The children of highway relocation

They were kids when I-35W ripped their neighborhoods apart, and in middle age, they remember what they lost — and the great sledding hills and ghost towns they temporarily gained

When I-35W was built through south Minneapolis in the 1960s, it altered the city. The state offered its citizens a more convenient transportation route, but tearing down and wheeling away houses separated friends and divided close-knit communities.

Thirty-five years later, the highway’s sound walls are a fence between neighborhoods, fixing their borders and restricting movement. But there are many who were kids then and, even in middle age, remember the day when their neighborhoods spread on either side of what is now the great divide.

Cut off from the corner store

Vicky Heller, now a North Oaks resident, spent what she calls the best part of her childhood in the Tangletown neighborhood on the 4700 block of Stevens Ave. Almost lyrically, she recalls visiting the local businesses, sledding and cavorting around the neighborhood with friends. "The greatest joy in life was going to Dick’s Drug Store for a milkshake," Heller said, of her hangout on 48th Street and Nicollet Avenue.

As a 10-year-old, Heller’s blissful Southwest life came to a screeching halt when her family was forced to move. Her house was on the odd side of Stevens — the side to be torn down for the new I-35W project.

The state purchased her house for $20,000 and demolished it 1960, Heller said. Her family moved to Excelsior. "I remember (my parents) being very disappointed with what they were paid for the house," Heller said.

Even more upsetting, she said, was the feeling of trauma and loss. "I was uprooted from all of my friends and family and had to move," Heller said.

Tom Campbell, now a Kenny resident, lived in the Windom neighborhood on the 5700 block of 2nd Avenue South. His house was also in I-35W’s path. Like most of houses in the 50-block trench, his house was not torn down, but moved.

Campbell said there was little dissent about the state’s plans for the freeway, because it was a time when people trusted the government and didn’t question its decisions. He said that while his father was disappointed about the home price and the $200 relocation benefit, he didn’t make it an issue. "You didn’t fight City Hall; you weren’t going to win," Campbell said.

At age 9, he said it was eerie to watch the neighborhood just move away: "In 1960, it was quite eye-opening to see the neighborhood disassemble." Campbell moved too, to the Lyndale neighborhood, changing schools from Windom Elementary to Windom Elementary. Campbell said he wasn’t too upset by the changes. "It didn’t bother me because we got a bigger room," that better suited his family of six kids, he said.

Paul Kjornes, a lifelong Kingfield resident (who literally lives in the 45th and Nicollet home he was born in) was in kindergarten at the time, but remembers the strange sight of houses being moved. "You couldn’t park. It happened every Friday and Saturday night and Sunday morning for five years," he said. "It was really cool."

Kjornes said he lost touch with many friends who lived on what became the other side of the freeway. "We lost 50 percent of our buddies when the freeway came through," he said.

Houses and friends weren’t the only things displaced by the highway. Campbell said he remembers his mother and all of the other women in the neighborhood digging up plants to be moved to newer and safer homes. He said he also remembers some of the streets lost to the interstate were lined with black walnut trees, some two feet in diameter. "It was a really pretty wood and apparently takes a long time to grow," Campbell said.

Those trees, he said, were cut down and hauled away by a lumber salvage company.

Before the construction of I-35W, Elaine Mauseth, now living in Arizona, lived in a house bordering what is now Martin Luther King Park in the Kingfield neighborhood. She said the neighborhood was a great place to raise her boys as a stay-at-home mom and was a caring, racially unbiased area of the city. Mauseth said she lived within the Warrington school district, which served many south Minneapolis black residents.

She said while many white families were happy to move in a time of suburban flight, she loved the neighborhood and didn’t want to lose her home to bulldozers.

Mauseth said she was paid what the state considered to be market value for her home, but she was not compensated for the inconvience of looking for a new place, packing and moving. After moving out personal belongings, she said scavengers vandalized and stripped her home of anything left of value, down to the bathroom fixtures.

What was life like during the construction?

Campbell said he remembers people looting the houses of ornate woodwork, plumbing fixtures or anything of value, coming back after work hours.

He said once displaced residents had moved out of their homes, the neighborhood took on a fun and exciting type of ghost town atmosphere. "Playing in the vacant houses was the fun thing," he said.

Kjornes said he also remembers the looters rummaging through the rows of spooky, empty houses. He said he also recalls that a few mischievous teenagers who would occasionally set fire to the abandoned houses — although no significant damage was done.

Campbell said building the highway actually provided neighborhood children with new opportunities. He said as construction workers were building ramps and bridges and digging out what is now the 35W trench, some of the leftover land was made into a great sledding hill.

After laying the road pavement, Kjornes said the neighborhood kids also took advantage by riding their bikes up and down what is now a congested commuter way. "In 1965, they poured the lanes and we’d go down there and ride our bikes, some people would bring go-carts," he said.

Kjornes said that while some aspects of the construction were fun for kids, the project definitely made it harder to get around. Because he attended Field Elementary — now on the east side of I-35W — it was a huge ordeal to get to and from school, and to businesses on the other side of the construction. "After the fences went up, you were totally divided and couldn’t cross," he said. "The freeway divided everything — the city itself."

After the construction

Heller said that with the coming of I-35W, the neighborhoods on the east and west side changed dramatically, though the east side took it hard. "It’s clear that on the east side of the highway it’s a different world," she said.

Over the years, Heller said, the east side changed demographically and becoming steadily poorer and run-down. "I got the perception that the east was the wrong side of the tracks," she said.

One reason, Heller said, is that most of the commerce was on the Southwest side of the divide.

Mauseth agrees that I-35W negatively affected her east-side community. She noted that east side’s neighborhood schools, such as Warrington, Bryant and Central high were eventually abandoned by the Board of Education.

She said that building I-35W was a mistake that isolated the poor and increased oil dependency. "The problems of traffic and congestion cannot be solved by freeways," Mauseth said. "They are never adequate, as anyone using them in Minneapolis must acknowledge."

Father Pat Griffin came to Whittier’s St. Stephens Catholic Church, 2211 Clinton Ave., long after I-35W was built. However, he said researching the church’s history he’s noted the profound impact the highway had on the neighborhood and his church.

He said the church had been spared because highway designers made sure to bypass the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Honeywell site, keeping his church safe — but not untouched — by I-35W.

Griffin said much of the congregation was forced to move, and change in the community was very rapid. The neighborhood and congregation gained more poor, immigrants and renters, he said.

These changes completely changed the church’s overall mission, Griffin said. He said St. Stephens began a shelter and programs for the homeless and chemically dependent to meet the needs of its altered surroundings.

For many children of the relocation, the surroundings still look altered. Although she uses the freeway often, Heller said she still has pangs as she passes by the incline where her house once stood. "Every time I drive I-35W, I glance at the bank to the right," she said.