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.

pioneerhotel3

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.

pioneerhotelcardplayers

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.

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.

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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.

Skol liquors, Cedar Riverside, City Archive, Between 3rd and 4th streets, skol liquor, raw beef

When Churches become Billboards, Storefronts become Chapels

Published September 30, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

City planners considered Cedar Riverside “blighted” by the 1940s. While it escaped the wholesale demolition visited on the Gateway and the near North Side, this area would undergo a massive transformation in the 1950s thanks to declining immigration and an expanding University of Minnesota. The arrival of the modern freeway system sliced this enclave of immigrant businesses and bars into urban islands, cut off from downtown by fast-flowing rivers of cars.

In this transformed urban environment, buildings once central to community life were stripped of their earlier meanings. Houses of worship like the one pictured here–whether church or synagogue–were robbed of their earlier meaning as congregations dwindled and died. Once sacred walls broadcast new messages. Visit South Side Junk Yard. Dial R-A-W-B-E-E-F for home liquor delivery.

While churches became billboards, once-thriving neighborhood commercial establishments were transformed into new sites for worship.This neighborhood store at 6th and 16th Avenues advertised itself as an “Interdenominational Gospel Chapel” with daily services at 8pm.

Gospel Chapell, SE Corner 6th St and 16th Ave Opposite Cedar-Hi012, city archives, cedar riverside

Shoppers can still dial R-A.W-B-E-E-F (729-2333) for “fast and friendly service” at Skol Liquors, which remains in business at the corner of 27th Avenue South and East 25th Street, an area once known as the “Hub of Hell.”

Photos are from the city planning photo collection at the Tower Archives, Minneapolis City Hall. Thanks to data manager Bob McCune, Historyapolis intern Anna Romskog and citizen-researcher Rita Yeada for making these images accessible.

smaller version, M0807, milwaukee avenue photo, from hclib

Another battle in Seward, this time with no shooting

Published September 12, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

You can live in south Minneapolis your entire life and never stumble across the nineteenth century enclave that is Milwaukee Avenue, a two block development wedged between 22nd and 23rd avenues off Franklin Avenue in the Seward neighborhood. This pedestrian street–lined on either side by brick cottages fronted with gingerbread porches– transports visitors to another place and time.

These blocks were developed in the 1880s by local real estate agent William Ragan, who hoped to profit from the city’s exponential growth. He constructed the small houses to provide cheap, temporary homes for new immigrants from Scandinavia, who mostly worked in the nearby Milwaukee Railroad shops and yards. He squeezed as many structures as possible on to the narrow street, which had been originally platted as an alley. An ethnic community took shape around Ragan’s development but in these early decades no one stayed too long.

The homes were not built for the ages and they were neglected through the Depression and World War II. By 1959 the city declared its intention to see these dilapidated structures razed, pointing to the fact that at least some of them lacked indoor plumbing. But as the city sought to obtain the funds for this ambitious redevelopment plan, the neighborhood changed. And by the 1970s, Seward was home to many seasoned activists, who decided to band together to stop the destruction of this historic streetscape.

In 1974, neighborhood activists worked with the Minnesota Historical Society to get the district of workers’ homes placed on the National Register, forestalling demolition. Over the decade that followed, residents sought to preserve the street but upgrade the homes for modern families. William Rogan would likely not recognize the idyllic street today, a leafy enclave surrounded by busy thoroughfares on all sides.

In a new book–Milwaukee Avenue: Community Renewal in Minneapolis–Bob Roscoe tells the story of this campaign from his perspective as a local activist. To hear more, visit the Hennepin History Museum this Sunday at 2pm. The Museum is hosting a fireside chat and book signing with Roscoe.

 

 

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

Images from Oak Lake Park

Published April 8, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

Yesterday I wrote about the lost neighborhood of Oak Lake Park and the unexplored terrain of the Minneapolis City Archives. In my first foray into the city’s attic, as I have come to think of it, I discovered a thick scrapbook of photos collection by an employee in the city planning department. It contains snapshots from all the redevelopment projects undertaken in the 1930s, when the city launched what would stretch into a three decade campaign to eliminate “blight” from the community. The Near North Side–Oak Lake Park and the area that would become Sumner Field Homes– was the first target of this effort. The most racially mixed corner of the city at the time, this area of once-spectacular Victorian homes had deteriorated into what observers of the time viewed as an intolerable slum.

oak lake park, family on stoop, 1936, from city archives

Family on stoop, Oak Lake Park, 1936.

The corner of Sixth and Lyndale evolved from a Jewish commercial district at the beginning of the twentieth century to a commercial center for new African American migrants to the city by the 1920s. By the time Gordon Parks was playing the piano along the Avenue, this neighborhood was a rough area, known for its tippling houses, pool halls, brothels, poor sanitation services and crime.  It’s been described in vivid terms by Parks, journalist Harrison Salisbury, activist Nelson Peery and social investigators who were horrified by the vice and filth they encountered. But it was the subject of little photography. Which is what makes this set of photographs invaluable. Right before the bulldozers moved in, this city employee documented Oak Lake Park in its twilight moments and then collected the images into a brag book that contains hundreds of black-and-white snapshots.