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A river runs through us: Why the Mississippi is crucial to MSP’s future

The river has the potential to draw business, newcomers and tourists — the way the mountains do for Denver and the seacoast for Sydney.

“People don’t know about Minnesota. Don’t know Minneapolis. But they know the Mississippi.”

This is the first of three articles exploring the role of the Mississippi riverfront for the future of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. They are adapted from a report for the McKnight Foundation’s Food for Thought series by local author Jay Walljasper

Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation, remembers visiting a remote village at the foot of the Himalayas where schoolkids asked him where he lived. “They’d never heard of Minnesota and not St. Paul, but when I mentioned the Mississippi, they just beamed. They knew the river.”

David Wilson, director of the Minneapolis office of Accenture, recently visited the Amazon, where he discovered the same thing. “People don’t know about Minnesota. Don’t know Minneapolis. But they know the Mississippi.”

Move over Prince, Garrison Keillor, Joe Mauer and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Make room for our real local star, the mighty Mississippi.

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“The river is what we’re known for,” explains Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. “It links us to the whole world, literally and in people’s imaginations.”

Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) is the largest urban region along the river’s 2,300-mile path to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi’s watershed covers all or part of 31 states as well as two Canadian provinces, which amounts to 41 percent of land in the continental United States. Counting its major tributaries — the Missouri and the Ohio — the Mississippi River system is the fourth longest in the world after the Nile, Amazon and Yangtze.

MSP is home to the only waterfall and the only river gorge on the entire length of the Mississippi, and we are just a short drive from Lake Pepin, the widest and arguably most scenic spot along the river. The Mississippi is actually a national park here along the 72-mile stretch from Dayton downriver to Hastings.

Yet few of us consider how remarkable the Mississippi is. Even those enamored of the river see it mostly as a nice setting for a stroll or a picnic. We don’t recognize it as a world-famous landmark that puts Minneapolis-St. Paul on the international map.

A key selling point

Indeed, the Mississippi is one of MSP’s key selling points in an era when competition between world cities is heating up. The river has the potential to draw business, newcomers and tourists — the way the mountains do for Denver and the seacoast for Sydney.

Bolstering our identity as a river city (or, more accurately, the Mississippi Metropolis) offers a solution to growing concerns that MSP’s nondescript image is becoming an increasing liability in maintaining and widening our prosperity and quality-of-life. (See my earlier articles here and here.)

“The Mississippi is important to our future,” declares CEO Michael Langley of Greater MSP, which works to draw and retain businesses and investors to the region. “It’s an asset we need to highlight, and to keep pristine.”

A goal: Become America’s No. 1 river city

We have the potential to become America’s No. 1 River City. That’s the goal of Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, who notes how much national attention shone on Minneapolis when it was named the No. 1 bike city in 2010.

The competition for No. 1 River City is fierce. While MSP has made admirable progress over recent decades cleaning up the river and enlivening our urban riverfronts, so have many cities, from New Orleans to New York to Paris to Seoul. But we do have one great advantage on our side: the dazzling diversity of the Mississippi as it flows through our metropolitan area. It begins as a lazy prairie river and then travels through a steep gorge before spreading out across a wide valley filled with islands and backchannels.

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The Minneapolis central waterfront bustles with bike-riders, theatergoers, hipsters and strolling suburban families, while just a few miles downstream you can experience the natural awe that inspires some Dakota people to believe all creation began at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Around a bend from there you arrive in downtown St. Paul with its parks, condos, houseboat community, a showboat, music festivals and dockings by the American Queen paddle wheeler. Shortly beyond that appears Pig’s Eye Island Heron Rookery Scientific and Natural Area, home to one of the Midwest’s largest rookeries of herons, egrets and cormorants.

“The view of the river from St. Paul looking out on the valley for five miles is unique in the whole country,” says John Anfinson, chief of resources management for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and author of a definitive history of the river.

‘You have it all’

“I show the river to people from out of town and they say, ‘Oh my God! You have it all,’ ” remarks Anne Hunt, environmental director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “I mean you can kayak, hike, go fishing, or enjoy fabulous biking and then change your clothes and go to great restaurants, music shows and art events on the river.”

Our recipe for becoming an internationally recognized river town is neatly encapsulated in three goals established by the city of St. Paul in its long range plan for the riverfront: More Natural. More Urban. More Connected.

While seemingly contradictory, the river can become more “urban” by improving public spaces, cultural offerings and recreational facilities along its banks and more “natural”  by protecting wild areas and restoring the environmental quality of water and land. Becoming more “connected” means providing better access to everything the river offers, especially in challenged neighborhoods like the East Side of St. Paul and North Minneapolis as well as suburban areas where much of the riverfront is off-limits to the public.

Still a way to go …

But the consensus among people I interviewed for this article is that we still have a way to go before claiming the title of Best River City.

