Riverside on the Rise

The Twin Cities, site of the 2007 National Preservation Conference, long neglected the river in their midst. Now that a sweeping revival has begun, development threatens to spoil the Mississippi's historic charm.

Twin
Restoration of the Stone Arch bridge, with views
of St. Anthony Falls, helped spur the river’s revival
near downtown Minneapolis.

Credit: Layne Kennedy

Puttering up the Mississippi in a small boat with Anne Hunt, sustainability coordinator for the city of St. Paul, it's easy to forget we are in the epicenter of a metropolis of three million. I see brown water, green trees, white egrets, blue herons, and—at final count—four bald eagles. The occasional condo building peeks out from the bluffs above us, but the chief signs of civilization are small clusters of people gathered on the banks to fish or play—modern-day Huck Finns of various ages and ethnic origins. We are about midway between the gleaming skyscrapers that define downtown Minneapolis and the more sedate, historical environs of St. Paul, where Hunt lives year-round on a houseboat.

This stretch of the river is where white settlement in Minnesota—indeed, the entire Northwest—began in the 1820s with the construction of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Remarkably, the scene today would not look unfamiliar to many Dakota (Sioux) Indians, who believed that all creation originated here. On a bright summer evening, I am inclined to agree.

"I look at a beautiful place like this," Hunt says as she pilots the flat 16-foot boat, "and I want to say thanks to the people who worked so hard to preserve it for the public."

As we turn around and chug back toward the more recognizably urban scenery of St. Paul, steering clear of a big barge coming at us around the bend, Hunt points out a roadway that was actually moved away from the river to open up the waterfront for bikeways, walking paths, and new housing—the favorable outcome of a fierce battle between traffic planners and local residents. Nearby Irvine Park, one of the Twin Cities' oldest and best-preserved neighborhoods, was spared in the process. "To think 15 years ago they wanted to put a freeway-style interchange right there," Hunt marvels. "And now we see people biking and rollerblading."

With the growing popularity of the Mississippi as a place for local residents to gather, however, has come increasing tension between preservation and development. From court battles about the future of the newly hot historical district around St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, to a looming showdown over a proposed megamall just downriver from Hunt's houseboat community, the idyllic splendor of the river is at risk. Will this stretch of the Mississippi fall victim to its own prosperity? And what can be done to save it?

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