Studying I-35W’s human toll

35W
A view of Interstate 35W during its construction in the early 1960s. Researchers are studying how the freeway affected people who lived in South Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

University of Minnesota researchers are looking to interview people who were displaced by the building of Interstate 35W in South Minneapolis in the 1960s.

The interviews will be part of a comprehensive study of the impact of the freeway’s construction on the area’s population, which included a middle-class Black community. The researchers, led by Greg Donofrio of the university’s heritage studies and public history program, hope to find out what happened to people who lived in the freeway’s path.

While they want to find more demographic information about the people who lived in the freeway’s path, they say the interviews are key to telling the complete story.

“These personal stories really put the human value of what was lost to the freeway,” researcher Denise Pike said at a virtual event in August.

In South Minneapolis, I-35W connects Downtown to Highway 62 — running between 2nd Avenue and Stevens Avenue south of Lake Street and curving around the Minneapolis Institute of Art as it straddles the Whittier neighborhood. It’s part of the 46,876-mile-long Interstate Highway System that was constructed starting in 1956.

Construction of the freeway tore up homes, businesses and buildings in a historically Black community. The freeway’s creation heightened racial tensions in the area and disrupted what had once been an integrated neighborhood, according to Ernest Lloyd, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the project.

According to researcher Eric Hankin-Redmon, some planners wanted I-35W to run along Cedar Avenue, but state and highway officials deemed the plan too inconvenient. He wrote that reaction to the two Minneapolis freeway proposals — I-35W and Interstate 94 — was mixed when the plan was presented in 1957 but that most people looked forward to quicker commutes and “the prestige of modernization.”

Just one public meeting about I-35W was held in Minneapolis, and information about the meeting was buried in between ads in the Minneapolis Star, according to Donofrio. Petitions to Gov. Orville Freeman and meetings with the state Highway Department were unable to stop the project.

In subsequent years, the state government began purchasing properties along the freeway’s path. As residents moved out, the area became blighted and some houses were looted. Many weren’t aware of the project until construction started, Donofrio said.

By the time the freeway was finished, about 50 blocks of primarily residential properties had been demolished and paved over.

The Minneapolis Star estimated that around 25,000 people in Minneapolis and St. Paul were displaced by freeway construction. About 7,000 houses were torn down, according to the estimate; Donofrio said others were moved to suburbs or different parts of the cities.

He said the Highway Department maintained a list of owners and residents of properties acquired for freeway construction but that his team hasn’t been able to access the files during the pandemic.

They plan on cross-checking the data with census returns from 1940 to find out demographic information about the people who were forced to move. (1940 is the most recent year for which full census returns are publicly available.)

Donofrio and his team have held public events about I-35W. In the spring, researcher M. Tyler McDaniel held a workshop at Clara Barton Open School in which students created interpretive art pieces about the project. There was also a walking tour in September 2019, an event hosted by the Hennepin History Museum in October 2019 and a virtual “story share” in August.

The researchers plan on turning their findings into an exhibit at the museum in fall 2021.

To learn more about the project or to share your story, visit 35w.heritage.dash.umn.edu or call 612-524-8089.