MISS Throwback: West Side Flats
Sandy Fuller, Education Volunteer, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
MISS Throwback is a collaborative project in honor of the NPS Centennial. We asked volunteers to write about the last 100 years of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. This project was coordinated by Ranger Kathy and Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Quinn.
It’s 1916! Passover means it’s time for the annual spring floods from a swollen Mississippi River to force families to the upper levels of the simple plank homes on the West Side flats. Before the influx of Jewish refugees, fleeing the religious pogroms of the Russian czar during the late 1800’s, this low-lying area was sparsely settled. The new immigrants came with nothing. They used their skills to build shelters and then their ingenuity to create ways of earning a living by using the resources at hand: retrofitting items found in the local dumps, collecting rags and things they could recycle. They scraped together enough money to buy groceries for resale, or personal use if sales were slow. As fortunes improved, they moved on, making room for other families.
West Side flats during spring flood, St. Paul. Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society
When the river overflowed its banks, families moved belongings to the second floor, or loaded their stuff into flatboats until the river receded. If streets became impassable, stout boards became skyways from a second floor window to the neighbor next door. Sometimes during floods, so much sand was deposited that street level was above the ground floors of homes! Residents then built steps to go from the street down to the front doors. Despite the rigors of living in a flood prone area, Syrian refugees fleeing the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and Mexican migrant workers found homes on the lower West Side. Eventually the West Side became the historic home of Minnesota's Latino population. Following the devastating flood of 1952, the lower flats community was forcibly relocated to "the Terrace" where residents thrived and subsequently made room for Hmong, Khmer, Somali and other new arrivals from around the globe.
Notes from the author about locations:
On the West Side, the "Flats" are the low areas near the river. Current uses include the industrial park, Holman Field, the greenfields that are being reclaimed from their former use for dumps and heavy industry, and the new housing/office developments along the river. The Robert Street bridge travels directly into the "flats." Plato and the railroad tracks are basically the southern boundary of the "Flats"
The Terrace is the area along Concord, that sits at a slightly higher elevation. Torre do San Miguel, Neighborhood House, Our Lady and the Del Sol business area are located here. This area houses most of the relocated "Flats" community and continues to be the home of newcomers. The Wabasha bridge connects the "Terrace" to St Paul proper.
Proceeding up the hill along Robert Street, State Street or Ohio Street, to the "Bluffs," this is the home of the original West Siders, before the influx of immigrant groups. The Smith Avenue bridge connects the "Bluffs" to the rest of St Paul.
Hoffman, William. Those Where the Days. St. Paul: North Central, 1957. Hoffman, William. West Side Story II. St Paul, MN, North Central, 1981 Rosenblum, Gene H. The Lost Jewish Community of the West Side Flats, 1882-1962. Chicago, IL: Arcadia, 1986.