Disconnected From The River

Catherine Fleming stands for a portrait at the Upper Harbor Terminal site . Photo by Iyana Esters | The Water Main

Catherine Fleming


Catherine Fleming believes the connection to the Mississippi River has been broken for decades in north Minneapolis. For 12 years, Catherine has lived in the Willard-Hay neighborhood, a predominantly black community near the Mississippi River. Catherine is a community advocate with the Eco Harbor Co-Creation team, whose goal is to ensure the communities of north Minneapolis will have authentic ownership and equitable access when the Upper Harbor Terminal project is developed. The redevelopment project plans to reconstruct 48 acres of the riverfront property in north Minneapolis. This includes an amphitheater theater, parks, businesses, and houses at the Upper Harbor Terminal riverfront. Catherine has been knocking on doors to provide information about the project, and shares that many in the community are unaware of the Upper Harbor Terminal project. Although the Upper Harbor Terminal project may take 10 to 15 years to come to  fruition, Catherine hopes for business development, affordable housing, and access to river activities for north Minneapolis. Explore the photo essay about Catherine’s connection to water and the Mississippi River.


The following interview has been edited for clarity:

Q: How has water showed up in your life?

Well it started out by me reading history and seeing that our people were a little afraid of water because that's how we came over on the boat, and if we [slaves] didn't do right, people were thrown overboard. So early childhood reading about [African American] history there was a level of fear until I learned how to swim and enjoy the water which I do a lot. When I was 18 and I didn't realize at the time that you actually had to pay for water...I'm like “oh uhh you got to pay for water?” From that point on I always thought that water was something that should be free. That it's our legacy, it's-it's part of humanity...it's like food. So water has been very important to me.

Catherine Fleming sits near the Mississippi River for a portrait at the Upper Harbor Terminal site . Photo by Iyana Esters | The Water Main

Q: What does it mean to be a woman of color?

Being a woman of color carries a lot of joy, and a lot of responsibilities. So similarly I would say if I were to make a mistake, then that's a mistake for the entire African-American community. Sometimes I accept that responsibility with joy especially if it's a positive situation...other times if I've made a mistake I feel bad because I don't want other people to suffer for something that I may have done either intentionally or unintentionally.

Q: How is the Mississippi River been impactful to you?

For me it's kind of like something that it's going to be there, and not going away. Unfortunately I'm going to go away at some point, but I think because it is the river and it is something that's a national treasure that we need to honor that. I do honor that in a number of ways, which is why we're so protective of what's going to happen here at the Upper Harbor Terminal and other development around the state. I believe that what happens on this river, what's proposed, what’s modified to address what we're calling generational wealth and ownership will be an opportunity for the people here who have not had that opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the Mississippi River and all that it can offer them.

Q: What changes are you hoping to see with the Upper Harbor Terminal project?

Authentic ownership for the community, so that this would happen either through some type of land trust or a cooperative. People have been disconnected from the river. To me this is an opportunity to reconnect folks with the river.  

Opportunity for business development for those who don't want a job, or are entrepreneurial in spirit that they would be financial, and support activities available to them so that they could grow a business here.

Then, third would be some affordable housing. People are lacking affordable housing, and I think the opportunity to live on the river and enjoy the park land is planned, or the entertainment, or whatever they put out there that would be great for the people to have opportunity for not only themselves but their kids to enjoy and generations to come...either through boating or some type of shoreline, to actually be able to touch the water...we want people to actually be able to go and dip their toe in the Mississippi river.

MPR news reporter Gabriel Kwan and Derrick Stevens from The Current contributed to the production of this story.