Room at the Bottom

When Eisenhower-era civic leaders drunk on urban renewal laid waste to the Gateway district, they forever altered the topography of this town's hard-luck hotels and shot-and-a-beer saloons.

By the end of the 1950s, a crushing number of social workers, Christians, urban planners, bureaucrats, newspaper writers, and photographers had made the Minneapolis Gateway an object of investigation. Known as Skid Row, it was a neighborhood of bars, flophouses, and weekly-rate hotels stretching up Washington Avenue from Hennepin toward the Milwaukee Road train station. But after 1958, there was nothing left to document.

Some of the photographs taken in the old Skid Row are currently on display as a part of Urban Remains: The Minneapolis Gateway Photographs of Jerome Liebling and Robert Wilcox, on exhibit at the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum through June 7.

One of Liebling's pictures depicts the Metropolitan Building, which stood on the corner of Third Street and Second Avenue in the heart of the Gateway. In 1888 when it was built, the Metropolitan was considered a symbol of the city's bright future. Thirteen stories tall, it featured an open atrium with glass-floored hallways.

Liebling captures a different aspect of the building whose razing would put a symbolic end to the Gateway's heyday: One of his photos is a close-up of a shattered window framed by cracked stone, broken venetian blinds open to the breeze. The image appears to be a moment of suspended violence. It looks like a blank crime scene, the setting for some riot or break-in.

In fact, it's a portrait of urban renewal. In 1961, the Metropolitan fell before the relentless march of progress, a victim of prevailing theories about slum clearance. In Lost Twin Cities, Larry Millett called its demolition "perhaps the most inexcusable act of civic vandalism in the history of Minneapolis." But the Metropolitan was only the most memorable loss in the Gateway. Sixty-two taverns, 39 factories, 48 wholesale distributors, 24 pawn shops, 43 cafes, 11 warehouses, nine clothing stores, 10 furniture stores, 15 barber shops and two hardware stores were also demolished. More than 200 buildings in all.

Literally every brick and stone of the old Gateway district was knocked down between 1958 and 1963, every tavern, factory, flophouse, and hotel leveled. Along the way, the entire shape of downtown Minneapolis was permanently altered. Today Washington Avenue is a broad street that feeds cars into downtown Minneapolis. The few pedestrians who use it are dwarfed by modern buildings, tower blocks, a parking ramp, the high-security granite base of the old Federal Reserve offices.

Buildings were not the only casualties. The Gateway urban-renewal project displaced nearly 5,000 residents. Most of them were single men, many of them derelicts. The Liebling and Wilcox photographs document this story, too. In one picture, four men stand in front of the Valhalla, a cafe downstairs from a flophouse. One of them, in shirt sleeves, raises his hands above his head in a gesture that might be one of surrender except for the broad grin he wears. Another stands with his back to the camera. The map of wrinkles on the nape of his neck suggests a life lived under the toughening sun.

When the city tore down the Gateway, some of the single men and pensioners who lived there moved on to other skid rows in other cities. Some found homes elsewhere in the Twin Cities, a few in places where the life of easy camaraderie captured in Liebling and Wilcox's photographs still exists. A handful of boardinghouses and weekly-rental hotels still cradles a fraternity of single men, working men, fragile old bachelors, and drunkards.

One of these establishments, the Schooner Hotel and Bar, is anchored on the far eastern shore of Lake Street. "It's not the Taj Mahal," says Dan McLeod, her owner. "It is what it is." McLeod wears his hair swept back into a ponytail and his salt-and-pepper beard trimmed neatly. He has the barkeeper's habit of looking past you when he talks, keeping an eye on the door and the shifting crowd coming in and out of it.

"Rooming houses like this," he says, "there's not that many of them anymore. They've closed them all up. They provide living quarters for people who can't afford to move into an apartment. Here it's $50 a week, $50 deposit. Just because it's a sleeping room it's not a fleabag. I probably get 200 calls a month. And I don't have a lot of turnover."

The Schooner has its own history of success and failure, its own rise and fall. It sits at the hub of what used to be a major industrial center, complete with a foundry, a railroad spur, and a boxcar factory, all within walking distance. These industries are all gone now, replaced with a massive shopping complex, a Rainbow supermarket and a Cub Foods, a Target. But places like the Schooner are also the last manifestation of the culture of America's industrial past, a culture largely invisible in Minneapolis since the dismantling of the Gateway. The six stories that follow put words to the Liebling and Wilcox photographs. Snapshots of memory, each offers a glimpse of the world on Skid Row the photographers tried to document, and of what became of that world down to the present time.

John Brucciani, 81, patrolled the Gateway district before his 1970 retirement from the Minneapolis Police Department.

I rode the traffic car. The traffic division had two cars in the loop. Traffic One and Traffic 12. I rode Traffic One for a number of years. That was right in the loop all the time, although you took calls any place they sent you.

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