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.

There was people hanging around all the time at the Senate. There were some people who were really working but they lived down there because it was cheap. There was a lot of working guys, a lot of retired guys. It was like a small town. Same customers come in at the same time every day.

It really wasn't dangerous. I wasn't afraid to walk to my car in the back alley, and there didn't seem to be that much violence. There was a lot of drunkenness, and prostitution, and gambling. But I don't remember any shootings. There'd be guys fighting on the street about stupid things. Defending their so-called honor.

I left there, and went to work at Lee Overalls. There was an opening in the factory there. That was a big break for me.

Bob Jorvig was head of the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority from 1956 to 1966, during the period when the Metropolitan was torn down.

It's hard to translate it from where you are today, and what kinds of things are being done in the urban-planning field. Back then, cities all over the country were looking at these really bad slums. Minneapolis and St. Paul never really had any terrible slums except in the Gateway and in a couple other places. A few places like Skid Row were so obvious. They were a real problem, a cancer to the city.

I don't remember a lot of opposition to the demolition. People really wanted to get rid of it. Even the Metropolitan building, which really was an architecturally unique building, and probably was worth saving. The people in the city at that time thought of Skid Row as a place that was full of crime, alcoholism, drunkenness--all that sort of thing. That it was really bad and had to be got rid of. Which was generally true.

But most of the guys that lived there are part of our history. They were guys who at that time were about my age, in their 70s someplace. They had worked for the railroads, pioneering, building the railroads. They had worked in the north, lumbering. And then they'd come into town in the winter when there wasn't work. Guys who had come over here as immigrants and never had a family even. That was their life. They weren't dangerous. They probably drank a lot all their lives. They were probably most of them alcoholics.

People had been trying to do something about Skid Row for years. About 1900, they built Gateway Park. There's a triangle there where Hennepin and Nicollet came together and they made a park out of that and they made a fountain and a little sculpture thing. That was an early attempt to do something to improve the area. Well, that just became a nice place for these people to hang out, so that didn't do anything.

Then there was a post office building that was right across from the Milwaukee Road depot--a one-story building. Well about 1912, somewhere in the early days, they got money to build that post office. That was going to be a big improvement in the heart of this area that was going to make a change. All of these projects just got swallowed up. You couldn't do anything.

So then when you talk about when the Gateway project happened in the late 1950s and 1960s, there was so much history. If you were the builder or the owner of a Northwestern National Life or something like that, and we say, "We're making this land available for a nice office site for you," they'd say, "Are you crazy?" They didn't have the confidence it would happen. So you really needed to deal on a wholesale basis. Even if there was an occasional building that was fairly good, if you didn't deal with the whole thing you couldn't get the confidence for people coming back in there.

Corporations were all moving their businesses out to the suburbs. Prudential had moved out to Theodore Wirth Parkway, and General Mills had moved out. Downtown was really threatened.

Skid Row was mostly made up of small three-story buildings. Many of them, the top floors were cages. And they would maybe have three rows of cages. They'd be about 6 feet wide, just enough to get a single bed, and a chest of drawers and a chair. So it would be about 8 feet long and 6 feet wide. The ceiling heights were higher than normal, maybe 10 feet. So you'd have a row of these cages going all along the building with an aisle in between. And then to get ventilation in they'd have chicken wire across the top. So they were private with four walls. At the end of the room there would be maybe one or two toilets for the whole place. They rented for about 50 cents a night. And if they were a little better than the others, 75. Over time it varied between 3,000 and 5,000 men that lived in those buildings.

When we started tearing down Skid Row, we didn't have any way to pay relocation payments. There wasn't any relocation assistance for single persons. There was some for the families. So we created some. I think we paid $5 or $15. It was some small amount. All they had was the clothes they had on and maybe a little bag. They didn't have anything to move.

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