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Map Monday: Clarence Miller’s Lament for a Lost Intersection

Published May 11, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. Today we’re revisiting one of my favorite sources for Minneapolis history. Sometime in the 1950s, this “memory map” was created by Clarence Miller to document an area of the near north side that had been recently flattened by urban renewal. The original map–which hangs on the wall at Sumner Library–shows the buildings, businesses and clubs that clustered around 6th and Lyndale Avenue North in the 1920s. In this area, newly-arrived African Americans lived beside Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in a district known throughout the rest of the city for its rough tippling houses, jazz music, barbeque joints, brothels, kosher groceries and synagogues. This was the only part of the city where mixed-race couples or groups could be sure they would be served together in a restaurant.

The area has been immortalized in the prose of Gordon Parks, Nelson Peery and W. Harry Davis, who all came of age in this socially rich but economically impoverished district of town. The map complements these sources, illuminating the built environment that shaped all three of these men into fiery advocates of social justice. Over the last year, both Daniel Bergin and I have written about this fascinating document. Now you should check out how University of Minnesota archivist Kate Dietrick used this source to create a create new online exhibit. Kate annotated the original map with some complementary sources. Can you help her identify additional photographs, oral histories and other documents that tell us more about this important neighborhood?


Happy May Day!

Published May 1, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Over the last century, May Day has inspired parades that celebrate both political radicalism and community solidarity in Minneapolis.

This 1937 photo shows labor movement activists marching through what was known as the Loop or the Gateway District. The photo was snapped at what was perhaps the apex of labor of labor militancy in the city, which had garnered national and even international attention for the bloody clashes of the 1934 Truckers’ Strike. The Teamsters’ victory weakened the city’s powerful employer organization known as the Citizens’ Alliance and unleashed a wave of strikes and union organizing campaigns that roiled the city until World War II.

This downtown route was chosen for its proximity to the site of the epic clashes of the 1934 Truckers’ Strike and radical political organizations, many of which had their headquarters in this section of town during the political tumultuous years of the Great Depression. When a reporter from Fortune magazine visited in 1936, in an effort to understand why political radicals had been so successful in the city, he concluded that it was from this spot that “the revolution may come.” The marchers pictured here were chanting: “Solidarity for Union Workers Makes Us Strong.”

Pull on the slider to reveal a modern May Day celebration organized by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater in South Minneapolis. Centering on Powderhorn Park, these annual gatherings use art and theater to build community solidarity and articulate playful critiques of corporate capitalism.

The 1937 photo is from the newspaper morgue files at the Special Collections Department of the Hennepin County Library downtown. Special thanks to Rita Yeada for finding and digitizing this image. The May Day parade photo is from Kirt Brown and the Heart of the Beast Theater. The HOBT May Day parade this year will be held on Sunday, May 2nd.

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The Bohemian Flats: “A quaint little village” or den of iniquity?

Published April 30, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when Minneapolis was in its infancy and housing was almost impossible to find  in the growing city, new Americans created a squatters’ village on the banks of the Mississippi River. Home to 1,000 people, this enclave was tucked beneath the Washington Avenue bridge and was accessible by a flight of seventy-nine wooden stairs descending from the top of the river bluff.

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Street scene in the Bohemian Flats. From the Minneapolis photo collection, Special Collections Department, Hennepin County Library.


Though residents of the Bohemian Flats worked, shopped and worshipped above the bridge, outsiders imagined the community as a world apart, “a quaint little village nestled under the side of a cliff,” where migrants from Bohemia, Slovakia and Finland clung to European costumes and languages. It was adjacent to the city’s garbage dump and inundated by spring floods that forced families to decamp for higher ground each year. But living on the riverbank had its advantages for residents. Over the lifetime of this neighborhood, many on the “Upper Levee” transformed their shanties into substantial homes that furnished by “pianos, Victrolas, Brussel carpets and lace curtains.”

No physical trace of the community is visible today. It was cleared in two waves–first in the 1920s and then the 1930s–to make way for a new municipal freight terminal.

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Image from the Minnesota Historical Society shows the Washington Avenue bridge and the new municipal freight terminal on the Mississippi River in 1925. The remaining houses from the Bohemian Flats can be seen in the far left corner of the image.


