When Cedar-Riverside was “Snusgatan”
Minneapolitans love to reminisce about the counterculture years of the West Bank/Cedar Riverside neighborhood. But for most of the neighborhood’s history, small immigrant businesses like the Otanga grocery store–which was destroyed in yesterday’s fire–have dominated the commercial landscape. Here we have a photo from the 1890s that shows Charles Samuelson standing in front of his store in Seven Corners. The sign at the front reads: “Har Talas Svenska” (Swedish spoken here) and “Alla Slags Skadinaviska Tidningar Till Salu Har” (All types of Scandinavian Newspapers for sale here). Samuelson was obviously catering to the residents of the immigrant-dominated neighborhood. In addition to newspapers, he stocked tobacco, candy, fruit and sodas in his store at the corner of Cedar and Washington Avenues.
“Snusgatan” or Cedar Riverside was the commercial center of the Scandinavian immigrant community at the turn of the twentieth century. New arrivals settled in boarding houses in the neighborhood, patronizing stores like Samuelson’s, where they were not expected to have a mastery of English. The neighborhood stood in close proximity to the city’s industrial zone, making it easy for new immigrants to walk to jobs in the mills. And after work, new arrivals could socialize in the neighborhood’s myriad dance halls, saloons, theaters and meeting halls. “Att ga pa Cedar” (to walk on Cedar) became shorthand for “to get drunk.” As immigrants started families and became more established, they tried to move out of the neighborhood. Scandinavians usually aspired to move into South Minneapolis, where they built large neighborhoods of working-class homes.
I’m guessing that both Charles Samuelson and the owners of the popular Otanga Grocery would have been equally perplexed by the media antics of the Electric Fetus music store, which staged a “naked sale” in 1972.
Photo is from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.
It’s map Monday. This map shows the Bohemian Flats in 1904, another lost world that is invisible to modern Minneapolitans. An ethnically-mixed enclave on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Bohemian Flats was a neighborhood of small houses and shanties constructed by new immigrants who were either unwilling or unable to pay the urban rents demanded in the rest of the city. Underneath the Washington Avenue bridge, down a wooden staircase from Seven Corners and Cedar-Riverside, these newcomers built a world that was removed from the rest of the city. Each morning, the male inhabitants of this neighborhood climbed up the cliff to work as day laborers or in a nearby lumber and flour mills. During the day these low-lying flats by the river were the territory of immigrant women and young children, who helped to support their families by scavenging wood, construction materials and other debris from the river. Residents supplemented scant wages with ambitious vegetable gardens that were nourished by annual floods that inundated the neighborhood.
The Bohemian Flats were described –with great nostalgia –in a slim volume put out by the Writers’ Program of the New Deal Era Works Progress Administration. This account casts the neighborhood on the flood plain as a “happy, peaceful society united by generous neighborliness and . . colorful rites and customs.” Upon publication, this characterization drew criticism from one Bessie Douglas, who had worked in the Flats as a Sunday school teacher for Westminster Presbyterian Church in the 1880s. Douglas presented a grittier vision of the Flats, describing how she could not visit her students without a male escort and police protection. The neighborhood was hardly idyllic as drunken fights and knifings were common among the residents, who included large numbers of prostitutes and alcoholics. Annual floods of the settlement prompted the city to clear the area of homes in the 1920s, prompted residents to riot. By the 1930s-when the work was being done on the WPA history of the Flats–most of the homes were gone and a barge landing had been constructed where the neighborhood once stood. Most recently, the site of the old Bohemian Flats was the depository for the wreckage from the collapsed 35W bridge. This map is taken from the WPA history of the Bohemian Flats, which was first published in 1941 by the University of Minnesota Press.