new roadway most remarkable by today’s standards was that, from the start, it was intended to be beautiful as well as functional.

A highway engineer, Carl Graeser, and a landscape architect, Arthur Nichols, teamed up on the design. And in response, the tax-paying public raised more private money to make the highway even more parklike.

A chain of seven wayside parks
The design featured a chain of seven wayside parks, strung along about eight miles from Robbinsdale to St. Louis Park. These were not the stranded and forlorn remnants whose stone tables and beehive masonry fireplaces were visible until recently to drivers hurtling down a widened Highway 100. The parks featured expansive picnic grounds with room to play ball, punctuated with ornamental ponds, tiny waterfalls, rock gardens and overlooks.

The effort put into landscaping was extraordinary. Mature trees were trucked in and many planted, along with a profusion of shrubs and vines. After the Minneapolis Journal started a campaign to line the road with lilacs and dubbed it Lilac Way, the Golden Valley Garden Club jumped aboard and sold 7,000 lilac bushes to be planted along its perimeter.

Also critical, of course, building the Lilac Way had a positive impact on unemployment in the city.

Minneapolis was then the labor center for the Northwest, where workers wintered each year before signing up in the spring for seasonal work with construction, timber, mining, farming or railroad crews. The Great Depression marooned many of these men, swelling the ranks of local unemployed with these dislocated workers.

This idle labor pool sat openly in the city’s Gateway District near the Mississippi River, where about 4,500 men hoped to qualify for a relief subsidy of $10.80 a week in meal and lodging tickets.

The chance to work restored morale
Construction began in September of 1934 using this homeless workforce. To maximize employment for the 3,000 deemed able to work, some of the labor was done intentionally by hand, and alternating crews of men worked six six-hour days for two weeks in each month. They were paid $19.80 in cash in lieu of the week’s relief vouchers. Perhaps equally important, the chance to work restored their morale.

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Are Lilac Way-style projects even possible today?

Slightly more than one third of the trillion-dollar stimulus package will go to discretionary spending designed to create or preserve jobs. The rest is earmarked for tax relief — which trickles slowly through the economy — and for states to offset Medicaid costs and avoid cuts in existing education and relief programs. Any immediate new jobs impact is likely to be further dissipated by political and parochial considerations as the money is doled out among the states.

The old Lilac Way has been largely erased from the landscape, and it is slipping from memory, leaving a nondescript traffic artery within a ring within a ring around a sprawling metropolis. You can decide for yourself if this represents progress or inevitable ravages of time.

Either way, I would not lament the loss of beehives, picnic tables and ranks of lilacs if we could only reclaim the Lilac Way spirit — one that aligned federal, state, local and private support in the service of commerce, public welfare and beauty.

Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice.