Visitors to Minneapolis’s Seward Neighborhood are often struck by its intimacy and relative compactness, and in fact the neighborhood has been described as a small town surrounded on all sides by a big city. One reason for this strong sense of community independence is that the neighborhood’s boundaries are well-defined, literally setting Seward apart from the rest of the city. The neighborhood’s eastern border follows the Mississippi River to the Soo Line Railroad, which traces the southern boundary as it moves away from the river to the west. In the west, the boundary is marked by Hiawatha Avenue, and to the north is Interstate Highway 94.
As one of the oldest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Seward dates back to the first rapid expansion of the city in the late Nineteenth Century. Seward’s history begins with its main commercial thoroughfare and cultural cornerstone, Franklin Avenue. Franklin originally ran along the southern border of the Town of Minneapolis, established in 1856.
Over the next twenty-five years, the area expanded away from Franklin to the south and west. A major influence on the early growth of the neighborhood was the construction, in 1870, of the Iowa and Minnesota Division of the Milwaukee railroad, which runs parallel to Hiawatha Avenue on Seward’s western border. With the introduction of the railroad, the western part of Seward began to develop into a small but dense residential area for the immigrant and working-class families who worked in Franklin Avenue’s railroad shops and in nearby Minneapolis. Development in Seward was further stimulated by the Milwaukee Railroad “Short Line,” built between Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1881, which came to form the southern boundary of the neighborhood.
photo courtesy of the minnesota historical society
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, residential development remained confined to the area adjacent to the railroad and the industrial district. During this time, a small tract of land between 26th and 30th avenues was used as a fairground by the Minnesota Mechanical and Agricultural Association. In the 1890s, the fairground would be abandoned, and much of the eastern part of the neighborhood would become settled at this time.
In 1888, the Franklin Avenue Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River, opened, and its introduction into the neighborhood fostered the commercial development of Franklin Avenue. That same year, Seward School was built at the corner of 24th Street and 28th Avenue South, near the old fairgrounds, joining Monroe Elementary School on Franklin to accommodate the neighborhood’s expanding population. Between 1902 and 1905, the Park Board acquired the entire West River Road Park, a part of the green belt that connects so much of Minneapolis, and began making improvements that would eventually turn the park into the desirable residential location it is today. By 1930, the area had been built up into a fully developed neighborhood.
As the years passed, Seward began to deteriorate, and community members realized they would have to work to renew the neighborhood for the future. In 1960, the Seward Neighborhood Group (SNG) was formed to build the first school-park facility in Minneapolis. With the help of the school system, the Park Board, and Pillsbury Waite, SNG was able to create Matthews Park and Matthews Center, built to adjoin the new Seward Montessori School (which replaced the old Seward School and Monroe Elementary).
The success of the SNG’s efforts encouraged more activism. In the 1970s, the community became politicized during the urban-renewal period in Minneapolis, mobilizing to ensure National Historic Preservation status for the small working-class homes that lined Milwaukee Avenue. Community interest also resulted in the construction of Seward’s high-rise apartment buildings, which added hundreds of units of affordable housing to the neighborhood.
The last ten years have seen even more changes. Seward Redesign has worked to attract and develop new local businesses that serve the needs of the neighborhood’s residents and keep the area’s economy vital. Another great success is the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). Seward residents have dedicated thousands of hours to dozens of community causes, including maintaining and upgrading housing stock, remodeling neighborhood institutions such as the Matthews Center and the Playwrights’ Center, and putting badly needed computers in Seward Montessori. The program has enriched the community, and has made Seward into a model of development in Minneapolis.
What changes does the future have in store for Seward? Only time will tell. The beginning of the new century has already seen a new influx of immigrants who have brought their energy, imagination, and diversity to the neighborhood, and the next several years will see the introduction of a light-rail line that will run along the neighborhood’s west side. Whatever happens, Seward is sure to remain a unique place for people to live, work, and play.