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.
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