Editorial: Finding relevance in Minneapolis history

  • Updated: April 25, 2008 - 6:01 PM

City Council stages a sesquicentennial seminar.

Someone who helps run Minneapolis -- say a mayor, or a council member, or a voter -- can find lessons in the city's 150-year history that are applicable today. But who will take the time to examine their city's history and learn from it?

To their credit, Mayor R.T. Rybak and members of the City Council did just that Friday. They cleared their calendars for a 90-minute seminar led by three historians whose scholarly focus has been the city that sprang up in the 1850s alongside the Falls of St. Anthony.

What's important to know?

• The law of unintended consequences runs prominently through city history -- and it hasn't been repealed, said Annette Atkins, author and professor of history at St. John's University in Collegeville. Things done for noble or gainful purpose have often produced mixed results.

For example, she said, the do-gooders who twice cleared the Gateway district of flophouses and taverns thought they were ridding downtown of a population they considered vagrant and alcoholic. In fact, they disrupted a community that, though poor, was functional. Lives were upended and, in many cases, further impoverished. The lesson: In all things, anticipate complexity.

• Minneapolis has been a city of immigrants for more than 150 years, and for all of that time, the city's humane values have been at war with its baser instincts, said Bill Green, Augsburg College associate professor and Minneapolis superintendent of schools. For example, shortly before the Civil War, Minneapolis Judge Charles Vanderburgh's ruling freeing a black former slave woman caused a near-riot in the city and its east-bank sister town, St. Anthony.

Minneapolitans shouldn't think racism is somebody else's problem. "We are America," Green said. That means "we are, as a community, human, which means we are divided by demons and angels....We must ever be vigilant," lest the demons prevail.

• A government structure and spirit that have invited a high level of citizen involvement have helped Minneapolis weather tough times -- and can again, said author and educator Iric Nathanson. Civic engagement "gives this city a great sense of energy," he said, and is at the foundation of a number of Minneapolis success stories.

City dwellers' participation in governing Minneapolis has helped keep downtown vital, rebuild the riverfront, and shore up public institutions, Nathanson said, exhorting city leaders to uphold that valuable tradition.

The seminar touched on much more -- Minnesota Nice's origin in anti-German sentiment during World War I; anti-Semitism's connection to segregated housing patterns; why Minneapolis is distinct from its twin, St. Paul. Things that seemed just plain fun to know were tossed around enough to reveal their relevance for today.

That's what studying history does. It's why statehood's sesquicentennial year should include many such seminars, throughout the state. Minneapolis -- whose city government turns 150 in July -- has done well to show the way.

  • WATCH THE SEMINAR

    The City Council's study session about Minneapolis history will be broadcast on Cable Channel 14 Monday at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., and Friday at 8 p.m. For more broadcast details, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/cable/City14.asp

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