“We need to make the Mississippi what the Thames is in London or the Seine in Paris,” notes David Wilson, who is involved in a number of business-led initiatives to ensure the economic vitality of the region. “You would never go to those cities without wandering over to the river. I bring a lot of people to town who are surprised that the Mississippi is even here. The river needs to be the core of our downtowns.”

UM College of Design Dean Tom Fisher believes the riverfront could become the centerpiece of the entire metro region if we improve park and pedestrian connections to the river’s banks. “The more we brand ourselves as part of the Mississippi, the more we will be recognized.”

The death and life of a great American river

The river is the only reason MSP exists. In the days of steamboats, St. Paul’s location at the head of navigation turned it into a shipping center while Minneapolis grew up around mills that harnessed the waterpower of St. Anthony Falls. But early in their history both towns turned their backs on river, focusing their aspirations outward toward pristine lakes and leafy neighborhoods rather than the increasingly filthy riverfronts where they were born.

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Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Mississippi River near Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, c. 1925.

It’s easy to see why. For most of our history we poured contaminants into the river and built industrial facilities, hobo camps and bordellos on the banks. Typhoid fever traced to tainted water killed 95 people a year on average in Minneapolis between 1891 and 1910. Until the 1930s sewage was dumped untreated into the Mississippi, forming an enormous mat of stinking sludge behind the Ford dam. In a 1926 study, biologists found only two living fish in the river here south of St. Anthony Falls. Raw sewage continued to flow into the Mississippi during rainstorms until the 1990s — a problem finally remedied by a large public investment in separating storm sewers from sanitary sewer lines.

The river running through MSP is substantially cleaner now than it was 125 years ago, according to the recent State of the River report issued by the National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi River. This is the legacy of pollution laws limiting industrial and municipal waste going back to the 1970s. But threats to the river persist including nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment in agricultural run-off, invasive species, and new toxic contaminants like Triclosan and PFOs.

“The biggest problem on this stretch of the Mississippi is the Minnesota River,” declares Reggie McLeod, editor of Big River magazine, which covers all aspects of river life. As more land is put into cultivation throughout the Minnesota River watershed by draining wetlands and plowing pasture and prairie, more farm chemicals, sediment and water wash out of farm fields and eventually into the Mississippi.

A tale of rediscovery

With cleaner water and less heavy industry on the riverfront, the two downtowns are connecting to the Mississippi again. At one time 26 sets of railroad tracks divided downtown Minneapolis from the river and even 20 years ago the Stone Arch bridge was sealed off to public. In the 1990s Patrick Seeb of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation remembers hosting a delegation from Nagasaki — St. Paul’s sister city — who wanted to bring a vial of water from the Mississippi back to Japan. “They couldn’t figure out how to get down to the riverbank from downtown,” he recalls. “That incident became the starting point for creating better access to the riverfront in St. Paul.”

This rediscovery of the riverfront builds on the legacy of Horace Cleveland, the eminent landscape architect who designed much of the Minneapolis and St. Paul park districts as well as the University of Minnesota campus. His plans called for a green ribbon of parkways connecting lakes, creeks and the Mississippi River. “The Mississippi River,” Cleveland wrote in 1883 is “a grand natural feature which gives character to your city and constitutes the main spring of prosperity.”

The genius of Cleveland’s plan was keeping the much of the riverfront — along with other treasures like the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Creek and Como Lake — in public hands. “Think how different the city would be if houses abutted the gorge and had all the views,” says Anne Hunt.

You can actually see what would have happened by looking upriver from Minneapolis and downriver from St. Paul. Most of the riverfront property in these communities is occupied by private businesses and homes, which means the Father of Waters is visible only intermittently from parks or stretches of trail.

Projecting the vision ahead

Cleveland’s vision continues to be carried forward today in exciting ways.

  • St. Paul moved Shepherd Road away from the river to create public walking paths, bike trails and riverfront housing, and is now planning a “green” redevelopment of the Ford plant site and an elevated riverfront promenade downtown.
  • Minneapolis opened new parks at St. Anthony Falls, which helped spark a redevelopment boom.
  • The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is now pursuing its largest expansion in 130 years by planning trails and riverside parks in North and Northeast neighborhoods.

Not all the action is in the central cities. Anoka, Elk River, South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, and Hastings have added new parks, open space or trails. And this year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will begin authorizing metro communities to update their zoning and land use regulations on riverfront property as part of the 1979 Mississippi River Critical Corridor program. These decisions will guide riverfront development over the next generation.

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“In the beginning, the riverfront was our front door, but it became the mudroom at our back door, the place where we made a mess,” summarizes Pat Nunnally, coordinator of the River Life program at the University of Minnesota. “Now we are looking for the best ways to make it a front door again. To put the river back at the heart of our communities.”

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about urban and community issues. He is author of the” Great Neighborhood Book” and “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.”

Thursday: Big plans for downtown waterfronts.