Riverside Plaza

A Place to Call Home

In spite of controversies, an urban development that embraces diversity

You can’t miss it: Riverside Plaza, the large, concrete structure with the colored panels, is a high-density apartment complex with 11 buildings, over 1,300 units and nearly 5,000 residents. It’s a distinctive landmark that for many has come to symbolize the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Designed by architect Ralph Rapson and opened in 1973 as Cedar Square West, it remains the largest housing development project in Minnesota.

Riverside Plaza has a controversial history because of its origins in the urban renewal struggles of the mid-twentieth century. But it also fits with a pattern of immigrant settlement that goes back to the neighborhood’s roots. It opened as part of an ambitious development plan called a New Town in Town, a self-sufficient residential community for people of diverse cultural, racial and economic backgrounds. It offered market-rate and subsidized housing for elderly residents, students, young professionals, artists and low-income residents. Many were attracted to the area because of its proximity to downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and nearby colleges — as well as the vision of an integrated development.

But the process of creating Riverside Plaza drew widespread criticism. Developers shunned community input, bought and razed homes and historical structures and were accused of coercing residents and business owners to sell out and get out. Tenants in Cedar Square West faced a lot of problems. Newcomers to Cedar-Riverside, including students and counter-culture activists, mounted a series of protests that eventually put the brakes on large-scale development and substituted a different vision for the neighborhood, one that emphasized preserving historic structures and supporting local community businesses rather than replacing them.

Since the 1980s, Riverside Plaza has attracted new immigrants coming to Cedar Riverside from Vietnam, Korea, India, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Today Somali, Ethiopian, and Oromo immigrants and refugees form the largest group of residents. In addition to finding a place to call home in the Riverside Plaza buildings, they have created the shops, restaurants, cultural organizations and mosques that now line Cedar and Riverside Avenues. Much like earlier immigrants, they came here to escape problems in their countries, to reunite with family and friends and to build new lives in America.

Since its construction, Riverside Plaza has faced many negative perceptions. In addition to the urban renewal controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, the physical appearance of the buildings — concrete, cold, closed — turned many people off. Serving as a home for diverse communities led to stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, religion and income.

It has been called a “ghetto in the sky,” “Little Somalia” and “the Ellis Island of Minnesota.” All are misleading. Calling Riverside Plaza a “ghetto” does a great disservice to the people who have created strong community bonds and made this a safe and secure place to live. “Little Somalia,” obscures the fact that recent immigrants and refugees come from a variety of nations. Ellis Island was a holding place where newcomers were interrogated, often forced to change their names and only released when family, friends or community members came to vouch for them. Riverside Plaza is a place that immigrants choose to call home, where they speak their native language, practice their culture and determine the process of how they adjust to life in America.

In spite of all the struggles it has faced, some of the more progressive ideals of Riverside Plaza’s founders have been realized. For many newcomers this is a first stop; for others this is now home. It is a place to live, work and study in a dense, diverse, dynamic, urban neighborhood. Today Riverside Plaza brims with the enterprising spirit of people from places all over the world.

Images

Cedar Square West, ca. 1973

Cedar Square West, ca. 1973

Architect Ralph Rapson, who designed Cedar Square West, was heavily influenced by the Brutalist architectural movement in the mid-20th century. Brutalist architecture emphasized raw materials like concrete and an exterior that exposes a building's functions. To soften the appearance, Rapson textured the concrete to look like wood. The multi-colored panels, restored in 2012, emulate modernist residential housing complexes designed by Le Corbusier, a pioneer in modernist architecture. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Source: Cedar Riverside Alive and aware, ca. 1973 View File Details Page

Gloria Segal and Keith Heller with model of New Town in Town, 1973

Gloria Segal and Keith Heller with model of New Town in Town, 1973

In the 1960s, Gloria Segal and Keith Heller began buying properties in Cedar-Riverside. They wanted to build a large scale redevelopment that would solve a wide range of issues they perceived as problems in the neighborhood: high mobility, low-income and deteriorated housing. In 1968, they joined with Henry T. McKnight to form Cedar-Riverside Associates and proposed building a "New Town in Town" that would provide high-density housing and commercial and public facilities. The New Town in-Town would provide necessary services, increase population, raise land values, and improve the area's overall image. The only part of the project to be built was Cedar Square West. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Source: Clifford D. Simak, "The Old West Bank--and the new," Minneapolis Tribune, December 9, 1973 | Creator: Kent Kobersteen View File Details Page

Cedar-Riverside Alive and Aware, ca. 1973

Cedar-Riverside Alive and Aware, ca. 1973

This promotional brochure was widely distributed when CRA's New Town in-Town complex was being constructed. A key part of CRA's vision was to create an integrated community of residents from diverse racial backgrounds, ages and incomes. However, by 1976, approximately 85% of the residents were white and nearly half were college students. Many neighborhood residents felt that a viable community had already existed before the New Town in Town came into being and that further redevelopment threatened to destroy this community as well as the neighborhood. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Creator: Cedar-Riverside Associates, Inc. View File Details Page

Building a Coalition

Building a Coalition

Eunice Eckerly grew up in Nebraska and moved to Minneapolis in the late 1960s. She was looking for a place to live when Cedar Square West and its diverse community of residents caught her eye. "I liked the fact that I was working for the Urban Coalition, which was working on the word "coalition," or drawing people together. It just made sense that this housing development would be the perfect place for me to live because it was right in keeping with my beliefs." Eunice got involved in community organizations and helped organize the West Bank Grocery Co-op. She always believed in the goals of the New Town in Town project. "Living in Cedar Square West was a unique opportunity for people to live together with mixed incomes and ages, within an interacting community, and that is something I will always look back at fondly." Image courtesy of Eunice Eckerly | Source: Eunice Eckerly in her Cedar Square West Apartment, 1974 View File Details Page

