Reclaiming the river: North Minneapolis connects with its water border

North News  summer interns paddled from North Mississippi Regional Park to Boom Island Park on the Mississippi River on June 26. They were guided by Paddle Bridge and National Park Service Fellows.  Photo by David Pierini

North News summer interns paddled from North Mississippi Regional Park to Boom Island Park on the Mississippi River on June 26. They were guided by Paddle Bridge and National Park Service Fellows. Photo by David Pierini

The narrative about the Northside’s relationship to its national park border often focuses on disconnection. The construction of highway 94 in the 60s created a formidable barrier between residents and the Mississippi River. Industry and undeveloped land continues to make accessing the waterfront a difficult and sometimes impossible experience.

But behind these stories of systemic disconnection are stories of quiet but vital relationship. Northsiders old, young, black, brown, white, poor and powerful have found ways to live in harmony with their waterfront.

They catch fish from its shores. They ride its waves in their kayaks. They grow mushrooms in the industrial wreckage on its riverbanks. They are literally kept alive by it—the city’s drinking water comes from the Mississippi. They feel protective of its future, and excited about the possibilities. This month, the North News team spoke with community members and leaders about their relationships to the water.

Here are their stories.

By Alissa Simmons, Myesha Powell, Kailen Branson Interns, Kenzie O'Keefe Editor

Growing up by the river

Photo by Kailen Branson

Photo by Kailen Branson

Janet*, 45, grew up on the Northside with her family. As a young person on the Northside, Janet never had a connection to the river, for multiple reasons. “...The river was kind of a place, or a divider between North Minneapolis and Northeast Minneapolis, and as black people we were taught ‘you don't go into Northeast Minneapolis because they were racist,’” she said.

She says the river never offered anything to her and her family. It seemed divisive in nature; it was like a wall that the black community refused to approach. “So we never really ventured to the river because that kind of was as far as you went. I think people were afraid of the river.” She says she and her sisters don’t even like driving over the river today. Janet says that even beyond North Minneapolis, many black people don’t like water, which may be the result of slave traders not allowing black people to swim, creating a generational distrust and lack of interest towards water. “A lot of blacks don't like water. A lot of us don't know how to swim. I don't know how to swim, my sisters don't know how to swim. That's just a thing that happens in the black communities, unfortunately, that originated from slavery no doubt. Black people were not taught to swim, because it could be used to gain freedom from slavery,” she said.

Janet mentioned one more reason why some black people might not enjoy water. “We don't like to get our hair wet. ...Our hair is extremely important to us as a culture. Our hair is our glory. And if you get wet, all that time that you spent getting your hair done is completely erased,” she said. Despite the rather negative experiences and feelings toward the river, Janet says that she did have at least one good experience with the river: on the Fourth of July. She and her friends, would go watch fireworks on the river. She really enjoyed that.

*Janet asked that we use a pseudonym for this story


"We in the Northside deserve to participate in everything the river stands for: progress, economic development, accessibility, sustainability, and connectedness." Fue Lee, State Representative for District 59A


“Sometimes I go to the Mississippi River to walk along the trail to blow steam off. A couple times I went fishing with my cousins and my grandpa when he [came] from Indiana because he really likes to go fishing. I have also been on the water canoeing. ...The water is calming and it brings peace to me.” Sierra Brandon, 21, Northside resident


"When I was younger, the thing we'd do is just get on our bikes and go wherever. A big place to go was 42nd because that's where the river was. I never had a problem getting to the river when I wanted to. ...we'd watch the fishermen [catching carp], ...we canoed on the river." Rhys Lewis, 41, Northside resident who has worked along the river since 1999

What's along the water.jpg

1. North Mississippi Regional Park

North Mississippi Regional Park is hidden behind the freeway walls of I-94. A good place to start your visit is the Carl W. Kroening Interpretive Center (4900 N Mississippi Drive). It has various offerings like bird watching stations, hands-on activities for kids, free parking, and more. The park spans 67.2 acres, some of the neighboring neighborhoods are Camden, Camden Industrial, Lind-Bohanon, and Webber. The regional park is filled with biking and walking paths, a fishing pier, boat docks, and picnic and playground areas. They even have opportunities to rent kayaks, bikes, and event space. Kayaks are available for rent through the “Paddleshare” program. You must be 18+ and have some kayaking experience. If there is a person that is younger or does not have experience then they have to be in a two person kayak with someone that has experience. Single-person and tandem kayaks for rent cost $20-$40. Paddleshare has six different routes people can take that vary in time and distance. The shortest route they provide is 1.7 miles and the longest is about 6.3 miles down the river. Visit paddleshare. org for more information.

