LOC Gateway fountain image, Lee, 1937, 8b36603v

Looking for the lost Gateway District of Minneapolis

Published June 1, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

On Saturday morning, Historyapolis will again team up with James Eli Shiffer to lead a Preserve Minneapolis tour of the lost Gateway district of Minneapolis. This will be our third year doing the tour, which poses some challenges since we have to re-create a world that no longer exists. To be successful, this expedition into the past demands the active participation of tour-goers, who have to make heavy use of their historical imaginations. If you’re willing to do some work and some walking, click on this link and join us for the fun.

For some people at least, the effort is worthwhile. This lost world holds riches for anyone interested in understanding the city in all of its seamy complexity.

The infamous Gateway, which became the region’s largest skid row around World War I, began to disappear under the bulldozers in 1959. That was the year the city launched its massive, federally-funded effort to redevelop downtown. When the dust settled, the city had flattened 40 percent of the central business district. City planners envisioned a futuristic cluster of skyscrapers rising from the rubble.

mpls_hra_081950_200, photo of Rod Engelen, Gateway model

Rod Engelen and other Minneapolis city planners. From the personal collection of Derek Engelen.


Some new, modern buildings did appear, like this structure constructed by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance company. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also was the architect of the World Trade Center in New York City, it was the pride and joy of the city’s urban planners.

Northwestern Mutural life insurance building, gateway, CPED collection

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Building, CPED collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.


But the clear-cut area was dominated by surface parking lots which are only now starting to be developed, more than 50 years after the wrecking balls did their work.

Before it was flattened, the district was known for everything that city boosters hated. Minneapolis was built on a river and tied to  the power of water. But its founders imagined it as a “city on a hill”: a model metropolis with no urban problems. This civic ideal persisted, despite the regular intrusion of reality. But it was the Gateway–perhaps more than anything else –that constantly challenged the city’s claim to be an urban paragon.

In the historic heart of the city, the alcohol flowed freely, the idlers wiled away their days in the park and on the sidewalks; the prostitutes were brazen; men sought sexual encounters with other men; the buildings were dilapidated and vermin-ridden; the communists and Wobblies called for the overthrow of capitalism and the American political system. Its flophouses sheltered people not welcome elsewhere. In these squalid conditions, a community took shape that included exhausted lumberjacks and harvest hands; alcoholics wanting to drink out their last years in peace; Chinese men seeking respite from West Coast racial violence; Native Americans looking for anonymity in the big city.

HG4 1 r6

Radical speakers in Gateway Park. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.


During the Great Depression, the district drew journalists and photographers who wanted to document the human suffering of the economic crisis. Photographers from the Farm Security Administration–like Russell Lee who shot the image of men in Gateway Park that is featured at the top of this post–immortalized Gateway denizens as the urban counterparts to Dorothea Lange’s migrant workers. And when a reporter from Fortune magazine visited the city in 1936 to investigate the origins of the Truckers’ Strike, which had been organized by Trotskyites but supported by thousands of working-class Minneapolitans, he concluded it was from the Gateway that “the revolution” so feared by many Americans “would come.”

smaller version, bemelmas image of gateway, fortune magazine 1936

The Gateway distilled the city’s social problems, concentrating them in a few overcrowded blocks that offered adventure, oblivion and community. Here was everything the city wanted to hide. Which is why a close examination of this one neighborhood reveals so much about Minneapolis.

It is this symbolic power of the Gateway that fascinates me. But for James, it is the culture and stories of Skid Row that draws him to this lost world. He has just completed a new history of the Gateway–which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press–that uses vivid storytelling and description to transport readers to this world in its twilight moments. The narrative centers on the life of John Bacich, aka Johnny Rex, the self-appointed “King” of Skid Row.  Bacich owned a bar and liquor store and flophouse in the Gateway. He also had a documentary impulse and shot home movies of these venues right before they were demolished. This footage was incorporated into a 1998 TPT documentary which James happened upon several years ago. Inspired to track down Bacich, James spent three years interviewing him before his death in 2012.

