Coming full circle from Columbus Avenue

  • Article by: GARRETT TOMCZAK
  • Updated: July 25, 2014 - 7:03 PM

For some in Minneapolis, the freeway changed everything.


Arthur and Edith Lee faced an uproar when they moved into their home at 46th and Columbus Av. S. in Minneapolis in 1931.

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The article about Arthur and Edith Lee’s former home being added to the National Register of Historic Places (“One houses’s legacy etched in history,” July 24) brought back memories of growing up in south Minneapolis. Our family also lived on Columbus Avenue, a few blocks from the Lee house. Until last week, I hadn’t heard their story.

My parents bought their house on Columbus in the early 1950s. I doubt they knew the story, either. I am old enough (67) to remember that the south Minneapolis I grew up in was totally Caucasian. I went to parochial schools because my parents didn’t want me associating with the bad elements at Field and Washburn, where I would have gone for public education.

By “bad elements,” they meant the gang activity rampant around high schools at that time. In our area, the Baldies were the dominant gang, but other schools had gangs, too. There’d be rumbles after football games — but nothing more serious than a few bloody noses and some alarmed adults.

I took the city bus to DeLaSalle High School on Nicollet Island. I seldom saw any people of color, either on the bus or on the streets. Multiculturalism was not part of the Twin Cities experience 50 years ago. I went to a private college with few minorities and then into the Marine Corps. In 1969, my boot camp of 88 trainees had five African-Americans and two Mexican-Americans. No Asians. My associations with Asians came later in Vietnam. In fact, there were more recruits in my platoon in lieu of going to jail than there were minorities. And my parents had worried about bad elements!

My life became gradually more integrated, but not at a rapid rate. These were not decisions I consciously made. This was the culture of the times; I simply lived in it.

We too easily forget that up into the 1960s, blacks, Jews and other minorities could not belong to the American Automobile Association; they were not welcome at golf courses, and many restaurants and businesses refused them service.

Few saw a problem with this. Life was good and people wanted to keep it that way. But we like to think — we like to pat ourselves on the backs and think — that as a society we became more enlightened.

But as I recall, something more prosaic changed everything: the Interstate Highway System. Before that, there was never a question — you did not sell your house to a minority. This wasn’t a matter of restrictive legal covenants (although some communities in Minnesota had them), but of informal understandings among neighbors about the moral obligation to preserve these communities as they were. People took it seriously. You did not want it on your conscience that you had betrayed the neighborhood by selling to just anybody.

Then came Interstate 35W. I recall the anguish people felt as they saw beautiful homes just like theirs torn down to make way for an expressway nobody wanted, and the panic over the noise, pollution and degradation of property values that would accompany the construction. Interstate 94 had the same effect going through St. Paul, turning many solidly middle-class neighborhoods into less-desirable real estate.

Many people, including my parents, wanted out — the sooner the better. Our family moved to Robbinsdale. The irony is that where we lived on Columbus Avenue, none of those terrible things happened. You couldn’t hear the traffic or smell the exhaust from there. Airplane noise has become a far bigger issue and, if anything, has done more to suppress property values.

The upshot was that, when the freeway went through, mentalities changed. People sold to whomever had the money to buy. Ten years later, the neighborhood was a different place. Our former neighbors had moved to Edina, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Golden Valley, where I now live.

As I wrote that last line, the thought occurred to me that I have no minorities for neighbors. I have adopted children of color, but that is different. Twenty years ago, we lived in Minneapolis, near the area where I grew up. And now we live in a community very much like the one my parents fled to.

Curious. Very curious.


Garrett Tomczak lives in Golden Valley.

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