Whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed by fax and phone, e-mail and junk mail, and all of the paraphernalia that confines me in my shiny, post-modern chrysalis, I like to amble through the streets of Minneapolis to a deserted intersection near my house--a place known as the Hub of Hell. The darker my spirits, the greater my gloom, the more satisfaction I take in observing my mood reflected back in the dilapidated surroundings. The Hub is a treeless little pocket of stubborn urban blight in the otherwise bustling Seward neighborhood. In spring, when the rest of the neighborhood is scented with apple and catalpa blossoms, this patch of ruin radiates a tincture of grease and carbon monoxide. In summer, the brimstone heat pulses out of the sidewalk as if a diabolical fissure ran underfoot. And now, in winter, with the stinging west wind full in the face, the snowplow deposits along the curb seem even grittier than in the rest of the city.
Anchoring the Hub of Hell on the southeast corner of 26th Avenue and 26th Street are the empty bones of a bar once called Norma Jean's. In an optimistic delusion ill-suited to the intersection, the former owners of Norma Jean's slathered the brick with a garish pink paint. For a handful of years, the paint seemed to attract a crowd as surely as a corpse draws flies. But in 1991 a gun battle erupted between gangsters, leaving one man dead in a pool of his own blood. Norma Jean's closed its doors for good. Today the windows of the first floor are boarded up. The peeling pink paint only intensifies the atmosphere of neglect.
Earlier this year, Pearson's bar, a cinder-block bunker which stands across 26th Street from Norma Jean's, also met its demise when a neighborhood group bought it out to shut it down, adding the lot to the Hub's parcel. Over the past decade, squat, glossy warehouses have grown out of the gravel fill on surrounding lots--a mix of light manufacturing and chemical warehouses, carrying on the neighborhood's industrial tradition. But during the same period, some unknown force has prevented one development deal after another where Norma Jean's stands.
I have often wondered how the intersection of 26th and 26th came to be known as the Hub of Hell. One old-timer told me that in his day a teenager shot up the police station at Minnehaha and Lake while despondent or drunk, and thereafter the district became known as the Hub of Hell. The incident took place in 1943; police returned fire and killed the boy. But the name predates the incident. A decade earlier, the Hub had been the scene of a labor riot which left two people dead and 28 injured. In 1935, unions targeted Flour City Ornamental Iron Company, which still stands to the south and east of Norma Jean's, although the building now contains a handful of machine shops on lease. The battle broke out after scabs were housed overnight in the shop. Cops claimed the strikers shot first while the union contended hired goons inside Flour City were responsible. Both of the casualties were bystanders, neighbors caught in the crossfire.
But the name harkens back to even earlier times. Al Madsen, another neighborhood lifer who was just a boy when the working men were killed, tells a different version. When his father moved into the neighborhood in 1910, kids roamed the city streets in gangs--loose affiliations based upon ethnic origin or trade. One such crew, the Puffer-Hubbard gang, made up of laborers at a foundry by the same name, marked its turf just south of the existing Hub. "And this gang, either they were named the Hub of Hell Gang or the police just gave it the name: 'Don't go down there because that's the Hub of Hell down there.'" Eventually, says Madsen, the cops brought an expert in from Chicago to break up the gang by shooting and killing a few of its members.
But the Hub of Hell is older still. Since the city set down roots, in fact, the Hub has been a center of drinking and its accompanying devilments. Workingmen were drawn to the neighborhood before the turn of the century to labor there on industrial works, a tractor factory, and the round-house where they repaired railroad cars for the Chicago Milwaukee line. And for all that time, saloons stood at the ready to cash a working man's check and sell him a drop. Norma Jean's has been a bar by one name or another since at least 1904. The building next door, where the Mirage nightclub stands now, served liquor in 1898. Even the saloons that dotted the neighborhood at the turn of the century were a relatively modern incarnation of vice in the Hub of Hell. In 1890, A. E. Costello, in the History of the Fire and Police Departments of Minneapolis, predicted (prematurely, as it turns out) the demise of the Hub and its "hard characters, robbers, thieves, and thugs."
"The Hub of Hell," Costello wrote, "once a dreaded spot, shunned by the timid and approached with misgiving at all times, is... of the past. It is now the 'hub' of a locality occupied by thousands of industrious working men. It is no longer a place to be dreaded." And yet, a century later, the dread persists. I've come to believe--superstitiously, some would say--that the source of that dread predates by an age the era Costello marks as gone. If I could somehow continue to trace the Hub through history to a time before the Ojibwe, before the Lakota moved away to the plains, even before any prehistoric hairy man, I would find an ominous evil. I suspect I would find a dread that dwarfs the men and women who passed through the Hub of Hell, who lived and died in this place.