Unlike some parts of the Twin Cities near the Mississippi River, where you wouldn’t know that a major, almost mythological body of water was a block or two away, the corner of Marshall Avenue and Lowry Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis announces the fact plainly. It’s not just the distinctive smell of flowing river water, or the obvious fact of the Lowry Avenue Bridge being pretty hard to miss. It’s also the river-themed businesses on the corner.
One the northeast corner is Tony Jaros River Gardens. Kitty corner to that is River Liquors. On days when it’s on, the neon sign at River Liquor has a flickering little neon waves on either side of the word “river.” Sadly, Tony Jaros replaced their buzzy nautical-red-on-blue neon a few years back with very modern-looking signage (“I guess Northeast’s out-of-touch charm can cut both ways,” said a friend after the replacement). But they did keep the name “river garden,” and with it, all the easygoing riverside splendor that phrase implies. And of course, the “Home of the Greenie” mural remains, with its Zap Comix-style hand grabbing up Tony Jaros’ proprietary vodka-based drink, one of Minneapolis’ great contributions to American bar cuisine, right behind the Wondrous Punch and Jucy Lucy.
Edgewater Park is on the southeast corner of the intersection, and the view across the river from the observation platform to North Minneapolis is striking. That side of the river is the working side. Despite the Lock and Dam #1 downriver having closed for commercial barge traffic, Northern Metal Recycling and Lafarge North America still churn away, cranes and heavy machinery in constant action.
That’s not the Northeast side. The Northeast bank of the river from the Lowry Bridge to the Broadway Bridge is mostly recreational, mostly good times – even Edgewater Park is named not for a defunct industrial powerhouse or prominent family, but for a supper club that stood on the site in the mid-20th century. (The other big park on this stretch of river, Gluek Park, is named for both an industrial powerhouse and prominent family, but keeping with the theme, the Glueks were brewers). Any industry or manufacturing on this side of the river is either long gone or confined to small one-story brick buildings along Marshall. This obviously wasn’t always true – the Northeast side was just as industrial at one time as it is now on the North side – but it’s how it looks now. It’s parks, bars, restaurants, and a few private docks and houseboats.
As I’ve written in this column in the past, river rat culture is only distantly related to lakefront cabin culture (and these freshwater subcultures are distinctly different from beach bum culture, which is limited to seawater coasts). Rivers are grittier, often more industrial, more populist and altogether less tidy than lakes. The currents are faster, the fishing more modest. The speedboats are faster. There’s barge traffic mixed in there. In the spirit of Northeast’s many, many Catholic churches, I will confess to the venal sin of sometimes finding a certain smugness to Minnesota lake culture. I don’t find that smugness at all in river culture. Hanging out on a beach or on someone’s houseboat on the Mississippi and drinking a beer with a bonfire going is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening in the warmer months. And great as Hidden Falls and White Sands and Minnehaha Creek elsewhere on the Mississippi are, Northeast Minneapolis is probably the French Riviera of Twin Cities river culture.
You can walk near the river for much of this stretch, if not all of it. And there’s no walking down by the banks of the river; as in much of the city, the river is at the bottom of a bluff and behind a tree line. But about half of the route is parkland or otherwise publicly accessible, and there are even a few publicly accessible docks where you can be right on the water. Unlike the Gorge downriver, which is all pristine national park, there’s a mix of uses along this part of the Mississippi that makes it less immaculate and, depending on how you look at these things, a little bit more dynamic.
Even the private land is fascinating to observe from a distance. At least two or three houses between Lowry and Broadway have small private docks with houseboats, and at least one of those houseboats has an all-year inhabitant. These aren’t particularly elaborate or expensive-looking houses, either, but brick structures like much of what else you find in Northeast that just happen through whatever quirk of geography and land management to have riverfront property. The houseboats themselves are marvels of naval architecture, looking equal parts romantic luxury craft and riverside wooden shanty.
The parks along the Northeast bank of the river are city parks, patched together from private land over the last few decades. As ever, David Smith has the most comprehensive history of Edgewater and Gluek Parks on his Minneapolis Park History blog; the riverside parks here all still a work in progress. Gluek Park dates to the 1970s, after the brewery and mansion on the site was demolished in the 1960s, and that name only dates to the 1990s. Edgewater Park was acquired in the ’90s, too, after the supper club and its riverfront dock closed. The nearby land at 2220 Marshall is an empty lot owned by the Parks Board, as part of its long-term plan to acquire riverfront property when it becomes available. It’s still a green lot, waiting for something to happen.
Past the parks, at the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge, you encounter the disused railroad tracks that veer off from the line that crosses the Mississippi, and it’s here that’s my favorite part of this stretch of the river. Between the railroad bridge and Sheridan Park, where the new veterans memorial is, there’s an informal foothpath carved out of the landscape, following the old rail line. In fact, the metal towers holding up the power lines from the energy plant upriver form a sort of postindustrial Colossus of Rhodes on both sides of the trail, between whose legs the path travels. (What would a more figurative Northeast Minneapolis Colossus of Rhodes look like, incidentally? Maybe standing astride the Mississippi holding a Greenie in a little plastic cup in his hand.)
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the path – it passes in front of some apartments, some parking lots, a dog grooming business housed in a light industrial space, an art studio. But it’s close to the river, with a great view, and trees line either side. It feels not quite private but not quite public – the path you’re following is one banged out by thousands of other people on foot, traversing the stretch of river for pleasure, for work, for the sake of their dog, or whatever else brings them down here. And of course there are those metal gates on either end. When you come out the other side, you’ve got both the veterans memorial at Sheridan Park, as well as Zoran Mosjilov’s outdoor studio and sculpture park, where he wrestles the ruins of Minneapolis architecture – including fragments of the old Metropolitan Building – into new forms.
So there you go, ducking under the legs of Xcel Energy’s two Colossi of Rhodes, along the Northeast Riviera. I realize I’m leaning pretty heavily on the Mediterranean references in this one. But of course we don’t have a Mediterranean Sea in Minneapolis. What we do have is the Mississippi River.