Podcast #93: Visiting Minneapolis’ Lost Skid Row with James Eli Shiffer

james-shiffer-picHello! This week’s podcast is a conversation with James Eli Shiffer, a writer and editor at the Star Tribune, about his recent book the King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis. The book is an in-depth account of Shiffer’s research into the old Gateway area of downtown Minneapolis, centered on the documentation from an old bar-keeper in the area named John Bacich. Bacich owned the Sourdough Bar on Washington Avenue, as well as a few other businesses, and made a well-known short documentary of the doomed neighborhood in the late 1950s. Using the film, Down on Skid Row, as a starting point, Shiffer’s book explores Bacich’s world and brings to life the lost seedy center of downtown Minneapolis. We discuss the history of Minneapolis’ Gateway urban renewal, the city’s tortured relationship with alcohol, and the lost community of migrant labor in Minneapolis’ old skid row.

Thanks for listening!

[Rough transcript of some highlights:]

On Bacich’s Skid Row film:

It’s one of the best known historical representations of a Minneapolis that people would really have a lot of trouble recognizing today. It was a landscape of 2 to 3-story commercial buildings, mostly wood and brick, and really very quickly within a few decades of the city’s founding was already becoming kind of seedy. … The city really moved away from that area, yet those old buildings remained. The railroad stations were there, it really served and functioned as the center of a seasonal labor market. You would have men come from all over the country to get work there. They would be hired off the street and then be shipped out.

On “Block 10”, the heart of the old Gateway:

It was about 20 blocks, and “Block 10” was the booziest block. Just to describe this landscape for you… You had flophouses on top of the storefronts, and the storefronts would have bars, liquor stores, beer parlors, rescue missions, labor agencies, barber colleges. Block 10 was where John Bacich had three businesses, the Victor Hotel, a flophouse, on the corner of 2nd and Nicollet was Rex Liquors… the thing to know about liquor stores in the Gateway district, it was notable that when you bought a bottle of wine they’d ask you if you wanted it opened, because you’d drink it right there on the spot. And the Sourdough Bar, which was really the place he liked running the most, which was 34 Washington Avenue South. There’s a big insurance company building there now. None of this looks… It is completely unrecognizable today.

On “bottle gangs”:

The alleys were the scene, and this is captured in Johnny’s movie, of these things called “bottle gangs.” These were large groups of men who would get enough money to buy a bottle of wine called muscatel, a kind of grape, not a favorite among wine connoisseurs, but it was the cheap and available booze. They called it “Polish pap”, “winache bourbon”, and “sweet lucy.” You can still get muscatel wine, but you probably won’t find it at Total Wine. The bottle gangs would pass the bottle around and everybody takes a swig, and its kind of a communal experience. There was a whole code of conduct associated with the bottle gang. Everybody collected their change and tried to get enough money for it, and it was a no-no to disappear with the bottle or take more than your share when you were drinking it. It was all part of this communal experience that for these guys was a big part of their life, but for the city was absolutely just a revolting display. People would come and get out of the trains for their first visit to Minneapolis and be confronted with this spectacle of these guys hanging out in the alleys, brawling, urinating on the sides of buildings, making comments to passers-by or just blocking the sidewalk.

On the Gateway renewal area:

Johnny’s movies were made in the late 1950s, and part of the motivation was that at that point people knew that this was a neighborhood that was going. Because there was a new Federal housing policy that was going to direct millions of dollars to the cities to reshape themselves radically. And Minneapolis was at the front of the line. They wanted to do the biggest urban renewal project that the country had ever seen. So they acquired and demolished approximately 186 buildings. This was approximately late 1959, and went through to 1962 or 1963. 40% of downtown was just leveled. It was just such an enormous undertaking, and its really impossible to imagine it happening today given the amount of pushback you would get.

On writing the book and interviewing John:

After I moved here, a friend of mine lent me this movie, a VHS copy of it. I saw these still photos in the documentary, and I wanted to get a hold of some of those. When I started researching this in 2009, I thought Johnny was dead. I hadn’t heard anything and I could’t really find a phone number for anybody but his wife. And so I called her and left a message asking where Johnny had put those photos, and she called me back and said, “well why don’t you ask him.” So she puts him on the phone And that started a three-year friendship, really, in which i interviewed him 25 times. John was a great story teller. One of the things I didn’t try to resolve… There’s a heartwarming aspect to it, but there’s also a gritty aspect to it. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the violence and death and degradation of Skid Row. A lot of these people were quite ill and quite violent and he didn’t try to cover that up. But he felt like there were a lot of those people who were there by choice, and there was a real community there.

On the current-day “intersection “of Nicollet and Hennepin:

It was almost like their reconstruction of that intersection was designed to obliterate any possibility of this previous cityscape ever coming back. So the portico of the Voya Insurance building literally is just on top of where Nicollet avenue used to run. It will never go through again. And the intersection of 2nd and Nicollet, where Rex Liquors was, it doesn’t even exist any more. There’s a wide pedestrian walkway up to what’s left of Gateway Park. The flagpole, which was donated by the D.A.R. at the time of the Gateway Park development, is the only piece remaining.

On the erasure of the old Gateway:

It’s different than other lost neighborhoods that you think about, which are often under freeways, like Rondo under 94 which was just gone. But here it’s different because the old street network is basically intact, but you’d never know that this was the old city.

On the last remnants of skid row culture in Minneapolis today:

There is an essential seediness to the 400 block of Hennepin. And 1st Avenue has been having the rowdiness that sometimes breaks out at bar close. A lot of this is the same phenomenon that the city was trying to stamp out with the Gateway redevelopment. You come across so many examples in the past of Minneapolis attempting to close nuisance bars and eliminate unsightly people from the cityscape, whether it be aggressive panhandlers, or lurkers, spitters, or you name it.

On why he wrote the book:

What I want people to take away from this is the idea that these men, as kind of unsightly and troublesome as they were, were a real community. They were actually individuals. They were never described as such by most of the news coverage at the time. It made them seem like this faceless mass and what I wanted to do is put some faces back on these guys.


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