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Why there’s a tiny city called Hilltop in the middle of Columbia Heights

At about 1/10th of a square mile, Hilltop is one of Minnesota’s smallest cities.

Hilltop council member Linda Johnson
Hilltop council member Linda Johnson: “I would live in a mobile home over an apartment any day, because you’ve got your little space. You can plant some flowers.”
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul

What’s four blocks by four blocks and easy to miss on your way up Central Avenue?

A whole city called Hilltop, with a population of nearly 900 that’s completely surrounded by Columbia Heights.

Hilltop is so small that its area would fit inside Minneapolis nearly 500 times and is smaller than the University of Minnesota’s East Bank Campus.

Though it may be small, Hilltop is scrappy. It had to be or it likely would have caved to Columbia Heights’ attempts to swallow it after Hilltop’s residents established their own city in 1956.

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In the decades since, the conflict between Hilltop and the much larger Columbia Heights has dissipated, but Hilltop remains, marked by a water tower that presides over Central Avenue.

Its own city

At about 1/10th of a square mile, Hilltop is one of Minnesota’s smallest cities.

According to the latest Census estimates, it’s home to 274 mobile homes, 97 apartment units, 14 single-family homes, 18 attached multifamily homes.

Hilltop

“We have apartments, sixplex, townhouses, I mean actually, you know, we just have a little bit of everything,” said Linda Johnson.

Johnson has lived in Hilltop since the 1970s, when she married into the family that owns the Trailer City park, one of Hilltop’s four manufactured home communities. She’s been involved in city government for decades, serving as mayor in the ’70s and then on Hilltop’s four-member council.

Johnson’s used to taking drives around the city. It doesn’t take long.

“I do this (all the time), you know, being on the council, I go check out stuff,” she said. She pulled out of the parking lot at Hilltop City Hall, which also serves as a storm shelter for residents. She drove down some of the streets of Hilltop’s manufactured home parks – Trailer City, Hilltop Mobile Home Community, Sunnyside Mobile Home Park and Hilltop Properties — which make up the vast majority of the city’s housing.

Then it’s up toward the two schools (part of the Columbia Heights school district) down along Central toward the Walgreens, past the Flameburger, the Starlite Motel with its neon sign, and the new Pooja Grocers.

“We’ve noticed it’s gotten much quieter back here because the noise from Central Avenue is now cut off,” Johnson said of the big new Public Storage facility under construction along the bustling road. She turns toward the strip mall, where there’s a nail salon, a pizzeria, a laundromat and other businesses.

She wound through more residential streets, lined with manufactured homes, before heading back to City Hall.

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During the post-World War II housing boom, trailer courts like the ones found in Hilltop popped up all over the Twin Cities to accommodate families that were growing quickly during the baby boom.

Not far north of Minneapolis off Central Avenue, Trailer City opened in an unincorporated part of Anoka County called Fridley Township in the 1940s. North of that, Sunnyside was built in 1955. Two more parks followed.

Columbia Heights, the suburb just north of Minneapolis established in 1921, was also growing. Soon, it had annexed much of the land near the parks.

Les Johnson, Linda’s father-in-law, led an effort to get Trailer City annexed by Columbia Heights. The city refused, because trailers were against the city’s ordinances.

Hilltop
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Hilltop is so small that its area would fit inside Minneapolis nearly 500 times.
Johnson then led a push to incorporate Hilltop as its own city. Columbia Heights opposed the measure, according to the Minneapolis Star, because of concerns that Hilltop would build liquor stores and compete with its own municipal shop, not far away.

The issue came to a vote on May 1, 1956; the proposal to incorporate Hilltop as its own city passed by an overwhelming vote of the would-be city’s residents, 137 to 34. The city’s name comes from the nearby drive-in movie theater.

But incorporation wasn’t the end of Hilltop’s conflict with Columbia Heights.

An era of conflict

When Hilltop became its own city, Columbia Heights sent notice that Hilltop had two months to figure out its sewer and water situation, according to the then-Minneapolis Star. Hilltop’s residents were dependent on the bigger city for such amenities.

As with many conflicts, the fights between Hilltop and Columbia Heights were often fueled by liquor. “Hilltop is talking of setting up two municipal liquor stores —  an off sale bottle store, the other a dinner club. This could cut heavily into profits of established municipal liquor stores in both Columbia Heights and Fridley” read a 1958 Minneapolis Star story. “And that could lead back to annexation talk, clogging the civic peace pipes once more.”

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The same year Columbia Heights passed an ordinance that banned the delivery of liquor from Hilltop to Columbia Heights, threatening to hurt Hilltop liquor stores, according to the newspaper.

Apart from the fights over booze and city services, Columbia Heights wasn’t done trying to bring Hilltop into its own bounds.  In 1965, a story in the Minneapolis Star proclaimed the “idea of merging Columbia Heights with Hilltop is not dead.” The newly-elected Columbia Heights mayor wanted to incorporate Hilltop into his city. It didn’t work, and Hilltop remained independent.

Today, Hilltop and Columbia Heights seem to have accepted one another as they are.

Two Columbia Heights district schools are located in Hilltop city limits, a fact Johnson notes makes the city’s small tax base even smaller but causes no rancor. Columbia Heights provides the fire, emergency and police services for Hilltop under contract.

Hilltop water tower
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
In the decades since, the conflict between Hilltop and the much larger Columbia Heights have dissipated, but Hilltop remains, marked by a water tower that presides over Central Avenue.

Hilltop today

Some of Hilltop’s oldest manufactured homes date back to the 1950s. The city won a grant from the Minnesota Housing Authority in 1999 to help residents with down payments on new homes, replacing some of the most dated homes with more modern ones.

Many of the homes have gardens, and kids’ toys dot some of the yards. It’s just like any neighborhood, Johnson said. It goes through cycles of old and young — these days there are lots of kids.

“When I moved in, it was a lot of young families, and then those people got older and the kids are gone, they sell their homes to young families. I think we’re in a young family cycle now,” she said.

Johnson said she prefers living in a manufactured home to apartment life.

“I lived in apartments. You know, I would live in a mobile home over an apartment any day, because you’ve got your little space. You can plant some flowers,” she said.

With nearly 900 residents, Hilltop is the size of a small town — but it’s not so small that you know everyone, Johnson said, though she does know many of her neighbors. She stopped to talk to the manager of one of the parks as she passed his vehicle.

Hilltop’s not the smallest city in Minnesota by population. Or by land area.

As far as contiguous land mass goes, Biscay, Minnesota (0.074 square miles, population: 112), in McLeod County has that title, followed by Manchester, in Freeborn County (0.075 square miles, population: 55) and Landfall (0.083 square miles and 756 people).

Some of Hilltop’s oldest manufactured homes date back to the 1950s.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Some of Hilltop’s oldest manufactured homes date back to the 1950s.
Hilltop’s story is actually similar to that of Landfall, which also consists mostly of manufactured homes and is surrounded by Oakdale.

As Hilltop and Landfall illustrate, manufactured homes haven’t always been popular — they were banned by ordinance in surrounding suburbs and even drew ire from a state commission, which tried to dissolve the two cities in 1960. But as cities battle affordable housing crunches, manufactured homes are getting another look.

“Right now, they’re the sweetheart of the country. I mean, Washington’s pushing for them, everyone’s pushing for them,” Johnson said.