But the Bohemian Flats has been immortalized by writers and ethnographers who have been fascinated by what they perceived to be an insular little world. In 1921, the settlement provided the backdrop for The Boat of Longing, a saga of Minneapolis immigrants penned by Norwegian novelist Ole Rolvaag. And in 1935, the Works Progress Administration tasked a team of writers to document the immigrant community just as it was disappearing under the bulldozer. This effort attracted the attention of Joseph Zalusky, who became one of the first directors of the Hennepin History Museum. Zalusky helped to plot the social and physical geography of the neighborhood in its twilight moments, creating this map, which shows who lived where on the Flats in 1910.

Social geography and streetscape of the Bohemian Flats by Joseph Zalusky. Map shows families in residence in 1910. Thanks to the Hennepin History Museum for sharing this source. And special thanks to Kevin Ehrman-Solberg for digitizing and wrangling this image so it could be shared online.


The material gathered by Zalusky and these early twentieth century ethnographers are part of the rich historic record that has captured the imagination of a new generation of Minneapolitans, who have re-discovered the neighborhood as part of their new embrace of the Mississippi River. Last year, Mary Relindes Ellis published a new novel set on the Bohemian Flats. And tonight, the Mill City Museum will open a new exhibit called “Remembering the Bohemian Flats: One Place, Many Voices.” This installation grew out of the work of Rachel Hines, a University of Minnesota graduate whose senior thesis inspired a new initiative to make this legendary settlement visible to a new generation.

This exhibit seeks to make sense of the dueling images of the neighborhood, which was portrayed both as a place of natural peace and a site of danger. The “Flats” were described as a riverine paradise at a bend of the Mississippi River, whose waters were heavy with sewage and industrial effluvia. Yet the river provided an “atmosphere of peace and to some degree quiet” for residents of the Flats, whose “pink cheeks and brown skin. . .glowed with health and vigor,” according to the neighborhood’s branch librarian.

The enclave’s undeveloped setting certainly had advantages for those interested in keeping vegetable gardens and goats to supplement meager wages. Inhabitants used the river to scrape out a subsistence existence, scavenging wood and anything else useful that might float past their doorsteps.

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The women and children who lived in the Bohemian Flats helped their families survive by scavenging driftwood from the river. This image is from the Minneapolis photo collection, Special Collections Department, Hennepin County Library.


But the Flats also presented serious health hazards. For most of the neighborhood’s history, homes had no plumbing and took their drinking water from communal pumps, which were frequently contaminated by shared privies. The shanties closest to the river provided little protection from the elements. And the area was notorious for its crime, especially on Sunday afternoons, when brewery workers threw raucous keg parties in defiance of the city’s liquor laws. In the late nineteenth century, Sunday school teachers from Westminster Church demanded a police escort to descend into this den of iniquity.

The lost world of the Bohemian Flats makes me ruminate about contemporary immigrant groups and the need to document their efforts to survive and thrive in the United States. What kind of historic record are we amassing that will allow the next generation to understand how Minneapolis was transformed by newcomers at the beginning of the twentieth century?

This post drew from the following sources:

Quotes are from Josehine McPike, “A Community Study of the Seven Corners Branch District,” Branch Library Collection, Special Collections Department, Hennepin County Library. Other background is from Minneapolis Civic & Commerce Association, The Housing Problem in Minneapolis: A Preliminary Investigation Made for the Committee on Housing of the Minneapolis Civic & Commerce Association. (Minneapolis, 1914); Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Project Administration, The Bohemian Flats (1941); Mary Relindes Ellis, The Bohemian Flats (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); John Edward Bushnell, The History of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1907-1937 (Minneapolis: The Lund Press, 1938);  Ole Rolvaag, The Boat of Longing; Jean Sicora, “One Hundred Years Later or from Bohemia in Central Europe to the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis.” Hennepin History Magazine, 1984.


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Putting Minneapolis on the LGBTQ Map

Published March 31, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Today is international Trans Day of Visibility. Please honor our friends, family and community members by helping to make LGBTQ history more visible. Follow your own muse. Or join one of the initiatives organized by the National Park Service. The NPS is calling on all Americans to assist their efforts to document and tell the story of queer history.

