The top-hatted street character known around the University of Minnesota area simply as Chester has died, apparently of natural causes.
He died as he lived, in the squatter camp he staked out in the shadow of the 10th Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. His real name and age were not yet confirmed, but two people who knew him said he’d told them his name was Bruce Nelson. Others said he’d told them that he’d grown up on a farm near Zimmerman, Minn.
Chester roamed the sidewalks, an institution on the West Bank, Dinkytown and the adjacent campus. Sometimes he sawed on an old violin for spare change, which often went for a drink or a meal at the Hard Times Cafe. At the Hard Times, he was a fixture, known for drawing cartoons on napkins.
Police and neighbors in the nearby Riverview condos looked out for Chester. His compound included a steel packing crate and a wooden shed left over from Interstate 35W bridge construction, a rusting pickup and a station wagon, both inoperable, and a fence of logs and scrap wood that enclosed crockery, plastic flowers and castoff furniture.
“He’s homeless, but he’s homeless by choice, so is he really homeless?” said Zev Radziwill, a Riverview resident. “He had his ups and downs, and I think all of us do.”
According to Hard Times worker Brian Monroe, Chester got his start when a now-demolished business under the bridge let him park his truck there years ago. “It was like, ‘You can sleep here and we have a free security guard,’ ” Monroe said.
Chester continued that role for nearby Bluff Street Park, Radziwill said. Rosemary Knutson, who moved into the Riverview in 1980, said Chester already was living there then. After a fight over plans to sell the nearby blufftop to a developer, the area became Bluff Street Park, but it was still Chester’s domain. “He thought of that as kind of his backyard,” she said. “He would keep it clean. He would pick up trash.”
His hidden world changed dramatically in 2014 when the city opened Bluff Street Trail connecting downtown and the university area, virtually at his doorstep. The impending rehabilitation of the bridge that sheltered him was likely to necessitate at least a temporary relocation.
Chester was found dead Saturday night at his residence by his longtime female companion
“It’s a sad day. He was kind of a legend on the West Bank and he was beloved by many of the community,” said Cam Gordon, a City Council member who knew him.
Chester resisted efforts to relocate him during the 35W bridge construction, and said last year that he wanted nothing to do with landlords.
Monroe said he thought Chester got veterans’ benefits, but others said that he’d sell aluminum cans for scrap and that he’d also play music for spare change. Sometimes he’d borrow money from Monroe near the end of the month. “He’d say like, ‘Can I borrow 87 cents?’ — never $20 — and he’d always pay me back.”
Monroe said he believed Chester to be in his late 60s. He and others saw signs that Chester was weakening. He had been taken to a hospital one hot day last summer, only to sneak away and return home.
Chester occasionally ventured outside his neighborhood. Once Radziwill was in a suit, meeting a client at a nice IDS Center restaurant when Chester passed by and sat down to chat. “The maitre’d came over and asked me, ‘Do you know this man?’ ” said Radziwill, who ordered Chester an iced tea. That’s the only time he saw Chester doff his signature top hat. “He always reminded me of someone from ‘Oliver Twist.’ ”