Milwaukee Avenue by Robert Roscoe

When we first moved to Minneapolis, my husband and I relied heavily on our friends to navigate us as we biked around the city. On one of these early excursions, they took us on what seemed like a peculiar shortcut through the middle of a residential block. It was a wide sidewalk with Victorian-style houses along both sides, their front porches within feet of the path. I remembered thinking that these homes must have been part of the urban planning movements of the early 1900's. I had no idea until reading Milwaukee Avenue: Community Renewal in Minneapolis the incredible history that this neighborhood had.

 Milwaukee Avenue houses as they exist today (image courtesy of Pinterest.com)

Milwaukee Avenue houses as they exist today (image courtesy of Pinterest.com)

The Milwaukee Avenue houses have a slightly misleading name. They are not actually fronting a true street because Milwaukee Avenue was turned into a pedestrian space in the 1970's. This type of preference for the pedestrian was forward thinking in Minneapolis at the time. The houses on the east side of the "street" are adjacent to backyards and therefore have no vehicle access. They instead can park in one of the community parking lots provided for the residents of the area or rely on nearby transit or biking.

Despite the more recent street closure, this dense urban neighborhood, similar to what planners of today are trying to create, was actually established in the 1880's by William Reagan "an accidental futurist." He was not a forward thinking planner, but instead a capitalist interested in creating the highest profit margin for his investment. By replatting the area now known as Seward West, he was able to add more dwelling units, used for worker housing, into the same area. Some of those homes in their early days housed up to eleven men working at the local railroads.

Nearly 70 years later at the start of Urban Renewal in the U.S., the homes were well worn and had become a picture perfect neighborhood for demolition in the eyes of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department. Neighborhoods all across the country were being leveled in the name of renewal and progress. "Cut out the cancers' goes the argument and the body will continue its proper functioning." This was the analogy used to describe the run down neighborhoods and the necessity of bulldozing them to help the greater city. Seward West, located just south of downtown Minneapolis, was no exception. 

 Milwaukee Avenue before the restoration started and the street was turned into a pedestrian space (image courtesy of mnopedia.com)

Milwaukee Avenue before the restoration started and the street was turned into a pedestrian space (image courtesy of mnopedia.com)

While other neighborhoods were being acquired and cleared, making room for new development, the residents of Seward West decided to stand up and fight for preservation (although it wasn't really known as preservation when they began). The residents knew that not every house needed to be demolished and that by saving any that were not beyond repair, they would preserve the interesting and unique neighborhood character. The Seward West Project Area Committee (PAC) was organizing to fight HUD and the local HRA (Housing Redevelopment Authority) plan to demolish the entire neighborhood. HRA had a policy at the time to clear the entire block if 50% of the houses lacked rehabilitation potential. 

 One of the flyers created to fight demolition of the neighborhood (image from the book) 

One of the flyers created to fight demolition of the neighborhood (image from the book) 

After lots of discussion and negotiation (which the book describes in full detail) PAC and HUD were able to come to an agreement to save a large portion of the building stock that was proven to show rehab potential. In 1973 PAC focused their efforts on the 4 blocks facing Milwaukee Avenue (6.5 acres of land with 100 structures and 145 dwelling units). By 1974 most of the buildings on Milwaukee Avenue were vacant and ready for renovation. The Milwaukee Avenue Community Corporation (MACC) was formed to provide incentives for rehabilitation, as well as the Individual Rehabilitation Program (IRP). The MACC hired contractors to rehab several homes which included gutting the entire home, inside and out, and restoring them back to their original form. The IRP funded individuals who wanted to restore the houses for their future residence. The IRP created a sort of "urban version of a barn-raising event," because there were several renovations going on at once and everyone was eager to help their neighbor, knowing they would get help in return.

 The four block area where rehab efforts were focused (image from the book)

The four block area where rehab efforts were focused (image from the book)

When looking at these homes, you would assume they contain all the same materials used when they were built in the late 1800's, however you would be wrong. The brick was so deteriorated in most homes it was completely removed and replaced with brick of matching color and form. The porches had all been enclosed, therefore the beautiful detailing on the existing open porches was recreated and manufactured in the rehabs. Despite all this, the houses fronting onto the pedestrian space were all added to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1974. There were few intact examples of low income immigrant neighborhoods remaining and this district served to represent that period in Minneapolis history. The local Heritage Preservation Commission was slow to approve the district nomination at the local level, but eventually voted in July 1975 to give it local historic status.

What started as a way to save the integrity of the neighborhood ended in historic preservation of an important part of Minneapolis history. We are starting to see this kind of activism today, where neighbors are working together to preserve the quality of their neighborhood and cities. Milwaukee Avenue has taught us that we need to be involved in the future of our cities. We should work with planners and government officials to better our communities and determine the course of their advancement.