Powderhorn Park

By Grace Jones

In capitalist societies structured around private property, public spaces often become sites of conflict and conflict resolution. The nature of public space in a democracy is to compel awareness of who is considered to be a part of “the public”. In the summer of 2020, Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis was a flashpoint for conflict over public space when it became home to a large houseless encampment in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd. The encampments in Powderhorn, their eventual destruction, and the state of the park one year later illustrate the struggles that occur in public spaces when it comes to who is permitted membership in “the public”.

Background

Powderhorn Park is a public greenspace in the eponymous neighborhood occupying about 70 acres of South Minneapolis. Sloping lawns frame a basin around Powderhorn Lake. On the East shore of the lake is a dock and recreation center, behind which is a small outdoor pool and a playground. There are three more playgrounds dispersed in the park, as well as a basketball court, tennis courts, volleyball court, two bathrooms, a horseshoe pit, a stage, a garden, a small lakeside pavilion, a sports field, and several picnic areas with grills. As the lake is grimy with algae, swimming is not permitted at Powderhorn, so summertime users stick mostly to the recreational areas, winding paths, and sloping lawns that surround the water. The recreation center is open for scheduled youth programming only, and offers an array of classes and clubs in arts, sciences, and sports. The park, along with all other public parks in the city, is under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB).

Figure 1. A view of Midtown Minneapolis from the shore of Powderhorn Lake

The Powderhorn Park neighborhood has long been known for its progressive and artsy character. Situated in the heart of South Minneapolis and just off Lake Street, it is a diverse community, being just under half white, a third Latinx, and 15% Black. The neighborhood’s apartments, duplexes, and single family homes are split evenly between renters and owners. Though there are patches of higher-end housing stock surrounding the park, 40% of Powderhorn residents make less than $50,000 a year.

In the summer of 2020, Powderhorn Park and its surrounding neighborhood became the subject of national and international news when George Floyd was murdered just six blocks from the southwesternmost corner of the park. Powderhorn became a center for organizing in a city in the throngs of a popular uprising. It also became home to the largest houseless encampment in Minneapolis history. After a group of houseless individuals were evicted from an abandoned Sheraton hotel where they had been taking shelter during the riots, they set up camp on the East side of Powderhorn Park. Over the next month, the encampment grew to around 560 tents and 282 campers, occupying space on both the East and West sides of the park. Organized by residents, housing advocates, and neighbors, the encampments set up support infrastructure such as meals, sanitation, and laundry. There were nightly community meetings and a network of volunteers and donations to keep the camps running. Those staying in the camps were disproportionately persons of color, reflecting the houseless population of Minneapolis as a whole, with 45% in Powderhorn identifying as Native.

Figure 3. Aerial view of Powderhorn Park with encampment sites labeled
Figure 4. Powderhorn’s East encampment on June 21st, 2020.

Initially, the camp was allowed to stay, and was even provided with certain sanitation services by the MPRB as per Governor Walz’s Executive Order 20-20 which prevented homeless encampment sweeps during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the encampment grew, it drew local and national press, much of which focused on the concerns of some neighbors over crime and safety, which were especially amplified in the media after three sexual assaults were reported in the encampments in July. Though many of Powderhorn neighborhood residents supported and volunteered in the encampments, the tension between the houseless and the housed in the area was the focus of the bulk of news media on the issue. After over a month, the MPRB adopted a new resolution deeming the Powderhorn encampments unlawful because of their location in a school zone, and by July 31, 2020 had cleared most of the residents and their belongings from the park. The encampments at Powderhorn raised questions about the use of public space, and in turn, who gets to be a member of “the public” in a community reevaluating their beliefs in response to a social uprising.

Figure 5. Police and sanitation crews clear East encampment, Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer

Observations

In 2021, a year after the encampments were cleared, summertime visitors make use of the many user-selected spaces and recreational facilities available in Powderhorn Park. The most used amenity was by far the swimming pool, which on sunny days, is full of children and their families. I have also seen the basketball and tennis courts, East and West playgrounds, stage, and sports fields in use. Spaces which appear to go largely unused are the horseshoe pit, volleyball court, and North and South playgrounds. These spaces are used in both spontaneous and organized manners, with families and small groups playing on the courts and playgrounds, and also larger organized activities such as a youth ultimate frisbee game, a tennis club, and a daily free Zumba class. There is also evidence of larger organized activities such as flyers advertising youth programs at the recreation center, a potluck, and an annual “Autonomous Zine Fest” taking place in the picnic area.

