Dec. 27, 1893: Down in Fish Alley

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • January 28, 2013 - 1:34 PM
Known as the “slum of all slums” in the city’s early days, Fish Alley was a crime-ridden warren of decrepit structures and narrow paths on the northeastern edge of downtown Minneapolis. The block was bounded by Washington Avenue, S. Third Street and what are now known as Park and Portland Avenues S. The crumbling “fish building” for which it was named was condemned as unsafe on May 2, 1906, and ground was broken for the J.I. Case warehouse a few weeks later. The Case building, about a block from the Metrodome, is now home to an Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant and other businesses.

Brace yourself, dear reader. The Tribune reporter did not paint a pretty picture of this blot on the city’s escutcheon.


Visit to a Place Which Frequently Figures in Police Annals – The Alley Is Not What It Used to be However, and Its Prestige as a Center of Criminality Is Gradually Being Lost – Sights and Scenes in Its Dark Recesses Which the General Public Little Dream of – The Day in Police Circles.
“Fish alley.”
Little that is pleasant can be said about it. Even the light of the universal festival just celebrated cannot penetrate those dingy rookeries to throw even a semblance of cheerfulness upon them. The usual pastime and even occupation of the inmates are cards and whisky, and petty crimes, and Christmas is usually celebrated by having a little more of these.
The place frequently figures in the annals of the police, and hardly ever comes to the surface in any other connection. Time was when crime of a more or less desperate nature was enacted in the place, or elsewhere by its boldest inmates, but whatever of the criminal element now found there is of the cheap, timid sort, and the people are utterly without stamina of any kind. Formerly the place swarmed with negroes, Chinese and low-down white trash, but the alley is now largely deserted. A few families are found there, but most of the population is composed of roomers, devotees of vice in various forms. The latest exploit was the enticing of a farmer into one of the upper rooms by a street siren whose alleged husband at the proper moment came rushing upon the scene. Hush money was of course demanded, and would no doubt have been paid had not Officer Conroy, on whose beat Fish alley is located, appeared to prevent the consummation of the crime. The woman was sent to the work house. Conroy has made it rather unpleasant for the criminal gentry, and more than 20 inmates have moved away since he began his duties there.
The place has its name from the fact that in early times a fish market was located there. The original building is still standing, a low, narrow structure, in the middle of the block between Seventh and Eighth avenues south. A narrow space separates it from the next building on the right, an alley just wide enough to permit a person to walk through to the rear. Here a concatenation of half-rotten stairs, galleries and doors lead to the rooms on the right and left and to the first and upper floors. Everything is in a condition of decay, corresponding well with the unwholesome moral and mental attributes of the denizens of the place. Many of the ground floor rooms fronting on Washington avenue are used for various sorts of business, meat markets, saloons, candy stores, second hand dealers, etc., and outward appearances are not so bad. But in the rear corruption and decay have full sway. The houses run into the ground here, and what is the second or third story in the front may be the first from the rear. The place swarms with rats. Dogs bark and growl as one threads his way carefully through the labyrinths, and the wails of children, or the carousal of debauchees fret the midnight air. Formerly it would have been a dangerous undertaking to go through the rookeries alone, but the danger is not great now. The surveillance of the police over the locality is so close that criminals find it but an insecure hiding place.
In its palmy days Fish alley was a city refuge for the criminal fleeing from justice. Negroes were then swarming in the block, and the razor artist who had carved a fellow citizen uptown would flee to the rookery and, sheltered by his friends, it was a difficult task to ferret him out.

Detail of C. Wright Davison's 1884 Pocket Map of Minneapolis shows the location of Fish Alley: Block 45, just south of the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway's "Car House."

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