35W is a hot topic in the twin cities. Locals often remark on the highway’s perpetual construction. The freeway is prone to flooding. The 35W merger with “The Cross Town” was once targeted by politicians for its poor design. In 2007, the nation saw the 35W bridge over the Mississippi River collapse, ultimately killing 13 people. Community activists have blocked the highway several times in expressions of civil disobedience. When I need to drive anywhere south of the city, my GPS directs me to “merge on to interstate 35 west south.” Google Maps, along with the rest of us, have no clue which direction this highway is going.
Last month, Minnesota’s Department of Transportation “MnDOT” completed the largest overhaul of the highway since it was first constructed in the 1960s. Construction crews removed 50-year-old concrete, built massive unground silos for rainwater, reconstructed several bridges, reconfigured the “priced dynamic shoulder lane” (a.k.a., the HOV lane), and developed two transit stations for a new bus rapid transit line. MnDOT also hosted a walking tour in partnership with the Hennepin History Museum, which I attended.
Several of us gathered outside in the museum parking lot on 3rd Avenue South. It was a beautiful fall afternoon in South Minneapolis. Before embarking on our 1 mile walk, MnDOT staff provided a brief overview of the project, and Museum affiliates remarked on the history of the highway, with particular attention to the displacement of families and reinforcement of racial segregation caused by freeway projects in the 1950s and 60s. After the opening remarks, the group marched north on 3rd, turning left on Franklin, and paused in the middle of the overpass. MnDOT explained the design elements of the freeway. The group looked to the north at the complex interchange just before the downtown skyline. To the south, the highway curved as it proceeds to Burnsville and beyond.
History Museum members acknowledged the historical significance of the land, starting with the Indigenous Dakota communities, and moving forward in time to the communities of color that lived on the land. The neighborhood was once home to middle class African American and Asian communities. The federal housing administration deemed the area “Hazardous” in the 1930s due to the racial and ethnic occupancies. Later in the 1950s, Engineers and other planners found this area optimal for the development of a freeway. A swath of homes was relocated or demolished to make way for the new freeway. Almost all of these homes belonged to people of color. The one and only curve in the highway was engineered to preserve the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The sound of cars roared around us, underneath from the highway, to the side on Franklin, and in the air from motorists nearby on other streets. This was a loud part of town. Most highways drone at 85 to 90 decibels, enough to cause hearing loss if exposed for long periods of time. Almost all of the homes nearby looked dilapidated. Few businesses existed. Those that did were decorated with security cameras and boarded windows. Pedestrians and bicyclists combated the congested streets. The community resembled little cohesion.
Noise is one of many issues MnDOT tries to mitigate when constructing freeways. Concrete and wood walls lined the roadway in an attempt to quiet the noise. Pedestrian mobility is another consideration. The 35W reconstruction included two pedestrian bridges, one was the 24th street pedestrian bridge, which now offers accessible entry for those who roll, in addition to pedestrians and cyclists. A temporary art installation showcased the history of the highway. A few pieces of fencing were preserved to remind us of those iconic photos of downtown.
None of these issues were considered when the highway was first built. Pedestrians were forced to cross the neighborhood on bridges that served cars. Homeowners couldn’t hear their televisions because the traffic was so loud. Those with means moved to nicer areas. Those that stayed saw their neighborhoods decline and segregation intensify.
The tour proceeded down 5th and stopped at the pedestrian bridge to reflect on the displacement of communities in Minneapolis and other cities nationwide. The speaker encouraged the group to think about these communities every time we drive on an urban highway. Each time you drive on a highway in a major city, you are driving on someone’s old front yard, and it’s likely a front yard that belonged to a person of color.
Today, MnDOT considers neighborhood and community needs in its freeway projects. No house was relocated for this project. Only two business were purchased and demolished for the creation of a new off ramp. Several years of community input occurred before construction began. Still, freeways showcase a grim reality of car culture. It is essential to move automobiles efficiently through our city for our economy to thrive. But, it comes at a cost to the city’s livability. For those interested in learning more, check out the Hennepin History Museum exhibition “Human Toll: A Public History of 35W” on display until October 2022. Admission is free through the end of 2021.