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Book Review: A People’s History of the Seward Neighborhood

The new book, A People’s History of the Seward Neighborhood, provides a narrative on Seward West Neighborhood that is needed for a comprehensive account of the 35-block area of the Seward Neighborhood. Most of the information is accurate.

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However, other passages fall short due the writers’ not being able to gain a needed grasp of various issues or situations that occurred during the 1970 to 1985 urban renewal period. My family lived on Milwaukee Avenue during that time and I was one of the leaders during the struggle to save the neighborhood. There are several references that are inaccurate.

Most importantly, completely absent in the book, is the astonishing and innovative design of Milwaukee Avenue. The construction project that converted former Milwaukee Avenue from a narrow inefficient street into a pedestrian walkway integrated within the city’s first planned residential district that combined existing houses into the overall four block area plan was hugely important.

Here are my main comments dealing with specifics mentioned in the book:

An initialized designation was incorrect: PAC stood for “Project AREA Committee, with the word ‘Area’ not used in place of “Action.”

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The text implies that Seward Redesign performed all of the house rehabs, which is far from being true. My memory is skimpy on this point, but I’d guess approximately 40 of the 300-some house rehabs were done by Redesign.

Not mentioned: PAC initiated the “Individual Rehab Program” that provided for individuals to perform rehabilitation under contract with HRA (Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority) for a house that would be converted into their ownership when completed. Rehab was performed by various combinations of contractors hired by the potential homeowners, and the homeowner’s own hands. This happened throughout all of the 35-block renewal area. On Milwaukee Avenue, most of the rehabs occurred through the Individual Rehab program, and none by Seward Redesign. Six houses on 22nd Avenue were rehabbed by Redesign.

Not mentioned: Milwaukee Avenue Community Corporation (MACC), a non-profit housing organization, led by Sheldon Mains, conducted 12 house rehabs in the Milwaukee Avenue Four Block Area. The book made no mention of MACC.

Not mentioned: The Milwaukee Avenue Area Planning Team, composed of two PAC staff-members, Jerillee Neidenfuer and myself, along with HRA staff-members Bill Schatzlein and Bob Scroggins. The team formulated all of the planning design features in the four-block Milwaukee Avenue Area,

There were no photos of rehabbed houses outside of Milwaukee Avenue.

Not mentioned: of one of PAC’s major design accomplishments: design plans for new infill houses that share architectural profiles of traditional existing houses, with steep roof pitches, front porches traditional siding and trim. This meant that the project avoided the ranch house designs that were the only architectural style used in Seward East’s renewal program that occurred earlier.

Not mentioned: PAC halted a new HRA-sanctioned shopping center that would have occupied the entire street frontage south of Franklin Avenue between 23rd Avenue and 24th Avenue, and would have extended 120 feet into the residential part of the neighborhood.

On page 210, the book states: ”Ironically, Tony Scallon, the product of a 1960s counterculture movement that took to the streets for social change, was actually fighting for the status quo.” That statement contradicts EVERYTHING Tony’s astute leadership provided. Scallon’s work led to PAC’s struggle for a profoundly different approach  in Seward West, changing the focus from a government agency pro-demolition plan to a PAC-based rehabilitation plan that saved Seward West’s traditional stature.

The most significant passage in the book’s Seward West section (Page 211) mentions how the Seward West Advisory Committee, the long-standing traditional urban renewal citizen group, was replaced by a neighborhood-formed ad hoc committee that eventually led to PAC. The writers of this book’s section deserve much credit for including that in their text.

My main point here is that the much-ballyhooed “citizen participation” efforts, loved by academics at the time, were simply a review mechanism by which public agencies handed out sheets of policies they produced for communities to vote approve. Any “no” votes by citizens were routinely ignored by the agency at their next board meeting.

The Seward West PAC and the nearby Cedar Riverside PAC became legitimate planners in their neighborhoods, and along with several Saint Paul neighborhoods, gave real decision-making power to citizens to determine policies for their own well-being. Previous to these neighborhoods struggles, urban renewal functioned by what architectural critic Withold Rybcynski stated,

…..practitioners were more concerned with what is ‘good for people’ rather than discovering what they want.

About Robert Roscoe

“A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange My professional experience includes over 36 years of architectural office experience, with the last 21 years as principal of Design For Preservation. My education includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, and five years at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota. I served 21 years on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and I have written articles for Architecture Minnesota, a publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I have given lectures on preservation architecture at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and various public forums. Art photography is a main avocation for me, focusing on capturing images of abandoned parts of the built environment, and I have been featured in several art exhibitions. I have co-authored a book on County Catholic Churches and am the author of the book Milwaukee Avenue – Community Renewal in Minneapolis. Also, I am editor of the infrequently published Journal of American Rocket Science.