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Gateway District (“Skid Row”), Minneapolis

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Street view of Washington Avenue

Street view of Washington Avenue, Minneapolis, 1960s. Pictured are the Beacon Hotel (40 Washington Avenue South), the Gay Nineties Tavern, and the Body Loan Office (42 Washington Avenue South).

The Gateway District was Minneapolis’s original downtown, where life revolved around mills and railroads. As aging buildings became boarding houses for the thousands of temporary workers who spent their off-seasons in Minneapolis, the neighborhood gained a seedy reputation and the nickname “Skid Row.” The twenty-five-block zone was targeted for decades by mission workers, city planners, and police as a hub of vice and firetrap buildings, but the redevelopment of the area failed to mitigate postwar urban decline.

Minneapolis’s transition from town to city was fueled by the Mississippi River and seasonal workers. Lumberjacks floated old-growth timber down the river each spring for milling. In the summer and fall, wheat was brought to the city on tracks built and maintained by railroad workers known as “gandy dancers.” When Minneapolis’s downtown shifted away from the river, dozens of offices and homes between First and Fifth Avenues were converted into inexpensive boarding houses for these workers.

Originally known as Bridge Square, the twenty-five-block area was home to hundreds of small business owners, including grocers, lawyers, and barbers. It was better known, however, as one of the only places in Minneapolis to buy a drink legally for decades. Reasoning that law enforcement would be easier and neighborhoods safer if saloons were confined to one district, the city council passed ordinances in 1884 making it difficult to open a saloon anywhere but in the immigrant neighborhoods along the riverside. Ironically, this turned Minneapolis’s old downtown into a de-facto “vice” district—known as “Skid Row” by the 1920s—where seasonal workers and permanent Minneapolitans alike came for liquor, gambling, and prostitution. By 1902, there were more than 100 saloons on Washington Avenue alone.

By World War I, the neighborhood had transformed from a mixed-income community of immigrant families to one of predominantly young and single transient men who defied “Yankee” attitudes for proper living. In the 1910s, city planners attempted to rebrand Skid Row as the “Gateway” to Minneapolis by razing four blocks of lodging, building a Neoclassical-inspired park, and banning women from boarding houses. In hopes of curbing prostitution, churches and women’s groups built hotels and boarding houses for the single women who worked at downtown hospitals, factories, and private homes. In spite of these efforts and Prohibition, the neighborhood remained an inexpensive haven for Midwestern seasonal workers and Minneapolis nightlife.

Industry changes and the Great Depression ended this boom. As mechanization displaced farmhands and railroad workers, forest depletion and chainsaws made many loggers “redundant.” Flour mills moved operations to Buffalo, New York, leaving hundreds of millers out of work.

Faced with greater competition for work during the Depression, many of the same men who had built Minneapolis into a metropolis were now “marooned” on Skid Row. It became a de facto low-income retirement community for pensioners and the chronically unemployed. Better-off Minneapolitans still frequented Skid Row’s bars--the Persian Palms and Great Lakes Bar were especially popular—but warned their children that they would end up “on the skids” if they didn’t stay in school.

In the post-war era, Minneapolis planners and civic organizations grew concerned about declining population growth and property values as white residents and corporate offices moved in droves to the suburbs. Many blamed Skid Row for this shift; most of its residents were unemployed, unmarried, and on public benefits. They made up 44 percent of total arrests in Minneapolis, most for public drunkenness. Most buildings were not up to fire and sanitation code. Establishments like the Persian Palms, Dugout Bar, and Herb’s were refuges for the Twin Cities’ LGBTQ community. Many bars paid corrupt police and aldermen to ignore sex workers, sports betting, and regular closing times. Because of this relative openness to bribery, raids on gay bars were rare in the Gateway District, as in the rest of Minneapolis.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 gave planners the excuse they had been looking for to deal with Skid Row while luring commuters back to Minneapolis with expressways and parking. The city council unanimously voted in favor of a federally funded plan to completely raze the area, and demolition began in 1958.

The brownstone Metropolitan Building (308 2nd Avenue South) was Minneapolis’s first skyscraper and is considered the greatest architectural loss of the more than 200 structures demolished. The most notable structures to come of the new development were the Northwest National Life and 100 Washington Square office buildings, both designed in the New Formalist style by Minoru Yamasaki. Nevertheless, the Gateway District was denigrated for years as a sea of parking lots and generic government buildings built without much concern for pedestrians.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Atkins, Annette. “At Home in the Heart of the City.” Minnesota History 58, nos. 5–6 (Spring/summer 2003): 286–304.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/58/v58i05-06p286-304.pdf

“Gaming Case Suspect Held.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 26, 1952.

