HHM Gateway178-The Palms

The Persian Palms

Published July 21, 2016
James Eli Shiffer

Today’s guest blogger is James Eli Shiffer, author of the newly published book, The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis.

If Minneapolis were to create a dive bar hall of fame, the Persian Palms would be the first inductee. A bland office block now sits at 109-111 Washington Avenue. But back in the 1950s, the three story brick building with the garish marquee on this site sounded a siren song to both habitual drinkers and upright citizens, who risked body and wallet to revel in its free-flowing liquor and transgressive sexuality. Like Moby Dick’s, Stand Up Frank’s and other vanished venues, this bar was a notorious landmark in a city deeply conflicted about alcohol and sex.

The bar cultivated a salacious appeal that drew customers from far and wide. People from all over the region knew the Persian Palms as a place to defy 1950s-era expectations of respectability. They could walk on the wild side at this strip joint, which was known for its live and sometimes bizarre entertainment. The bar advertised “three floor shows nightly.” One city alderman called the Palms “one of the raunchiest joints in town.”

The Persian Palms was in many ways the fake jewel in the tarnished crown of the Minneapolis Gateway District, the heart of the old city where Hennepin, Nicollet and Washington Avenues came together. The Gateway was the region’s largest Skid Row, home to thousands of retired or disabled laborers, drunks, loners and lost souls.

HHM Gateway095-The Palms, Valhalla

Streetscape showing the Persian Palms in the Minneapolis Gateway District, shortly before its demolition. Image is from the Hennepin History Museum.

The sale of liquor was banned in most Minneapolis neighborhoods until 1974. Alcohol was concentrated in the city’s 20-block Gateway district, which was awash in saloons, beer parlors and liquor stores. Researchers counted 62 of them in 1952. Most were shunned by anyone who lived outside the neighborhood. Few remember the Pastime Bar, the Old Bowery, the White Star Saloon, the Hub or the Valhalla. These were pedestrian purveyors of liquor, utilitarian service stations for men determined to drink the most they could for the least amount of money.

The Persian Palms was something else altogether.

Since I published a book this spring about the last years of Minneapolis’ notorious Skid Row, everyone I meet seems to want to talk about the Persian Palms. One man told me his late great-uncle was the manager of the place. Another one told me his uncle Clyde used to drink himself into oblivion there, and would occasionally have to be dragged out, dried up and sent back home to Rochester. Another recalled a troupe of plus-sized dancers at Palms that performed weekly can-can routines. They were known as the Beef Trust Chorus, somewhat of a fad at the time, and its “captain,” Violet Morton, tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds.  

January 18, 1951 Violet Morton Captain, "Beef Trust Chorus Persian Palms. January 1951

Violet Morton, Captain, Beef Trust Chorus. Persian Palms, January 18, 1951. Image is from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is used with permission. All rights reserved.

One woman wrote me a letter recalling a visit to the bar in September 1950. She ordered a beer so she wouldn’t have to drink from the glasses of questionable cleanliness. The main attraction that night was Divena, a stripper who performed underwater, in a very large fish-tank. It wasn’t especially sexy, but memorable nonetheless, she wrote.

Divena wasn’t the only celebrity in town that fall. Weegee, the famous New York photographer, visited Minneapolis and ventured into Skid Row late at night. He snapped a photo of a bloodied man, his hand over his face, sitting on the sidewalk right in front of the Palms. He’s probably just been tossed out of the place and he’s too drunk or stunned or both to get up. Two men with push brooms are behind him, sweeping him off the sidewalk like so much trash. Nobody knows whether he got a chance to see Divena, whose act is advertised in the window.

Persian Palms, Weegee, hclib

Photograph by Weegee, 1950. Image is from the Hennepin County Libraries Special Collections.

Any male who approached the bar would quickly be accosted by a female requesting a drink, in exchange, naturally, for conversation. These were the B-girls, who operated in cahoots with the bartender to encourage as much spending as possible by the customers. She would get a cut, of course.

The owner of the Persian Palms was Harry Smull, a Russian immigrant who built a small liquor empire in Minneapolis, despite a city ordinance that said an individual could only own one liquor permit. That was an effort to keep the liquor business as clean as possible, by discouraging monopolies or mob control. It failed utterly. People like Smull registered the permits in the names of relatives and employees, and for the most part the aldermen and the police, often paid for their courtesy, looked the other way.

That is, until 1961. That year, the redevelopment project that would wipe away Skid Row and 40 percent of downtown Minneapolis was underway. The city was also determined to clean up the liquor business, so they rounded up dozens of liquor permit holders, including Smull, on charges of violating the one-permit rule. A judge eventually threw out all of the charges, and determined that ordinance was illegal.

Despite skepticism from some council members, who welcomed the demise of the Persian Palms, the liquor license was transferred to a bar called the Copper Squirrel on Hennepin Avenue. Yet the Palms endures in the city’s collective memory. It was campy, sordid and outright dangerous at times, like the neighborhood around it. And at the same time, irresistible.


The Pioneer Hotel: Welcome to your cage

Published April 6, 2016
James Eli Shiffer

Today’s guest blogger is James Eli Shiffer, author of the newly published book, The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis. This Thursday at the Mill City Museum, James will be talking about his book at the opening of a new exhibit  that features previously unpublished images of the city’s lost Gateway District.  

