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Minneapolis' vanished history: Life on Skid Row

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Valhalla Bar and Cafe, 1960
Drinkers at the Valhalla Bar and Cafe, 105 Washington Avenue South, 1960. The special, posted above the bar: hot brandy, Mohawk 5 Star California Finest, thirty-five cents for a single, fifty cents for a double. And if you were hungry, you could slide over a couple of stools to the lunch counter.
Photograph by Dick Palen, courtesy of the City of Minneapolis

The edge of downtown Minneapolis now known as the Gateway District was once the city's Skid Row — a dense collection of bars, liquors stores, flop houses and rescue missions.

Decades ago, men lined the street, according to journalist James Eli Shiffer — some asleep, some passed out drunk, some brawling. They were seasonal laborers who came from all over the country to work on farms or in lumber mills. On the offseason, they crowded into the city, and onto Skid Row.

"Parents would bring their kids, drive down Washington Avenue, and say: 'If you don't work hard in school, this is where you're going to end up,'" Shiffer said.

Shiffer's new book, "The King of Skid Row," looks at the city laws that created the liquor-soaked neighborhood, and at the man who held court there: John Bacich.

In 1884, the city drew lines around parts of downtown Minneapolis, northeast Minneapolis and the Cedar-Riverside area. 

"Outside of those lines, you could not sell liquor. Inside those lines, it became a sea of alcohol," Shiffer said. "You just had bar after liquor store after beer parlor. It really had the effect of concentrating that."

Minneapolis police officers escort a Skid Rower
Two Minneapolis police officers escort a Skid Rower into the Black Maria in 1961. Arrests for drunkenness were a key factor in the cycle of dependency and despair that ruled so many men's lives.
Photograph by Earl Seubert, courtesy of Star Tribune Media Company

Bacich owned a liquor store, a flop house and a bar on Skid Row. He served the same group of men at all of them: The men who lived in the flop house bought liquor at his store and drank in his bar.

"He called them 'gandy dancers,' which was a term for railroad workers," Shiffer said. "He felt like he was taking care of his gandies — serving them five cent drinks in the morning at the bar, when they were having the DTs."

Bacich documented life in the neighborhood, even shooting home movies of the men. He died in 2012, but shared his experiences with Shiffer in his final years.

Shiffer's book explores this darker side of Minneapolis — one that has been bulldozed and plowed under. Very little now remains of the Skid Row era. The brothels and flophouses were shuttered and demolished with the city's urban renewal efforts in the 1960s. "The King of Skid Row" captures this history that the city would rather forget.

 For the full interview with James Eli Shiffer on "The King of Skid Row," use the audio player above.