map of 1889 sewers

Why sewers are great

Published May 5, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Today’s blogger is Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a senior history major at Augsburg and an intern with the Historyapolis Project.

It’s map Monday. This 1889 maps shows the sewer system of Minneapolis. Today Minneapolitans take safe drinking water and flushing toilets for granted. During the Gilded Age, however, city-dwellers were not so fortunate. Like cities around the world, Minneapolis was grappling with the consequences of unprecedented urbanization. And one of the most pressing problems of this new human density was the question of waste. Cities had to figure out what to do with their often overwhelming supply of excrement.

One of the fastest growing cities in the county, Minneapolis only had 2.57 miles of sewers at the beginning of the 1880s. As a result, human waste literally filled the streets.

This was unpleasant. But it was also dangerous. In 1881, 1893 and again in 1897, the city endured epidemics of typhoid, a water-borne illness that spread when sewage and drinking water intermingled. According to the Annual Report of the Board of Health, 1897 alone saw 1,534 reported cases and 148 deaths.

The city responded to these public health crises with a sewer-building campaign. By 1890, the city had 63.5 miles of sewers, which this map shows stretching to Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street in the south and to Broadway street on the city’s north side. But this growing system still had some fundamental flaws, at least from perspective of public health. In 1889 Minneapolis Chief Engineer, Andrew Rinker, recommended dumping the sewer lines into Basset’s Creek as this would deposit  “the sewage into the[Mississippi] river above the falls.” Unfortunately, the intake point for the city’s water supply was right next to the sewage outfall and lay “in the midst of that part of the stream polluted by a large share of the city’s sewage.”

In 1897, the city partially solved the water problem by relocating the water intake to the North Side pumping station. This new location was “situated above and beyond the great avenues of pollution.” However, as this map shows, the city’s sewer and water systems were still incomplete. By the turn of the century, many residents still relied on “privies” (private sewers) and surface wells.

This reliance could have dire health consequences. The Minneapolis Department of Health report for 1900 stated, in regard to recurring typhoid outbreaks, that “well water, infected by drainage from privy vaults or cess-pools, is the medium by which the malady is conveyed.” Indeed, the same report states that “by far, the majority of the contagious diseases and deaths occur in those districts which are supplied with well water.” The use of wells were especially common in the city’s poorer districts, such as Bohemian Flats.

Not only was the water delivery system incomplete, the North Side pumping station delivered untreated water from the Mississippi to Minneapolis residents well in to the 20th century. It was not until  1911 that the city began treating all municipal water with hypochlorite. The number of reported typhoid cases plummeted from 1,252 in 1910 to 290.

In the 1920s, the city still co-mingled its storm and sanitary sewer systems. As a result, raw waste was flushed into the Mississippi River. The city’s first wastewater treatment plant began operating in 1938. And it was during the decade of the Works Progress Administration that the city could finally get its sewer and water infrastructure aligned with its population. Today, the old sewage outfalls that line the Mississippi have been converted to storm drains.

Quotes and material for this post are drawn from the Proceedings of the City Council and the Annual Reports of the City of Minneapolis, 1889-1912. The map is taken from the 1889 Annual Reports. Thanks to Ted Hathaway at Hennepin County Special Collections for digitizing these maps for Historyapolis.

The hidden geography of feminism

Published March 31, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

It’s Map Monday. Today we have a custom map created by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a senior history major at Augsburg and one of the student interns at the Historyapolis Project for 2014.

Since the eighteenth century, feminism has inspired women to re-imagine personal relationships, institutional structures and public spaces. This map shows how this movement transformed the urban landscape of Minneapolis in the 1960s and 1970s, when thousands of local women took inspiration from second wave feminism to remake the city.

The map pinpoints some of the feminist experiments and initiatives of this period, using green pins to locate businesses, blue pins to commemorate protests, red pins to remember activist hotspots and yellow pins to show other sites of significance for this feminist era in the city.

The map includes the Amazon bookstore and A Woman’s Coffee House, nationally-known institutions that served as women-only sites for socializing and consciousness-raising. It points out the resource centers created by women to address issues like pornography and domestic violence. And it illuminates how women appropriated places that had been traditionally dominated by men. Click on the map points to learn more.

Feminist collaboration was never simple. But the “sex wars” of the early 1980s ushered in a new age of conflict for feminists, especially in Minneapolis, where battles over pornography, sexual exploitation and sexual violence consumed the entire community. These emotional skirmishes ended this earlier period of giddy experimentation.

Most social movements have been commemorated in some way on the urban landscape of the city. But feminism has no monument, unless you count the statue of television character Mary Tyler Moore on Nicollet Mall. This map helps to see the now invisible legacy of powerful revolution, which reshaped every aspect of life in the city.

Porn protester for Kevin's blog post,  Pioneer Press, November 10, 1984

“Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice”

Published March 18, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Today’s blogger is Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a senior history major at Augsburg and one of the student interns at the Historyapolis Project for 2014. Kevin will be a regular presence on this blog. Today he shares some of the research he has been doing for his senior thesis, which examines the conflicts and controversies engendered by the burgeoning pornography industry during the 1970s and 1980s.

This photo from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, published in November, 1984, shows an angry group of women protesting a pornographic bookstore on Lake Street in Minneapolis. They were part of a national movement of women  who rallied under the phrase coined by radical feminist Robin Morgan: “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” The idea was that not only was pornography degrading to women, it promoted misogynistic violence.

By the early 1980s, communities across the country were consumed by this issue, which sparked what many observers came to call the “sex wars.” But there was no city where this issue was as contentious as in Minneapolis. And on December 30, 1983 the Minneapolis city council voted to ban pornography.

