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The history of a neighborhood

Chuck Marohn speaks Tuesday night at Harrison Elementary School about the history and future of southeast Brainerd. The presentation was a part of Brainerd History Week. Spenser Bickett/Brainerd Dispatch

A presentation on southeast Brainerd Tuesday night at Harrison Elementary School outlined the neighborhood's past, as well as a vision for its future.

Chuck Marohn spoke to a group of about a dozen people as part of Brainerd History Week. Marohn, a Brainerd native, founded Strong Towns, a media organization focused on challenging the way American cities are built, according to its website.

Marohn gave a presentation last year during Brainerd History Week about downtown Brainerd and was asked to do a presentation this year about southeast Brainerd.

Brainerd, like many cities throughout history, grew incrementally over time. As more people moved to cities, buildings were incrementally expanded and added onto.

"As cities grew, they grew incrementally up, they grew incrementally out," Marohn said. "And they became incrementally more intense."

People who first settled in southeast Brainerd were just outside of the growing, dense, downtown area, Marohn said. They were hoping incremental development would continue, he said, and their new neighborhood would become more valuable. However, development patterns changed after World War II, he said, and the neighborhood stopped becoming more densely populated.

Marohn showed photos of multiple single-family homes and commercial businesses throughout the neighborhood, and pointed out how they had changed over time. The incremental growth pattern is evident, he said, in that people can see where homes were added onto and expanded over the years.

"If we all started cheap, and we all just continued to, in this pattern, grow and build our stuff," Marohn said. "We would all become better off, we would all have equity, we would all have a better future."

In southeast Brainerd, streets are narrower and buildings are lined up facing the street, Marohn said. It creates a comfortable, appealing look, he said, which led to many people in the neighborhood spending time outside.

"When you actually build a street like this, what you find is that those buildings create an outdoor room," Marohn said. "And most of these people spent their time outdoors, walking around in that space."

Many homes have windows facing the street, because when the neighborhood was first developed, there was no police force, Marohn said. People policed their own neighborhoods by keeping an eye on the street, he said, so windows and homes faced the street.

Southeast Brainerd features many alleys running behind houses, which tells people something about how the area developed, Marohn said. Early neighborhood settlers wanted to keep things like trash and sewer behind their homes, he said, so they built alleys to store those things.

"These people had such aspirations about their future, and how great this neighborhood was going to become," Marohn said. "That they actually took land, and set it aside for all the ugly stuff you didn't want to see."

Early commercial buildings often doubled as homes for families who ran the business, Marohn said. As businesses became successful and families grew, these buildings expanded to add more commercial and living space, he said. Today, many commercial buildings in southeast Brainerd reflect this pattern, he said, with commercial space on the first floor below living or office space on a second floor.

"This was a quintessential way for families to bootstrap themselves," Marohn said. "To start with nothing and build something."

The two public buildings in the neighborhood were built in a desperate time in the country's history, Marohn said. Harrison Elementary School, where the presentation took place, was built in 1938. Just down Oak Street, Washington Educational Services Building was built in 1929. Despite being in the beginning and end of the Great Depression, these two buildings were built, he said.

"When we built public buildings, we were building them not only as a reflection of who we wanted to become," Marohn said. "But also in a way that made all of us wealthier and better off."

Southeast Brainerd can continue to grow and build wealth by playing to its advantages, Marohn said. This includes scaling development for people and not cars, he said, and to grow a little bit at a time.

"The strength of this neighborhood is that it's actually scaled well for people," Marohn said.

Following Marohn's presentation, he led the group on a short walking tour of the neighborhood around the school. He pointed out examples of what he talked about and noted houses and buildings that had expanded over time.

History Week events continue

Events are set for the rest of the week to celebrate Brainerd's history.


From 1-5 p.m., there will be tours of Northern Pacific Center tours, leaving every half-hour from the Clock Tower building. Following the tours, participants can stop by the Roundhouse Brewery or the NP Event Space.

From 5-8 p.m., a flotilla of canoes and kayaks will float down the Mississippi River from a landing near Evergreen Cemetery to Kiwanis Park. Local rental companies will provide canoes and kayaks at a cost of $20 per person.


From 2-4:30 p.m., there will be a centennial celebration at the Crow Wing County Historical Society to celebrate the museum's 100th anniversary. At 2:30 p.m., the museum building will be rededicated.


At 10 a.m., there will be a plaque dedication ceremony at Shipman Auto Parts, 1711 SE 13th St., in honor of the historic Rosko Field airfield in southeast Brainerd.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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