You could call him Chester, the name most people know him by. Or call him Bruce, the name he gave a reporter recently as his given name. Or Charlie, the name he gave to an outreach worker.
Whatever you call him, Chester would just as soon you don’t come calling at the West Bank encampment that he’s called home for at least the past 14 years.
But Chester’s world is about to change. A new bike trail that’s expected to draw hundreds of riders daily is being built just feet from this urban squatter’s domain. A city rehab is scheduled for the bridge overhead that keeps the rain and prying eyes from his shed, his abandoned vehicles and the folk art that decorates his compound.
Yet Chester lived there through most of the nearby Interstate 35W bridge reconstruction, and steadfastly refuses to live anywhere that involves dealing with a landlord. He’s an outlier as the number of Minneapolitans living outside declines in response to concentrated efforts to end homelessness.
Chester and his companion, Marcia, survive partly on government benefits, partly by their wits, and partly because local residents and politicos keep an eye out for them.
Zev Radziwill, who lives in a condo next to Chester, remembers spotting him on the nearby University of Minnesota campus as far back as the early 1990s. Chester cuts a memorable profile, adorned one recent afternoon in his signature battered top hat with a seam split open, a dusty black velvet smoking jacket, turned-up black jeans and incongruous brown wing tips.
“He’s been here longer than most of us,” Radziwill said. Condo residents and others who know him say Chester keeps other vagrants from setting up camp in the bluff-top park, and chases away anyone who might be messing with parked cars.
At 62 with a bad hip, Chester is hardly an imposing figure. “That makes me vintage,” he said one recent spring afternoon. He survives on less than $400 a month from General Assistance and food stamps, plus whatever Marcia collects in tips playing the fiddle at venues like the Stone Arch Bridge. A good share of that goes to buy food for the offspring of a feral cat who chose his encampment as a place to have her litter.
But at least his rent is free. Chester’s private Hooverville sits amid a jumble of public and private ownership, and property maps put him either on a fragment of public right of way or a remnant of railroad land. A corduroyed path of railroad ties, sans rails, leads to the door of his shed, a relatively recent addition donated to his site by I-35W construction workers with access to a forklift. There’s a station wagon and the utility truck in which he used to sleep. Some of his chairs were salvaged from the renovation of a Seven Corners hotel. The site has been augmented with a series of outdoor rooms suitable for parlor sitting or dining. Hubcaps, bike rims and plastic flowers festoon the margins, along with fragments of crockery and plastic milk jugs.
“I can look out my window and see his place,” said condo resident Jerry Clark. “He is our watchdog.”
The area Chester inhabits was a coal gasification plant and a brewery in the old days. More recently, it’s been something of an overgrown no man’s land. It’s also sort of a political no man’s land where three wards come together. “There’s no way your GPS is going to get you there,” said park Commissioner Scott Vreeland — which makes it perfect for Chester, who grew up in rural Sherburne County and spent time in the hippie heaven of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury.
“He does not fit in normal society well in his ability to deal with folks, and he’s found a place to be the kind of person he is in an unfettered way,” Vreeland said. Or as Chester puts it, “I never bothered nobody.”
He says an officer comes by every so often to check on him, and the police attitude toward vagrant camps has mellowed. “We usually get the heads-up when they’re going to go out and clear out campsites,” said Joseph Desenclos, manager of a street outreach team for St. Stephen’s Human Services. “We talk to the people beforehand and they often clean up.”
Counts of people living outside in Hennepin County have fallen from a range of 350 to 500 four or five years ago to 150 to 200 now, said Mikkel Beckmen, director of the city-county effort to end homelessness. Hundreds of people have been moved into shelter tailored to their needs, whether mental heath or chemical dependency.
But that’s not for everyone. “If someone has untreated mental health issues, it could be traumatizing to go to Salvation Army and sleep on mats next to other people,” Desenclos said. The old approach of issuing tickets to vagrants often results in a bench warrant for an inability to pay a fine and incarceration, making it even more difficult to rent shelter, Beckmen said.
Chester lasts where he does partly because of the light-handed tolerance shown by his neighbors and people like area Council Member Cam Gordon. “He is a West Bank legend,” Gordon said, who tried to run interference for Chester during the I-35W bridge replacement. “I said, ‘Let’s not ruin Chester’s life.’ ”