Vortex on Nicollet Island

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Remember that familiar quote from George Santayana?: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Of course, everyone does.

Like to see it at play? Just look to the current controversy swirling about Nicollet Island.

Nicollet Island has had a vortex before, you know. Projects to harness the power of the Falls of St. Anthony had unwittingly undermined their very foundation. On October 5, 1869, the tunnel being built between Nicollet and Hennepin Islands instead created a maelstrom. The whirlpool sucked in debris and seemed insatiable. It took close to two years for the falls finally to be stabilized. (“Go here for an account with photos”:http://www.mplib.org/history/eh5.asp).

The current controversy swirling around DeLaSalle’s proposal to build a 750-seat athletic stadium on Nicollet Island appears headed in the same direction. Well-intentioned people have set in motion events which seem to be racing toward a later day maelstrom.

From appearances, it all started out innocently. DeLaSalle made a presentation to the Minneapolis Park Board, owner of the regional park land on Nicollet Island. They needed an athletic stadium because, “From an admissions and school choice perspective, DeLaSalle is attempting to catch up to private and public schools that have enhanced facilities – particularly athletic facilities – in recent years.” (Quote from the DeLaSalle proposal presented to the Park Board in February 2005.)

With a new facility, the document continued, DeLaSalle would be able ” . . . to provide campus facilities that are comparable with every other high school in Minneapolis — public or private.”

A sound business proposal, right?

Somewhere along the line the arguments morphed into charges of elitist, racist neighbors who didn’t pay property taxes and opposed “the kids.” “The kids,” it seemed, had never had a home field advantage in 105 years, which might possibly set some kind of record for matriculation.

Also DeLaSalle had been on the island longer than any of these johnny-come-lately neighbors. However, since DeLaSalle is an institution and he neighbors are human, this is like comparing apples to earthmovers.

But, alas (for DeLaSalle), those Island residents were joined in their opposition by several historical agencies (this is the St. Anthony Falls Historic District), the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Mississippi, and the National Park Service, which is charged with overseeing both historical and environmental protections.

But the DeLaSallians had their own cards to play. To the attack rode columnists Nick Coleman of the Star Tribune and Joe Soucheray of the Pioneer Press, who are tied with three columns apiece that not only promoted DeLaSalle’s position, but mercilessly ridiculed the opposition and let stand a barrage of untruths (the old “don’t-pay-property-tax” lie and assertions that the process by which the residents acquired their properties was rigged, among others). Their radio programs also came in handy for their agenda, although Coleman is now unplugged.

It’s impossible to document the amount of behind-the-scenes pressures that have been brought to bear in support of DeLaSalle’s stadium proposal. But the best evidence of its existence is the recent public incident of intimidation that resulted in Garrison Keillor’s withdrawal from River Roots Revue, the May 21 event designed to raise funds in support of preserving public park land. There was nothing clandestine about the coercive nature of actions by DeLaSalle supporters. DeLaSalle stalwarts John Derus and Nikki Carlson both acknowledged the collective pressure tactics in newspaper interviews.

Here we jump back to the 1868 tunnel diggers of Nicollet Island, who never envisioned the whirlpool that would create a vortex off the south end of the island. By the time the damage was halted, the piles of debris and shelves of protruding rock were difficult to comprehend. (You can find pictures and a history of the damage “here”:http://www.mplib.org/history/eh5.asp).

What’s the next step in the DeLaSalle controversy when a personality with national status can be intimidated publicly?

Where do we go from here when people feel free to harrass organizations like the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and even the National Park Service in the name of their cause for “the kids”? (Here’s a clue: fundraiser sponsors eagerly give, but want anonymity. What does that tell you about the level of intimidation?)

How much more can the integrity of our political process withstand when those with clear self-interest or bias protest that their vote is unaffected by their “special relationship”?

How much more can the boundaries of civility and respect be eroded by harrassing phone calls, emails and personal attacks before our culture is irreperably harmed?

All this over a football stadium?

Yes, but not just like those other football stadiums. You’ve got your alumni/school spirit contingent (U of M Stadium — for those college “kids”), business/taxes element (Twins & Viking Stadiums), plus one added component. The goal of a home stadium for DeLaSalle has begun to take on aspects of a religious quest.

Responses to Keillor’s humorous submission in Salon seem to suggest that the controversy is nudging the situation closer to religious divisiveness and farther from a search for creative alternatives.

So here’s the big question: How much more of this can occur before we witness a modern day maelstrom on a par with the collapse of the Falls of St. Anthony?

It’s my hope that this is mere hyperbole, and this bit of history doesn’t replay, even in a metaphorical sense.

Christine Viken lives on Nicollet Island.