As it does every few years, members of the Minneapolis City Council have lately taken an acute interest in the health of our independent Park and Recreation Board, suggesting that euthanizing the 126-year-old body would leave taxpayers with a leaner, more agile local government.
Officially, this latest gambit, championed by council members Paul Ostrow, Don Samuels, and Ralph Remington, would replace the elected Park Board with an appointed advisory board that would have no decision-making authority. The parks would simply become another city department, like Public Works or city planning, whose budget and vision the council would control.
Critics, like Council Member Cam Gordon and longtime Park Board Commissioner Annie Young, have decried the move as a dangerous “power grab” that, if successful, would place the city’s celebrated parks system into the hands of amateurs. “Ecologically, the Minneapolis park system is a jewel,” Gordon and Young wrote in an editorial published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet. “This is the legacy of an independent Park Board, and there is no certainty that the City Council will manage the park system with such diligence and success.”
Unlike the city’s feeble Library Board, which last year caved in under pressure from City Hall and allowed Hennepin County to acquire its half-billion dollars in assets in return for the dubious promise of better library services, there’s evidence that city parks advocates are made of stronger stuff. Indeed, just last month, the board rebuffed efforts by Jim Bernstein, chair of the city’s Charter Commission, to hold meetings in park buildings to discuss abolishing the Park Board, according to a March 26 article in the Star Tribune. Council Member Ostrow and others have cried foul, of course, decrying the board for opposing free speech by so ungraciously refusing to be party to its own demise. But if history is any guide, we expect the Park Board has only just begun to fight.
Or, at least that’s the message author David C. Smith conveys in his thoughtful and comprehensive history of our park system, City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks.
As early as the 1860s, Smith notes, vocal opponents of urban green space argued passionately against the city acquiring land for parks. As one short-sighted citizen put it, “Why do we need a park? There will never be a house south of Tenth Street.” Another opponent claimed: “The whole city south of Franklin is a park.”
Thankfully, there was a small coterie of influential — and wealthy — civic leaders who were convinced that the future of civilization on this particular expanse of the Midwest prairie depended in large part on whether they could integrate ample green space into the fledgling city’s design. And, while early private attempts were less than auspicious (the 1865 purchase of a $2,500 plot of land, complete with murky duck pond, at the intersection of Nicollet and Hennepin avenues never quite panned out over the next century), there was at least an understanding of the importance of such a mission.
“We know that the health, and daily comfort and convenience of countless millions who inhabit the towns and cities which are to grow up through all this region may be affected for ages after we are forgotten, by the care or carelessness with which we perform our duty in designing their primary arrangement,” wrote Horace Cleveland, a kind of itinerant landscape designer from Maine whose 1872 arrival inspired the first great wave of park development in the Twin Cities. “Yet this priceless opportunity may be lost forever for want of an appreciative eye to detect its value. The gem may be thrown aside as worthless, because no one is at hand to detect its luster and arrange its setting.”
Cleveland’s missionary zeal was not lost on local merchant Charles Loring and University of Minnesota president William Folwell, both of whom Smith grants substantial credit for laying the groundwork for the city’s park system. There were others, of course, including Dorilus Morrison, George Pillsbury, George Brackett, William King, and other members of the Minneapolis Board of Trade, who in 1883 drafted legislation creating a Board of Park Commissioners.
These businessmen knew the price of land was rising dramatically and had grown tired of City Hall’s inaction on park land acquisition. It was the first in what would be many battles between parks advocates and the council over who controls the city’s green spaces. “In what was either a futile — or carefully calculated — step in light of past actions, the board did request to confer with the city council to get their assistance in ‘carrying out this important matter,’” Smith notes. “The president of the council was duly notified — and the request was not answered. The Board of Trade forged ahead, perhaps relieved.”
The council woke up to the bill’s ramifications soon enough and lobbied fiercely against its passage, arguing that it would give the new park board control over large sums of money for acquisition of land and development of parks, the power to levy taxes “without consulting the people,” the power to condemn land, increase the public debt, borrow money, issue bonds — all the while ignoring “the rights of the people to be heard and allowed the people no voice in the selection of land for parks.”
The arguments rang hollow, writes Smith. “These were powers the council also already owned — and could have retained on park issues had they demonstrated over the years any inclination to act.”
The bill was signed into law in February 1883, but one large obstacle still remained: Opponents on the Board of Trade had inserted a provision in the bill requiring a citywide referendum before the commission could be created. A ferocious campaign ensued, with local Republicans favoring the law and Democrats in opposition. When the ballots were all counted on April 2, 1883, the measure passed handily — 58 percent in favor, 42 percent opposed. The “obstructionists and reactionary old fogies who set their faces like flint against any innovations or improvement” had been vindicated, the Minneapolis Evening Journal opined.
Smith chronicles the early land acquisitions (Johnson’s Lake, which would become Loring Park; a plot in Northeast Minneapolis between Broadway and Jefferson, now known as Logan Park; and Third Ward Park at Lyndale and Fourth Street between 26th and 29th avenues, which would become Farview Park), and he explains how the new Park Commission gradually came to understand Cleveland’s vision of a park system rather than just a collection of green spaces.
Though generally laudatory, Smith’s history illuminates plenty of Park Board missteps in the early going: a proposal to turn Lyndale and Hennepin avenues into parkways connecting Farview and Loring parks in the north with a new Lyndale Park near Lakewood Cemetery to the south; and the board’s unwillingness to execute Cleveland’s vision of a 200-foot-wide Lake Street boulevard running from Lake Calhoun to the Mississippi River.
“Cleveland’s grand east-west boulevard, which would have been an ‘intrinsic element of beauty,’ eventually died,” Smith writes. “What was lost in Cleveland’s mind was not only beautiful open space, but also a firebreak and conduit of fresh air in what he correctly imagined would become a crowded neighborhood someday.”
Rebuffed by Minneapolis park leaders, Cleveland took his idea to St. Paul, where he brought it to grand fruition on Summit Avenue between Lexington and the river. (Yes, that Summit Avenue.)
Indeed, Cleveland’s sometimes tragic-comic role in our park history, often lost in the celebratory din generally reserved for Theodore Wirth, is the most compelling and poignant aspect of this history. He had difficulty making a living as a landscape designer; the Park Board even refused at certain points to pay him for his services. And, for all his influence on the city’s green design, there’s not much overt recognition of his work — an oversight Smith believes should be rectified.
“That there is to this day no park named for Horace Cleveland in Minneapolis is understandable. He did not choose to concentrate his considerable powers of persuasion on individual parks,” Smith writes. “That there is no Horace Cleveland Parkway in Minneapolis, however, is an omission for which generations of park commissioners should not be easily forgiven.”
That bit of business, I suspect, can wait while the Park Board prepares to do battle once again with City Hall. Commissioners have plenty of ammunition at their disposal — the country’s most elegant and accessible park system, for one thing, a history of bullheadedness, for another. But, if commissioners are looking for a little added inspiration, Smith’s got plenty to spare here.
This article first appeared in the spring issue of MOQ.
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