In the pantheon of vanished Minneapolis accommodations, the Pioneer Hotel ranks exceedingly low. In fact, there probably aren’t many people around who even remember the place, which was swept away with other low-end hotels during the Gateway urban renewal project of the early 1960s. The Pioneer had the distinction of being photographed extensively by the city Housing and Redevelopment Authority in 1960, shortly before its destruction, making it perhaps the best-documented flophouse in Minneapolis history.

The Pioneer occupied the upper floors of an old commercial building at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and 2nd Street South, in the heart of the old Skid Row. It was a cage hotel, also called a cubicle hotel, meaning that its tiny rooms were constructed of plywood and tin dividers, with chicken wire over the top. The residents of the Pioneer, single, aging men who were primarily retired railroad or other seasonal workers, shared bathrooms and found companionship playing cards or just letting their bellies hang out in the day room.

Cage hotels emerged in Minneapolis in the late 19th century, as a way to house the migrant laborers who came to the city to find work and then to stay while they spent their earnings from the railroads, the farms and the logging camps. By 1895, there were 50 cage hotels in Minneapolis. While these hotels provided a cheap place to stay, the rest of Minneapolis found them increasingly distasteful. The city outlawed new cage hotels in 1918, but they were such an established institution that some of them lasted for four more decades.

The Pioneer Hotel was owned by Charlie Arnold, whose own accommodations reportedly included a mansion in southern California. He told a reporter from the Minneapolis Star in 1958 that he owned four Skid Row hotels, and said he provided a home to “many fine old gentlemen.” One of those guests, Adolph Karlsson, said he was amenable to moving out of the way of the impending redevelopment “if we can have another place where men like myself can stay and have companionship. When a man reaches middle age and he can’t get a steady job, he needs a place where he can get a cheap room and cheap meals,” The Star’s photographer, Larry Schreiber, snapped a photo of three residents of the Pioneer playing cards in the dayroom.


William Bridges, Gust Tarsuk and Clifford Christjohn playing cards at the Pioneer Hotel. Minneapolis Star Tribune photograph. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Two years after the Star’s story, Richard Palen, a photographer commissioned by the city, visited the Pioneer to document the condition of the building and its interiors. The men he found lounging in the day room or reading on their beds were merely bystanders as the city documented its “blight.” The bathrooms were dismal, the basement was heaped with liquor bottles and the whole place looked like a firetrap. But for generations of seasonal laborers, pensioners and others who helped build Minneapolis and the upper Midwest, the Pioneer was home.

Photographs by the city of Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority, ca. 1960. From the Special Collections, Minneapolis Central Library, Hennepin County Library.

Digital scan of original 4x5 negative (Epson 10000XL).

“We Don’t Want a Hitler Here”

Published December 9, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In August, 1946, one year after World War II came to a close, hundreds of demonstrators converged on downtown Minneapolis to protest the man best known for promoting fascism in the United States.

Gerald L.K. Smith has been forgotten today, having been long consigned to the proverbial “dustbin of history,” where discredited leaders and wrong-headed ideas from all eras all go to molder.

But in 1946–even in the fresh aftermath of a global war against fascism–Smith was able to command a committed group of followers who feared a Communist-Jewish-African-American threat to the United States.

Smith was the Donald Trump of his time. His contemporaries compared him to Hitler.

Starting in the 1930s, Smith attached himself to various organizations and movements that reflected his xenophobia, racism and anti-radicalism. First, he pledged allegiance to  Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” movement. Then, he joined the avowedly fascist “Silver Shirts” and finally the isolationists of the “America First” group, which sought to distance itself from Smith’s overt racism.

A charismatic leader, Smith decided to claim the limelight for himself. He created his own political party, launching a bid to be president in 1944. This campaign built a popular following for his “Christian National Crusade.” His platform promised to “Preserve America as a Christian Nation” and pledged to fight racial “mongrelization”; the growing influence of Jews; efforts to lift immigration restrictions; Communism and all forms of political radicalism.

Gerald L.K. Smith Platform, Jewish Community Relations Committee of Minnesota, Minnesota Historical Society

Gerald L.K. Smith’s Platform for a “Christian Nationalist Crusade.” From the records of the Jewish Community Relations Committee at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Smith had a strong following in Minneapolis, which was known in these years for its anti-Semitism and political polarization, which had intensified in the wake of the 1934 Truckers’ Strike. This conflict sparked a civil war in Minneapolis between hard-line employers and workers seeking union recognition. This violence prompted at least some observers to worry that Minneapolis would serve as the launching pad for a radical revolution during the 1930s.

Smith drew on these fears during his regular visits to the city in the dark days of the Great Depression and World War II, when he attracted hundreds of supporters. Yet ultimately he had fewer friends than foes, who included labor activists, political radicals, civil rights activists, those determined to fight anti-Semitism and plain old liberals. In these circles, Smith was known as “Hitler’s Mouthpiece in Minneapolis.”

In 1946, some of the more militant elements of this anti-fascist coalition resolved that the time had come to use direct action to confront Smith. Over the protests of established civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Minnesota Jewish Council, the American Veterans’ Committee worked with the Socialist Workers’ Party and various labor unions to organize a massive protest intended to “force the would-be Silver Shirts out into the open.” They decided to picket Smith’s recruiting rally in Minneapolis, warning that he sought to muster “totalitarian methods against human rights and democratic liberties.”