Figure 6. Flyer advertising “Autonomous Zine Fest” and a “Tax the Rich” sticker on an electrical box

More popular than organized, consumptive activities in Powderhorn Park are independent, leisurely ones. With the exception of the fifty or so teenagers playing ultimate frisbee, the majority of the people I saw in Powderhorn were walking, jogging, or sitting down. In the morning hours especially, visitors will walk their dogs on the path that encircles the lake. Other walkers and joggers will make use of all the winding paths, not only around the lake but up onto the grassy slopes as well. Those reclining in the park mostly chose to do so on the grass, though some chose benches and picnic tables. About equal proportions of people go to Powderhorn alone as they do in pairs and small groups. Groups sitting down may have been sharing a picnic snack or some beers, but were more likely just talking to each other. The diversity of people visiting Powderhorn matches that of the surrounding neighborhood. Though those playing organized tennis and ultimate frisbee were overwhelmingly white, other non-consumptive visitors represented an array of ethnicities including white, Latinx, Black, and Asian. I could identify English, Spanish, and Arabic in passing conversations. In the nighttime, though use drops significantly, especially in the activity based spaces, a few visitors still feel safe to walk around the lake in pairs or solo.

OMAI Classification

In order to contextualize my field observations within a larger structure, I evaluated the “publicness” of Powderhorn Park using Langstraat and Van Melik’s OMAI model. Using a mix of my observations and research into the Minneapolis Parks and Rec Board, I evaluated the space based on the dimensions of ownership, management, accessibility, and inclusiveness. 

Ownership relates to what entity owns a space, namely whether it is public or private. I gave Powderhorn Park a 4 in this dimension because it is owned solely by the Minneapolis city government.

Management refers to who is in control of a space and its security, maintenance, and other day-to-day operations. I gave Powderhorn Park a 4 in this dimension because security and maintenance are carried out solely by MPRB employees

Accessibility is measured based on the prevalence or lack thereof of physical barriers to access and inaccessible design. Though all paths in Powderhorn Park are accessible via ramps, there is a lack of accessible recreational facilities. For this, I give the park a 3 in the dimension of accessibility. 

Inclusiveness encompasses the uses and ambiance of a space. Powderhorn Park is utilized by a variety of visitors in a variety of ways, and presents a tolerant and supportive environment. Based on the criteria of the OMAI model, this warrants a 4. It is worth noting that though Powderhorn meets the established criteria for a 4, the fact that the space is not inclusive for houseless people warrants scrutiny into the OMAI definition. Powderhorn Park is a welcoming site for propertied citizens, but not the houseless. Based on the OMAI criteria for inclusiveness, Powderhorn deserves a 4, but such a rating suggests that the OMAI model itself does not define inclusiveness broadly enough.

Discussion

True to the park’s high OMAI model rating, visitors to post-encampment-Powderhorn exist in the space in a noticeably free manner. Though many visitors come to make use of the recreational activities in the park, more come to simply stroll around or relax on the grass. The freedom with which people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities operate as non-consumptive users suggests a strong sense of inclusivity and tolerance. In Powderhorn, children play in the same park as young men sit on the grass, drinking alcohol and smoking in broad daylight. The acceptance of sanctioned and unsanctioned activities by users contributes to what Currie (2016) calls the “authenticity” of a place. Those who come to Powderhorn may freely use the space as it is intended, or as it is not, like the beer-drinking young men, or the middle aged couple playing on the playground. Illegal, disruptive, or silly activities are tolerated, and exist in harmony with sanctioned ones. Furthermore, some visitors feel comfortable strolling through the park after it is technically closed, and nothing prevents them from doing so.