This ordinance was authored by radical feminists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. But it had the backing of women like the protesters pictured here, who had become increasingly upset about the growing presence of pornography theaters and bookstores along Lake Street in South Minneapolis.

In the early 1980s, these women decided to make it difficult for these establishments to do business as usual. Once a week groups of women would meet to “browse” the porn stores. This meant “walking unannounced through the stores, standing behind customers, watching customers watch the quarter movies,” according to the Minneapolis Tribune. According to protester Jacqui Thompson: “It makes the people in the stores uncomfortable, and that’s the point.”

These weekly “browsing” sessions sometimes became full-blown demonstrations like the one shown here. On December 2, 1983, nationally renowned radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, led approximately 150 women into a bookstore at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. One of the participants was Bonnie Fournier who later wrote a letter to local gay and lesbian paper, Equal Time, chronicling her experience. “It began gently enough: wanting to see the reality, wanting to experience the shock, milling around, pointing, gasping…More and more women entered. Filling the aisles, marching, touching, depositing magazines on the floor, tearing, throwing objects, shouting, trampling.”

Usually, however, “browsing” was more of a low key affair involving around a dozen women, albeit one that most certainly made the bookstore customers uneasy. When several browsers stood in front of the bookstore on 401 E. Lake in the July of 1979 to pose for a picture, a man who had just walked out from the store dove over a bus stop bench to avoid having his face caught in the frame.

Browsing was a simple and effective way for women in South Minneapolis to demonstrate against the pornography business that they felt were endangering them and their communities. And it certainly worked, at least as far as making the customers uneasy. As the clerk at the 401 E. Lake bookstore said, “They been in here before. It just doesn’t look right to have a bunch of women standing in here.”

The city ordinance banning pornography was vetoed by Mayor Don Fraser in early 1984. But the protests in the Minneapolis pornography district continued until technological changes made brick and mortar theaters and bookstores obsolete and ultimately unprofitable.

-Information from: Tom Sorenson, Minneapolis Tribune, “‘Browsing; is the weapon women use to attack neighborhood pornography,” July 28, 1979. And Bonnie Fournier, Equal Time, “Feminists: This voice cries no,” December 28, 1983. 

Lost to History: the South Minneapolis Pornography District of the 1980s

Published March 17, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg


It’s Map Monday. Today we have a custom map created by Historyapolis student researcher Kevin Ehrman-Solberg. It shows the geography of pornography in the 1970s and 1980s, when Minneapolis saw an explosion of the commercial sex industry. On this map, the red pins are are for theaters, the green denotes bookstores and the blue pins mark the location for other businesses related to the commercial sex industry. Pornography and prostitution had always existed in the city. But for the period between World War I to the late 1960s it had been driven underground by obscenity laws and zoning regulations.

Many of the theaters and bookstores shown on this map were owned by Ferris Alexander, who was known in Minneapolis as the “Patriarch of Porn.” Followed by the FBI and hated by city administrators, Alexander defied constant efforts to drive him out of business and perhaps out of town. The city passed a zoning law in 1977 to force his establishments off of Lake Street. Alexander challenged the law in court and won, much to the consternation of city leaders and the residents of the Powderhorn and Phillips neighborhoods, which adjoined the Lake Street corridor dominated by Alexander’s businesses. By 1986, the city attorney had charged the businessman with everything from housing code violations to obscenity charges. Nothing stuck.

Alexander was not the only person in Minneapolis in the pornography business. But he was the most visible. His businesses–shown on this map–attracted men wanting to explore gay sex in an anonymous environment. And they drew feminist activists, who began targeting his businesses in the early 1980s.

In 1983, feminist protesters attacked Alexander’s notorious bookstore at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street. The women knocked down shelves, tore up magazines and spray-painted anti-pornography slogans on the walls. The police finally intervened when the destruction turned violent. This crusade ultimately culminated in the short-lived city ordinance banning pornography, which was vetoed by Mayor Donald Fraser before it could go into effect.

Alexander’s bookstores were also a magnet for men seeking anonymous male sex. Ferris helped to facilitate these encounters. According to local gay activist Tim Campbell, “Ferris or his employees would put holes in [the plywood walls that separated the individual viewing cubicles] about the size of an orange…and they became known as glory holes and they allowed you to have sex with somebody in the other booth.”

Stymied by their inability to regulate or ban Alexander’s businesses, city officials appealed to the police department to help. Starting in 1980, the city’s vice squad targeted the bookstores, arresting thousands of customers each year. Undercover officers would hit on men, who might respond with a sexual overture. An arrest for indecent conduct would follow. These vice squad arrests prompted gay activist Tim Campbell to file a joint suit with Alexander to block the city’s bookstore entrapment campaign.

By the late 1980s, the Alexander pornography empire was on the wane, under siege from both feminists and technological changes that put VCRs in every home. His businesses on the decline, Alexander was unable to beat back criminal obscenity charges. He went to prison in 1992.

Today there is little sign that there was ever a contentious pornography district in South Minneapolis. Like the early twentieth century brothel district described by Penny Petersen last Monday, this once-sexualized urban space has disappeared from the modern streetscape.

Information for the text and map are drawn from: “The 7th Annual Urban Journalism Workshop Reports On Adult Bookstores in Minneapolis” August 4th, 1977. And “Empire/Alexander Called a Modern Robber Baron,” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, January 26, 1986 and oral history with Tim Campbell, in the possession of Kevin Ehrman-Solberg.