The thousands of people settling in downtown Minneapolis these days may feel like pioneers, as they move into converted warehouses and industrial-chic apartment buildings rising from former parking lots. They’re welcomed with coffee shops and taprooms and gourmet grocery stores and boutiques selling $200 jeans.
But there was a time, not long ago, when the city had plenty of people living downtown, and it couldn’t wait to get rid of them.
Through the early 1960s, the heart of Minneapolis was home to nearly 2,500 men who lived in some of the city’s oldest and most decrepit buildings. They were the last generation of the seasonal laborers who had lived there since the mid-19th century. They were railroad workers, farmhands and lumberjacks who would spend winters in Minneapolis and work all over the Upper Midwest in the warm months.
By the end of World War II, those jobs had dwindled, and the aging laborers mostly survived on pension checks and Social Security. They lived permanently in the cheapest of cheap accommodations: faded hotels, 50-cent-a-night flophouses and rescue missions. And they drank heavily from the wide array of bars, beer parlors and the kinds of liquor stores that asked you, when you bought a bottle of wine, if you wanted it opened.
This was Minneapolis’ Skid Row, also known as the Gateway District and the Lower Loop. It occupied all or part of 20 blocks downtown, centered on the intersections of Hennepin, Nicollet and Washington avenues.
The buildings lining those streets were mostly two- and three-story commercial structures that housed retail businesses on the first floor. The upstairs lofts were converted into cubicles of tin and plywood topped with chicken wire, which provided ventilation for men in close quarters, but also some protection from thieves climbing into the rooms.
Construction of new “cage hotels” was outlawed in 1918. Yet those already in existence persisted for another 40 years, a sign that they provided much-needed affordable housing for downtown’s most notorious residents.
These men were alternately described by outsiders as vagrants, hoboes, winos, transients, deviants. They were overwhelmingly white, single and old. They congregated in alleys to pass around bottles. They scuffled on the sidewalks. They fell asleep in doorways.
They moved in and out of jail through cycles of drunkenness. They picked up free meals at the rescue missions in exchange for listening to sermons promising salvation.
They became such a municipal fixture that parents would drive down Washington Avenue with their children, point at the men on the sidewalk and say, “If you don’t stay in school and work hard, this is where you’ll end up.”
Minneapolis had long viewed the neighborhood and its denizens as an embarrassment and a blight threatening the rest of the city. By the 1950s, it finally had the money and the mandate to redevelop the entire neighborhood.
But first, it had to figure out what to do with the men who lived there. University of Minnesota sociologists were recruited to study them. City planners proposed relocating them to high-rise housing projects. But no neighborhood would accept them, and the City Council eventually gave up.
John Ladzikowski, who called himself “Mr. Skid Row,” tried without success to organize his fellow residents in opposition. In 1959, he distributed handbills warning that the city wanted to relocate them to an area just to the north and west: “[That] area is a business area,” he wrote. “It’s noisy, dusty, filled with dust and auto gas fumes.”
The men of Skid Row weren’t moved en masse to that neighborhood, now known as the North Loop.
The financial assistance for relocated Gateway residents amounted to $5, which was paid if they notified the city where they had found a new place to live.
The city’s efforts to learn what happened to its Skid Rowers was halfhearted, at best. Unattached men were supposed to fend for themselves, under the 1950s redevelopment policy. A survey in 1963 determined that the “permanent” population of the Gateway prior to redevelopment was 2,427 (though a 1958 survey put the number at 2,905).
Of those, 588 moved before the city began acquiring properties for demolition. The rest were suspected of moving elsewhere in downtown, to near the Basilica of St. Mary, to Nicollet Avenue south of downtown, to Seven Corners and Nicollet Island, where soup kitchens and flophouses lasted for another decade.
Not a trace of the old Skid Row remains, and only today, 50 years after the redevelopment, are some of those empty spaces growing new housing for a very different population that now numbers close to 40,000.
They can hardly imagine when living downtown was, deserved or not, a badge of shame.