The Minneapolis Gateway District drew the eyes of the nation during the Great Depression.
It started with the 1934 Truckers’ Strike, which pitted the Teamsters’ Union against a seemingly invincible employers’ association. Led by Trotskyites, who employed all kinds of novel organizing tactics, the truckers triumphed. But their victory came only after blood ran in the streets of downtown, where strikers and employers battled hand-to-hand, beating each other with clubs and bricks.
This civil war erupted just a few blocks from the Beaux-Arts pavilion of Gateway Park, which had become a gathering ground for crowds of unemployed men during this economic crisis. Some men tried to sleep their way through the global economic collapse, crashing on benches or snoozing on the grass. Others talked and read the newspaper. Everyone imagined better times. Their days were punctuated by appeals from missionaries and radicals. The missionaries pleaded with Gateway denizens to sin no more. The radicals called on the men to recognize what they regarded as the gospel truth: global capitalism had failed.
One reporter from Fortune magazine who visited the city in early 1936 feared that this message would find its mark. In April of that year he concluded that it was from the Gateway Park that “the revolution” so feared by many Americans “may come.”
The same conditions that attracted radicals and missionaries also proved magnetic for a crew of talented photographers, who saw this area of concentrated despair as rich with documentary possibility. Russell Lee visited the city in 1937. His colleague John Vachon followed two years later. Both men were working for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, part of what one historian has called the “alphabet soup” of Works Progress Administration agencies created by Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal team.
The images created by Lee and Vachon are transporting. They document the lost world of the early twentieth century Skid Row. And they provide an unparalleled view of Minneapolis at a moment of profound crisis.
Photographers in the FSA were employed to support the research of the Resettlement Administration, which brought together economists, sociologists, statisticians and agronomists to address the problems of the rural poor. This team–which included well-known photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange–illuminated the poverty of Americans whose geographic isolation hid them from public view. Lange’s iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother” came out of this effort.
There are few cities documented by the FSA in this period. Lee and Vachon may have chosen Minneapolis for its connection to the agricultural economy, the central concern of the FSA project. Many of the men they photographed in Minneapolis had drifted into the city after failing to find work in the agricultural economy. Vachon was also raised in St. Paul.
The Vachon and Lee photographs are housed in the FSA-OWI collection in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. This gallery also includes some images from the same period that are from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society and Special Collections Department of the Hennepin County Library.
Click to enlarge photos...
Then & Now
Where did the Gateway Turtle Fountain Go?
The fountain–which sat at the center of the park’s Beaux Arts Pavilion–features prominently in images of the district. Once it became a gathering spot for Skid Row denizens in the 1930s, the city drained the water from the basin to keep men from bathing and drinking from it.
The fountain survived the demolition of the Gateway and now lives in the Lake Harriet Rose Garden, where it now serves as a backdrop for many wedding photos.
The Gateway Turtle Fountain
Christmas in the Gateway
Lobby of the Pioneer Hotel, Gateway district, 1960.
Lobby of the Pioneer Hotel, Gateway district, 1960. The city demolished 40 percent of the downtown in its effort to “renew” the historic heart of the downtown. In 1960, it was the largest urban renewal project ever undertaken in the United States.
“The Gateway” Revisited
Today we have a diagram that shows the Gateway redevelopment project, a massive urban renewal effort that bulldozed a large chunk of downtown Minneapolis in the mid-twentieth century. This project opened a new era for Minneapolis and the nation. The largest urban renewal attempted in the United States until this point, it prompted wide scale demolition that left scars on the city that are only beginning to heal.
The parcels marked in dark gray on this map were “excluded” from the demolition, which began in 1959 and continued for five years. One of the surviving properties was the Nicollet Hotel, which received a dispensation from city planners. On the eve of the redevelopment effort, the hotel was purchased by a national chain. The building remained standing until 1991.
When the Nicollet Hotel was constructed, the adjoining park and its Beaux Arts pavilion were new. But the park had already become a gathering spot for residents of the surrounding skid row. City leaders dismissed these men as “loafers” and “undesirables,” ignoring the fact that they had labored for decades in seasonal industries before their bodies and the economy had changed. They no longer had the stamina or the opportunity to work in logging camps or on harvest gangs. Their lives became circumscribed by the neighborhood, which offered bars, cage hotels, missions and cheap restaurants to meet their modest needs.
