Bridging the divide over Interstate 35W

Tour about construction of I-35W
Experts from the U of M and MnDOT recently led a walking tour through the Whittier and Phillips neighborhoods, detailing the struggles residents faced during the construction of I-35W. Photo by Ksenia Gorinshteyn

The vertical line Interstate 35W draws through South Minneapolis is all too familiar to most commuting metropolitan residents. For those who have only known a city split by the freeway, it can be hard to imagine the area in any other way.

But the route of the highway is the legacy of an urban planning process in the 1950s and 1960s that displaced a community consisting of hundreds of racially diverse families and continues to contribute to Minneapolis’ severe social and economic racial divisions.

“When I would talk to my mother about the freeway, she talked about how people were so upset, about taking the homeless out, and then construction,” said Shawn Lewis, who grew up behind Minneapolis Central High School and remembers hearing the noise from freeway construction when he was a boy. “She said, ‘They got this big hole in our community, and they haven’t done anything.’”

When Lewis was in the fourth grade, he saw two photos in his science classroom that would stick in his mind for the rest of his life. He described two aerial photos on a wall that showed the homes in South Minneapolis before I-35W was created and then what was left after the freeway was constructed.

Tour about construction of I-35W

“You could clearly see the length between Downtown Minneapolis and Highway 62 — how many homes were taken,” Lewis said. “And then you see the roads and the ramps and you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Two events in early September sought to keep conversations alive about the highway’s history and impact.

On Sept. 7, Denise Pike, a public historian with the University of Minnesota, co-led a walking tour of the I-35W corridor attended by about 30 people. She told how the Minnesota Department of Transportation declared there was “no unified community” in the corridor and how there was only a single, poorly advertised community meeting before construction of the interstate began in 1965.

Four days later, around 100 community members attended the second-annual “Building Bridges & Breaking Bread” sit-down dinner celebration. The free meal — intended to take place on the 38th Street bridge over I-35W but moved to the Sabathani Community Center because of rain — was intended as a gesture of kinship between neighborhoods severed by the highway’s concrete expanse, an attempt to reconcile with the physical divide by sharing food and music.

A view of South Minneapolis during construction of I-35W
A view of South Minneapolis during construction of I-35W in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Hennepin History Museum

“When the [38th Street] bridge reopened, it just felt like a good opportunity to celebrate because it’s a very tangible thing that connects the two communities,” City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8) said. “But in a more intangible [way], how do we connect the people back together? So we came up with this concept of dinner on the bridge.”

At the dinner, residents shared stories of life before and after construction of the freeway.

“When I was a kid, the freeway hadn’t come through yet,” said Suluki Fardan, 69, who lived about three blocks east of the future I-35W corridor in the Field neighborhood. “At the time, Nicollet [Park] had this big, beautiful skating rink. And at about 16 or 17 years old we would drag race down there because there was a bunch of dirt.”

Community events like “Breaking Bread & Building Bridges” are a step toward remedying the disparities that have arisen due to I-35W, Jenkins said. While the process may not be easy, many in South Minneapolis certainly think it’s worth it.

“We’re bringing community together, and trying to support economic development and housing, in the name of racial healing,” Jenkins said.