Hart, Joseph. “Room at the Bottom.” City Pages, May 6, 1998.
https://web.archive.org/web/20100312080246/http://www.citypages.com/1998-05-06/news/room-at-the-bottom/8

Hart, Joseph, and Edwin C. Hirschoff. Down & Out: the Life and Death of Minneapolis’s Skid Row. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Hathaway, James T. The Liquor Patrol Limits of Minneapolis. 1985.

Murphy, Kevin. Queer Twin Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Nelson, Rick. “They Paved Paradise.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 10, 2011.

Shiffer, James Eli. The King of Skid Row : John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

“Shown No Mercy: Police Arresting Every Drunken Man and Suspicious Person.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 18, 1897.

Wallace, Samuel E. Skid Row as a Way of Life. Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press, 1965.

Related Images

Street view of Washington Avenue
Street view of Washington Avenue
Bridge Square, 1886
Bridge Square, 1886
Laborers standing outside the Employment Bureau, 1908
Laborers standing outside the Employment Bureau, 1908
Gateway Park, 1927
Gateway Park, 1927
Putting up a Christmas Tree in Gateway Park, 1931
Putting up a Christmas Tree in Gateway Park, 1931
Christmas Service at Gateway Gospel Mission, 1940.
Christmas Service at Gateway Gospel Mission, 1940.
Brody Loan Company storefront, 1950s
Brody Loan Company storefront, 1950s
Unnamed man on the corner of Washington Avenue
Unnamed man on the corner of Washington Avenue
Bar scene at the Valhalla Café
Bar scene at the Valhalla Café
Diner side of Valhalla Café
Diner side of Valhalla Café
Cars in the parking lot of the Valhalla Café
Cars in the parking lot of the Valhalla Café
Pioneer Hotel Lobby
Pioneer Hotel Lobby
Hallway of Pioneer Hotel
Hallway of Pioneer Hotel
Lived-in room at the Pioneer Hotel
Lived-in room at the Pioneer Hotel
Pioneer Hotel bathroom
Pioneer Hotel bathroom
Bottle dump in the basement of the Pioneer Hotel
Bottle dump in the basement of the Pioneer Hotel
“Cage Rooms” at the Standard Hotel
“Cage Rooms” at the Standard Hotel
California Wine Shop interior
California Wine Shop interior
Gutted interior of the Great Lakes Bar
Gutted interior of the Great Lakes Bar
Interior of the Corner Grocery
Interior of the Corner Grocery
Interior of the Stockholm Bar
Interior of the Stockholm Bar
Coatroom at the Beaufort Hotel
Coatroom at the Beaufort Hotel
Persian Palms Nightclub
Persian Palms Nightclub

Turning Point

The Minneapolis City Council passes an ordinance in 1884 to limit saloon licenses on the “West Bank” to areas roughly equivalent to the Gateway District and Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, ironically hastening the old downtown’s transition from a mixed-income immigrant family neighborhood into a concentrated hub of flophouses and saloons.

Chronology

1884

Frustrated by the proliferation of saloons—licensed and unlicensed—Minneapolis’s city council passes an ordinance relegating alcohol sales to a corridor along the Mississippi. The number of licensed saloons in the city drops from 523 to 236.

1897

A Minneapolis Tribune article titled “Shown No Mercy” records more than 100 arrests in a week near Bridge Square, writing that the neighborhood was "unsafe for a woman to attempt to cross the bridge on foot.”

1902

There are more than 100 saloons on Washington Avenue alone. Well into the twentieth century, saloons served as informal banks, post offices, and job placement centers for seasonal workers.

1910

More than 40,000 seasonal workers pass through Minneapolis.

1917

Minneapolis Mayor Thomas Van Lear beefs up police “morals squads,” targeting prostitution, unlicensed bars, and gambling.

1918

A city ordinance prohibits the construction of new “cage hotels,” buildings that had been subdivided into plywood rooms just large enough for a bed and dresser, with only chicken wire covering the ceiling to keep would-be thieves out.

1930s

A cigar shop on South Fourth and Hennepin operates as a phone hub for Leo Hirschfield’s “Minneapolis Line,” where “bookies” across America sought spreads and odds. Leo’s business lasted into the sixties; the shop owner was arrested for tax evasion in 1952

1955

The Gateway District is home to eighty wholesaler companies, forty factories, 350 service businesses, and two dozen club headquarters.

Late 1950s

Eccentric bar owner Johnny Rex begins filming the gritty lives of his patrons on Washington and Hennepin Avenues, providing a detailed, albeit unethical, source of information on the last years of Skid Row before demolition.

1965

The Northwestern Life Building, informally known as the “Temple of Insurance,” is finished on the former site of Gateway Park, serving as the focal endpoint of the Nicollet Mall. Its designer, Miruno Yamasaki, later designed New York’s World Trade Center.

1960s

Construction contracts with Knutson Contracting fall through, leaving many properties intended for condominiums to serve as surface parking lots for decades.

2018

The Minneapolis 2040 plan zones most of Gateway for high-rise offices and apartments with a stress on mass transit accessibility.