Museum exhibit documents human toll of freeway construction in Minneapolis

Cars drive past a freeway entrance sign
Interstate 35W cut through and divided south Minneapolis neighborhoods when it was built decades ago. In this view looking north on Monday, a car enters the freeway at left; only a noise barrier separates I-35W from homes along South Second Avenue at right.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

It's been more than 50 years since the U.S. government started spending billions of dollars on interstate highways to link American cities.

But the cost of those freeways was much more than just financial. They also cut through the heart of vibrant neighborhoods, including in the Twin Cities — displacing residents, and communities of color in particular. The far-reaching impact of the freeway construction is the subject of an exhibit that opened at the Hennepin History Museum this fall: "Human Toll: A Public History of 35W."

“It really was much harder on the Black community who had very few housing choices to begin with due to racist housing policies and practices, and prejudices, and then just had tremendous difficulties finding replacement housing,” said Greg Donofrio, a professor of historic preservation and public history at the University of Minnesota, who worked with south Minneapolis community members for two years to document the history and create the exhibit.

In 1960, more than 80 percent of the Black population living in Minneapolis resided in the paths of the new freeways.

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A man stands next to a bicycle
Louis Moore, a Minneapolis resident and founder of the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Minnesota, stands on a bridge over Interstate 35W in October. Moore was a child when the freeway was built through his neighborhood.
Sonja Kleven | MPR News

"We were all young, we were 12, 13 [years old],” recalled Louis Moore. “We were all baffled as to what this was all about. To us it was, ‘Why the heck are they tearing all of this stuff down? This is my neighborhood. What's this about?’ ”

His parents had bought a house on 43rd Street and 3rd Avenue in south Minneapolis in 1954, just a half block from where the highway would be built a few years later.

"It was traumatic for me because I had a lot of friends that lived on the other side of what is now 35W,” said Moore, founder of the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Minnesota and part of the community effort behind the new exhibit. “When they came through, it of course divided the neighborhood immensely."

Speaking earlier this fall in a park near where he grew up, Moore explained that before bridges were built across the new freeway, the only way for kids to get across was to climb down into the construction zone.

An aerial view of Interstate 35W under construction
An aerial view of Interstate 35W under construction through neighborhoods in south Minneapolis in the 1960s, looking toward downtown in the distance.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

“We used to come over here and just kinda stand around and kinda gawk at the idea that they could put a house up on a big trailer with a semitruck and haul it — not fast, but haul it down the street,” Moore said.

Moore then realized that those were the homes of people who could afford to have their houses relocated. The rest were demolished. The state offered homeowners compensation, but many offers were below the actual value of the houses.

“Unfortunately during the time that they constructed these freeways, they went though the communities that they felt were least resistant. And the majority of those were Black communities," Moore said.

A similar situation played out in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, which was devastated by the construction of Interstate 94.

Traffic moves along Interstate 35W
Traffic moves along Interstate 35W through south Minneapolis on Monday, as seen from the 42nd Street bridge. The interstate cut through and divided south Minneapolis neighborhoods when it was built decades ago.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

The new exhibit specifically explores the stories of marginalized communities in the Twin Cities, but Donofrio said their experiences are not isolated.

“This is part of a nationwide trend, a pattern that took place all over the United States, of freeways being built through or along the edge of Black communities in particular,” Donofrio said.

It took two years for his team to gather materials for the exhibit, an effort that relied on people who lived the history.

"There were members of the south Minneapolis community who showed up every week. Members of the community who went into the archives with us and who helped us create meaning out of these sources of information," he said.

They gave oral histories, donated documents and photographs, and helped with research and exhibit development.

"I think it's important for people who've been in the community for a while, especially us older folks, to let people know what the history is," Moore said.

Human Toll: A Public History of 35W” will be on display at the Hennepin History Museum until next October. Admission is free until the end of this year.