In 1968, architect Ralph Rapson was charged with designing one of the largest urban renewal projects in U.S. history, a utopia constructed entirely of concrete in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The plan faced one problem: The neighborhood that they wanted to demolish was home to a counterculture who had their own utopian vision. 

Tracing a remarkable story of resistance to urban renewal and its aftermath, Brutal Utopias, the new film from Dr. Morgan Adamson, chair of the Media and Cultural Studies department, uses archival material, participant interviews, and motion graphics to understand the dreams of modernity — and their violence — at the moment they were starting to crumble. It reflects on these dreams by engaging the current residents of Rapson’s brutalist buildings, the East African refugee community, as participants in the filmmaking process. 

Ahead of the film’s premiere on April 19 as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival 42, Professor Adamson shared what went into the making of Brutal Utopias, her first film.

What drew you to this project and the Cedar Riverside neighborhood?

I did my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, and I spent my twenties hanging out on the West Bank. I was always fascinated with the towers, and had heard mythical stories about what was to be a massive development that would have destroyed the neighborhood. 

A few years ago, I found out that the university had acquired the papers of Ralph Rapson, the architect, so I just started checking them out to see if I could learn more. I found an entire plan for this utopian community, which was one of the largest urban renewal projects ever planned in the United States. That’s where it started. Then, I began meeting people who had been involved in the resistance and learning about the counterculture back in the day. It was such an incredible story that I thought it should be a film.

What were your biggest challenges in making it?

The biggest challenge was finding all of the different archives. There was Rapson’s archive, which included a lot of the developer’s promotional material and discourse about it. That was one side of the story, but Rason’s archive couldn’t tell me why the full development was never built.  For that, I had to go digging in a lot of alternate archives.

Jack Cann, the lawyer for the project, handed me four huge boxes full of stuff that he had kept from the 1970s, and from that I started meeting more people who had been involved and who shared their personal photographs with me. 

The West Bank Community Development Center — which is still there and grew out of the whole resistance — also had boxes of old photos and newspapers. 

I also spent a lot of time working at the Minnesota Historical Society sifting through archival footage that was not digitized before I did the project.

It took a long time to build trust with the current Cedar Riverside community, to be allowed in to film, and to get to know some of the residents. That was something that was really meaningful that came out of the project, as well. 

What surprised you most as you worked on the film?

Just how extensive and multi-pronged the resistance to urban renewal was back in the 1970s – how organized it was, how democratic it was, how prolonged it was, how many people were involved and their commitment to it. All of the things that grew out the resistance to the development were quite inspiring. They founded community institutions like the People’s Center, the Twin Cities first cooperative grocery store, and countless other neighborhood institutions. They had one of the largest renters unions in Minnesota history. They developed the environmental lawsuit that they filed against the development, and it was the first of its kind to challenge a development based on its environmental impact. They used the Environmental Policy Act, which was very new when they were doing this. 

Why did you choose to do an essay film versus a more traditional documentary?

I teach documentary filmmaking at Macalester and there’s always this tension with trying to have a neutral voice where you’re attempting to show reality as it happened. The essay film goes against that, because the essay film says that there is no neutrality. Somebody is making this film, and you foreground that voice, that position, and your own subjective view, rather than trying to just be a neutral observer of this history. In some ways, I find that it’s a more honest method of documentary filmmaking, as contradictory as it sounds, because it foregrounds the authorial perspective. 

There’s the more journalistic side of documentary, and then there’s the more experimental side, and my work tends to be more in that tradition. 

The film shows the transformation of Cedar-Riverside into a vibrant location for the predominantly East African immigrant community. What does that mean t0 you?

One of the things I wanted to draw out in the film is that this kind of grand thinking that Rapson and the developers were trying to do — the huge scale of the design and the thinking about how to organize city space and social life and all these things — in the end really benefited the current residents of those towers. 

I don’t want to sugarcoat it because there are definitely problems with those buildings and their management in the present. I don’t want to say that they are a total utopia, but there is a way that the systems-thinking and the grand scale really differ from the way that we plan cities today. And it actually allowed for a very beautiful space for this community to live within. 

In some ways, I don’t think of the development as a failed utopia. It’s one that has changed with use and time, but it is fulfilling some of its intended purpose. Just not for the population it was intended for. 

What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

I feel like we’ve forgotten these two kinds of utopian ideas about approaching urban spaces, where one is very organic and is all about community control, and the other is modernist, about grand design and integrated planning of urban space. I  hope that viewers can look back at this history and maybe see alternatives to the present, which is all about — and I mention this at the end of the film — building cities for profit in, what is in my opinion, often a very haphazard way.  

April 19 2023

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