On August, 21, young veterans gathered at the University of Minnesota and then moved to downtown Minneapolis, where they carried picket signs that declared: “We Fought Hitler Over there! We Don’t Want a Hitler Here.” They called on their fellow citizens to stand fast against fascist ideals: “We Don’t Like Bigots, We Don’t Want Hate.”

The demonstration devolved into fisticuffs after protesters tried to prevent Smith from speaking to the crowd in the Leamington Hotel ballroom. The national media focused on this violence, dismissing the anti-fascist protest as a “brawl.”

The fracas, according to Mayor Hubert Humphrey, illuminated the danger of political extremism. The liberal mayor used this episode to solidify his standing with the city’s conservative business community. He condemned both the picketers and the Smith supporters, positioning himself as the voice of moderation, a palatable alternative to political zealots “who enjoy rabble rousing” and seek opportunities to “disturb the peace.”

Humphrey and his liberal allies in the political establishment believed that if Smith and his ilk should be ignored. Attention would just feed the beast. This may have been true. But the Americans shown here–many of whom had spent years fighting a global war against fascism– were not willing to take that chance.

Images are from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. Sources for the text are from Folders on Gerald L.K. Smith, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota Papers, Box 47, 48, 50, Minnesota Historical Society; Hubert H. Humphrey Papers, Mayoralty Files, 1945-1948, Box 20, Folder: Smith, Gerald L.K. Smith, Minnesota Historical Society.

aftermath of unrest in plymouth avenue, urban unrest, 1967, mhs

“Plymouth Avenue is gonna burn”

Published December 4, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Early yesterday police cleared away the Black Lives Matter encampment at the Fourth Precinct station. This occupation–which following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark on November 15th–has focused the eyes of the city on this stretch of Plymouth Avenue North.

Fifty years ago, this same block was the site of violent urban unrest. The grievances of this earlier era were remarkably similar. And this uprising prompted an outpouring of effort from business, community and political leaders.

Yet despite decades of work, many activists from this earlier era feel less than sanguine our collective progress towards social justice in the intervening years. According to Spike Moss, who was a young leader on the near North Side in the late 1960s, “we’re still fighting for our basic rights in this city, this state and this country.”

The question for the young demonstrators of 2015 is how this moment will be different from 1967. Will it be any easier this time to translate direct action into lasting social change? Is Minneapolis more prepared to hear the grievances of African-American activists? And have we as a community built structures that can address the disparities that have governed life in the city for the last century?

Returning to the past helps us chart our way forward. Our current struggles are shaped by painful memories from these earlier conflicts, which have never been fully acknowledged as significant to the city’s history.

On the night of August 2, 1966, a group of fifty teenagers on their way home from the annual Northside picnic destroyed a string of businesses. This was the start of a year of violent conflict on the near North Side that ended approximately one year later, after 600 members of the National Guard were deployed to keep the peace on Plymouth Avenue. Most white Minneapolitans call this episode the “Plymouth Avenue riots.” But in the neighborhood’s African-American community it is remembered as the Plymouth Avenue rebellion.

The young people who took to the streets on the near North Side in 1966 and 1967 saw looting and arson as political acts. At least some defended their attacks (in diatribes infused with anti-Semitism) on neighborhood businesses, accusing local merchants of “selling Negroes those third class meats at first class prices.” A small number of protesters reveled in incendiary rhetoric of the era, declaring that “this is the time to let the blood run into the street like its supposed to. Plymouth Avenue is gonna burn.” Others sought to channel these revolutionary impulses into the development of alternative institutions. One group– led by Syl Davis–took over a city-owned building on Plymouth Avenue. They established The Way, a community center that sought “calm the neighborhood by providing an off-the-street facility for youth and a meeting place for residents.”

Anger and frustration were the underlying cause of this unrest. “The primary issue in Minneapolis is not the jobs, or the police or housing or anything like this,” civil rights organizer John S. Hampton declared, after visiting the city in the immediate aftermath of the violence. “It’s simply the hostility, the fear, frustration and the feeling of powerlessness which black people feel in an alien white society. . .People start feeling like they’re living in an occupied country.”

“Our cities are racist,” Syl Davis asserted in 1967. “The city is more like a prison. . .The black man just doesn’t want to be a social nigger anymore, brain washed with promises and folksy talk about pulling yourself up with your bootstraps.”

Three years earlier, the city’s first Jewish mayor had came into office pledging to address yawning racial disparities. “A fire of protest against indignity and denial is burning here,” Arthur Naftalin declared in his inaugural speech. Much like our current mayor Betsy Hodges, Naftalin made racial justice central to his political agenda, allying himself with a national coalition of politicians determined to advance the cause of civil rights in northern cities.

Yet when Naftalin took office, Minneapolis was certainly not known as a hotbed for civil rights activism, through many  of its residents had participated in the freedom struggle in the south. The city perceived itself as a oasis of racial harmony in a troubled nation, a community that had worked hard to ensure equal opportunity. It was a “city where civil rights ferment had largely been confined to the moderate climate of committee rooms,” according to Gerald Vizenor, a Native American writer and keen observer of the city’s racial climate. A city commission later concluded that “many people in Minneapolis feel that our ‘negro or slum problem’ is not serious.”

This civic ideal was fundamentally challenged by the unrest on Plymouth Avenue.

