Three terms are evidently enough to instill in a mayor a keen sense of municipal history. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak displayed as much at his final mayoral press conference Monday. He taught a history lesson about the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, also known as the West Bank, as he announced that a soon-to-be decommissioned freeway exit ramp would become a bridge linking that neighborhood to downtown Minneapolis.
That neighborhood is “our Ellis Island,” Rybak told an eclectic assembly of Somali-American immigrants, skateboard enthusiasts, City Council members, city staffers and journalists.
“The West Bank has been a home for immigrants for generations,” he said. In the last half of the 19th century, it was home to “people who helped build this building, people who built the mills on the river. People from exotic places like Sweden and Norway and Germany lived on the West Bank. Those immigrants came to this city and built a great future.”
In the last quarter of the 20th century, immigrants from southeast Asia and Somalia came to the city and settled in the same spot, which had been transformed by high-rise apartments and rimmed by interstate highways. The neighborhood could accommodate a larger population than in its 19th century heyday. Yet it became more isolated from the rest of the city.
“Our Ellis Island became an island,” Rybak said. That hasn’t been a positive development for a city that needs the vitality that immigration and diversity bring.
Can one bridge change that? That’s a lot to ask of a single span of concrete. But this bridge might draw added strength from the good name that it will bear. It's been dubbed Samatar Crossing in honor of the late Hussein Samatar. Samatar was a member of the Minneapolis School Board, a founder of the African Development Center, and a leader on his way to great things when he died of leukemia at age 45 in August 2013.
Pedestrians are sure to be accommodated on Samatar Crossing; bicycles and some form of motorized transportation are also a possibility, city public works director Steve Kotke said. Those details will be decided in the coming year. A new skateboard park is being planned on city property adjacent to Samatar Crossing, Rybak also announced; private funds will pay for its construction.
Rybak said he envisions a “grand pedestrian walkway” that “celebrates idea that immigration is something that has grown and built this city,” while restoring the thing that originally made the West Bank attractive to immigrants – its easy access to downtown.
Clearly, three terms are also enough to teach a mayor how to turn something as potentially nettlesome as a freeway exit reconfiguration into an opportunity for a new municipal asset.