Minneapolis Gateway District
The Gateway renewal plan that emerged at the end of World War II sought to “increase the quantity and quality of people coming to the [Lower Loop or Gateway],” according to the 1956 Downtown Council. City leaders agreed that it was no longer enough to wall off the Gateway from the rest of the city. They called for its destruction, casting it as a diseased limb that threatened the body of the entire community. Only in this way could planners “restore the health of the city,” one report from the 1950s claimed, “in much the same way personal health might be restored by removing a clot from the bloodstream.”
City leaders are ebullient about this new “Gateway.” If this plan can deliver–succeeding after more than a century of city planning has fallen short–it will be a true watershed for the city.
The 1950s are the Gateway’s most documented time period. As plans to raze the area were being made, newspapers, sociologists, and even current tenants zoomed in on the culture and people that distinctly marked the Gateway District. Because of this intense scrutiny, more has been revealed about the skid row that once existed.
Unemployed men sitting on the steps of the Gateway Center Building, as photographed by the Minneapolis Tribune in 1950.
By the time serious changes to the Gateway District were being discussed, the Gateway was at the lowest point in its history. Most buildings were old and decaying, with renovations were too expensive to complete. Not a single building in the area met the housing code, and rat infestations were common. Old housing ordinances made it difficult to convict landlords of flophouses. For example, it was technically legal to only have one toilet per floor. However, if there were a hundred tenants living on a single floor, as per some hotels of the period, sanitation would be practically impossible. In a report from the health department, it was noted that in the entire skid row area, there were only 82 bathtubs, 84 showers, and 220 toilets.
Besides flophouses and cage hotels, there were also single sleeping rooms and apartments. In addition, there were approximately fifty bars, twenty liquor stores, sixty restaurants, fifteen pawnshops, plus a multitude of service businesses and retail shops. By the late 1950s, there were approximately 3,000 people who called the Gateway their home. The group was almost entirely male. While some still fit the homeless/transient stereotype, others were aging pensioners who turned the Gateway into their retirement home. The median age of area residents in 1958 was sixty.
The Gateway park in the 1950s,
The park in the 1950s, as photographed by the Minneapolis Star.
The desire for complete renewal was motivated even greater by the downturn of Minneapolis in a newly suburban era. The first sign of this expansive renewal was the demolition of the Gateway Pavilion in 1953. For the past thirty years, Gateway residents- men leaning on the fences, sitting around the park, drinking in public- had used the park as a hangout. Once lauded for its public restrooms, the pavilion was renamed “the pisshouse” by locals. The Gateway Park could not serve as a prominent gateway to the city, so the best option was demolition. After the razing, the park board put a four-foot high fence around the grassy interior to prevent further loafing on the once-picturesque area.
Demolition of Gateway Park Building, Minneapolis.
Demolition of Gateway Park Building, Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis. Photographer: Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune, 1953. Minnesota Historical Society.
In 1955, talks began to take place concerning the future of the rest of the area. By then, almost 70 acres were under scrutiny, from First Avenue North to Third Avenue South and from First to Fourth Streets. In 1957, the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority secured a federal grant totaling over $13 million dollars from the Urban Renewal Association. It was to be the nation’s largest downtown renewal effort. After the City Council approved the renewal plan in February of 1959, the project went into full swing. As the HRA began to buy up land to carry out its plans, it was met with backlash from businesses and concerned citizens in the community. Not all property owners wanted to sell their buildings, but they were eventually overtaken by the city. Perhaps the most significant fight between the city and its inhabitants was for the Metropolitan Building. Originally known as the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building, it was constructed in 1890 on Third Street and Second Avenue. It was 12 stories tall, built in the Romanesque Revival style, and was considered to be an architectural masterpiece. Although the building was slated for destruction, historical preservationists rallied to save the building. It was argued by the HRA that the building’s renovations would be too costly to bring up to current standards. The HRA won a legal battle to purchase the building, and in 1961 it was destroyed. Although the building was lost, it paved the way for better legal tactics for the protection historical buildings in the future.
From 1959 to 1965, the HRA razed over 200 buildings in the district. Over 450 buildings were closed, and 2,500 residents were displaced. Twenty-two blocks were completely or partially leveled, about 1/3 of the entire downtown area. The Gateway District would never look the same again.
After the complete demolition, buildings began to spring up in place of the shabby flophouses and saloons. City planners wanted to incorporate businesses and residential buildings into the area, to create the civic center that was always desired. Early buildings in the new Gateway included the Sheraton-Ritz Hotel, the IBM building, a Northwestern National Life Insurance Building, and the Towers Apartments. Parking lots occupied much of the space, and as much as 40% of the area had not been developed as late as 1971. Today, parking still takes up a considerable amount of space in the Gateway District. The post office, built in 1931, still stands, but several buildings from the immediate aftermath of the razing have long since been razed themselves, such as the Sheraton-Ritz and the IBM building. A small scale “Gateway Park” exists where the Gateway Pavilion once stood, though it often goes unnoticed. The George Washington flagpole, in front of the entrance to the Towers Apartments, looks strangely out of place among the sixties-era architecture.