Minneapolis looks like flyover territory on this map, which shows only one site of LGBTQ significance in the city. Let’s help the NPS document the rich history of LGBTQ life and activism in the city. Click on this link to find out more and suggest additional sites that should be recognized.



One last glimpse of 425 Portland Avenue

Published March 30, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard


The Star Tribune newsroom left 425 Portland Avenue on the end of the day last Friday. This film captured the scene–more than sixty years ago–when this soon-to-be-demolished building was first unveiled to a curious public. The mood was festive as thousands of Minnesotans stood in line for the opportunity to tour the state-of-the-art newspaper and printing plant downtown. This footage reveals that excited readers encountered a creepy clown on the street outside (was this guy hired by the newspaper to harass visiting Boy Scouts?); a busy newsroom that included a young Barbara Flanagan and a still unknown Carl Rowan (how could they work with thousands of people traipsing through for days?); as well as hundreds of linotype operators and printers. This snippet concludes with scenes from the dedication banquet where publisher John Cowles, Sr. hobnobbed with various dignitaries next to a huge cake replica of the new world headquarters for his growing media empire (I wonder what kind of cake it was?).

Rest in peace, 425 Portland Avenue.

It is unclear to me whether this film, which is from the Minneapolis History Collection at the Central Library, was created in either 1947 or 1949. Thanks to the Special Collections Department at Hennepin County Libraries for sharing this material and librarian Ted Hathaway, who both digitized this film and identified the journalists in the footage.



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Goodbye to All That: “A Trip through Newspaperland” at 425 Portland Avenue

Published March 25, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In 1949, the Star Tribune brought the bling to 425 Portland Avenue with a Hollywood-style extravaganza that celebrated the unveiling of its state-of-the art editorial and printing facility.

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Postcard showing the Star and Tribune Plant, c. 1949. Special Collections Department of the Minneapolis Central Library.

This comic, which offered a graphic tour of “Newspaperland,” was produced for the event.

A trip through “Newspaperland,” 1949. Courtesy of the Star Tribune Company.

And readers were invited to star gaze at visiting celebrities. Legendary boxer Jack Dempsey, singing cowboy Gene Autry and the Swedish ambassador all came to town for the fun.

None of that glamour is in evidence today as the publication prepares to vacate what is now an obsolete building. At the end of this week, newspaper staff will move to new offices in the center of downtown. By this summer, 425 Portland Avenue will be demolished to make way for the Downtown East development surrounding the new Vikings stadium.

Sixty-six years ago, spotlights drew visitors downtown to participate in its lavish tribute to a “newspaper in a free society.” They enjoyed a “Cavalcade” and a “Parade of Champions.” They cheered the return of paper carrier Donald Olson, who delivered the Sunday newspaper to 14 countries “round the world.”

This was the hey-day of print journalism, when the Cowles media conglomerate enjoyed a near newspaper monopoly in the upper Midwest.

Editor or reporter at the Star Tribune c. 1947. From the Minnesota Historical Society.

Today, those hoping to catch a last glimpse of the storied newsroom are greeted by a fleet of recycling bins. A massive purge is underway. Sixty years of accumulated paper must be culled to fit into a manageable number of moving cartons.

As with any move, some decisions were easy. But others were wrenching. One dilemma was the subterranean “clip room.”

Back in the day, “clip files” were central to all serious news operations. A staff of scissors-wielding librarians made these files into the repositories of institutional memory. The newspaper was dissected each morning; each article was clipped and sorted into topic files. On any given day, the topics were diverse: Squirrels; Spring; Sixth Amendment; Quality of Life; Pornography;  U.S. Foreign Policy–Palestine. Every person and every business mentioned in the newspaper had a file. Each envelope  contained everything published on a given subject from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Clip files from the Star Tribune, 2015.


For decades, the clip files were the first stop for a reporter starting a new story. This routine began to change in the 1980s. Searchable databases came into use; but they were of limited value for years since they never went back that far. Which meant that most reporters continued to trek to the clip room for background on big stories.

