Defiant Gardens for Fargo-Moorhead

Plains Art Museum

Funding Received: 2013
Fargo, ND
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
March 24, 2014

Photo of the new light plant, circa late 1890s; photo: Moorhead Public Service

This month’s Defiant Gardens for Fargo-Moorhead blog by Karis Thompson features an extended update on the Defiant Garden for the Moorhead Power Plant, one of the three Defiant Garden projects commissioned by the Plains Art Museum.

When artists Rob Fischer and Kevin Johnson first envisioned a Defiant Garden for the Moorhead Power Plant in 2010, the design assumed maintenance of the historic structure. Since then, the City of Moorhead’s decision to demolish the power plant due to structural instability prompted Rob, Kevin and Moorhead-based artist Su Legatt to relocate it just east of the power plant and its Red River-facing perch. Now, instead of physically surrounding the Moorhead Power Plant, the Defiant Garden will preserve the memory of this nearly-120-year-old icon.

I talked with Mark Peihl, archivist, Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County, about the story of the neighborhood adjacent to the power plant and the community’s relationship with the river, and asked him to situate the demolition of the power plant concurrent with the introduction of the Defiant Garden within the historic landscape of the last 120 years.

His narrative tour yielded this timeline:

Moorhead begins powering the city with a new municipal power plant.

Sewage pollutes the Red River, lessening its attractiveness as a recreational draw.

Sewage contamination, drought, a 1943 flood and construction of river dams turn people away from recreational engagement with the river, once a community outlet for fishing, swimming, boating and ski jumping, along with winter horse races and skating. The drowning deaths of five children in 1944 heighten communication reaction against the river. A young girl’s winning slogan for the Jaycees’ river safety campaign: “Taking chances doesn’t pay. The river’s dangerous night and day.” cautions generations of children and their families to avoid a river now deemed too dangerous and polluted to engage recreationally.

A Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) study generates ideas for reintroducing the Red River as a community amenity. The involved architects recommend investment in work engendering public shift in attitudes towards and perceptions of the river as more critical than new infrastructure in “promoting a renewed vision for the Red River of the North.”

The R/UDAT review leads to the creation of River Keepers, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting a renewed vision for the Red River of the North. Their educational and advocacy work cultivates first, attitudinal, and eventually, behavioral shifts within the community, inspiring a return to the river.

More recent settlers in Moorhead, MN, and Fargo, ND, including young adults and refugees and immigrants and others unfamiliar with past perceptions of the river, become some of the first people to recreate on and along the Red.

Serial floods result in City-initiated home buyouts in neighborhoods near the river. Soil conditions threaten the stability of the Moorhead Power Plant structure, priming it for demolition.

After nearly 150 years of immigrant settlement on the banks of the Red River, civic leaders and community stakeholders have begun to question the viability of built infrastructure along the river.

Mark Piehl said, “I’m not enthusiastic about infrastructure. I’m a fan of simple urban green space. Let’s reestablish the river as it looked 150-200 years ago.”

A public garden space integrated with the landscape and designed anticipating intermittent flooding aligns with a new pragmatism of allowing the river to be a river. This Defiant Garden, we hope, will host our community’s interaction with the river and with each other, drawing together diverse people with a common geography.