Historyapolis Project digs deep into city’s past

A Q&A with local historian Kirsten Delegard about her new project designed to spark more dialogue about the history of Minneapolis

A photo showing Gateway Park in 1937. Credit: Russell Lee, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Journal: What prompted you to start The Historyapolis Project?

Delegard: I realized how little I knew about the history of Minneapolis. I am both a native Minneapolitan and a professional historian. But I was stymied when people turned to me for help in understanding the historical development of the city. Friends would say: “You’re an historian. Can you explain x and y to me?” Or “can you recommend a good overview of the city’s history?” And I couldn’t.

I had no place to send them. It’s been decades since anyone has tried to write a comprehensive history of the city. Lots of wonderful articles and books have been written about specific episodes in the city’s past. But no one has tried to synthesize all these threads into an accessible narrative. That seemed crazy to me. This is one of the most interesting cities in the country. 

What’s your goal/long-term vision for the project?

The project now has the backing of Augsburg College, which has adopted Historyapolis as its own. Our goal is to bring new focus to the history of Minneapolis, making the past accessible. We want to create new resources like a website, a blog and a book. But we’re also interested in getting the community involved in the crafting of this new history. We are designing projects that will engage anyone who considers Minneapolis to be home. We want to encourage people to grapple with challenging episodes from history, catalyzing new dialogue about past decisions and current conflicts. 

What are some interesting discoveries you’ve made about Minneapolis history?

When I first returned to Minneapolis in 2006, I was astonished to learn that my childhood home was six blocks from the site of an historic Indian settlement known as Cloudman’s village or Heyate Otunwe. The first sizeable settlement within the boundaries of Minneapolis, Heyate Otunwe was situated on the shores of Lake Calhoun. And I had never, ever heard it mentioned, in all my years growing up. The village was an agricultural and social experiment, an effort by a group of Dakota to try intensive farming. It was also the place where the Dakota language was first written down in a systematic way by missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond. The community flourished — expanding to 300 people — before collapsing in 1839. The only hint of this history is a small marker memorializing the first home of the Pond brothers. But now I can’t go near Lake Calhoun without thinking about this forgotten village.

On a different note, I was amazed to learn how the civic reputation of Minneapolis was transformed over the course of the 20th century. When I was growing up in the 1970s, Minneapolis was seen as a progressive metropolis. Other American cities were falling apart. Minneapolis distinguished itself as an urban paragon, the “city that seemed to have all the answers,” according to the New York Times. It garnered fawning press coverage for its superlative municipal government, booming economy, flourishing arts scene and compassionate populace. So I was taken aback to learn that in the first half of the 20th century, Minneapolis was widely regarded as a basket case. Most observers believed that it was spiraling into decline, so fraught with conflict it was finished as a community. The town was renowned for its corruption, its violent persecution of the press and its powerful gangsters. In 1934, the city saw its long-running labor conflict escalate into a full-blown civil war that was fought on the streets of the North Loop. And its reputation for intolerance was solidified in 1946, when a liberal journalist named Carey McWilliams declared the city to be declared the city to be the “capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.”

Why is it important people know about the city’s past?

An awareness of history helps us understand the physical landscape of the city. It can satisfy the curious, who wonder why is the heart of old downtown filled with surface parking lots? Why is it so hard to get a mixed drink south of Lake Street? Why do we have such a wonderful park system?

In my experience, few Minneapolitans know anything about their tumultuous history. Sure, we’ll bend your ear about our parks, our arts and our stellar quality of life. We’re quick to brag about our literacy, our fitness and the size of our Gay Pride festival. But this city of boosters has traditionally been more comfortable planning for the future than confronting the difficulties of the past. I think that’s changing now. People are hungry for more complex stories that can help them understand how we got here. Among other things, they want to understand how their progressive metropolis can have the largest racial disparities in the nation.

We can’t have productive conversations about the present without a working knowledge of the past.

What are you favorite areas/subjects to explore?

Right now I’m doing a lot of work on the lost Gateway district of downtown Minneapolis. I’m also researching the campaign to ban pornography in the city in the 1980s. And I’m looking at the way that the community sought to segregate itself by race and class over time.

Where do you do your research?

I love working at the Minneapolis collection at the Hennepin County Central Library, which has been assembling material on the city for most of the 20th century. The holdings are amazing, as is the staff. They will answer any question, large or small and spend their days helping people research their families, their houses and their neighborhoods. Stop in and visit them on the fourth floor of the downtown library.

The largest concentration of material for this project is housed at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. MHS has photos, oral histories and manuscript collections that illuminate everything from the early settlement of St. Anthony and Minneapolis to the campaign to ban pornography in the 1980s.

There are other great resources, including the Hennepin History Museum and the records still held by the city of Minneapolis. And I am looking forward to spending lots of time at Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota, which has the Social Welfare Archives; the Immigration History Research Center; the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies.

I am surprised at how much I can do from my computer at home, thanks to the efforts of archivists at the Library of Congress and the National Archives to digitize material and make it accessible to researchers who cannot travel to Washington D.C.


To learn more about The Historyapolis Project go to facebook.com/thehistoryapolisproject