But as the digital archive grew, the clip room diminished in importance. And then–like the train tracks that used to transport huge rolls of paper through the basement of 425 Portland–it became a vestige from an earlier era of journalism. Only the most historically-curious journalists regularly took the elevator to the basement to rummage through these files, which were stuffed full of crumbling newsprint articles.

For most daily journalists today, anything before 1990 is ancient history. So the announcement that the clip room would not make the trip when the newsroom changed venues was no surprise.

The clip files were peripheral to the daily operations of the newspaper. But they still hold tremendous value for researchers interested in the past. So Star Tribune librarians Sandy Date and John Wareham contacted Ted Hathaway and Bailey Diers at the Minneapolis History Collection at the Hennepin County Library. The newspaper worked with the library to craft a legal agreement for the transfer of the material. A little more than three weeks ago the librarians organized a team (which included me) that tackled the Herculean task of selecting files relevant to the history of Minneapolis. After packing them into boxes, they returned several days later with a truck to transport them across downtown.

Today this material has a new home in the Special Collections Department of the Minneapolis Central Library where they are available to the public. Thanks to the Star Tribune and these civic-minded librarians, this legacy from the golden age of print journalism has been preserved. This corporate asset has become a community resource. Anyone can now make use of the material that informed generations of journalists and reflected countless hours of clipping and classification.

So if the demolition of 425 Portland Avenue makes you feel nostalgic, treat yourself to a visit to the Minneapolis History Collection. The end of the Portland Avenue era for the Star Tribune has created a valuable source for those interested in exploring the past as it was shown in the pages of the daily newspaper.

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Ferris Alexander and his “empire of smut”

Published March 10, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Between 1970 and 1990, local businessman Ferris Alexander confounded city leaders, enraged neighborhood activists and infuriated feminist anti-pornography activists in Minneapolis. Alexander built a chain of movie houses and bookstores that specialized in pornographic materials, profiting from a burgeoning desire for semi-public sexual explorations. For two decades he monopolized the sale of pornography in Minnesota, seizing the opportunity created by the loosening of obscenity regulations. In this hour-long podcast, Historyapolis blogger Kevin Ehrman-Solberg narrates the story of the man who ruled an “empire of smut” in Minnesota until the rise of home video recorders made these venues obsolete. It’s a rags to riches story with surprising twists and turns, unexpected alliances and lessons that policymakers and activists are still absorbing.



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When Olson Memorial Highway had pedestrians

Published March 9, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Planners and policymaker have recently condemned Floyd Olson Memorial Highway for being hostile to foot traffic and bikers. This photo shows the old Sixth Avenue North on this day in 1936, before it was widened and renamed for the radical governor who died that same year. Much to the chagrin of city officials at that time, the street had a lively pedestrian culture. The Spokesman newspaper compared the street to Beale Street in Memphis or Lennox Avenue in New York.  “The most famous corner on Sixth Avenue North is the Lyndale Avenue corner where for years the colored people of that section have congregated,” the African-American publication asserted in 1937. This made “a street which was highly reminiscent of parts further south.”

Photo is from the Minneapolis City Archives and shows Lyndale Avenue on March 9, 1936. Text is from Minneapolis Spokesman, September 10, 1937.

Lease for Dupont Court Apartments, 1939.

“Gentiles Only”

Published March 6, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In the spring of 1942, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune published a rental advertisement for a duplex on 34th and Holmes Avenue South. The opportunity to inhabit the elegant Tudor-style building two blocks from Lake Calhoun would have been attractive, especially in light of the wartime housing shortage. At first glance the rental notice seems formulaic: “May 1st occupancy. No children. Rent $95. Shown by appointment only.”  Yet one of its provisions jars modern readers: “Gentiles only.”

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Rental Advertisement from the Minneapolis Morning Tribune March, 1942.


This advertisement appeared five years before journalist Carey McWilliams named Minneapolis “the capitol of anti-Semitism in the United States.” In 1947, the radical journalist distilled years of commentary on the city into a pithy article in Common Ground that drew on the imagery of totalitarianism made famous by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “In almost every walk of life,” McWilliams wrote, “‘an iron curtain’ separates Jews from non-Jews in Minneapolis.” McWilliams declared: “Minneapolis is the only city in America in which Jews are, as a matter of practice and custom, ineligible for membership in the service clubs. . .Even the Automobile Club in Minneapolis refuses to accept Jews as members.”