The mayor responded immediately, leaving the committee room for the streets. On August 3, Naftalin called on residents of the near North Side to meet him at Lovell Square, half a mile from the epicenter of the property destruction on Plymouth Avenue. He promised to keep the police out of the park. Accompanied by Governor Rolsvaag, Naftalin listened as young activists shared their frustrations and tales of discrimination; the two politicians watched young firebrands argue with established civil rights leaders.

I believe that this clip from KSTP shows this meeting, though the date is not really clear.

The footage showed Naftalin promising to provide jobs, immediately. It doesn’t show what came later. In the months that followed, Naftalin worked with a host of local leaders like Harry Davis and T. Williams to establish the Urban Coalition, which sought to address disparities in schools, police protection, recreational facilities and economic opportunities. The mayor tried to convince residents of the near North Side that city leaders had a genuine commitment to positive change. “I believe we can make a model city out of Minneapolis,” he asserted. “We’re going to change this system, by working together.”

Yet it seems that most white Minneapolitans remained unmoved by either the North Side youths or their passionate mayor. Most residents never saw the violence of 1966 and 1967 as legitimate political protest. The fiery rhetoric of the young protesters did little to shake their faith that they already lived in a model metropolis.

Instead, most of the city embraced the narrative advanced by the city’s police federation, which was articulated by the police officer interviewed on camera for this news report. “In my estimation,” he asserted, this was “completely a case of looting and thievery and vandalism.” The unrest on the North Side, in other words, was wanton lawlessness; protesters were no better than criminals.

Naftalin and his allies were caught in the polarizing politics of the time, buffeted between impatient young people and a reactionary police federation that refused to remain silent about their disdain for self-proclaimed revolutionaries.

And when the liberal mayor retired in 1969, Minneapolis voters appeared to reject his civil rights agenda. They elected political neophyte Charlie Stenvig, a police detective and member of the police federation who campaigned on a law-and-order platform and a pledge to get tough on young lawbreakers.

In addition to fighting efforts to integrate the Minneapolis public schools, Stenvig did his best to gut the civil rights initiatives established by his predecessor. This included appointing Tony Felicetta to the Minneapolis Human Relations Committee. The city commissioner–who was charged with protecting civil rights in the city–famously told the Minneapolis Tribune: “I talk with colored people a lot,” he said, “with the elevator operators, the shoeshiners and in the parking lots, and do you know what they say? They don’t buy all this (militant) crap.”

Perhaps if Minneapolitans had listened more carefully to the “militant crap” of the 1960s, Plymouth Avenue North might look different today. Contemporary Minneapolitans have the opportunity to learn from these difficult episodes from the past. We may never achieve the “model metropolis” envisioned by so many generations of city leaders. But at least we can get a better sense of of what we might need to do to realize this civic ideal.

Sources for this post include:

Image shows the aftermath of the violence on Plymouth Avenue and is from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society. KSTP. Footage from Plymouth Avenue, 1966. Accessed September 19, 2012. http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/largerimage.php?irn=10269010&catirn=10463530; “How Syl Davis Sees It: An Interview with Gerald Vizenor.” Twin Citian Magazine, October 1967; Gerald Vizenor. “1966: Plymouth Avenue Is Going to Burn.” Twin Citian, October 1966; Camille Maddox. “The Way Opportunities Unlimited Inc.’:  A Movement for Black Equality in Minneapolis, MN 1966-1970.” BA thesis, Emory University, 2013; Iric Nathanson. Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City. Saint Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010; W. Harry Davis. Overcoming: The Autobiography of W. Harry Davis. 1st ed. Afton, Minn: Afton Historical Society Press, 2002; Jeffrey T Manuel and Andrew Urban. “‘You Can’t Legislate the Heart’: Minneapolis Mayor Charles Stenvig and the Politics of Law and Order.” American Studies 49, no. 3 (2010): 195–219; Jack Miller, “New Rights Official Speaks His Mind,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 15, 1969.

police atrocities headline from 1922

“A demand for justice and law enforcement”: a history of police and the near North Side

Published November 20, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

It was the summer of 1922 on the near North Side of Minneapolis. After three nights of racial unrest, a group that called itself the National Equal Rights League issued a call for action. This ad-hoc committee asked the community to gather for a “Citizens Meeting For Public Safety” at the Elks’ Hall on June 25. The notice in The Minnesota Messenger declared that “the clergy and all prominent Negroes are invited and expected to be present to make a demand for justice and law enforcement.”

The topic for discussion: the ongoing and often violent clashes between the police and the African American community.

The area around the Elks’ Hall–which was located at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Lyndale Avenue North– was one of the only places where African Americans were welcomed in Minneapolis during the 1920s. African Americans–who would comprise only one percent of the city’s population by the end of the decade–were struggling to gain a foothold in a city where popular support for the Ku Klux Klan was surging. Jobs were scarce and housing conditions were deplorable.

Police were regarded as one of the hazards of the street in this mixed-race neighborhood of juke joints and pool halls. But in the week before the meeting at the Elks Club, anger erupted over the behavior of law enforcement, which seemed more concerned with upholding white supremacy than ensuring public safety. “Law abiding Negroes ,” they declared, “demand their rights and should not be made to suffer for the acts of prejudiced policemen and reckless and vicious characters regardless of race.”