Fostering the Dream

Fostering the Dream

Richard Mork, a pastor for Trinity Lutheran Congregation, was among the first to move into Cedar Square West. He was asked by the church to move there so he could be part of the new community. Mork recalled there was a lot of friction between those who lived in the complex and those who opposed the development. But Mork believed in the New Town in Town vision of a fully integrated community of people from diverse backgrounds. "From what I remember, people that lived in the complex were connecting across those ethnic and income lines for the most part." As a pastor and as the head of the Cedar Square West Residents Association, Mork was quite active in the complex and tried to foster friendship and community among all the residents. Image courtesy of Hennepin County Library | Source: Clifford D. Simak, "The Old West Bank--and the new," Minneapolis Tribune, December 9, 1973 | Creator: Kent Kobersteen View File Details Page

“For freedom and a better life”

“For freedom and a better life”

Phuoc Tran (second from right) survived the fall of Saigon in 1975, but eventually had to escape Vietnam for “freedom and a better life.” The only way out was by boat, and after five treacherous days at sea she ended up in Malaysia. Phuoc spent ten months in a refugee camp but then was allowed to go to America where she joined her sister in California. Phuoc had been in law school in Vietnam and wanted to continue her education. In 1984 she boarded a Greyhound bus and headed to Minnesota. She had some friends living in Riverside Plaza and joined them there. They formed a tight community, studying together and helping each other adjust to a new place. “The good thing about living there with other Vietnamese was if you needed rice, you could just knock on your neighbor's door and ask. While walking through the hallways you could smell traditional Vietnamese food everywhere. It was nice to know people like you, it's like you're family. You're there to help on another.” Today, Phuoc Tran is the first Vietnamese librarian in Minnesota, a respected storyteller and a published and award-winning author. Find out more about her book, Vietnamese Children's Favorite Stories, Image courtesy of Phuoc Tran | Source: Phuoc Tran with her roommates in the plaza of Riverside Plaza, 1984 View File Details Page

A Passion for Community

A Passion for Community

Linda Bryant grew up in North Minneapolis with her mother and grandmother in the Sumner Field Housing Projects. In the early 1980s, she and her mother moved into a subsidized unit in Cedar Square West. Her grandmother, aunts and other family members moved there too. Being close to family members was a huge benefit for Linda who recalled how it easy it was to walk to their apartments even if they were in different buildings. Linda made many friends, too, "My friends growing up here were from India, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and there were also African Americans." Linda enjoyed hanging out at the Currie Center and in Currie Park, and during the summer went daily to the pool that used to be in Riverside Plaza. Linda became the director of the Brian Coyle Community Center and continues to work with under-privileged communities in Minneapolis. Image courtesy of Linda Bryant | Source: Linda Bryant in Currie Park, 1982 View File Details Page

For Family and Friends

For Family and Friends

Osman Ahmed grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia. In 1991, he fled the country because of the civil war and eventually found his way to Minneapolis. "The reason I moved to Riverside Plaza was that there were many friends and family members who were already there by the time I got here. After that, it's better to stay here as long as you are together. So the reason we are here is for family members and friends. That's why I'm in Riverside Plaza. I feel comfortable, safe, and happy." | Creator: Chris Brown View File Details Page

Building Community

Building Community

Nasser Mussa was born in Ethiopia but moved to Nairobi, Kenya with his family when he was a young boy. In 2005 he was sponsored by his sister to come to Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota and one reason he chose to live in Riverside Plaza was because of its proximity to campus. He felt on his own as a newcomer in Minneapolis but quickly got involved in the neighborhood. “The social connection is that most of the people that are living here are African—Somalis, Oromo, Ethiopian and Eritrean. It is very easy to connect myself with these people because we have a lot in common. We're struggling with the same type of questions or problems including social issues or maybe about housing problems or education or improving services for the residents.” Image courtesy of Nasser Mussa View File Details Page

Riverside Plaza Restored, 2014

Riverside Plaza Restored, 2014

Cedar-Riverside Associates managed Cedar Square West for the first decade it was open, but they encountered many challenges: financial troubles and wide-spread public criticism. CRA faced rent strikes by residents in the complex as well as in other properties they owned. The City of Minneapolis had to cut off water when bills were not paid. In 1984 CRA declared bankruptcy. Sherman Associates bought the complex in 1988 and renamed it Riverside Plaza. In 2010, Riverside Plaza was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a larger plan to rehabilitate the buildings. The plan was successful and Sherman Associates received more than $100 million dollars in state and federal tax credits. All 1,303 apartments and common spaces were renovated, HVAC systems were replaced and the exterior was restored to its original look--including the panels painted in primary colors. Image courtesy of August Schwerdfeger | Source: Riverside Plaza, Wikipedia | Creator: August Schwerdfeger View File Details Page

History in the Streets

History in the Streets

In 2015, City Council member Abdi Warsame proposed to install honorary street names around Riverside Plaza to commemorate the history of the largest African communities in the neighborhood: Somali and Oromo. Pictured here is Somali Street on a section of South Sixth Street. Oromo Street is South Fourth Street and Taleex Avenue (an historic city in Somalia) is Sixteenth Avenue South. Image courtesy of Anduin (Andy) Wilhide | Creator: Anduin (Andy) Wilhide View File Details Page

Video

Street Address:

1515 S. 4th St., Minneapolis, MN 55454 [map]

Official Website:

Riverside Plaza, http://www.sherman-associates.com/riversideplaza/

Cite this Page:

Anduin (Andy) Wilhide, “Riverside Plaza,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed September 20, 2017, http://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/15.
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