In November of 2011, the Star-Tribune reported the need for more green space downtown. The Downtown Council has considered ideas to, once again, transform areas of the Gateway. This plan, however, only consists of converting blocks of parking lots into green space.
For over one hundred years, the area now known as the Gateway District was viewed as a problem to be fixed. After the mass urban renewal of the fifties and sixties, however, the Gateway had effectively been cleansed of its previous skid row tendencies.
Though it may be overblown, Saint Paul and Minneapolis seem to be full of fights between “urbanists” and “preservationists” over the future of our cities. Examples include the ongoing spats over an historic but run-down house in Uptown, old single-story buildings in Dinkytown, or the width of sidewalks in Lowertown. In each of these cases, urbanists and preservationists have ended up calling each other names, rolling their eyes, and holding all-night vigils and/or emergency strategy meetings. With so much emotion on display, something must be going on.
The problem irks me because the urban design and historic preservation communities have so much in common. Both groups of people share a deep-seeded sense of history. Both share an anger about the destructive renewal policies of the 50s and 60s that leveled our cities in the name of progress. Both groups love looking back at old pictures of our cities, going on history tours, and thinking about architecture. But somewhere on the way to the present, the two groups diverge. Preservationists and urbanists seem to lack a common language for thinking about the value of cities. Why is that?
There are no easy answers. The future of our cities is not black-and-white. Change is neither always good nor always bad. Buildings aren’t panda bears or redwood trees. They are places where people live, and each situation demands careful debate. We must weigh the value of our existing spaces against our visions for the future. I know historic buildings are very valuable, and shouldn’t be tossed aside lightly. But so too is the kind of density that fostered those buildings in the first place. Re-creating density deserves to be part of the discussion.
Click to enlarge photos...
Bums, hobos, drunks, transients. Servicemen waiting for the train to the coast. Middlemen, warehouse managers, wholesalers, liquormen. Clerks from the cut-rate drugstores. Porters, engineers and railroad men; burlesque dancers, women workers from the blanket factory, men from the mills.
All races, classes, creeds, professions, persuasions.
Every city had a place like this - the old heart of the old town, the spot on which the town was founded, the place from which it grew. It's what the city once was, and what it soon became ashamed of. In the postwar world it looked like a sad outdated embarassment. So they tore it all down.
All of it.
It was the greatest act of altruistic vandalism in the city's history.
You can understand why they did it. Downtown was in bad shape by the 50s; businesses were leaving for the suburbs, retail was drying up as the malls popped up in new communities. Nothing of note had been built since the Northwestern Bell building of ‘31. The old part of town was an embarrassment to many. The buildings were unsafe, the tenants disreputable. The alleys were piled with trash; the parks full of dozing bums. The future was going to be clean, technocratic, rational, modern. It was not going to take place in old broken-down brick buildings with rotten cornices and toothless Swedes for tenants: knock it down.
When the Gateway renovation program was finished, dozens of blocks and hundreds of buildings had been leveled. The immediate result: parking lots. Eventually, developers built a nice new library, a fancy new hotel, an HQ for Munsingwear, expensive apartments and a temple for an insurance company. They figured the rest would follow. But for years, much of the cleared land stood empty, a wasteland at the edge of town that sat between the city and the river like an uncleared minefield from an old forgotten war.
The new hotel: already gone. The corporate HQ: knocked down a decade ago. The new library: obsolete, slated for replacement. Everything you see in these pictures: a prize resource, squandered. If they’d waited ten years, fifteen, this would have been the most extraordinary neighborhood in town. Lofts, bars, restaurants, housing, stores, humanly scaled, pedestrian friendly, a boon companion to both cars and trains - it had two train stations, after all. Just the sort of neighborhood city planners are trying to create. But planners do a bad job at creating places like this. These neighborhoods grow on their own, and any attempt to create them anew is doomed. It took 80 years to cook up these blocks. It took the planners a few years to remove them, and another 15 years before people started to forget they were ever there.
I grew up in the 50's in Minneapolis and saw all of this. It was all gone by the time I got back from Vietnam.
See you all at our 50th Reunion for Minneapolis North High School.
Minneapolis Gateway District - Thanks for stopping by today.
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