In the very early morning of June 19th, 1922, a police officer appeared on Lyndale Avenue North. Officer Fitzpatrick–who bystanders described as drunk– declared that it was time for the crowd to go home. His first concern was a group of men who “had just invited some white girls up to a dance” at the Elks Club. When the men ignored his order to “move on,” he assaulted them and threw them in a waiting paddy wagon. He then called headquarters for reinforcements, warning that a “riot” was about to erupt.

The night after Fitzpatrick made his “riot call,” another police officer assaulted a man several blocks away. “After complaints had been received” that a black man was “speaking to white girls,” Officer McNamee approached the man and tried to arrest him for “disorderly conduct.” When the man tried to escape, the police officer fired his gun four times.  He missed his target, who grabbed the gun and disappeared into the crowd of onlookers. McNamee called for back-up from the police “gun squad.” The man escaped capture but the neighborhood came under siege. Police patrols were redoubled and businesses were forced to close their doors, in the interest of public safety.

The city’s fledging civil rights movement mobilized in response to these outrages. “There is no excuse for a police to serve notice that he intends to clean out all the Negroes by threats of killing them,” the notice in the Minnesota Messenger declared. “A NEGRO CAN GET JUSTICE IN THE COURTS OF THIS CITY BUT MANY OF THEM SUFFER SEVERE CRUELTIES BEFORE THEY REACH THEM.”

Despite this fiery message of defiance, the protest meeting on the 25th was tame. The president of the NAACP expressed his desire to “take proper steps to better race conditions” and his group was charged with pursuing negotiations with the city. During the weeks that followed, leaders of the NAACP met with city officials, including Mayor George Leach, who would himself become the target of the Ku Klux Klan in 1923.

The group would pressure the city to increase the number of African American women on the police force. But ultimately these talks would yield little else in the way of real improvements.

In the intervening years, the landscape of race has been transformed in many different ways. Despite legal, economic, political and social changes, relations between African American residents of the near North Side and the Minneapolis police have remained deeply troubled.

urban unrest, riots in north Minneapolis 1967, mhs

Minneapolis police in North Minneapolis, responding to the urban unrest in the summer of 1967. Photograph from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society and the Star Tribune.

As we grapple with the shooting of Jamar Clark, this history matters. The near North Side has been shaped for most of this last century by this legacy of mistrust, which cannot be dissolved overnight.  Clark’s death has summoned this difficult history, unleashing anger and fear that will be difficult to contain without confronting the past.

Sources for this post include:

“Negroes Protest Against Police Atrocities in this City,” The Minnesota Messenger, June 23, 1922; “Negroe Citizens Hold Protest Meeting: Charges Made Against Police Officers,” The Minnesota Messenger, June 30, 1922; “Armed Negro Holds Crowd of 500 at Bay,” The Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 21, 1922; “Mayor Received NAACP Delegation,” The Minnesota Messenger, August 19, 1922; Brief in Minnesota Messenger, August 11, 1922; Clarence Miller, “Lament of an Intersection,” from Minneapolis Near Northside circa 1920s Map, Phyllis Wheatley House Organizational Records, Minnesota Historical Society; W. Harry Davis, Overcoming, Lori Sturdevant, ed (Afton, Minnesota: Afton Historical Press, 2002); David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: the history of the Ku Klux Klan (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987)

police on plymouth avenue, north minneapolis, after urban unrest or riots in 1967, mhs

A “disturbance born of disillusionment”: 50 years of Black Lives Matter on Plymouth Avenue

Published November 17, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

A vigil has been kept for the last three days at the Fourth Precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis police on Plymouth Avenue North. Members of Black Lives Matter are demanding justice in the case of Jamar Clark, who died today after being shot in the head by police early Sunday morning.

For at least fifty years, this site on Plymouth Avenue has been a flashpoint for clashes between police and residents of the neighborhood, which is now largely African American. Today’s police station sits on the historic location of The Way, a community experiment that grew out of some of the most significant urban unrest in the city’s history. In 1966, neighborhood residents took over a building on this part of Plymouth Avenue and created this storefront organization “after a disturbance born of disillusionment and anger exploded spontaneously in the streets. Its emergency purpose was to help calm the neighborhood by providing an off-the-street facility for youth and a meeting place for residents.”

The way, north minneapolis, plymouth avenue, mhs

The Way, Plymouth Avenue, 1975. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.


The short-lived unrest of 1966 was dwarfed by the events of 1967, which is now known as the “long hot summer” in the United States. Violence in Minneapolis erupted at the annual Minneapolis Aquatennial Parade and moved up Plymouth Avenue after police clashed with a crowd of 200 people. On July 21st, Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin requested assistance from the National Guard. Troops were stationed in North Minneapolis, where a series of fires had destroyed businesses along Plymouth Avenue.

The best account of this unrest can be found in the history of North Minneapolis directed by Daniel Bergin of TPT. Cornerstones puts the history of this unrest in the greater context of the neighborhood’s development.

Minneapolis was just one of 159 cities that went up in flames that year. Remembered in some quarters as a riot and in others as a rebellion, this unrest grew out of a broad frustration with the conditions of life in North Minneapolis. Residents decried segregated housing, constricted economic opportunities, struggling schools and police brutality.