2. Water Treatment Plant

The Minneapolis Public Works Water Treatment & Distribution Center is located right off the river on 4300 Marshall St NE. They treat water and distribute water from the Mississippi River to about a half a million consumers in Minneapolis, Golden Valley, New Hope, Crystal, Columbia Heights, and parts of Bloomington. On average the site can treat about 19 billion gallons per year and about 50-65 million gallons per day. That means about 750 gallons per second are being treated. After collecting the water from the river, scientists start the treatment process by adding lime to soften it, which removes calcium and magnesium in it. The second step is to remove the “tea” color from the water by adding Alum. The final step is to rid the water of its nasty taste and smell by adding “Powdered Activated Carbon” to the water. All of the chemicals listed above are removed in the settling process, and the water is then put through filtering to ensure no bacteria or viruses are still in it.

3. The Upper Harbor Terminal

The Upper Harbor Terminal is 48 acres of land that is set along the Mississippi River. The narrow strip between the Lowry and Camden bridges is owned by the City of Minneapolis. There is currently a concept plan in place to redevelop this industrial area in partnership with the Minneapolis Park Board and United Properties into amenities that will hopefully benefit the surrounding communities. This harbor once served as a barge shipping terminal for bulk goods. A concept plan for the site was approved by the City Council on March 1. A 17-person community team is now working in partnership with the city and the developer to envision the details and possibilities for the site. The concept plan includes housing, park space, retail businesses, a utility hub, and an outdoor performance venue. This area right now is home to old industrial buildings being used for storage and local businesses like Mississippi Mushrooms.

4. Mississippi Mushrooms

Mississippi Mushrooms is a local mushroom farm that produces mushrooms and compost year-round. They use local waste materials like sawdust and grain and recycle the materials for their farming process. They are located right off the river in the Upper Harbor Terminal (3800 1st St N). You can try some of their products at different co-ops and restaurants around the Twin Cities, or head over to their warehouse on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-2pm to purchase directly from the farm.

5. The Heron Rookery

A 2011 tornado destroyed a Great Blue Heron rookery near North Mississippi Regional Park, forcing the surviving birds to find the place they call home today: an island near Marshall Terrace Park. Great Blue Herons are typically 4 ft tall and have a wingspan of 6ft. These herons can usually be found near the river stalking prey like fish and frogs in shallow water. If you get a chance to pass the rookery by boat, pass by the loud birds very quietly and keep your distance; the birds can get frightened and abandon their nests.

6. The Great Northern Greenway River Overlook

The Great Northern Greenway River Overlook is a new project from The Minneapolis Parks Foundation, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, and the RiverFirst Initiative that is set to break ground in Fall 2019 where 26th Ave. N dead ends at the Mississippi River. Currently the area is unused and overgrown with plants. The design of the overlook will be an oval shaped trail that will sit above the river bank and extend over the river’s shore with a 50ft tall beacon in the center. It will also include art and other interactive entertainment and provide outdoor furniture and lighting. The hope with this project is to not only give this abandoned space a new look, but also give people in the community a new and fun place to explore, fishing, enjoying art, or even just to hang out and enjoy the views of the Mississippi River.

7. Mississippi Watershed Management Organization

MWMO is an organization that works to clean and protect water of an urban watershed that goes directly into the Mississippi River. They have teamed up with different communities to invest in more environmentally friendly infrastructures that will help clean and reuse stormwater. Some of these communities are Columbia Heights, Fridley, Hilltop, Lauderdale, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, St. Anthony Village, and St. Paul. The organization even offers and promotes environmental education to the public.

