Lake Mead and a little of its history

We are in the 6000 block of 1st Avenue South, but now we call it Lake Mead. If you could travel six miles straight north, you would come to First Avenue, which Prince made famous, and vice versa, and to Target Center, which isn’t that famous.

We’ve almost come full circle. One hundred and fifty years ago, this area was a ‘swamp’; they didn’t know or care about wetlands, marshes, bogs, mires, sloughs, fens, or storm water retention ponds. When the area was “civilized” and “developed”, this spot became a ‘landfill’, aka dump. After WWII, there was a major demand for starter homes. They brought in some dirt, put in a couple streets, and built houses. Then, for 50 years, it was a neighborhood. This block had 24 homes on 1st Avenue, plus another 12 on Stevens Avenue, just to the east. With the swamp and landfill, the soil conditions were so poor that many houses were built on pilings, not standard foundations.

On July 1, 1997, Minneapolis City Councilmember for the 11th Ward, S. Doré Mead took the evening off from her re-election campaign to have dinner with her husband to celebrate their 25th Anniversary. They went to Sophia’s, later the Wilde Café, on Main Street SE. They were seated on the terrace overlooking the river; it was a beautiful evening. After the soup, their server hurried them inside because rain was coming.

Rain it did. It was designated a “500-year” storm, although there were two or three more with similar designations later that summer. Many streets and intersections were flooded and impassable, I-35W included, 60th and 1st included. It took Doré and Ron hours to cover the six miles from Sophia’s at Main Street SE to home, near 51st and Nicollet S.

Neighbors on this block knew, if rain was forecast, to make sure the catch basins were clear of debris, so the street didn’t flood. They also knew if heavy rain was forecast to move stuff out of the basement in case it got water. Or if it was really heavy rain, shut off the gas to the furnace and water heater. For really, really heavy rain, flood the basement yourself to keep the walls from collapsing inward. Because of the pilings, the house would survive but the furnace might not.

After the Great Storm of ’97, this neighborhood was riddled with sink holes, because of the poor soil. A young man living at 6000 1st, walked down his back steps onto the sidewalk he had used less than an hour earlier and plunged into water over his head. His brother, two steps behind him, pulled him out by his hair. The next morning, residents set about the all too familiar tasks of shoveling mud out of the basements and pouring sand down the sinkholes. They couldn’t truck in enough sand; it just disappeared into the void. Sidewalks, where they still existed, were a foot or two lower than they had been the day before.

After a few days working and talking with the neighbors, Councilmember Mead spent a couple weeks researching the history. The history she found, extending over 50 years, was a recurring pattern: nice young couple finds an affordable house, mortgage, kids, storm, flood, FEMA loan, bankruptcy, foreclosure, repeat.

Doré effectively stopped campaigning, much to the chagrin of her campaign committee, and devoted herself to creating a flood mitigation program that would solve the problem. The more she looked, the more areas she found throughout the city that had the exact same problem: housing that had been built in areas where it should not have been built. Storm water run-off after major storms had nowhere to go but basements. After the usual third-floor City Hall shenanigans, the program, with a price tag approaching $200 million as a start, was up and running in record time, about six-months after the July 1 dinner. As people saw what the program was doing, more neighborhoods came forward asking to be included.

Lake Mead, pretty much as Nature intended

Even with her non-campaign, Doré easily won re-election and became the first woman to chair the Transportation and Public Works Committee. Her election day celebration was at Cintia’s restaurant, 61st and Nicollet, now the Tail Gate or Patty Wagon. Talk to Bahman.

6 thoughts on “Lake Mead and a little of its history

    1. Jana, I like your version too. It points out some of the differences between being the elected official and being staff. Staff has to figure out what needs to happen, other than the easy stuff like finding the money and getting changes to state law.

      Like

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