Cops, drunks, and disco: The seedy nights of Hennepin Avenue, circa 1978 [VIDEO]

Downtown Minneapolis was a place for dancing, drinking, and occasionally dodging punches in the late 1970s.

Downtown Minneapolis was a place for dancing, drinking, and occasionally dodging punches in the late 1970s.

The fate of Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis has been on civic leaders' minds since... well, maybe since forever. 

At least since the mid-1970s, when young radicals and wild-eyed drunks strolled the avenue looking for sex (perferably the free kind), drugs (likewise), or a fight, all of which fell under the category of "fun" on a Friday night.

But near the end of a gloriously retro TV report recently unearthed and posted online, the camera focuses on the owner of the (now-closed) Shinder Bros. comic book store, which had already existed downtown for decades. That owner says the city's seedier elements had always been there -- and were the color in the fabric of that part of town.

"When I was a child of five sitting in my father's restaurant on 6th [Street] and Hennepin [Avenue], I remember drunks in and out of the door, prostitutes in and out the door," he says, smiling. "The life then was approximately the same as it is now, in the kinds of people you had to deal with. And that's what made it exciting then, and that's what makes it exciting now."

Now, in this case, is 1978, when WCCO dispatched a camera crew to go in-depth on the happenings of Hennepin Avenue after dark. The well-preserved 16-minute clip was posted to the TC Media Now Facebook page earlier this week, and has since been watched thousands of times.

Watch for the part with the two cool cats in the hats, who come in around the 3:50 mark. 

"This is better than watching TV sometimes," he says, gesturing toward the street in front of him.

"It iiis better," his buddy coos. 

"You come here, watch Hennepin Avenue--"

"Get to see what's happenin', for a dime cup of coffee."

Other visitors were clearly looking for stronger elixirs, though for about the same price: The piece takes a long look at Moby Dick's, a notorious downtown bar, which legendary local TV newsman Dave Moore calls "a huge watering hole packed on any weekend night with a young, racially mixed crowd." The bar was frequented by both young drinkers and cops, who showed up more often than not to break up fights, one of which is caught on camera.

Moby Dick's is contrasted with Scotties on Seventh, a "posh disco bar," where a cover charge, more expensive drinks, and a dress code are credited with a more orderly clientele. 

The report makes frequent allusions to violence and prostitution along the block, and later happens upon then-Minneapolis Police Chief Elmer Nordlund, who says he'd like to add a few more cops to Hennepin Avenue to "help clean it up a little bit."

Turns out Hennepin wasn't all that was dirty: The year after this was filmed, Nordlund was ousted for corruption and covering up "impropriety" in the department's vice squad. 

One group interviewed early in the clip treat the downtown avenue like tourists. "They're watching us, and we're watching them," says the bespectacled fellow. "As they look at the streets, we look at the freaks." 

The report makes clear who some of those "freaks" are, soon cutting to a happy young group of revelers. Though, it's clear, they're not uncomfortable being watched. That's why they're there.

"Hennepin Avenue is the beautiful-est place you've ever seen," one man says. "There's lesbians, and there's homosexuals, and I just love it."

You might, too. The violent elements aren't anything to get nostalgic about -- clearly not the young goon who says his crew "might beat some fags up" that night -- but the overarching theme of sloshed, haphazard community is a nice one to reconsider.

Minneapolis will always argue about what to do with its downtown. Always has. Questions of safety, usability, and criminality should be a part of that debate. So should this one: Anyone havin' any fun down there?

They were in 1978.

If you enjoyed this video, be sure to check out what downtown once looked like in daylight, with this awesome slideshow of images captured by photographer Mike Evangelist.