Figure 7. Beer bottles abandoned against a tree

I see multiple factors contributing to this free use of space in Powderhorn Park. For those like children and their families who come to the park to engage in sanctioned activities, the well-maintained and diverse recreational facilities in Powderhorn support these endeavours. It is free and easy for visitors to use the sports facilities, civic spaces, and paths as they were intended. For those who wish to use the park for less activity-based entertainment like lounging around, or publicly drinking, the landscape of Powderhorn is notably supportive of these goals. The twisting nature of the paths, thick vegetation, and changing elevation of the space creates a sense of seclusion within the park. The bowl shape of the sloping lawns forms a landscape where many places are not visible from others within the park. Perhaps more significant is that the lake basin sits below street level, meaning that much of the outside world is invisible from within the park and vice versa. Though the park is lined with apartments and houses that could cause a feeling of being watched, most are not very visible from the bottom of the park. In this sense, the freedom of activity present in Powderhorn may be due to its sense of seclusion from the prying eyes of the outside world.

Figure 8. Sloping lawns lead down to Powderhorn Lake, secluding the park from the surrounding streets

Powderhorn is, of course, not a space free of authority. Under the jurisdiction of the MPRB, the built environment is plastered with MPRB stickers, logos, and interpretive signs, reminding the public of its presence. Yet, there is also visible evidence of the political struggle that occured in the space the previous year. Anti-police and other George Floyd uprising-related graffiti is common in South Minneapolis, and is extremely apparent in Powderhorn. Tags reading “Fuck Cops” and “ACAB”  appear on sidewalks, walls, signs, trashcans, and other surfaces accross the park. Such tags remind the park visitor of the anti-establishment character of the space. Though MPRB’s Park Police may be called to Powderhorn, graffiti recalls the political agency of those who lived and organized in the park in the summer of 2020.

The only explicit evidence of the encampments one year after their eviction is a metal MPRB sign at the site of the East encampment. The text of the sign has been fully spray painted over, but for remnants of the words “no overnight” and “encampment site”. On top of whatever the sign used to say is an “ACAB” stencil, and below it, a hand painted “practice community” sign. Otherwise, the experiment in autonomy after a crisis has been wiped from the landscape.

Figure 11. MPRB sign painted over with “ACAB” and “Practice Community” sign

The shifts in Powderhorn Park in the last year suggest that there is a line when it comes to the free use of public space. The encampments existed for over a month, supported by many in the neighborhood, but its eventual eviction represents a common notion when it comes to the existence of houseless people in public space. The process of policing and sweeping of encampments commonplace in cities across North America deems the houseless as “trespassers on public land”. Drinking and smoking is tolerated in Powderhorn if those consuming have somewhere else to go after they are done, but for those without, there is always a time limit on their presence. This favoring of those with the privilege to come and go from public spaces has been referred to as “propertied citizenship”, that only those with access to private space are considered to be part of a society. As non-members of “the public”, the houseless are subject to policing and property destruction in a manner that those who live in homes are not. The news media’s focus on the anxieties of some Powderhorn neighbors as reason to evict the encampment, and other methods of “complaint oriented policing” draft members of the propertied public into the process of policing the unhoused. 

Parks and greenspaces can be considered “visible representations of neighborhood quality”. The existence of houseless people in public space forces the housed public to consider not only the inequities of  capitalist society, but the nature and use of public space itself. It is worth noting that the Powderhorn encampments were not located within the secluded lake basin of the park but along the edges, where tents were highly visible to the surrounding houses and passersby. This set-up was crucial to the function of the camp, as people could come and go, and donated goods could be dropped off from vehicles smoothly. When houseless people exist so visibly in a space that is supposed to present a pleasant and affluent picture of a neighborhood, this forces a new conception of what public space is for. 

Powderhorn Park walks the line between an attractive amenity in a gentrifying neighborhood and a symbol of community power and radical dissent. Its character as an organizing space, the location of the largest houseless encampment in Minneapolis history, and the visible remnants of these histories lends an aspect of freedom and community power to the park’s authenticity. This is shown in the liberty with which the space is now used, assisted by its many amenities and sheltered landscape. At the same time, though Powderhorn’s encampments forced a re-evaluation of who got to be a part of “the public” in Minneapolis, its inevitable destruction revealed the consequences of pushing the sanctioned boundaries of public space. Powderhorn may be a public park, but after the summer of 2020, it is not open to all.

All photos by the author.