One of Nicholas Hammer's favorite hideaways is where Shingle Creek enters the Mississippi River, on the west side of the 42nd Avenue bridge in north Minneapolis. It's the spot where he usually sets up his fishing rod — shaded by trees, surrounded by birdsong and sloping gently into the water.
"I put in many, many nights shore fishing because, as a family guy, that's kind of your only time," Hammer said. "The kids go to bed; dad goes fishing for an hour, maybe two if he can squeeze it in."
Hammer describes himself as "just a normal guy living in the city." By day, he's a flooring contractor, hopping all over the Twin Cities metro area on jobs. By night, and sometimes in the very early morning, he's an avid fisherman who has gone "from Boom Island ... all the way up to the Coon Rapids dam, where it's legal."
"I've fished lakes mainly," he said. "The river was always there, but it was always dirty. There was always a stigma around it."
Hammer remembers the days when he and his family would spend time on the Mississippi River. His cousins went jet skiing while his father fished from the barges, and every so often something smelly would drift on by.
"There'd be literally floating masses of crap, and I'm not talking garbage," he said. "Like, we're talking poo back then. It's come a long way."
He credits the improvement in water quality to the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972 as well as the closure of the St. Anthony Falls Lock.
For Hammer, spending time on the river feels like continuing a family tradition: taking his father's love of water and fishing and passing it down to his children.
"My dad had it growing up. For me to discover it later in life ... it's priceless," he said.
And it acts as a natural playground for the kids.
"You throw them in a setting like this, away from their TV and YouTube and all that, and it's fantastic what they come up with," he said. "They start grabbing sticks and start making forts. They climb up trees and go and make their own trails."
Maintaining the natural beauty of the river is important to Hammer.
Minneapolis has recently made moves to redevelop riverfront property once earmarked for industrial use. That includes the Upper Harbor Terminal project in north Minneapolis, which obtained approval from the city council in March. The city is trying to pull together developers and community voices to come up with a more detailed plan.
"I really liked the first concept plan, the one where they had the really nice backwaters on it," Hammer said, referencing early design goals from the city that have changed in the approved concept plan. "That'd provide a lot of ecosystem to a stretch of the river that doesn't really have that."
He pointed downstream to parts of the river that flowed slower and supported more kinds of wildlife, and said it would be nice to see more of that habitat on the river.
"[The development] doesn't hurt, but it just doesn't provide as much of an ecosystem for certain species to really thrive in," he said.
Hammer has kept himself up to date on the city's development plan, noting the inclusion of housing, entertainment venues and shops along the riverfront. And while he thought the city's plans for more buildings and economic opportunities made sense, he hopes the final plan will achieve a better balance between urban development and natural conservation.
"That's why I like the river because it's such a mix of city and ... not city, you know? It's like up north."
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