McWilliams’ devastating description rocked the city, helping to spark a community-wide effort to remake race relations in the city during the latter half of the 1940s. But he was hardly the first outside observer to level these kinds of accusations. In 1943–one year after this ad was published–journalist Selden Menefee visited the Mill City while gathering material for a book about the American people during wartime. He was shocked by the city’s hostility to Jews. “Anti-Semitism is stronger here than anywhere I have ever lived,” one professional man told him. “It’s so strong that people of all groups I have met make the most blatant statements against Jews with the calm assumption that they are merely stating facts with which anyone could agree. ”

Commentators speculated on the origins of this prejudice, settling on another set of ethnic stereotypes for explanation. They blamed Scandinavian “clannishness”; Lutheran hostility toward other religions; and Yankee “aloofness.” They singled out the city’s trade unions for racism. They decried the influence of evangelicals like William B. Riley and Luke Rader, who mixed biblical prophecy with anti-Semitic bile.

Religious intolerance in the isolated “Gateway to the Northwest” would probably never drawn national attention without the efforts of local Jews, who organized in 1938 to fight a rising tide of anti-Semitism. Jews had long been scapegoats. But the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitic totalitarianism re-cast this rhetoric. In the wake of a bitter election campaign that turned on anti-Semitic propaganda, Mill City Jews concluded that countering these prejudices was a matter of survival.

Out of this resolution grew the Jewish Council of Minnesota, which appointed Samuel Scheiner as its first director. Charged with documenting incidents of anti-Semitism, Scheiner crusaded against bigotry in the community for three decades. He fought many battles on the terrain of property and real estate, where racism was firmly institutionalized.

On April 2, Scheiner typed a shockingly conciliatory protest to John Turber, the owner of the Holmes Avenue property.  He opened by acknowledging that the landlord had broken no laws. “The owner of any real estate has the absolute right to select his tenants on the basis of congeniality and ability to get along with other tenants in the building,” Scheiner conceded. But “we believe that where a real estate owner draws the line of discrimination, such feelings should not be expressed by way of an open want-ad, for it serves to stigmatize as socially inferior or undesirable a whole group of American citizens.”

Scheiner allowed that there were ” unworthy Jews and vulgar Jews” and that attempts ” to mix Jewish and non-Jewish tenants sometimes reacts to the detriment of the person owning the property.” But he appealed to Tuber’s patriotism. “We all have a job to do in educating our fellow citizens,” he declared. These practices signify “the beginning of a trend toward totalitarianism, which I am sure you abhor equally as much as we.”

Scheiner closed by acknowledging that Turber might remain determined to “keep people of our faith out of your building.” But he implored him to “exercise your policy of discrimination in a discrete and unpublicized manner. I am sure that you will find many ways to keep from renting your premises to people of our faith without the necessity of advertising the same so openly.”

Scheiner reported that Turner withdrew his advertisement. Perhaps the landlord had secured a tenant who met his criteria. But even if Turner had recanted his prejudice, the retraction of this ad would have been a minor victory in a long-running battle for tolerance.

Ads like these were only one weapon in the arsenal of anti-Semites. Jews were barred from living in South Minneapolis by  property managers who denied their rental applications; real estate agents who turned away their purchase offers;  neighborhood organizers who wrote restrictive covenants into property records; and landlords who penned their  prejudices into leases like this one:


Lease for Dupont Court Apartments, 1939.

Lease for Dupont Court Apartments, 1939.


This rental agreement for the “Dupont Court” Apartments on 1101 West 28th Street stipulates that the floors will be washed, the bedroom walls papered and a deposit paid for each key. It forbids the tenant from hanging wash from the balcony. And finally, it makes two declarations. First: “the makers and signers of this lease are of Arayan descent.” And second, the tenant was prohibited from subletting “this apartment to anyone of Semitic descent.”

Images and correspondence are from the Council Records of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota at the Minnesota Historical Society.


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