Cars drive on Olson Memorial Highway in north Minneapolis.

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Crossing the eight lanes of Olson Memorial Highway in the heart of north Minneapolis is not for the timid. 

Olson Memorial is a section of Highway 55 named after former populist Governor Floyd Olson that connects downtown Minneapolis to northwest suburbs. Within Minneapolis, the highway expands from a four-lane divided road to six lanes. At intersections, pedestrians need to walk past eight car lanes, including turn lanes, to cross the street. It took two light cycles for a group to cross the street on a brisk Friday morning in November. 

The road was once known as 6th Avenue North, and in the 1930s it was a hub of early Black life in Minneapolis with local businesses and a thriving jazz scene, according to newspaper records. In a brief article, the Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper describes it as “that picturesque section of Minneapolis which has ranked in the minds of the well-traveled as does Beale Street in Memphis.” 

But in 1939, the area was torn down for highway construction. The project was completed in the early 1940s, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. 

Road construction left the Harrison neighborhood isolated from the rest of the northside by the highway, penned in by lanes of asphalt. For years, the Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County planned to route the Blue Line light rail extension along Olson Memorial Highway through the neighborhood, and promised to improve conditions for pedestrians. But that route is now abandoned

“There were a lot of months of people asking, ‘ What’s going to happen with Olson?’” said Qannani Omar, a housing organizer with Harrison Neighborhood Association. 

Neighborhood organizers and safe streets activists are done waiting. They launched a campaign this month to reverse 80 years of history and restore the roadway to a local street with housing, community-owned businesses, and an improved pedestrian landscape. The Bring Back 6th project is a joint effort between the northside community group Harrison Neighborhood Association and Our Streets Minneapolis, a nonprofit dedicated to improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists in the city.  

(Left to right) José Antonio Zayas Cabán, Qannani Omar, and Alex Burns pose for a photo in the Harrison Neighborhood Association office on Glenwood in north Minneapolis. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Campaigners are going door to door in neighborhoods adjacent to the highway and asking residents to put pressure on state and local officials to redesign the street into an asset that serves the community. Their goal is to get a public commitment from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and local agencies to turn the highway to a community street again. 

“What we’re doing is pressure,” said José Antonio Zayas Cabán, advocacy director with Our Streets. 

History of destruction 

The creation of Olson Memorial Highway offers an example of how transportation infrastructure projects were handled in the Twin Cities and much of the country: Massive roadways were created to benefit largely white suburban commuters that cut through and destroyed Black communities. 

When the federal Interstate system began construction in the late 1950s, planners chose to route many of the massive freeways directly through America’s cities. Across the country, the routes often tore through communities of color. In 1960, more than 80 percent of Minneapolis’ Black population lived along the future paths of interstates 35W and 94, according to a new exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum titled “Human Toll: A Public History of 35W”.  Those who live near the highways have been exposed to higher levels of air pollution.

“We see a lot of parallels between these destructive highway projects,” said Zayas Cabán.

In Harrison, some residents still have family connections to 6th Avenue North the way it once was, Qannani said. She met a fourth-generation northside resident whose family had a business on the street in the 1930s. 

Today the highway is known for safety issues. The intersection of Olson Memorial and Lyndale Avenue North, near the Interstate 94 interchange, ranked first on a Minneapolis Public Works list of places with the most car crashes in the city

Inside Minneapolis, Olson Memorial Highway has a 40 mph speed limit. There are stop lights along the highway about every three or four blocks, which are the only designated places for pedestrians to cross. 

At the intersection of Olson Memorial Highway and Morgan Avenue in north Minneapolis, stuffed animals cling to a street sign post—a makeshift memorial marking the location of a crash that killed two people in 2013. Nearby, an aging white bicycle—often left where a cyclist is killed by a driver— is chained to a poll. 

A memorial for Melvin Jones and Brandy Banks-Sutta is seen at the intersection of Olson Memorial Highway and Morgan Avenue North. On November 3, 2013, Philip Scott Bertelson struck and killed the two north Minneapolis residents going over 100mph. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

“The reality is we can’t deal with safety on our streets if we don’t deal with highways,” said Alex Burns with Our Streets Minneapolis. 

Every day, an average of 20,400 vehicles are driven on Olson Memorial Highway in North Minneapolis, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. 

The Bring Back 6th campaign compared those traffic volumes to well-used county roads. Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis, for example, averages 21,900 vehicles per day near Lake Street. Since the 1990s, west side commuters have been able to use Interstate 394 to directly enter downtown. 

Organizers say the street should benefit local residents, not commuters.  

The state is committed to working with local organizations and government agencies “to envision and plan for needed improvements to the corridor that consider needs of the community,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson told Sahan Journal. 

The Department of Transportation says it is working with partners on a study that will begin in 2022 to address safety issues and improved access for people walking, biking, or taking public transit.

The state’s current plans to repave the highway and repair the traffic signals in 2026 to give better crossing times for pedestrians are far less ambitious than what the organizers have in mind. The agency is also looking at smaller projects and accessibility improvements that can be implemented earlier, the spokesperson said. 

A crosswalk at Olson Memorial Highway and Morgan Avenue North.

A two-pronged approach 

The Harrison Neighborhood Association and Our Streets know that their full vision for Olson Memorial Highway is likely a ways off. That’s why they are pursuing a two-phase approach. 

The long-term goal is to completely transform the highway into a city street with dedicated bus lanes, wider sidewalks, and protected bike lanes. Today, the highway is flanked by large frontage roads and grass. The group envisions using that land and a portion of what it sees as currently overabundant traffic lanes space to create a commercial corridor, with community-owned businesses, a job training center, and new public, affordable housing. 

A rendering of the proposed first phase of a project to transform Olson Memorial Highway as imagined by Our Streets and Harrison Neighborhood Association. submitted image

In the meantime, there are immediate fixes they say could make a big difference for residents at minimum cost to the state. They’d like officials to repaint the roadway to create two lanes for car traffic, one lane dedicated to buses, and a bike lane. They want dedicated, brightly painted crosswalks at all intersections, plastic bollards to help narrow traffic lanes and crossing times for pedestrians. Critically, they are calling for a speed limit reduction from 40 mph to 25 mph, a speed much less likely to result in serious injury or death for people involved in a traffic accident. 

Those asks are more in line with what the Minnesota Department of Transportation is planning, though the Bring Back 6th campaign wants to see the changes implemented much faster. 

“There are lowtech solutions they could get working on tomorrow,” Burns said. 

The campaign began door knocking in earnest in late November, and hopes to get public commitments to improvements in the next year.

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...