In 2017, for the fifth consecutive year, Minneapolis topped the Trust for Public Land’s list of Best Park Systems in the nation. The Trust calculates their ranking using a metric called ParkScore, which measures the size of a city’s parks, the investment in them, and how many citizens can easily access them.
For anyone living in the city, it’s not hard to understand the ranking. What it doesn’t necessarily capture though, but perhaps reflects, is how residents value their urban greenspace. This is also easy to observe. Go to nearly any Minneapolis park and you’ll find a flurry of activity—kids playing on playgrounds, kickball leagues, broomball tournaments, long walks, triathlons and road races—during every season. The recreation centers host community education classes, neighborhood meetings, basketball games, and political debates.
This isn’t the case for every city, even ones with great parks. Minneapolitans’ relationship with their parks was built over many decades, and the result of calculated decisions to make the parks more than a natural relief in an urban landscape. It’s undoubtedly an accumulated effect, but part of that for success can be found in one park in Northeast Minneapolis.
Logan Park, located in a neighborhood of the same name, is one of the city’s oldest. Firmly situated on the 45th parallel—exactly halfway between the equator and the north pole—Logan Park has been the physical and social center for the neighborhood for well over a century. The Park Board acquired it in 1883—one of its first four—though it was originally called Ward 1 Park. Its pioneers fortunately had the foresight to rename it something catchier, and decided to honor Civil War general John Logan instead.
Logan Park, along with another original Park Board acquisition, Riverside Park, received the first playground equipment in 1906. The first Logan Park field house opened in 1913. David Smith, noted Minneapolis parks historian and author of City of Parks, opines that it was “arguably the most important building the Minneapolis park board has ever constructed.” Smith says that as the Park Board recognized its increasingly significant role, they sought out local citizens to provide input into their decisions. A jury made up of community members sifted through the plans of twelve architects, eventually selecting that of Cecil Bayless Chapman. The Logan Park Improvement Association, the predecessor to today’s Logan Park Neighborhood Association, changed Chapman’s plans dramatically. Park Board President Wilbur Decker commented to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune in late 1911, “This is the first time we have invited the people of any neighborhood to help us choose plans for a park building. But this is the first time the park board has ever contemplated erecting a building in a park to serve neighborhood recreation purposes.”
Community members did not view these assets equally. The dance floor in particular spurred intense controversy in the field house’s early days. Dancing had become wildly popular during the early 20th century in the United States. Eager dancers regularly booked Logan Park’s floor two months in
advance. Representatives of the neighborhood’s eight churches—all positioned within one block of the park—vociferously opposed using the facility for dancing, though. A trustee of Emanuel Swedish Lutheran Church angrily accused the Park Board of having built the field house to “set up a worship of dancing.” The Park Board and Logan Park residents, for their part, staunchly defended the activity. But the pastors refused to relent, and eventually managed to force the Park Board to pass a resolution—specifically aimed at Logan Park—at least limiting dancing.
Dancing wasn’t the only 20th century craze to sweep Logan Park. During World War I, community sings emerged as another popular fad, aimed at boosting morale during wartime. Apparently unsatisfied by victory or convinced that their vocal exercises brought peace, the community continued singing well after the conclusion of the war. These events often drew well over 10,000 people. In the ‘20s, The Daily News held a singing competition, and in 1920, arch-rivals Logan Park and Riverside Park tied in the scoring. This meant a two-song “sing-off,” which Logan Park barely eked out by one point.
Through all the different fads and field houses, the park remains a focal point in the community. Ben Johnson, a renter in Logan Park, likes sitting on his stoop and watching the kids make up games and the old-timers get coffee on Sundays. There’s the church events where everyone wears the same t-shirts, a rowdy women’s softball league, and even cricket matches. He appreciates the mix of people he sees there every day—the college grads, the recent immigrants, and the old-time Northeasters. Much has changed about the park and the neighborhood, though perhaps unsurprisingly, much has remained the same. The singing and dancing are gone, but the park remains a window into a community, and a place for that community to be built.