North News’ summer interns are (from left) Alissa Simmons, Myesha Powell, and Kailen Branson.  Photo by David Pierini

North News’ summer interns are (from left) Alissa Simmons, Myesha Powell, and Kailen Branson. Photo by David Pierini

Youth react to plans to redevelop the Upper Harbor Terminal

Earlier this year, the city council approved a high-level conceptual plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal, a 48-acre city-owned site along the North Minneapolis riverfront. Our student journalists have paged through the plan, interviewed some of the project’s power holders, and have come to some conclusions of their own.

By Myesha Powell Intern Reporter

The City Of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Park And Recreation Board, and United Properties have all teamed up to redevelop the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) site on the river. Before this project, the UHT was used as a barge shipping terminal. The city hopes to benefit the local community by developing the riverfront.

The city has developed a concept plan for the UHT—a document that is a rough draft full of ideas. It is not a final plan. The site is 48 acres total, and according to the concept plan, 19.5 acres will become park space. 4.5 acres will become an outside performance venue; 7.2 acres will be used for vehicular and pedestrian right-ofway (roads), and 16.9 acres will be mixed use: housing, hospitality, and office and commercial space.

All of that sounds good, but when I imagine something new coming to my neighborhood, I start to think about my peers. In North Minneapolis, there are not a lot of places that youth can hang out without having to spend money. Community centers mostly offer indoor activities, close at a certain times, and are not open on certain days. Youth need more outdoor spaces where they can be there as long as they want. They also needs places to participate in outdoor activities such as picnics with family and friends. The UHT would be a perfect place for youth to hang out because of the location. They could enjoy the water or maybe even go there just to get peace of mind. When I took a visit to the site, I thought that it was cool with all the graffiti art and the big domes. The place was really nice and my first thought was “wow youth could really hang out here.”

This site will hopefully give the community access to the river, a park, some really cool art, and a performing venue. I interviewed Gayle Smaller, one of the 17 members of the Collaborative Planning Committee, about the venue and he said, “If First Avenue does it right, there will be an opportunity for up and coming artists to do shows there as well. For the amount of investment that's taking place, there's going to be a lot of already famous artists that will be performing at this stage.” If this performing venue is for the community, I think our community artists should be able to perform on the community stage. Instead of trying to fit them into the space, the space should be specifically for them. Our Minneapolis artists don’t get enough support from our own community, and this performing venue could be a perfect opportunity for them. I would like to see the UHT development being more focused on the real community than money. I’m worried it’s going to be gentrification because of what I see in the plan: us not performing on the stage and “market rate” and “affordable” housing on the river.

By Alissa Dummer Simmons Intern Reporter

Listed as one of the six values of the project is “environmental justice and sustainability.” The UHT site is also in a city-designated "Green Zone" as of 2017. A Green Zone is a place where the city has recognized the effects of environmental pollution, and social, political, and economic vulnerability. The Northern Green Zone committee was brought into help with attempts to improve these things by using environmentally conscious efforts.

The concept plan includes a section especially for “Sustainability Goals” for the environment on the UHT site. It says that “environmental testing of the site to date has not found any significant pollution, but any remediation that is needed will be completed during site redevelopment; Except in the section of historic river wall, the river edge will restored.” I think this is where it can be confusing for the community. Using words like ‘except’ make me assume that wildlife and other environmental elements will be affected by this part of the project.

Personally I would like to know more about this section of the project because based off our reporting there seems to be a lot of historic river wall to redevelop and restore. I would also like to know what wildlife and animals have been recorded around this historic river wall, so the community gets more of an idea of what this project could potentially disrupt. Under this it is said that they have plans to add habitats in the park and in other parts of the redevelopment to hopefully restore some wildlife that could be affected by working on the river's edge. The redevelopment is also working on making the area easily accessible by non-motorized vehicles, bikes, and walking trails. All businesses that are supposed to be brought into this project are going to be be clean and non-polluting.

I believe the Upper Harbor Terminal should be turned into a public location for people to come and admire the graffiti there. It would be comparable to the sculpture garden at the Walker, and hopefully attract young artists who are looking for inspiration and a fun place to hang out. By  Kailen Branson   Intern Reporter

I believe the Upper Harbor Terminal should be turned into a public location for people to come and admire the graffiti there. It would be comparable to the sculpture garden at the Walker, and hopefully attract young artists who are looking for inspiration and a fun place to hang out. By Kailen Branson Intern Reporter

Kenzie O'Keefe