The roots of this violence lay in the city’s racial inequities, according to the organizers of The Way. By the 1960s, Minneapolis had excluded “a large number of its residents from the opportunity system,” the organization asserted. “An invisible wall exists around much of the area north of Olson Highway and west of the river. The wall shuts people into overly-crowded neighborhoods which lack the civic amenities provided in other sections of the city. The wall shuts out the larger community’s concern for, interest in and even awareness of North Side problems.”

Quotes are taken from the pamphlet, “The Way of the New North Side,” from the records of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, Minnesota Historical Society. Images show Plymouth Avenue and are from the Minnesota Historical Society.


documerica photo of nicollet mall, woman on bike plus bus

“The last outpost of urban paradise”

Published November 17, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

The nation was grappling with twin threats in June 1973, when a photographer named Donald Emmerich visited Minneapolis. The “urban crisis” had dovetailed with anxieties about the environment to make many Americans question the viability of city living. The newly created Environmental Protection Agency had hired a team of photographers–which included Emmerich–to document how ordinary people were confronting this challenge.

Yet when Emmerich came to Minneapolis, he saw little that could be called blight or despoilation, though he did record some shots of sewage pipes and junkyards on the Mississippi River. He found an urban environment where the denizens seemed to be in harmony with one another and their natural surroundings. He saw Minneapolitans strolling, lounging and riding their bikes on a newly created downtown shopping street, Nicollet Mall. And he observed how residents enjoyed their city lakes. The photographer spent a long summer evening watching sailboats on Lake Calhoun, creating a series of images that could have been made into postcards for the Chamber of Commerce.

lake calhoun from documerica

Emmerich was employed by DOCUMERICA, which took inspiration from the federal documentary projects of the 1930s. DOCUMERICA sought to show the relationship between American people and their environment, creating 15,000 snaphshots of everyday life in 1970s America. The images of Minneapolis stand out in this unique collection, which is now housed at the National Archives. The city provides a happy contrast to views of belching factories, deteriorating buildings and burning rivers. With its bikes and lakes and leafy streets, Minneapolis emerges as a model metropolis, a bright spot of hope in the nation’s “urban crisis.”

Emmerich’s work reflects popular perceptions of the city in these years. His images of Lake Calhoun and Nicollet Mall give visual proof to the boasts of city leaders, who asserted that Minneapolis was an urban center without urban ills. This vision of the city provided the backdrop for the Mary Tyler Moore show, which aired between 1970 and 1977. Its iconic opening trailer–which featured the show’s star tossing her tam in the air on Nicollet Mall each week–helped to fix Minneapolis in the national cultural imagination as a city unburdened by urban blight. Minneapolis was “the last outpost of urban paradise,” one Dayton Hudson executive told Fortune in 1976.  “This was a city,” The New York Times later observed “that seemed to have all of the answers.”

This hyperbole hid some uncomfortable realities. New surface parking lots covered much of downtown after the bulldozing of the historic Gateway District in the early 1960s; police brutality had helped to launch the American Indian Movement in 1968; growing racial disparities had fueled unrest and violence on Plymouth Avenue in 1966 and 1967. Yet by the 1970s these struggles had all been obscured by idyllic images like Emmerich’s photograph of Nicollet Mall. The myth of the model metropolis buried the city’s history of conflict. And our civic identity has remained fixed, in many ways, in these images of the 1970s. This has made it difficult for us to grapple collectively with the legacies of some of our difficult episodes in the city’s history.

This golden age for Minneapolis inspires intense nostalgia today. And there is no better way to indulge these yearnings than to visit the Mill City Museum, which has just opened a new exhibit of downtown street photography from this period. From 1972 to 1974, when he was a suburban teenager, Mike Evangelist took hundreds of photographs of downtown Minneapolis. Each afternoon he wandered downtown before reporting for his shift at the downtown post office. These explorations introduced him to a slightly grittier side of the city than the one discovered by Emmerich.  He was fascinated by quirky street characters and scruffy streetscape; the resulting images will tantalize anyone who has ever spent any time in downtown Minneapolis.

Evangelist’s images show a place that is both alien and familiar, according to Andy Sturdevant, who wrote the text that accompanies the images in the exhibit and companion book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. They portray a city that defies stereotypes of this decade; it is neither model metropolis nor showcase for urban blight. These photographs do no more than Emmerich’s to reveal the hidden history of Minneapolis. But they will delight urbanophiles, reminding us of the joy and surprise and intrigue of our earliest encounters with cities.

Image credit: Documerica Collection, National Archives and Records Administration.

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The forgotten campaign of Jack Baker

Published November 4, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Yesterday was election day. The polls were pretty quiet in Minneapolis. But this civic occasion gives us an opportunity to revisit a long-forgotten political campaign. This broadside was created by Jack Baker, a candidate for Second Ward Alderman in 1973.

This leaflet casts Baker as a fairly conventional political candidate, though he was running as an independent in a heavily DFL ward. It touts his career in the Air Force and his degrees in business, law and engineering. It boasts of his success at the University of Minnesota, where he served two terms as student body president. It speaks to the concerns of voters in this neighborhood by the Mississippi River, which was being re-made by a series of urban renewal projects directed by the Highway Department, the University of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis.

