The long distance walkers

Professional idlers, tramps, homeless, bums, confirmed wanderers, begging-letter writers, drunkards, winos … this was the face of homelessness 50 years ago.

The Gateway district or Lower Loop was 25 blocks of downtown Minneapolis between Hennepin and Washington Avenues and the river that existed from the late 1800s to the mid-1960s.

The term Skid Road came from the path created by laborers who worked all winter when the ground could bear the drag of lumber from the north. The spring thaw brought a lack of work and in the late 1800s, men would give their season’s pay to saloon or flophouse operators and spend it where they couldn’t all winter: in the city at lunch counters, brothels, saloons, tattoo shops.

The cage hotel, begun in 1892, was a 6-by-10-foot room. For air, light and to prevent theft, chicken wire was laid over the top of the plywood or tin room. The city opened a “tramp room” at the Police Department for people who couldn’t afford the flophouses. Over time, it became known as Skid Row and housed farmers, factory workers, mining and dockworkers who sought employment or couldn’t keep it. Some used charity to fill income gaps, immigrants needed temporary help and some had a disability.

In 1912, there were 30 bars in the vicinity of Washington and Hennepin. By 1921 and with Prohibition, there were 30 soft drink bars that had bootleg alcohol, gambling and sex for sale.  Then, as now, long periods of idleness were disheartening, discouraging and brought depression. Once a valued laborer, now a scourge to society, Minneapolis Mayor W.G. Nye conducted a census of the unemployed and stated that idle workers must get a job, leave town or face the workhouse. Lumber production ended in 1920, flour milling around 1935 and mechanized farming began in 30s and ended need for labor. The Great Depression brought 25 percent unemployment in the 1930s.

At its peak, Skid Row had 50 bars, 60 hotels and flophouses, employment agencies, charity missions and 20 liquor stores. With one bathtub per 37 men and 1 toilet per 14, smell brought them to the streets. Bottle gangs panhandled to raise 60 cents for a bottle of wine to share. The Gay 90’s was a burlesque nightclub. The Milwaukee Road Train Depot on Washington Avenue was in the center of Skid Row’s red-light district.

Jerry Fleischaker, 84, currently a full-time volunteer with St. Stephen’s Street Outreach team, working with those who are unsheltered or causing community livability concerns downtown, spent his career in pharmaceutical sales. He recalls when Skid Row establishments were both a drug store and a liquor store. A liquid containing B vitamins was sold to shop owners who repackaged it into pints for the chronic alcoholics, stating not only that the men lacked Vitamin B, which was good for their health, but that the medicine contained 20 percent alcohol, more than the cheap wine they were buying.

In 1955 the Downtown Council formed but no one from lumber, agriculture or the railroads sat on the council. Members included leaders in real estate, finance and retail. They stated three goals: attack blight, attract new enterprise and develop business in the loop. A key goal was “to increase the quantity and quality of people coming downtown.”

Minneapolis received the first major downtown project funded by the federal government, and in 1959, a remake began of the city’s downtown. Between 3,000 and 4,000 men and women lived in the Skid Row area and the median age was now 60. Some men had lived in their cage for 30 years. The land area covered 40 percent of what was considered downtown.

The Minneapolis Housing Redevelopment Authority began demolition in 1959. Knutson Companies purchased the land. New construction in the Gateway Park area included the $12 million dollar NSP office building on Nicollet Mall and the 500-unit Towers Apartments. 

What became of the men and women of Skid Row? Were they bums and drunks or the marginal working class? A Chamber of Commerce report had stated that the deserving poor should be provided sanitary living units in suitable buildings. Police assistance was sought to remove “certain elements” and treatment was pursued for “derelicts.” Despite an attempt by the HRA to create a public housing relocation site, the Mayor and City Council unanimously rejected the measure, leaving the residents of Skid Row without a home. Men were given a $5 bill.

Now, 50 years after the demolition of Skid Row, a time when the public face of homelessness was a white man, we arrive at a time where the majority is people of color and children. What can be learned from the decisions of city leaders and what can we do differently to prevent homelessness in future decades?

Monica Nilsson is an advocate for children, teens, their parents and single adults who are at risk of losing their home or are now homeless. Contact her for conversation at St Stephen’s Human Services — [email protected].