John Adams has long been interested in cities — “how they work, how they came to be the way they are.”

Adams, 76, a retired professor of geography, planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota, said it’s an unusual specialty, as geography isn’t emphasized in U.S. schools.

He studied economics in college and in graduate school at the U, when he started taking courses in economic geography. His teachers encouraged him to switch to geography, which he did.

During his 40-year career, Adams’ studies brought him all over the country and to the former Soviet Union and present-day Russia. However, the Twin Cities have been a major focus. In 1993, he co-authored “Minneapolis-St. Paul: People, Place and Public Life,” with Barbara VanDrasek, a book that is still relevant today, he said.

Adams recently shared some thoughts with us on local geography, how the north and west metro areas developed, and other topics. This interview is edited for space.

Q: What was your focus through the years?

A: I focused the most on housing and housing markets, how they work inside metro areas. Usually when people start looking at metro areas, they zero in on a specific place. They want to know what’s going on in that neighborhood or city, the cause and effect occurring in one spot. They don’t realize that it’s connected to every other part of the metro area, that what’s developing in Richfield and Bloomington has consequences for the inner city.

Q: What are some of the dynamics at play in the Twin Cities?

A: After World War II, builders put up new suburban housing around the built-up edges of the city. They discovered the strongest area for new markets was in south Minneapolis, Richfield and Bloomington. On the northwest side, it pushed into Crystal, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Maple Grove.

Germans, Scandinavians and later Jewish people moved out to the suburbs. The market near downtown got “very soft,” with more people leaving than coming in, and the housing prices dropped sharply. Newcomers filled those vacancies, and the minority neighborhoods filled up quickly, mostly with African-Americans and after the Vietnam War, Southeast Asians.

The same sort of story played out in Detroit, Chicago, Toledo and elsewhere. Every city is unique, just as every person is unique, but Midwest cities share some commonality, at least the ones I’ve studied.

Q: Can you talk a little more about what’s happened in the area since?

A: Here’s an example: Richfield was built up fast. In the 1940s and ’50s, houses were occupied by young families. Schools were built, and overloaded. Thirty years later, there weren’t many young kids anymore. It had more retired people living in houses by themselves.

So, the city planned for new housing to be constructed at former commercial intersections. If you go to 66th and Lyndale, or 66th and Nicollet, you’ll see tall market-rate housing and condos. It was part of a plan so that retired people could stay in the neighborhood and release the older housing for the next group moving in.

This has been going on in Edina, St. Louis Park, Robbinsdale, Richfield and Roseville.

It tells a story about neighborhood change and turnover. Some cities are good at planning for this. You can’t just leave things the way they are, and in the cities that plan with the businesses, neighborhood interests and others, it has worked out well.

Q: How does this compare with the north metro’s origins?

A: Minneapolis didn’t have a large manufacturing sector, but what it did have, in various machine and metalworking [enterprises], could be found in northeast. Polish, Slovak, Russian and some Scandinavian newcomers, and others, arrived to work in the manufacturing centers, after about 1890 and before World War II. It became a large Catholic, blue-collar, labor union-oriented area. When that neighborhood grew, it expanded northward into Fridley, and carried that working-class flavor.

Fridley was an important city; it contributed to the war effort with its manufacturing and it attracted people working in those factories. At the same time, this intensified it as a blue-collar working-class area. It wasn’t poor, but its character was different from Richfield or Edina and other more middle class and upper middle class areas.

Q: What are some of the factors that affect the housing market?

A: When people’s income goes up, one of the first things they do is improve their housing. If someone gets a big promotion at work, they think, ‘It’s time to move … why stay in this dump if I can afford more?’

When the economy is strong, households tend to break up. Young people are more willing to leave, start their own place, maybe with roommates. They have more income, more freedom.

This happens also within the immigrant populations. That’s why you can find a number of Somalis in Eden Prairie, for example. Many of them moved from the Seven Corners area in Minneapolis to the suburbs. Every newcomer generation has done the same thing.

In hard times, you’ve got retired parents who can’t afford to live alone and they may live with their kids. Households become slightly larger. When good times come, they break up and spread out. That waxing and waning of household size influences the demand for different kinds of housing. The number of households expands and contracts depending on people’s attitudes and disposable income.

Q: You said that geography doesn’t get a lot of attention in the U.S.?

A: It’s not often taught in this country, but it’s commonplace in the rest of the world. … It’s quite a puzzle to me, but it may have something to do with the fact that when Europeans were settling in the country, they were turning their back on the places they came from. They looked forward to paying attention to their own interests rather than the rest of the world.

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.