This campaign literature gives no clue that Baker was already a celebrity when he made his bid for public office. Three years earlier, Baker had won national attention for his efforts to win legal sanction for his union with Michael McConnell. On May 18, 1970, the couple donned matching white shirts and ties. They went to the courthouse in Minneapolis City Hall, where they paid a $10 fee to apply for a marriage license. As the media watched, court officials denied their request to be legally wed as a same-sex couple.

jack baker and michael mcconnell

On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County. Photo is from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The men persisted in their quest but were dismissed by courts and queer activists alike, who dismissed the couple as “crazies” for their fixation on marriage. They appealed first to the Hennepin County District Court and then to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which declared that “the institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the Book of Genesis.” When their case was brought to the United States Supreme Court it was dismissed with a one-sentence ruling on October 10, 1972.

Their ground-breaking crusade cost McConnell his job as a librarian at the University of Minnesota, which went to court to defend its right to deny employment to open homosexuals. And this courageous stance did little to boost the political career of Baker. Baker lost his campaign, coming in fourth in a six-way race decided on November 6th. He garnered only 1044 votes and was defeated by Thomas Johnson.

Baker had posed in high heels for his campaign for student body president at the University of Minnesota, where he helped to found FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), an organization that fought for gay rights on campus. But Baker’s campaign for City Council muted any reference to queer politics. He focused instead on the built environment of the city, calling for greater use of bicycles and a community embrace of the Mississippi River. The river’s “garbage encrusted shoreline ought to be transformed into a place for Funky People to escape the traffic; to encounter wild things quietly, kindly.”

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Baker’s bid for public office has been forgotten today. But with the hindsight of forty years, the vision he articulated for Minneapolis during his campaign seems prescient. With its bikes and newly revitalized riverfront and its influential queer political community, Minneapolis has become in many ways the model metropolis he imagined.

These campaign broadsides are from the private collection of historian Donald Gustafson. For more about the life and political legacy of Baker and McConnell, visit the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota, which recently received the couple’s papers. The men have also told their story in The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World, a book that will be released from the University of Minnesota Press next spring.

Digital scanned image of original artifact. Scanned on an Epson Expression 10000XL scanner.

“Laughing Water and Solemn Sioux”: The Vanishing Indian in the Dakota homeland

Published October 13, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

This week Minneapolis marked “indigenous people’s day,” a holiday conceived as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day.  This commemoration serves as a reminder that we live in the land of the Dakota, who were pushed out of the area in the formative years of the metropolis.

When Permelia Atwater moved to St. Anthony in 1850, “the Indians were always about the town, and were friendly and sociable in their peculiarly quiet way,” she remembered. “They would enter houses without the least ceremony, going up or down stairs as the whim took them.” Just across the river in the area that would become Minneapolis, the land remained in Dakota hands until 1851. Native American tipis were a common sight until the Civil War.

Early settlers like Permelia never imagined that their first neighbors would remain in the growing city. Instead, they saw the indigenous inhabitants as part and parcel of the quickly vanishing frontier landscape. Residents like Permelia sought to speed this process, welcoming any and all signs of civilization, including the disappearance of native peoples.

They people who created St. Anthony envisioned a new kind of community for Minnesota. It would stand in stark contrast to the polyglot jumble that was St. Paul, which had taken shape around the Indian trade. By contrast, Minneapolis would be a modern manufacturing city guided by Yankee commercial and cultural values.”We could not fall back, as our St. Paul friends did, on the resources gathered from the Indian payments,” settler John Stevens explained in his autobiography. “Even at that early day St. Paul was commercial: we were manufacturing.” This vision articulated by Stevens was as much about culture as economics. Minneapolis may have been a city on the river. But inhabitants wanted it to be a city on a hill. And in mid-nineteenth century America, there was no virtue in the mixing of races.

Yet even as city leaders pushed the original inhabitants west, they embraced another kind of Indian. These Native Americans were fictional–the creation of a New Englander who had never visited Minnesota. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had immortalized a cast of noble Indians in his epic poem narrating the love story of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. The publication of The Song of Hiawatha in 1855 sparked what could only be described as a literary cult.

minnehaha falls postcard with poet and indians, 1907, nypl, detroit publishing company, digital id 62338

This 1907 postcard juxtaposes images of Minnehaha Falls with Native Americans and Henry Longfellow. Longfellow’s 1855 poem sparked what can only be described as a literary cult, which remained robust well into the twentieth century. This postcard is from the collection of the New York Public Library.

Longfellow’s poetry was inspired by a daguerreotype of Minnehaha Falls created in 1851. And when the poem proved wildly popular, city leaders latched on to this phenomenon. They plucked names–Minnehaha, Hiawatha and Nokomis–from Longfellow’s pages to fasten on their quickly developing streetscape.

Two years after the publication of this epic poem, veteran journalist Edward Bromley sought to capitalize on this cult of Hiawatha with the image at the top of this post. Titled “Laughing Water and Solemn Sioux,” it showed three men sitting by the waterfall made legendary by Longfellow. It captures a critical moment of transition for Native Americans. It shows this brief window of time in the young city when flesh-and-blood Indians still walked this landscape. They had not yet been reduced to icons.

“When this picture was made,” Bromley asserted, “Indian wigwams dotted the landscape o’er in the vicinity of Fort Snelling and Minnehaha. The artist induced two of the dusky warriors. . .to sit within the scope of his camera.”