Beyond the Bacich footage, there is rich visual documentation of the Gateway, which has attracted generations of artists, documentarians and city planners. Over the course of the week to come, I’ll share some of my favorite of these images, which never fail to transport me to world that is utterly foreign to modern Minneapolitans.

Memorial Day parade, 1935, side 1

Memorial Day, 1935: The March Against “War and Fascism”

Published May 26, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

Memorial Day Parade, 1935. The Minneapolis Times reported that “University Coeds, housewives, war veterans, ‘young workers’ and children” were organized by the Hennepin County Youth Congress to march against “war and fascism” on May 31st, 1935. This photo from the uncatalogued morgue newspaper files at the Hennepin County Special Collections shows their parade downtown.

This photo illuminates the moment in Minneapolis when support for radical politics was probably at its apex. One year after the the Teamsters’ victory against the repressive Citizens’ Alliance, when the city and the nation were still mired in the economic disaster of the Great Depression.

Memorial Day was not the traditional day for radical-inspired parades. But with the world economy still in free fall and millions of Americans still unemployed, many Minneapolitans were restive and eager to show their support for alternative forms of social organization. The city was known as a stronghold for radical political activism in these years, especially its Trotskyites, known nationally for their leadership of the city’s Teamsters’ Union. When a reporter from Fortune Magazine visited the city in 1936, he concluded that “the Revolution may come from the Minneapolis Gateway District.”

Thanks to citizen-researcher Rita Yeada, who identified and digitized this photo.

smaller version, seven corners comm study map 1917, nationalities, library

“Variety is one thing we do not lack”: Seven Corners in 1917

Published January 13, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. This map of the Seven Corners neighborhood was created in 1917 by Minneapolis librarian Josephine M. McPike, who had been directed by her superiors to do a community study of the neighborhood surrounding her reading room at 300 Fifteenth Avenue South. In a style familiar to fans of Calvin Schmid–who twenty years later would create hundreds of these types of maps of the Twin Citie…s for the statistical tome titled Social Saga of Two Cities –McPike used this map to illuminate residential patterns in the Sixth Ward, which was one of the most densely populated and diverse in the city.
The map was part of a larger report compiled by McPike, who was trying to ascertain “the needs of the neighborhood, and to what extend and how well we are meeting them.” But there was nothing perfunctory about her report, which included information gleaned from “newsboys, grocers, readers coming to the library, chance acquaintances.” She used “all excuses, such as overdue books, etc, visits to children’s parents on some pretext” in order “to gain the confidence of the residents and find out as much as possible of the district.”
Her seemingly benign mission met roadblocks at every turn since the “foreigner who has little knowledge of English and of American ways” is usually “unduly suspicious and sometimes hostile.” McPike reported being accosted by residents with shouts of ” ‘Spotter’, ‘Spy’, and ‘Detective’!”
The cheerful neighborhood librarian was undoubtedly viewed by residents of the immigrant neighborhood as an agent of the new Minnesota Commission of Public Safety. Organized on April 16, 1917, days after the United States entered World War I, the Commission was charged with maximizing the war effort on the home front. According to the Commission, Home Defense meant the persecution of labor radicals and immigrants. “It goes without saying that a state which has the right to use its strength to crush its foreign enemies can also protect itself against those at home whose behavior tends to weaken its war capacity,” the Commission explained.
It would have been the residents of Seven Corners–McPike’s neighborhood-who would have come under the greatest scrutiny. Controlled by  Socialists, it was one of the most diverse in the city. “In the immediate block of which Seven Corners Branch is a part, there are congregated three Scandinavian families four Jewish ones, two Bohemian, four negro, one Indian and one Roumanian family,” McPike explained.  “On the corner a Scandinavian Lutheran church holds services, and each Friday night at sundown the Orthodox Jewish church next door chants its rituals into our library windows. Variety is one thing we do not lack.”
Map is from the 1917 Seven Corners Library Community Study, Seven corners branch, branch library collection, Hennepin County Central Library. My thanks to historian Andy Wilhide, who first showed me this collection.