Brooks: Minneapolis Park Board takes another swing at historic Hiawatha golf course

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is taking another swing at the Hiawatha Golf Course.

Last summer, the board rejected a flood-mitigation plan that would have chopped the historic course in half. One election later, Hiawatha — a public course cherished by generations of Black golfers — is back on the chopping block.

The five Park Board members who voted to preserve Hiawatha as a regulation 18-hole course are gone, either retired or voted out. Seven of the nine board members are new, and nearly all of them ran on their support for the multimillion-dollar parks master plan that imagines a Hiawatha with wetlands, trails, boat launches, a dog patio — and just enough room for nine holes of golf.

But this was never just about golf.

In a city that redlined Black families into segregated neighborhoods, then ran highways through those neighborhoods, Hiawatha was a constant. Black golfers have played at Hiawatha since the 1930s, generation after generation.

“There are precious few cultural landscapes left to preserve that had meaning for Black residents of Minneapolis nearly a century ago,” said Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “At the golf course, we have a rare opportunity to tell the story of a place that still exists. So why would we think about erasing it?”

Minneapolis has erased so much of the city’s Black history that when Birnbaum interviewed community leaders about culturally significant landmarks, few could point to anything larger than a building.

Historic landscapes and streetscapes, entire neighborhoods and business districts, all vanished under the asphalt. The highways had to go somewhere and in the 1960s, I-94, I-35W and Hwy. 55 went through the neighborhoods that 80% of the Black population of the Twin Cities called home.

Last week, the Cultural Landscape Foundation added Hiawatha’s golf course to its list of at-risk cultural landscapes and called on the parks department to investigate whether the site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Darwin Dean, president of the Upper Midwest Bronze Amateur Memorial Golf Tournament, has battled for years to preserve the golf course and its connection to the community.

In January, he appeared before the Park Board with pro golfer Tom Lehman, who has designed golf courses from Edina to Arizona, to plead for more time to come up with a design that could mitigate flood risks without tearing the course in half.

“Give us time,” he said, “to come up with a resolution that would be welcoming to the community and improve the golf course so golfers continue to enjoy the challenge of Hiawatha.”

Commissioner Tom Olsen, one of seven new members on the nine-member Park Board, campaigned on the merits of the parks master plan. He wants to fix some of the damage Minneapolis did to its environment when it drained a lake a century ago to build a golf course.

“Ensuring that our city is resilient to climate change” is a matter of social justice, he said; as is “providing increased opportunities for our entire city to embrace and enjoy nature. I would see that just as much an equity issue as preserving something that was historically important.”

Keeping the golf course dry means pumping 300 million gallons of water a year into nearby Lake Hiawatha. Lehman, who designs courses around the country through his Lehman Design Group, says if there’s a will, there’s almost always a way to mitigate water issues.

To Lehman, Hiawatha isn’t just history worth saving, it’s history worth celebrating.

This course brought different races and different creeds together in an era when little else did. This is where the great Solomon Hughes battled the segregated PGA for years until he won the right to enter the St. Paul Open.

“You celebrate that history because of the courage and the grit and the patience and the refusal to ever give up of people like Solomon Hughes,” Lehman said. “So why throw away that history?”

The Golf Channel highlighted Hiawatha and the “drastic” proposal to cut the course in a feature that aired in February.

“History is something to learn from,” Lehman said. “You learn from it so you don’t repeat the same mistakes over again.”

A decade ago, the Cultural Landscape Foundation sued to stop Minneapolis from demolishing Peavey Plaza, the sunken modernist oasis next to Orchestra Hall downtown.

You don’t have to destroy something to improve it, Birnbaum argued at the time. A tough sell in a city that gutted most of its historic downtown to make space for parking ramps.

But the city bought the argument. The terraced plaza, with its splashing fountains, was repaired and updated rather than replaced and a unique slice of the streetscape was saved.

The Hiawatha golf course, Birnbaum said, is another significant work of landscape architecture — a link in the chain of parks and scenic byways that encircle this city like a garland.

Birnbaum, who spent 15 years coordinating the National Park Service’s Historic Landscape Initiative, has seen projects that protect the land from climate change while protecting the historic landscape.

“I don’t think the historic design, which is beloved by the community, has to be abandoned” to mitigate flooding, he said. READ HERE

Jennifer Brooks is a local columnist for the Star Tribune. She travels across Minnesota, writing thoughtful and surprising stories about residents and issues. 612-673-4008 @stribrooks

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