Dakota internment camp at Fort Snelling, 1862-63. Image is from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Five short years later, the only Native Americans in the area were confined behind a stockade fence on the flats below the fort. This was the site of the internment camp that housed 1,600 Dakota captured during the war that flared up on the prairie in the summer of 1862. Hundreds of the camp’s inhabitants died during the winter of 1862-63. Those who survived were removed to a site of even greater suffering in South Dakota.

Postcard is from the collection of the New York Public Library. Other images are from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society. Quotes were drawn from Permelia Atwater, “Pioneer Life in Minneapolis–from a Woman’s Standpoint,” in History of Minneapolis, Isaac Atwater, ed (1893): 68; John Stevens, Personal Recollections, 88;  “Obituary of Alexander Hesler,” Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin (New York, 1895).

menorahs at Sumner_Branch_Minneapolis_Public_Library_Minneapolis_Minnesota c. 1915, hclib

“It was our university”: Sumner Library and the old Sixth Avenue North

Published October 8, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Sumner Library is celebrating its centennial this Saturday.

You may shrug. But this really is a cause for jubilation. And a moment to contemplate the diverse history of one of Minnesota’s most interesting neighborhoods.

This lovely little library on the city’s north side–built with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie in 1915–has served as a critical institution in one of the state’s most diverse neighborhoods for 100 years. “It was our university,” one patron remembered at the 50th anniversary of the library.  It was here that generations of new arrivals “learned to be American,” declared Harrison Salisbury, Pulitzer prize winning journalist who grew up in a dilapidated Victorian mansion nearby in the early twentieth century.

A native son of the near north side, Salisbury was an anomaly. The grandson of a prominent Minneapolis physician, he was one of the only children in his neighborhood whose families had been in the city for any length of time.

oak lake park, august 5, 1936, from city archives, before redevelopment

A home in the Oak Lake Addition in 1936, right before the area was demolished for the construction of the farmer’s market. Photo is from the Minneapolis city archives, Minneapolis City Hall.

Salisbury grew up in the Oak Lake Addition, which had been originally conceived as an “exclusive district” in 1880. Yet by the time that Salisbury was a child, the district had lost many of its most prominent families and his neighbors were largely newly arrived Russian Jews. “There was bitter opposition to the Jewish invasion,” according to sociologist Calvin Schmid, who later described how the neighborhood became dominated by Jews and then African Americans. But Salisbury remembers this shift as a gift. He was thankful for the opportunity to grow up in “the most alien corner of that most Middle Western city of Minneapolis.”

interior of brochin's delicatessan, c. 1914, mhs

Bronchin’s delicatessan, c. 1914. Sixth Avenue North in Minneapolis. Image from the Minnesota Historical Society.

The commercial spine of Salisbury’s neighborhood was Sixth Avenue North, which was lined with immigrant businesses that sold basic provisions like bread, eggs, potatoes and crackers as well as matzohs, prayer shawls, mezuzahs and kosher meat necessary for observant Jews. On the same stretch, residents could get their shoes repaired or their clothes laundered in a Chinese laundry. While they were waiting for their garments they could enjoy a Turkish bath (a necessity in a quarter where many dwellings did not have indoor plumbing).

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Members of the Workman’s Circle at the Labor Lyceum. Photo from the University of Minnesota Libraries, Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archive.

Up the street was the Labor Lyceum,  which hosted debates on socialism and served as a cultural hub for radical Jews. Those less politically inclined could pay a nickel at the Liberty Theater and lose themselves in the Perils of Pauline. After the film they could stop two doors down for an audience with notorious gangster Kid Cann, who kept a headquarters next to one of the many pool halls on Sixth Avenue North.

The street offered round-the-clock entertainment with its constant flow of peddlers and delivery people. Children scavenged in the wake of the ice wagon and the coal wagon; they followed the popcorn man and the waffle man on their rounds. In the summer, those without the fifteen cents for one of these sugar-drenched confections tried to satisfied their hunger with “soft tar from the pavement in the hot sun,” according to Salisbury, which they chewed “in place of Spearmint.”

The library became part of this lively streetscape in 1912, when it opened in a storefront. Three years later it moved into its permanent home, which was constructed with $25,000 from the Carnegie Foundation.  Librarians welcomed children, taught them to read and sent them home with armloads of books. The building’s gothic reading rooms became a favorite gathering place for children, who went there to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

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Children in the reading room at Sumner Library. Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

Twenty-three years after its construction the building was moved 100 feet to the north, to make way for the new Olson Memorial Highway. A crew of six men used a large jack to shift the building one -eighth of an inch at a time.  “It was,” according to Sumner Branch Librarian Adelaide Rood, “a major feat of delicate engineering.”

Sumner Library was the only building considered worth saving when the new thruway was constructed. Many residents had none of Salisbury’s nostalgia when they remembered the “speakeasies, tippling houses, gambling joints and brothels” of the intersection they called “the Hellhole.” They cheered when this notorious commercial district fell under the bulldozer, as the city kicked off what would become a fifty year campaign to eliminate urban blight. Cars replaced walkers, gutting the heart of this immigrant quarter.

Through all these changes, Sumner Library endured, opening its doors and the world to generation after generation of new arrivals to Minneapolis. Daniel Bergin interviewed many of these patrons for Cornerstones, his 2011 documentary, which narrates the history of north Minneapolis through the stories of its critical institutions.

This Saturday, take the opportunity to visit this Minneapolis landmark. Visit Sumner library from 12-4 pm and join in this celebration of its storied history.