History looks different from different perspectives. There’s the history that people remember, the history that is written down, and the history that really truly existed. Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis possesses mystique and romanticism, but its current renovation and reconstruction project is controversial. Disagreements arise because of differences in what people believe the lake should look like, what they imagine it looking like in the past, what it has become due to man-made manipulation, and what it naturally tends toward.
If you have paid attention to the island at Lake of the Isles, you may have noticed a lot less trees of late. Mike Schmidt, at Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, says the park board has been focusing on eliminating buckthorn from the island.
“People brought buckthorn to Minnesota,” Schmidt told me in a phone interview. “Birds eat the berries, which are a diuretic.” The birds spread the seeds and buckthorn spreads quickly, with its massive growth inhibiting native species.
But non-native buckthorn is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the entire landscape of Lake of the Isles is non-native.
According to the park board Web site, “Lake of the Isles is an engineered lake, created in the early part of the 20th Century. The Park Board dredged what was originally a shallow lake and marsh complex and used the dredged material to create parkland and ultimately, a stately and picturesque park.”
Because the swamp was turned into a lake, the area experiences periodic flooding. In the last 50 years, there have been numerous attempts to combat the flooding while maintaining the landscape that was established at the turn of the century.
“It’s a balance” says Pat Scott of the Kenwood Isles Area Association, “between the historical relevance and stabilizing the shore land.”
But historical relevance is relative. Is it more historically relevant to maintain the landscape that was created in 1896, or to return the lake to its original state? While Theodore Wirth had a hand in designing the so-called historical landscape, Henry David Thoreau visited Lake of the Isles in 1861 and praised the beauty of the swamp.
Over the years, deep sections of peat compressed and the entire park sank. In the early 1990s, a pump helped move water from the deeper Lakes of Isles and Calhoun to Lake Harriet, but the pump broke. Then, during the same decade, devastating floods made a reconstruction project necessary.
In 1997, engineers planned to convert areas around the west bay and north arm into wetlands. Neighbors were dismayed by this idea because they didn’t want to lose seven acres of parkland. They wanted to keep the historical landscape, or at least the hundred-year-old version of it (not the swampland version that existed before that.)
There was an impasse: the neighbors didn’t want to give up their parkland, but because of restrictions of both the Minnehaha Watershed Districts and the DNR, the area had to maintain a certain amount of wetland.
Then the Minnesota Preservation Commission stepped in and named Lake of the Isles as eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. With that status, Lake of the Isles could not undergo any improvements without an eye to its historic integrity. Also, the wetlands were deemed to be the result of erosion and not the area’s natural state and therefore not subject to the DNR regulations.
The watershed district, the park board, and the area association compromised by preserving the historic landscape while adding plantings to the shoreline and vegetation to secure the lake from more flooding. The project was funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund: Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, the Minnesota DNR Flood Mitigation Program, the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, East Isles Residents Association, Kenwood Isles Area Association, Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, Cedar Isles Dean Area Association, and private donations.
On Arbor Day this year, community members and students from Kenwood and Jefferson High School planted 125 trees around Lake of the Isles. When the buckthorn and other non-native species are completely extinguished, more trees will be planted on the island itself, probably next May.
When the new plantings are secure, the fence surrounding the lake will be removed, and the last piece of the puzzle will finally happen: fixing the potholes on the parkway surrounding the lake.
Not all the residents around Lake of the Isles are happy with the changes that have been made. Ron Zenefski, who has lived in the area since 1965, says “it seems more urbane somehow, less wild.”
The new Lake of the Isles may not look exactly like the lake that many neighbors remember. It may not be what Wirth created or what Henry David Thoreau admired. But the result will be, for better or for worse, a compromise between what is best for the environment and the changes those who live and play around the lake are willing to agree to.
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.
[Ed. note: Corrected July 7 to reflect that new plantings, not new peat are being added to secure the shoreline. Thanks to Andy Lesch of the Mpls Park and Recreation Board for catching the error! Andy wrote: ” I noticed what appeared to be a typo in the 3 and 4th to last paragraph where use the word “peat” where plants or plantings should have been used. The underlying decomposing peat soils that settled over time were the reason the shoreline and former improvements continued to sink. This project added a soil surcharge to compress those deep layers of peat , and replaced them with new soils and improvements matching the compressed elevations to create a stabilized shoreline.”