The second of three articles
The second leg of the walk along the entirety of Minnehaha Creek doesn’t get off to a promising start.
Splitting the 22 miles of the creek into rough thirds, the first leg – covered last week – winds through public and private lands alike in Minnetonka, Hopkins and western St. Louis Park. Tracing the path takes you alongside the creek for long stretches, courtesy of the City of Minnetonka park system, but also through suburban developments, around strip malls and under highways. Many of these features make it tough to experience the creek up-close. Quite a lot of the perambulatory experience involves following the route of the creek along residential streets, straining for a glance at it from behind buildings, roads or houses.
The second leg begins in very much this same vein, near Knollwood Mall in St. Louis Park, next to a Burger King.
By the middle of the 20th century, when these sleepy western townships were expanding into modern suburbs, the once-meandering creek was being overtaken. Its adjacency to freight lines and commercial sites made it a prime target for development, much of which was ruinous from an ecological and experiential standpoint. Marshlands were filled in, sinuous angles were straightened, and the creek was essentially made a storm sewer, a ditch for runoff that ran unnoticed behind warehouses and the far reaches of massive parking lots. Unnoticed until, of course, it flooded, which it often did, without marshlands and meanders to act as barriers.
Near Knollwood, that’s more or less the case. The creek here is hemmed in by 50-year-old trees, straightened and squeezed between large lots of commercial land. But there are some strange and funny intersections even here.
The creek is perfectly navigable by canoe here, so there’s some infrastructure to support those activities. The Taco Bell on Cambridge Street has a place to dock one’s canoe, and a rustic path leading to its front door for anyone wanting to enjoy a quayside A.M. Crunchwrap.
Nearby, the creek passes a large, marshy lake near Super Target by Highway 7. Confronting something like Lake Super Target, the obvious question is: Whom is this for? It’s too far back from the store to really be considered landscaping. It’s too far beneath the raised highway to be appreciated by the motorist. Is it a consolation prize for people who couldn’t get a parking space closer to the front of the lot? The tossed-off names we gave these creek-adjacent sites near Knollwood, like the Taco Bell Portage and the Supervalu Trail (running adjacent to the creek behind a Supervalu warehouse), suggest a crossbreeding of the collected lyrics of the Hold Steady with the journals of Joseph Nicollet.
Starting not far from Knollwood Mall, however, the walk becomes easier and more pleasant than it would have been even a few years ago, and all indications seem to point to the fact that a few years from now, it will be easier and more pleasant still. This ease of access and pleasantness is due largely to some large-scale projects spearheaded by the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District encountered on this stretch.
Here the creek crosses under the Cedar Lake Trail and the railroad tracks that will likely one day carry the Green Line extension. It’s here, in this far corner of Hopkins stretching into St. Louis Park, that the MCWD has proposed a series of trails and boardwalks. These will run through wetlands alongside the re-meandered creek, through a collection of land that at various times have been both in private and public hands. More important, this network will connect to two other projects, one completed several years ago, and the other on the verge of completion now.
The Reach 20 project occupies the wetlands south of the Cedar Lake Trail. Begun in 2012 and due for completion within the new few months, it’s a series of boardwalks that run along a re-meandered Minnehaha Creek and the adjacent marshland, following the pre-industrial course of the creek. The wooden boardwalks are close enough to the water to feel a part of the environment, but durable enough to go underwater when the creek is high and the surrounding wetlands become a giant sponge. From here, it connects to a series of similar boardwalks behind Methodist Hospital, completed in 2009 and the first of the MCWD’s partnerships with private landowners in this area. Walking all the way down the boardwalk to the end, you wish you could continue on boardwalks the entire rest of the way. Something about hovering over the wetland right on the banks of the creek is much closer to the feeling of being in a boat – the method most everyone agrees is the superior way to experience the creek – than simply following it along residential side streets. It’s a fantastic accomplishment.
This part ends near Meadowbrook, on the other side of Excelsior Boulevard. I found the Meadowbrook Park and golf course in its current state somewhat irritating, in the way I find most golf courses irritating – it’s attractive, but it’s fenced in, and not easily accessible from most of the surrounding area. I ended up wandering around the fenced perimeter for quite a while, looking for a way to enter. A few months ago, Eric Anondson wrote a terrific piece on streets.mn about how Meadowbrook might be incorporated into this larger network begun with the Methodist Hospital project, a broad outline of a plan that seems not only plausible but also a very smart move for all relevant parties. Walking the completed boardwalk at Methodist Hospital, and comparing that with much of what I experienced earlier along the way, the idea of a long, multi-mile pathway through marshlands along the creek becomes wildly attractive. It’s probably impossible for the entire 22 miles of the creek to be completely connected in such a way, but even if only a quarter of it could be, and if it can be done as sensitively and intelligently as it has been at the hospital and Reach 20 sites, I can’t think of a natural urban amenity on par with that anywhere in the United States, in terms of scale, ambition and just generally making good use of a region’s unique native landscape.
