New book explores cycles and whiplash of Minneapolis history

New Minneapolis biography looks at repetitive unrest

Tom Weber, author of "Minneapolis: An Urban Biography"
Journalist Tom Weber, is the author of "Minneapolis: An Urban Biography."
Courtesy images from Tom Weber

Updated: 10:20 a.m.

Before Minneapolis was the City of Lakes, it was known as Gakaabikaang in Ojibwe and Bde Ota Othunwe in the Dakota languages.

A new book by former MPR News host Tom Weber takes the city’s origin story back to the Bdote, where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet and curl around Pike Island — Wita Tanka. The word Minneapolis is composed of words from two languages — the Dakota word for water, “mni,” and the Greek, “polis”: City of Water.

Weber knows this, and begins “Minneapolis: An Urban Biography” with water. 

He takes readers on a tour through the history of Minneapolis, beginning with its original inhabitants, the Dakota and Ojibwe, and on as non-Native people from the East begin to arrive. He charts the city’s cycles of collapse and rebuilding — cycles that he said have created a type of historical whiplash that endures today. 

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The story Minneapolitans tell about the progressiveness and prosperity of their region contradicts the reality that, Weber said, the Twin Cities are rife with racial disparities. 

The state of Minnesota, on the whole, boasts above-average home ownership rates on the national scale. Average incomes are a little under $10,000 higher than the national average. The number of children living in poverty is almost half of the national average.

But there’s a significant lack of parity: Minneapolis has the country’s lowest rates of home ownership among Black residents. And Minnesota has an education achievement gap deeply entrenched across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The disconnect between what is perceived and what is actually happening is repetitive, Weber writes. He argues that, as long as people ignore the root causes of the inequities, they are doomed to be reinforced — and to remain. 

“We built the house with termites in the studs,” says Weber. “There are things we did from way back when that help explain why we are the way we are now, with all these disparities and inequities.” 

That includes redlining — the practice of discriminating against racial groups in home deeds and mortgages.

“It is not a mistake or happenstance that some of the toniest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, some of the better-to-do neighborhoods in Minneapolis, are also the whitest neighborhoods,” Weber said. “It's how they were designed and it's how they were made to stay by the people who lived in those neighborhoods.”

Weber’s book uses the work of the Mapping Prejudice project, which tracks the “hidden histories of race and privilege in the urban landscape.” As a result of covenants discriminating against Black homeowners in property deeds, Weber said, “by the 1940s and ‘50s, you really had parts of town where there were no Black families anymore.”

And according to the research group Minnesota Compass, there are only three neighborhoods in Minneapolis whose populations are less than 50 percent white: Near North, Phillips and Camden.

Weber’s book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, went to print before May 25 — the day George Floyd was killed. 

And while some things have changed in the few weeks that have passed since, Weber said it’s important to remember that what’s happening now is rooted in the city’s past.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” he said. “It rhymes.”

The point of the book, he said is, “to say, look, this is happening right now and there's a reason for it.” 

He said he hopes the book helps readers understand that the civil unrest happening today is not novel and should not be surprising.

“Our history informs this [moment],” he said. “And versions of this have happened in the past.”

Weber said he sees history repeating as the city begins to rebuild, emotionally and physically, today. On Lake Street, the detritus of unrest is being cleared away. He sees echoes of  Plymouth Avenue in 1967. The cycle of collapse and rebuilding continues.

“Hopefully,” he said, “readers think — hey, maybe there's something we can learn from how it was done in the past, or maybe there's something we can learn from the past on how not to do it this time.”

Correction (July 3, 2020): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the population demographics of Minneapolis' Near North, Phillips and Camden neighborhoods. They are the only three neighborhoods in the city in which the populations are less than 50 percent white. The article has been updated.