Mention the Gateway District to anyone in Minneapolis who has even a passing knowledge of urban history and you’re likely to hear a sigh of regret over a lost urban world.
Although many sections of Minneapolis were remade in the decades after World War II, it’s the loss of the Gateway — a colorful, skid-row district wiped out in the early 1960s — that still seems to haunt our civic memory.
At least a half-dozen books have already been written about the Gateway and I’ll be adding one of my own next year in the form of a history of the late, great Metropolitan Building. The Met was the most infamous casualty of the Gateway Center Urban Renewal project, which resulted in the demolition of nearly 200 historic buildings spread across all or parts of 22 downtown blocks.
It’s easy now to criticize the project, which in effect destroyed the city’s “old town” and replaced it with a collection of modern buildings, the bulk of which could hardly be described as architectural marvels.
But as I delved into the history of the area while researching my book, it became clear that it would have been very difficult, within the context of the times, to have saved the Gateway. (The same, I might add, is not true of the Metropolitan Building, which could have been — and should have been — preserved.)
The proximate cause of the historic Gateway’s demise was quite simple: A huge pot of federal urban renewal money became available in the early 1950s. Cities could tap those funds for clearing away what was commonly called urban blight.
Minneapolis eagerly pursued those federal dollars because its civic leaders and its powerful downtown business community had long viewed the Gateway — with its jumble of bars, flophouses, missions and pawnshops — as a municipal embarrassment.
Other factors, including intense concern over the growing suburbs and their threat to downtown’s hegemony as a commercial center, further fueled the desire to wipe away the Gateway’s well-aged stock of mostly 19th-century buildings and replace them with (supposedly) more attractive modern structures.
It would be nice to think that the city, under wiser leadership, might have been able to approve a less drastic plan for the Gateway, one based on selected redevelopment rather than the outright destruction of so much of the district’s historic fabric. But at the time, that sort of renewal plan would have been highly unusual, if not unheard of. And there’s no indication the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which spearheaded the Gateway project, ever considered such an approach.
It’s also important to remember that when the Gateway Center plan was approved in 1958, no significant historic preservation apparatus existed in Minneapolis or most other American cities. The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, for example, wasn’t established until 1971, well after the Gateway had been cleared away.
Nor does it appear there was much general sentiment in Minneapolis in favor of leaving the Gateway as it was. The district, through which I passed almost every day in the early 1960s on my way to high school, was largely populated by people the public regarded as bums and drunkards, though in fact most were simply retired laborers struggling to get by on small pensions.
The City Council’s vote in favor of the Gateway Center project was unanimous, and newspaper accounts suggest there was no real controversy over the demolition plans. Instead, what debate there was focused on how and where to relocate the district’s residents.
To be sure, there was a long and hard-fought battle to save the Metropolitan Building. But it was a special case, a building that — had it been spared — would very probably be a National Historic Landmark today. The Gateway’s other old buildings, however, were not nearly as grand as the Met and their destruction failed to draw much attention.
The fact that so many of the Gateway’s buildings, some of which dated to the 1860s, survived as long as they did is actually quite amazing. St. Paul, for example, destroyed its old commercial core, along today’s Kellogg Boulevard, in the 1920s. By the time the wrecking crews got to the Gateway, the district had become a rare relic, one of the oldest and largest places of its kind left in any Midwestern city.
Could anything have saved the Gateway? Obviously, if federal urban renewal money had not been available, the area would have survived for a bit longer. Even so, I think the city would have found some other means to bulldoze much of the Gateway before the 1960s were over.
The few old downtown commercial districts that remain in American cities are usually the product of special circumstances.
New Orleans’ French Quarter is a classic example. It survives today primarily because of the work of a commission established in the 1920s by residents and business owners. In 1936, that commission secured state legislation to preserve the quarter. It also was able to halt a potentially disastrous scheme to build a high-speed expressway through the area in the 1960s.
But the Gateway offered no tourist attractions like Bourbon Street, nor was it especially beloved by the people of Minneapolis. Absent any special protection, its survival simply wasn’t in the cards as Minneapolis sought desperately to modernize itself.
Author and architecture critic Larry Millett can be reached at larrymillett.com.