The creek empties into Meadowbrook Lake in the center of the property, and from there it widens significantly for a few miles, recalling the creek’s Dakota name: Little River.
Walking through the older section of Edina designated the Country Club District, my colleague and walking compatriot Keith Harris pointed out the distinction between “relaxing” and “boring.” Some of the suburban landscapes are undoubtedly boring: few if any people out, nothing much to see along the way. This part of Edina, however, seemed much more on the relaxing end of the continuum. Superficially, it resembled other areas we’d been through in the slow pace, lack of people and general sleepiness. But those qualities seemed less boring than, well, relaxing. There’s a small city park on Browndale Avenue, right on a magnificent bend of the creek, and you can take in the whole scope of the scene. Many of the backyards have small docks and canoe launch sites, and the creek’s recreational amenities seem heavily used by the neighborhood. The houses sitting on the creek are older, more distinguished – most were built in the 1920s and ’30s. The leaves on willow trees sway in the breeze on the banks. On the beach, a couple and their dog played fetch with tennis balls. “Afternoon, fellas,” he said as we approached. “Couldn’t ask for a nicer afternoon, eh?” As noted: leisurely beyond belief.
The wide portion of the creek terminates at the site of the Edina Mill, and a very nicely maintained historic site. “Edina” is the Latin form of “Edinburgh,” and the town was indeed founded by a Scottish miller whose mill produced oatmeal, barley, grain feed and flour. The absurdly picturesque waterfall remains – it looks like a scene you might find on a commemorative plate – as do the foundations of the old mill and a few other historic artifacts. The park is named for Dwight Williams, a local boy who went from Blake to Harvard to the U.S. Army, and who was killed in Italy at the tail end of World War II. A plaque nearby mentions that Williams had played in the ruins of the old mill as young boy.
Over 50th Street and through Utley Park, you can follow the creek to a stately stone church that, if you have a sense for your ecclesiastical architectural conventions, is instantly identifiable as Episcopalian. Built in 1938 but looking a century older, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church sits right on the creek, looking straight out of the English countryside. Following the creek around the back of the church, past stained glass and stairways connecting the main building to the back, one encounters a stone labyrinth, built into the ground right in view of the creek. Like the creek, it meanders around itself in sinuous curves, forming a circle and eventually reaching the center. It’s one of my favorite human-made details alongside this stretch.
Through some more residential neighborhoods and past Lake Pamela, which feeds into the creek, you pass over France Avenue from Edina into Minneapolis, and right into the front gate of another unexpected site: the old South Side Hebrew Cemetery, known now as the Adath Yeshuran Cemetery. This is the cemetery in which the infamous Minneapolis gangster Kid Cann is interred. Aside from him, however, you’ll also find the grave of a truly great Minneapolis-born artist, the composer Bebe Barron Neubauer. A graduate of the University of Minnesota’s school of music who left Minneapolis for Greenwich Village at age 22, she and her technician husband transformed their tiny apartment into a proto-electronic music laboratory, generating electronic sounds with vacuum tube circuits and manipulating the resulting tones with tape splicing. Her eerie score to 1956’s “Forbidden Planet” was a benchmark for early electronic music. The creek passes not far from her grave.
Near the place the creek exits the cemetery is a large stone with a familiar name: SABES. It’s the final resting place for Moe and Esther Sabes, the parents of Robert Sabes, the Minneapolis entrepreneur for whose family the Sabes Jewish Community Center is named.
Walking from the cemetery to Lake Harriet into the residential neighborhoods of Fulton, Armatage and Lynnhurst, where Minnehaha Parkway begins, the culture of the creek changes radically. Much of the creekside land here still seems to be on private lots, but a deep pathway created by foot traffic follows the creek on both sides. It only looks like private land, though – even the most narrow stretches of creekside land in Minneapolis proper are park-owned, and so there is a general acceptance that it’s OK for people use it. You can walk long swaths of the creek without encountering another person on some of the western stretches. However, in Minneapolis, it seemed, people were suddenly turning up everywhere, on the ad hoc paths and off of them: runners, couples on a Sunday stroll, dog walkers, kids, cyclists, parents with strollers. A group of teens were even camping out, lounging in hammocks they’d suspended from the trees, plotting whatever creek-adjacent hijinks Minneapolis teenagers plot these days. I don’t know if it’s the density or free-floating cultural differences or what, but walking toward Lake Harriet and the final stretch of Minnehaha Creek, for the first time since the beginning of the walk, it seemed really bustling.
Next week: Lake Harriet to the Mississippi River.
Update: Information about park ownership of creek-adjacent land in Minneapolis has been corrected.